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Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Fugue No. 16 in G minor BWV 861 (arr. Förster)

If you have ever happened to see one of those cooking shows in which a chef is challenged to create an entire meal—appetizer, entrée and dessert—out of a minimum of ingredients (an ox-tail, say, and a banana) then you are well on your way to understanding the recipe for cooking up a Baroque fugue.

The aim of a fugue is to create an entire polyphonic composition out of only two melodies, either stated in their entirety or broken up into bits and pieces. These two melodies—the fugue’s subject and countersubject—are presented first in staggered entries, in the manner of a round. The subject enters first alone before being accompanied in subsequent entries by the countersubject. And then it’s off to the races in an alternating pattern of entries (where the subject is stated whole) and episodes (in which the bits and pieces are chewed over), roaming around in different keys. Somewhere near the end there is usually a stretto section, in which the conversation gets so lively that one voice can hardly get started before another voice interrupts to say the same thing, much in the manner of lively Italian dinner conversation.

Cleverness and ingenuity are built into the DNA of fugue-writing and Bach certainly did not stint on either in the construction of his Fugue in G minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). Witness the manner in which Bach constructs his fugue subject in two contrasting parts: a first part with semitone steps on either side of a downward-leaping minor 6th, then a second part comprised of a few notes running up and down in smooth stepwise motion. The countersubject (here is the cunning bit) is the same, but in reverse order and inverted: a few notes running down and up followed by a variant of an upward-leaping minor 6th motive. Bach’s subject generates its own countersubject—in the mirror!

The odd thing about this four-voice fugue is that the texture only rarely features all four voices playing at once—likely in order to make the dramatic leap of a minor 6th stand out more easily in a work written for keyboard. German composer Alban Förster (1849-1916), who arranged this fugue for string quartet, might have other ideas, however, about leaving one member of a quartet filing his nails while the others do all the heavy lifting.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

Mendelssohn was not your typical Romantic-era composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for imitative counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.

As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed in kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.

The String Quartet in A minor Op. 13 was composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin—admittedly, not a crowded field. Its frequent use of fugal textures attests to the young composer’s admiration for Bach while numerous formal features, especially its cyclical design and recall of themes from earlier movements, point to the influence of Beethoven—the late string quartets and Ninth Symphony in particular.

The first movement opens with an endearing Adagio full of short coy phrases which lead to a repeated three-note motive (C# B D) derived from one of Mendelssohn’s own songs (Frage Op. 9 No. 1). This motive will recur throughout the entire quartet, either in its dotted rhythm or in its melodic contour stretching over a minor 3rd. Lyrical repose, however, is in short supply in the remainder of the first movement. The Allegro vivace that follows the introductory Adagio is a restless affair that offers up two anxious little themes, both set in a minor key.

But “anxiety” is a relative term. In Beethoven it summons up the panicky feeling that you’re swimming just slightly ahead of a shark—that’s gaining on you. Mendelssohnian anxiety, by contrast, is more like not knowing where you put the car keys.

Imitative counterpoint is pervasive in this movement, not just as a “spot technique” to add intensity to the development section à la Mozart and Haydn, but even in the initial presentation of the movement’s themes.

Fireside coziness arrives in the Adagio non lento with its serene and elegiac melody in the 1st violin,  drenched in tearful sigh motives. These sigh motives, chromatically inflected, then become the basis for the full-on fugue that follows—an obvious hommage to a similar fugue in the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 95. Clever lad that he is, young Felix even inverts his fugue subject before returning to the poised serenity of the opening.

In place of a scherzo, Mendelssohn gives us a relaxed and unbuttoned intermezzo. The tune that begins the movement is of the utmost simplicity, one that uses the same catchy rhythm four times in a row, without somehow becoming tiresome. In the middle section trio, however, Mendelssohn returns to type with a fleet and light-footed romp of detached 16ths lightly peppered with repeated notes. And who could resist combining these two contrasting sections in the movement’s final bars? Certainly not Mendelssohn.

High drama marks the opening to the Presto finale, with a flamboyant and wide-ranging recitative in the 1st violin holding forth over melodramatic tremolos below. The reference to the finale of the Ninth Symphony is obvious but this opening is even more closely patterned on the last movement of Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op. 132 (next on the program). The troubled theme that emerges is similar in mood, as well, to the rocking main theme of Beethoven’s Op. 132 finale. Pacing back and forth in tonal space over a harmonically restless cello line it eventually issues into a cross-country horse-gallop before “remembering” the fugue subject from the second movement in a series of flashbacks. The work closes with the same lyrical Adagio with which it opened, framing the quartet’s inner drama as a gently fading memory.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132

Beethoven’s late string quartets are at one and the same time backward-looking, progressive, and even visionary works. The fascination he entertained in his last years for densely contrapuntal textures and the arcane procedures of canon and fugue harkened back to the Baroque era. His expansion of the number of movements in a serious work, along with innovations in the formal design of each movement, moved well beyond the norm of Classical-era practice. And his use of increasingly numerous, increasingly precise performance markings, along with his abrupt dynamic and tempo changes, bespoke a type of music that moved at the pace of human thought, in response to the impulses of an individual personality, offering a foretaste of the Romantic movement to come.

All these traits are on display in his Quartet in A minor Op. 132, composed in 1825.

The quartet unfolds in five movements instead of the usual four, arranged symmetrically around a central slow movement. The work opens with a slow introduction fixated on the overlapping entries of a four-note fugue-like subject in long notes that does more than simply set up the off-to-the-races arrival of the movement’s first theme, announced by the cello high in the soprano register. Pay attention to these opening bars: the long notes of this theme, and the intervals out of which it is constructed (especially the descending semitone), will haunt the entire first movement with the magisterial authority of a Baroque fugue subject in augmentation hovering over melodic motion in smaller note values.

Audience members enjoying a double espresso at the intermission will undoubtedly notice the similarity between the theme of this slow introduction and the subject of the Bach fugue which began the program: both are structured around the leap of a minor 6th with semitone motion on either side. Those opting instead for a Red Bull will in addition notice the similarity between the principal motive of Beethoven’s first theme—stepwise motion up and down over a minor 3rd—and the Bach fugue’s countersubject. Devilishly clever programming on the part of these Danish lads, what?

Despite the frequently grave demeanour of its contrapuntal rhetoric, this movement is anything but down-in-the-mouth. On the whole it is bursting with self-confidence—of a somewhat volatile sort—and offers up a good measure of animated instrumental dialogue. Its lyrical second theme, for example, arriving in the 2nd violin over a somewhat loopy accompaniment in undulating triplets, is eminently hummable.

The second movement is not a standard scherzo, but rather an eccentrically mincing minuet and trio. It’s a minuet that thinks it’s a scherzo, though, in the way it tosses short phrases and small motivic fragments back and forth, cleverly manipulated to create a fair bit of metrical “wobble” in the ear. The middle-section Trio is part musette, with a drone in the bass supporting wispy musings in the high treble, and part oom-pah-thumping village dance.

Beethoven reveals the inspiration for his slow movement in its titling: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy song of a convalescent to the Deity, in the lydian mode). The ‘convalescence’ referred to is the composer’s welcome deliverance in 1825 from a painful intestinal condition that had plagued him for some time. This extraordinarily long movement is structured in alternating sections of pious prayer and joyful deliverance as the composer moves from Heaven-directed thoughts of gratitude to buoyant feelings of corporeal invigoration.

The movement opens solemnly, in the manner of a hymn, with overlapping entries in strict imitation. The antiquarian religious feel of this opening is enhanced by its being written in one of the old church modes. (The lydian mode is simply the F major scale with B natural instead of B flat.)  This is followed by a section entitled Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling new strength) and what a change in mood this is! Leaping octaves and sprightly trills sonically attest to the composer’s bright new outlook on life until thoughts of his indebtedness to the Almighty return. Each subsequent appearance of these alternating sections is a more florid variation of the previous until the movement ends in the celestial regions of each instrument’s highest register.

The 4th movement brings us back down to earth with a short rollicking little march, even more metrically ambiguous than the previous minuet. But then, as if an opera character had just rushed on stage with dramatic news, the 1st violin erupts into a declamatory recitative (like that in the finale of the Ninth Symphony) over a fretting bed of tremolo strings below.

The theme that emerges out of all this theatrical drama to begin the quartet’s last movement is surprisingly subdued. Wistful but restless, serene but strangely urgent, its gently rippling texture reminds us of Brahms. A rip-roaring development section follows, with plenty of contrapuntal interplay, but then, as in many a Beethoven final movement, minor turns to major, trouble turns to triumph, and the same musical motives that caused all that brow-knitting at the beginning of the movement become, in the end, a cause for joyous celebration.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Z.E.N. Trio

Franz Schubert
Notturno in E-flat major  Op. 148

Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments.

Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. With the resolute character of a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.

The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.

Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.

What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944).  Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

 

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published  it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so, the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.

There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.

It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting and the reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.

The Intermède tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes. The opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.

The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic lines in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, with an arts establishment beholden to the official ideology of socialist realism, the spiky modernisms that we associate with this nerdy, thickly bespectacled composer were not his bread and butter. What paid the bills was his work for the Soviet Union’s mammoth film industry, about three dozen film scores in all, selections of which he entrusted to his friend Lev Atovmian (1901-1973) to arrange for concert performance in order to supplement his income in those periods when he was officially in disfavour.

5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano is simple popular music meant for entertainment. The opening Prelude, with its searingly lyrical violin lines in parallel 6ths and 10ths, inflected from time to time with flecks of Neapolitan (flat-II) harmony, suggests the warmth and sentimentality of Brahms’ Vienna.

The square phrasing and gently persistent pulse of the Gavotte evokes a feeling of simple but relaxed jollity. Elegy returns to the warmth of the Viennese café, unfolding in a series of sighs, with even a little dialogue between the violins.

The sad little Waltz in G minor is a restless affair that rises to surprising heights of passion in its short duration. The concluding Polka is a rollicking village romp full of breathless phrases and stomping cadences that would be perfect music for a carnival ride.

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

Marc-André Hamelin is a brilliant throwback to the 19th century, the age of the virtuoso pianist-composer. As a pianist he is known for his performances of the often devilishly-difficult keyboard works of now-neglected composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji and Samuil Feinberg (whose Sonata No. 4 in E flat minor he performed at the Chan Centre for the VRS in 2018). As a composer his own additions to the keyboard repertoire have included his set of piano etudes in all the minor keys, and his Toccata on ‘L’Homme armé’, which was the required test piece, played by all 30 competitors, at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His Reverie for Two Violins and Piano comes fresh from his pen this summer and he sends us these notes about this new piece:

“This short work owes its existence to a dream which its dedicatee Leila Getz, the soul behind the Vancouver Recital Society, had one night. She emailed me one day saying she’d experienced a vision in which Angela Cheng and the Chooi brothers were performing a piece I’d written. I’d be giving a lot away if I described her dream in any more detail, since the way the resulting piece unfolds is, let’s say, not quite traditional…

The work is simply an attempt at a direct translation of Leila’s dream, trying to imagine what the performing situation Leila described would yield musically. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to try to imagine what Leila heard in her sleep!”

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

You may not know the music of Cécile Chaminade but Queen Victoria did, and invited her to Windsor Castle in 1892 to hear more of it. Chaminade had a successful career as a performing pianist both in Europe and in the United States. Sheet music of her smaller works sold extremely well on both continents, and even spawned the creation of numerous Chaminade Musical Clubs in the US. In 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French nation.

So why isn’t she better remembered?

Her career difficulties were, in the academic jargon of gender studies, intersectional. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, she was French in a music world dominated by Germans, and she was a composer of salon music in an era dominated by musical revolutionaries.

“Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace,” bleated one critic after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1908, “but it is amazingly superficial … While women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.”

To look down one’s nose at salon music—as her critics did—was to look down one’s nose at the middle-class—which her critics also did. But snobbishness aside, there is no mistaking her gifts as a melodist and as a composer for the keyboard.

Her Thème varié Op. 89, first published in 1898, is not a formal set of variations but rather a continuous retelling of two attractively harmonized melodic ideas set in increasingly more involved keyboard textures, culminating in a kind of ‘three-handed effect’ with a trilled pedal point sounding out in the mid-range between the two hands, a texture famously used by Beethoven in the finales of his Waldstein and Op. 111 sonatas, and by Tchaikovsky in the first movement cadenza of his B-flat minor concerto.

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels. (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: TETZLAFF-TETZLAFF-VOGT TRIO

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major K 502

The piano trio developed out of the ‘accompanied’ keyboard sonata, a makeshift compositional genre that attempted to compensate for the weak ‘tinkly’ tone of the early fortepiano (forerunner of the modern pianoforte) by the addition of a violin to reinforce the singing line in the right hand, and a cello to reinforce the bass in the left. In the 1780s, after technical advances in instrument manufacture gave the piano a louder and more penetrating tone, Mozart made concertos for piano and orchestra the centrepiece of his public performances in Vienna.

This new prominence of the piano as a solo instrument also affected the kinds of music written for private performance in the home. The five trios for piano, violin and cello that Mozart composed between 1786 and 1788 are all, like the concertos, three-movement works in which the piano plays the leading role. The first of these, the Piano Trio in B flat K 502, is particularly concerto-like in the flamboyance of its keyboard writing. But it also demonstrates the new independence that could be granted to the violin and cello once their ‘accompanying’ role was made obsolete.

The opening Allegro is marked by an extreme economy of means. Virtually the entire movement derives from the opening dialogue between the piano and the stringed instruments, predicated on the contrast between a nonchalant grouping of appoggiaturas in the piano and a sparkling ‘ear-tickle’ figure that chirps in reply from the violin. This opening theme also serves, unusually, as the movement’s second theme, scored differently and presented in a higher register. With such a concentration of musical materials in the exposition, it is not surprising that Mozart introduces a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section.

Among the concerto-like features of this movement are passages of ‘busy-work’ in the piano covered by more sustained melodic activity in the strings, and extended stretches of pearly piano runs leading either to a new formal section, or to a trilling cadence.

The second movement Larghetto is a lyrical outpouring of highly decorated melody, structured as a dialogue between piano and violin, with the cello largely playing a supporting role. A contrast to this florid melody is found in the much less artful middle section which, while departing from the same initial gesture, offers up a more naively simple brand of tunefulness.

The Allegretto finale is a companionable, gently playful rondo constantly enlivened by the same sprightly ‘ear-tickle’ figure that appeared in the first movement. The mood is consistently upbeat, with the piano at particular pains to make the texture sparkle with colourful passagework. Eventually even the cello feels emboldened enough to join in on the fun as it trades phrases back and forth with the violin in the closing section of the score.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944). Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with left hand high in the treble and the right hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. An almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly – or playfully, it’s hard to tell which – over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

Robert Schumann
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 63

There is a distinctly ‘Brahmsian’ feel about Schumann’s first piano trio, with its thick, almost orchestral scoring, richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. Composed in 1847, its densely woven compositional textures reflect Schumann’s recent study of Bach but its expressive manner is Romantic to the hilt.

At its opening we are plunged into a brooding drama already fully underway, a churning cauldron of sinuous yearning phrases, echoing back and forth in imitation, that seem to never end. The urgency and passionate intensity of this opening rides on the back of a continuous series of delayed resolutions and syncopations that weaken the strong beats of the bar. This is a feature shared by both the first and second themes of the movement. The development section is notable for a remarkable change in mood, a sudden break in the clouds signalled by a chiming accompaniment in the piano that introduces a completely new theme, a sort of hymn melody hauntingly intoned by the cello and violin playing near the bridge.

The 2nd movement scherzo has a spirit of boundless energy and focused enthusiasm that would do credit to the cheering fanbase of a local football team. Built on a series of driving scale figures echoing between the piano and strings in a peppy dotted rhythm, it smoothes out these scale figures in the more flowing central trio section, which is structured as a series of three-part canons.

The dramatic centre of gravity of this work is its slow movement, a lyrical outpouring of emotion with the violin and cello as its major protagonists while the piano digs deep into its low register to provide a rich bed of sonic support from below. The emotional range of this movement is exceptionally wide. The opening and closing sections are filled with forlorn sighs and seemingly aimless harmonic wanderings, but they enclose a rapturous middle section filled with expansive feelings of contentment and inner joy.

The last movement follows the model of the “triumphant finale” established by Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony, in which the minor mode changes to major and whatever dark clouds may have hovered over previous movements are swept away in a flood of joyous celebration. The tune chosen by Schumann for this celebration is stitched together from motives from the opening of the first movement and almost has the character of a patriotic hymn. But unlike the theme at the opening of the first movement, this finale theme just can’t wait to cadence – as often as possible – and the rhythmic pulse is definite and emphatic. A rondo-like alternation of moods cleverly disguises how the opening theme motivates the entire kaleidoscopic range of variations that drive this euphoric movement to its jubilant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

Program Notes: Jonathan Roozeman

Luigi Boccherini
Sonata in A major G 4

Luigi Boccherini was perhaps the greatest cellist of the 18th century, and like his compatriot of a previous generation, Domenico Scarlatti, he spent the most active portion of his professional life at the court of Spain. His royal patron, the Spanish Infante Don Luis Antonio, younger brother of King Carlos III, was a music-loving prince with his own string quartet. The addition of Boccherini to this ensemble was likely the creative prompt for the more than 100 string quintets – in the unusual configuration of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos – for which he is principally known.

A cellist of extraordinary technical skill, Boccherini, like Paganini after him, wrote for his own hand and acquired a reputation as a virtuoso performer through performances of his own works. One feature of his playing that astonished his contemporaries was his predilection for playing the violin repertoire, at pitch, on the cello, and indeed passages in which the cello plays in the high register are a recurring feature of his own scores.

His musical style stands at the intersection of two eras: floridly ornamental in the late Baroque manner, but early Classical in its slow harmonic rhythm and clear periodic phrasing, with direct repetition of short phrases a prominent characteristic.

The opening Adagio of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major displays well the style of ornamentation for which he was well known. Its gracious but relatively unadventurous melodic lines are set within an elaborate filigree of appoggiaturas, trills and flamboyant scalar flourishes. An ascending arpeggio in the penultimate bar nearly sends the cellist off the fingerboard to reach a high E above the treble staff.

The following Allegro demonstrates Boccherini’s ability to create an entire movement out of the repetition of small phrases and fragmentary motives. His habit of slurring phrases from a weak beat to a strong gives his music a gentle gracefulness that has even been called “effeminate,” a quality noticeable, as well, in the insistent sigh motives of the concluding Affettuoso. It is no wonder, then, that the good-natured charm of his works led to his being called “Haydn’s wife.”

Claude Debussy
Nocturne and Scherzo

Debussy made his first public appearance as a composer in 1882 in a performance of his Nocturne et Scherzo, a work originally scored for violin and piano but later that year revised for cello. This work of his student years was performed only once and then vanished from the public record until the manuscript was rediscovered in the early 1970s and Mstislav Rostropovich gave it a ‘second debut’.

It is comprised of two sections, arranged in a rounded three-part A-B-A form. Despite the titling, the scherzo is actually the first section, imprinted throughout with the 2nd-beat emphasis and drone tones of a mazurka. The second section is the dreamy nocturne, that in its lilting rhythms seems to evoke the nostalgia of a gentle waltz more than the stillness of the night.

Claude Debussy
Sonata in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme, tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by—or superimposed with—long strands of lyrical melody.

Jean Sibelius
Romance Op. 78 No. 2
Malinconia Op. 20

Sibelius, though best known today for his symphonies and Violin Concerto, could not live off these large-scale works alone. And so it was that during The Great War (1914-1918) he composed a set of four pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78, expressly directly at the domestic market. These were simple tuneful pieces intended for amateur performance in the home.

The second of this set, simply entitled Romance, soon became one of his most popular compositions, and this work has remained a staple of both the violin and cello repertoires. The wistful carefree character of its eminently hummable melody encapsulates the period’s nostalgia for an age of parlour music that would soon slip away into memory.

*                      *                      *

In February of 1900 the typhus epidemic that was sweeping through Finland claimed the life of Sibelius’ 15-month-old daughter Kirsti. From the pain of this event came a work shortly thereafter for cello and piano entitled Malinconia (Melancholy), a work in which the composer allowed himself to grieve.

The cello recitative with which it opens struggles upward, step by weary step, to arrive at an anguished cry of grief. In response, the piano rips up and down the keyboard as if to paint the flailing of pleading arms in the wind.

Each instrument is given extended solo cadenzas that exploit the extremes of their range. When playing together, they often play apart: the piano in syncopated pulses of bewilderment deep in the bass against the cello’s wailing melody in the mid-range. Or they quiver at each other in turn, in passages of sustained tremolo. French composer Eric Tanguy has deemed this work “utterly unique in the entire literature of music for cello and piano.”

Franz Schubert
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D 821

Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871, long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.

The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.

The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.

The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: Chiaroscuro Quartet and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor  (“Death & the Maiden”)

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is a sombre work, with all four of its movements set in a minor key. It takes its name from the composer’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) that provides the theme for the quartet’s slow movement, a set of variations. The poem’s depiction of Death coming to claim a young life may well have had personal resonance for the 27-year-old Schubert since in 1824, when this quartet was written, symptoms of the disease that would kill him four years later had already begun to appear.

Despite the despairing back-story, or perhaps because of it, the first movement of this quartet is unusually muscular in its scoring, thick with double-stop accompaniment patterns and punchy triple- and quadruple-stop chords at important cadences. This orchestral quality is evident from the startling salvo of string sound that opens the work, comparable in its dramatic abruptness to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fanfare-like call to attention announces the serious tone of the movement while at the same time introducing the descending triplet figure that will be the principal motive of its first theme, presented immediately following. The other important motive dominating the movement arrives in the work’s second theme: a small grouping of notes ending in a lilting dotted rhythm, lovingly offered up in thirds, Viennese-style.

Schubert’s treatment of these two motives in this movement displays his more ‘relaxed’ notion of the structural principles underlying classical sonata form. While composers in the era of Mozart and Haydn considered their key choices and modulation patterns to be the harmonic pillars and load-bearing walls of a sonata-form movement’s musical architecture, Schubert, by contrast, was more interested in interior decorating than structural engineering. Rejecting sonata form’s traditional concentration on just two tonal centres – the home key presented at the outset and its alternate, presented in the second theme – he preferred to spin his tonal colour wheel more freely so as to choose just the right tonal accent for this little motive here, and the right tonal shade to paint that broad thematic space there.

While not ignoring the form’s three-part division into exposition, development and recapitulation, Schubert lets this pattern out at the seams to create a more vibrant palette of harmonic possibilities. The tonal drama that interests him happens at a moment-by-moment pace, riding forward on waves of harmonic colour. The triplets that appear so portentous as the movement opens, when cast in different tonal colours, becomes a daisy-sniffing walk-in-the-park hummable tune. And the lilting dotted-rhythm motive, so gracious at its first appearance, becomes worrisome when constantly repeated in the minor mode.

Schubert’s treatment of his musical material in the following slow movement is much more regular and formally proportioned. The theme for this movement’s set of variations is in two parts, each repeated. The first is a direct quotation of the piano introduction to the Death and the Maiden lied, with its plodding funeral-march rhythm and mournful repetition of melody notes evoking the sorrow that death brings. The second part maintains the processional rhythm but is more hopeful, ending in the major mode to reflect the lied text’s depiction of death as the Great Comforter. Most of the variations decorate the theme with an elegant application of melodic embroidery in the first violin. But the third variation breaks this pattern with its frightening acceleration of the theme’s processional rhythm, a pacing that some have compared to the galloping of Death’s horse.  

The Allegro molto scherzo is of a rough Beethovenian stamp, predicated on the play of small repeated motives, frequent syncopations, and sudden contrasts between piano and forte. Its Trio middle section is a gently swaying Ländler that counts as one of the few moments of sustained lyrical repose in this quartet.

The rondo finale, marked Presto, is a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory emotional states. Alternating between the driving vehemence of its tarantella refrain in the minor mode and the almost celebratory spirit of its major-mode episodes, this movement is bound together by its boundless energy alone, an energy that seems to transcend major-minor distinctions. Witness its whirlwind coda, that clearly signals an intention to end the work in the major mode only to switch back to the minor for its last hurrah, yet with no loss of breathless exuberance.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restlessness mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major  K 414

Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a fortepiano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.

The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.  

Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show.  Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement but more importantly, as in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.

Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch.  Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.

The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it presents—four in the orchestral exposition alone.  The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall.  The development section, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra.  Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.

The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), youngest son of J. S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J. C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute.  And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.

The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure.  The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repetitive motive of three notes descending by step.  When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra! Filled with thrills and spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E minor Hob. XVI:34

It is unusual to encounter a sonata in a minor key from “Papa” Haydn, a composer best known for his chipper disposition. But his Sonata in E minor likely dates from the late 1770s, which could explain its turbulent mood. The 1770s was the decade of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an aesthetic trend that promoted extreme emotionalism in art. In music, the result was moody or stormy works in a minor key evoking abnormal psychological states.

The first movement of the E minor Sonata exemplifies this tribute to abnormality both in its obsessive repetition of the same motivic material over and over again and in the disjointed nature of its construction. It lurches forward in small motivic gasps, echoed between the hands, and sometimes simply stops dead in its tracks for an unnerving moment of silence in which nothing at all happens—the equivalent of a worrisome character in a film dropping what he is doing and looking directly into the camera for several seconds. Its eruption into a fiery coda at the end of the recapitulation foretells a structural anomaly that would be used to great effect by his student, Beethoven.

There is a slightly manic quality to the way in which the Adagio second movement appears fully decked out in melodic circumlocutions of ornament straight out of the gate, like a person who talks too much because of some sense of nervousness or anxiety. The worry is brought to the surface when the minor mode surfaces at the very end, in a cadence on the dominant that leads directly to the concluding rondo.

The opening refrain of this finale features a simple, toe-tapping, folk-like melody over a churning Alberti bass that gives it a kind of devil-may-care breeziness, despite its being in the minor mode. The movement makes great play out of the alternation of major and minor, but these are merely differences in tone colouring. The underlying sense of bubbly good spirits is evident throughout. Haydn gives us here a taste of what Mendelssohn was to do many decades later: use the minor mode to convey merriment rather than concern.

Johannes Brahms
3 Intermezzi Op. 117

Brahms’s late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.

While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’s musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.

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The Three Intermezzi of Op. 117, published in 1892, combine a childlike simplicity of expression with an underlying seriousness of mood much akin to melancholy. Brahms described them as “three lullabies of my sorrows” and a quality of consolation is indeed evident in the andante pacing and ‘rocking’ character of all three.

The first of the set, the Intermezzo in E flat major, actually quotes the German translation of a Scottish lullaby above the first line of the score. The ‘inner’ quality of the opening melody is symbolically enhanced by its position in the middle of the texture, with repeated pedal tones brightly ringing above it, and quietly throbbing below. Its middle section moves darkly in a series of short sighing phrases in E flat minor, making all the more magical and luminous the reprise of the opening lullaby at the end.

The Intermezzo in B flat minor is ingeniously crafted as a miniature sonata movement. Its first theme is a yearning, Schumannesque melody pieced together from a succession of two-note slurs, unfolding delicately atop a pattern of arpeggios passed between the hands. The second theme in block chords is a variant of the first—a typical Brahmsian touch—and the development section dwells expansively on the flowing arpeggios of the opening section. Remarkable in this intermezzo are the many passages of smoky piano overtones that Brahms sends wafting up from the nether regions of the keyboard.

The final Intermezzo in C# minor is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried in the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely-spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations Op. 120

In 1819 the Viennese composer and publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) issued a call to 51 Austrian composers to contribute a variation each to a waltz theme of his own composition. He would publish these in a collected edition for the relief of widows & orphans of the Napoleonic wars, an initiative that was part charitable (Bob Geldof’s Band Aid avant la lettre) and part clever marketing. The invitation list included the leading compositional lights of the era, including Schubert, Hummel, Franz Xaver Mozart (Wolfgang’s son), and Beethoven’s friend and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, personages whose association with Diabelli’s publishing firm would greatly enhance its prestige. Even the pre-pubescent Franz Liszt got into the collection, likely through the intercession of his teacher Carl Czerny, who was also on the list.

Fifty of the fifty-one composers duly submitted their single variation. One did not. Ludwig van Beethoven had a better idea. In a creative spurt he began working on a massive work based on Diabelli’s theme, completing more than 20 variations in 1819 and picking up the project again to add more in 1823, in which year his complete set of 33 Diabelli Variations was published.

This monumental work has often been compared to Bach’s Goldberg Variations for its encyclopedic scope and masterful display of compositional technique. Alfred Brendel has declared it “the greatest of all piano works” and odds are that his student, Paul Lewis, shares that view. While audiences have found its extreme length, bizarre chromaticism and wild contrasts a stumbling block to a heartfelt embrace of the work, a knowledge of Beethoven’s ribald sense of humour and fondness for parody goes a long way towards bringing the reluctant listener on board.

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Diabelli’s theme, the initial starting point of the work, has found few admirers, having been labelled as trivial, banal, even outright stupid by any number of distinguished scholars with whom it is hard to disagree. But its very weaknesses—its chugging chordal accompaniment and repetitive harmonic sequences, its cutesy opening grace-note figure answered ludicrously octaves below in the bass, not to mention its lumbering air of yokelish self-confidence—are the very features that Beethoven zeroes in on for his variations. So rather than simply decorating the musical ideas of the waltz, Beethoven uses these characteristics to give each variation a radically distinct personality, drawn musically in high relief. Var. 9, for example, does nothing but obsess over the theme’s initial grace-note figure, like a stuttering child that can get out no more than the first word of his sentence.

Most of the set is ruled by an ethos of Homeric jest, with parody and originality vying in equal measure for the listener’s interest. The most comical of the set is undoubtedly Var.13, in which the chattering accompaniment of the theme is omitted entirely, leaving long gaps of silence against which the loud pompous chords outlining the theme’s harmonic structure sound absolutely silly.

References to other composers’ music undoubtedly inform the style of many of the variations but seldom as overtly as in Var. 22 in which Diabelli’s waltz theme is dressed up as Leporello singing Notte e giorno faticar from the opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is hardly a coincidence that Leporello’s complaint about how hard he has to work could apply equally well to the pianist’s own labours in the following Var. 23, a parody of a five-finger exercise by piano virtuoso Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858). And yet, Beethoven himself is no slouch when it comes to creating brilliant and arresting piano textures, especially with flurries of trills, as in Variations 6, 10, 16, and 21, or in the cascading canonic entries that dazzle the ear in Var. 19.

These high-impact pianistically-inspired variations sit side-by-side with more contrapuntal treatments of the theme, such as the fughetta of Var. 24, after which the learned and lyrical effusions of the following stomping German dance of Var. 25 sounds particularly incongruous. These ‘sound gags’ stop for good, though, when the tone colour turns for the first time to the minor mode in Var. 29, initiating a set of three slow variations of imposing seriousness. From here on in, Beethoven gets into his hot-air balloon and begins a steady ascent into the ethereal realms of musical poetry familiar from his last sonatas Opp. 109 to 111.

Var. 31 is a profoundly expressive, richly-ornamented aria that invites comparisons with Variation 25 from Bach’s Goldbergs. This is followed in Var. 32 by a monumental multi-themed fugue that transmutes the trite repeated chords of the waltz theme into a shoulder-poking fugue subject of a distinctly Handelian stamp to bring the work as a whole to what seems to be its apotheosis.

But no. Instead, a dramatic series of arpeggios stretching from one end of the keyboard to the other sweeps all the musical toys off the table so as to begin again … with a final minuet. The rough bass-heavy waltz that began the proceedings 33 variations ago now closes this work as an elegant courtly dance ascending to the stars in the high treble in a manner not unlike that of the arietta finale of the Sonata in C minor Op. 111.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: DANISH STRING QUARTET

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4

In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of home entertainment in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.

And so at the end of the 1790s, when Beethoven decided to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.

The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from that of its siblings. The ‘brat’ of the pack is No. 4, the String Quartet in C minor, an eccentric work, by turns moody, mocking, musing and manic.

Its pulse stays at the upper range of the human heartbeat, with nothing slower than a stately Andante in its four characterful movements. There is no slow movement at all, no moment of lyrical repose amid the onrush of musical ideas. More eccentric still, there is both a scherzo and a minuet (normally the former replaces the latter), and even these seem to be cross-dressing, conflicted as they are over their ‘genre identity’.

Beethoven writing in the key of C minor is always a wild ride and the opening movement of this quartet does not disappoint. Just like the first-movement Allegro of the Pathétique piano sonata (also in C minor), it begins in a state of anxiety, with a pulsating pedal tone in the bass lending melodramatic urgency to a series of rising musical gestures above. All this breathless urgency seems justified when these opening phrases issue into a series of brutally direct triple-stop chords, like a SWAT team knocking down a door. The second theme is more sociable, borrowing the wide melodic leaps of the first theme and serving them up as “happy hops” in a sociable duet format with lots of countermelody interest. But the downward emotional pull of the movement as a whole drags even this happier theme into a minor-mode vortex of alarm and anxiety in the development section.

The inner movements, a scherzo and a minuet, seem confused as to which one is which. The scherzo proceeds at the dainty, mincing pace of a minuet while the minuet has the serious driving energy of a scherzo, complete with its trademark rhythmic quirks such as syncopation, hemiola, and off-beat accents. But there is more than a whiff of Beethoven’s teacher Haydn in the scherzo, especially in its mechanical-clock regularity of rhythm. So perhaps the ‘joke’ is the compositional overkill of having such a light movement begin with an academically impeccable triad-and-scale-based fugato. Indeed, this movement may well have been written more for the delight of its performers rather than for its listeners, since such a learned texture would provide ample excuse for collegial ‘eyebrow theatre’ and an amused exchange of knowing glances between the players.

The Minuetto, by contrast, is a fast-paced brooding affair, about as dance-like as a roller derby, and with many of the same elbow-spikes built into its rhythmic texture. It does, however, take a tea break in its Trio to toss a simple triadic figure back and forth between the instruments.

The last movement rondo begins at a frenetic pace, its Hungarian-tinged refrain theme terminating, like the rondo theme of the Pathétique Sonata, in a series of shoulder-poking repeated notes. Providing the rondo ‘filling’ between its appearances are a broad, stately theme in longer note values and a mischievous series of scurrying triplet figures. Despite the intense race-to-the-finish mood of the coda, it is these whimsical little triplet figures that are loudly proclaimed in the work’s last bars. Beethoven’s parting witticism is that since all four instruments play this motive together in unison, we have no idea whether the movement ends on a major or minor chord!

MUSIC FROM THE NORDIC COUNTRIES

Folk music is the music of all the small places. It is the local music, but as such it is also the music of everywhere and everyone. Like rivers, the melodies and dances have flowed from region to region: Whenever a fiddler stumbled on a melody, he would play it and make it his own before passing it on. You don’t own a folk tune, you simply borrow it for a while.

In 2013 we borrowed and arranged a bunch of Nordic folk tunes on a recording that we called Wood Works. This album created quite some stir and has been featured on concert stages all over the world, on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, and even as the soundtrack in Starbucks coffee shops. Now we have decided to embark on yet another journey through the rich world of Nordic folk melodies, and have recorded and released ‘Last Leaf’ – another album of traditional music from the Nordic countries, the Faroe and Shetland Islands.

The Danish String Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 74 No. 10 (“Harp”)

Beethoven’s buoyant and good-natured “Harp” quartet of 1809 gets its name from the unusually prominent use of pizzicato in its first movement. Structured in the standard four-movement pattern, it features a sonata-form first movement with slow introduction, a songful slow movement, and a whirlwind scherzo connected without a break to a theme-and-variations finale.

The slow introduction that opens the work generates a sense of mystery and suspense by inching forward in a searching series of tentative, short phrases, the quizzical nature of which is answered from time to time by more resolute chordal exclamations. In the Allegro that follows, the movement’s first theme is announced with a broken triad, a motive destined to be much bandied about in the pizzicato sections to come. The easy-breathing lyrical melody that follows sets the tone for the movement’s carefree mood. The first pizzicato episode leads us to the exuberant second theme, full of scurrying runs and busy-work figurations. As the movement proceeds, it gathers ever more momentum, becoming almost festive by the end of the exposition, and the development section does nothing to spoil the party atmosphere. Rather than a stern cross-examination of these themes, it prefers to celebrate them, in whole and in part, with very little modulatory drama or fretting in the minor mode. It ends with one of the movement’s most unusual instrumental effects, a gradual written-out accelerando that begins in pizzicato and switches to arco just before plunging into the recapitulation. An even more compelling special effect is the rapid-fire cross-string figuration of the first violin, that breaks away from the pack in the coda to imagine itself a concerto soloist, until it is escorted gently back down to earth by the other instruments.

The second movement Adagio ma non troppo is a lyrical rondo with an expansive cantabile refrain melody in the major mode that recurs in ever more embellished form after diversions into minor-mode territory. Almost Mendelssohnian in its fireside warmth and coziness, this is some of Beethoven’s tenderest music.

The scherzo Presto that follows is a jittery jaunt through motivic territory that combines daredevil leaps and stepwise cross-chatter. The repeated notes in its opening section are a twitchy caffeine-soaked version of the ‘knocking door’ motive in the Fifth Symphony’s third-movement scherzo. Fast-paced as this Presto opening section is, its trio section, marked Più presto quasi prestissimo, is even faster. And like the Fifth Symphony, as well, instead of letting his scherzo off-leash to drive to its headlong conclusion, Beethoven tapers it down at the end, ever softer, to graft it into his finale.

This final movement offers up a polite and well-behaved theme, divided up into cutesy bite-sized phrase groupings, each straddling the bar-line in the style of a gavotte. The theme is then followed by six variations, mostly chummy ensemble tributes to the theme’s underlying harmonies, but the second and fifth showcase the viola and first violin, respectively, in solo roles. A whirlwind coda rushes towards a triumphant finish but at the last moment Beethoven pulls it up short to simply blow out the candles on this quartet with two light puffs of chordal harmony.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: FILIPPO GORINI

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

Béla Bartók
Sonata Sz. 80

In 1926 Bartók’s musical style took a ‘Bachian’ turn towards more clearly polyphonic textures. His Sonata from that year presents us with three movements in two distinct character profiles. The opening and closing movements are bold, direct and massively self-confident, characterized by driving energy and a machine-like sense of rhythm. The slow middle movement, by contrast, is unremittingly bleak, filled with dull, aching dissonances that audience members who have experienced dental surgery may find triggering.

The first movement opens with a motive comprised of a short skip and a series of hammered repeated notes, reminiscent of the striding pulse of the last of Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka. Stravinskian, as well, is the sonic resonance ringing out clearly from the well-spaced chords that accompany this stomping, hammering pulse throughout the movement. Bartók doesn’t really present us with ‘themes’ as such, but rather short motivic cells that are continually varied, and frequently subject to hemiola effects as they shift in alignment, rhythmically, with respect to the bar line. This is a very athletic movement, with many sudden changes of register, including passages in which the right hand leaps across the left in order to punch out notes deep in the bass.

If repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity, then the opening 6 bars of Bartók’s 2nd movement—featuring an A-flat-E-flat-F chord in the left hand, repeatedly set against a jarring E natural in the right—are clear cause for concern. This movement is bafflingly dissonant. Textured in uncompromisingly gritty 3-voice counterpoint that plods foreword at a relentless quarter-note pace, it offers little to orient the ear in its tangled texture of semitones and minor 9ths: only occasional reminders of the opening harmonic sound-salad and a fixation on rising scale figures. Even the abruptness of its final cadence, normally a place of emotional resolution and rhetorical disarmament, comes as a shock to the nervous system.

The monothematic final movement is by comparison a pleasant jog in the park. Its principal concern is a jaunty little folk tune of a pentatonic stamp announced at the outset. The melodic outline of this ditty—a gapped space of five tones down, then back up—gives it the air of a sea shanty, but the more it gets varied with repetition the more it starts to sound like “Good King Wenceslas”. Despite its constant changes in time signature between 3/8, 2/4 and a very Stravinskian 1/4, this movement manages nonetheless to come off as a real toe-tapper.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Klavierstück IX

The 20th century witnessed the development of new approaches to thinking about the sounds that make up what we call ‘music’. The 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg spawned the serialist movement, dominated by a search to create new formal structures for music organized around ‘series’ (i.e. fixed patterns) of pitch, dynamics, timbre and other properties of sound. And then, beginning in the 1950s, sounds never heard before by human ears, artificial sounds created electronically, were admitted into the composer’s toolkit.

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the centre of all these developments, producing works based on the newly developed structural principles, and utilizing the new sound palettes that had been discovered. Through this work he quickly became the public face of avant-garde contemporary music—so famous, in fact, that he is featured in the crowd of faces on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (fifth from the left, in the back row).

The 19 works that Stockhausen composed with the title Klavierstücke (keyboard pieces) between 1954 and 2003 embody some of his most important ideas about how music can be internally organized, and the sound gestures that can form part of it. The ninth piece in this series, Klavierstücke IX completed in 1961, is one of his best-known piano works.

This work presents many challenges to the uninitiated, as the parameters of music that we are used to identifying—harmony, melody and rhythm—are not hierarchically deployed in the way that we take for granted in ‘traditional’ music. But a listener coming to this music for the first time should not be overly concerned with its ‘geometric’ dimensions—for example, with how the rhythmic proportions throughout the piece are organized by the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (etc.) in which each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Nor try to count how many times the dissonant four-note chord that opens the work is played in the first (shall we say) ‘phrase’, and how many times in the second. (It’s 139 and 87, for those who like to keep track).

Analytically-oriented listeners might attempt to follow the two main ideas in the piece that alternate in dialogue: the opening four-note chord repeated at varying speeds and dynamic levels, and a slowly rising chromatic scale. But committed admirers of impressionism will want to just set their minds free, close their eyes, and imaginatively listen to the sounds emanating from the stage as if they were the soundtrack to a movie, asking themselves as they listen: what kind of movie is this?

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly struggle and spiritual transcendence—framed in terms of the raw elemental building blocks of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness, a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity. Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The 2nd subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration accompanying the variation theme. The 3rd variation arrives at degree of elation that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.

It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until is transmuted, finally, into the essence of the divine.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV

Richard Wagner
Isolde’s Liebestod arr. Franz Liszt

The 19th century in Europe was an age in which psychological states went mainstream in the arts, becoming a particularly powerful stimulus for musical expression. A new genre, the nocturne, for example, captured that eerie feeling of being alone with one’s lyrical thoughts at a still point in the night. Other constellations of feelings and moods were captured in the era’s invention of new “character pieces” such as impromptus, rhapsodies and moments musicaux.

No 19th-century composer went further in marshalling the resources of musical expression into direct and compelling proxies for emotional experience than Richard Wagner. And none of his operas exhibit a more focused concentration on one single emotion, romantic love, than Tristan and Isolde (1859).

Wagner’s opera tells the tale of Isolde, an Irish princess promised in marriage to the King of Cornwall who, on her way over to be married, falls in love with his nephew Tristan after they drink a love potion together. Tristan’s death in consequence of this betrayal sets up the final scene of the opera, the Liebestod (“love-death”) scene, in which Isolde, standing over Tristan’s dead body, commemorates him rapturously by imagining their passion and his death as a single indissoluble unity.

Wagner vividly brings to life the insistent quality of the emotion of love through his use of the same phrases, repeated over and over again in a continuous chain of chromatic harmonies which seem to open up new vistas of experience with each occurrence. The feeling of yearning and love-longing is so tellingly conveyed by the use of suspensions and delayed resolutions that it is hard not to feel like an adolescent again while listening.

Liszt lavishly layered his transcription with tremolos to evoke the fine gradations of orchestral colour in Wagner’s score, and thickened the keyboard texture with a machine-gun spray of repeated chords to convey the massive impact of a full orchestral tutti. These techniques inevitably raise questions of musical taste, and it is the performing pianist’s challenge – as it always is when playing Liszt – to avoid suggesting the kitschy excesses of staged melodrama or silent-film music.

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor

“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.

The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.

Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.

The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.

The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.

In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.

Sergei Prokofiev
10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op. 75

Prokofiev completed his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and by all accounts this was not a good year to be a Soviet musician. It wasn’t the low pay or difficult working conditions that were top-of-mind for most, but rather the risk of being dragged from their homes and executed by firing squad. Comrade Stalin, you see, was getting grumpy and his Great Purge (1936-1938) had begun.

Plans to produce the ballet had to be cancelled, due to its association with a theatre director who had been purged. So in 1937, as friends and neighbours were randomly disappearing from the apartment block where he lived, Prokofiev moved to salvage his ballet by fashioning a number of suites from the score, including one for piano entitled 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, which he performed in public that year and published as his Op. 75. His strategy worked. Performances of the suites, both for orchestra and for piano solo, sparked interest in mounting productions of the complete ballet, which began in 1938, and Romeo and Juliet went on to become one of the composer’s most successful works.

In creating a version for piano, Prokofiev was coming full circle, as the original score had been composed for piano first, and then orchestrated. These pieces, then, are not mere orchestral reductions, but pianistically conceived scene paintings with the hands of the virtuoso pianist in mind. In keeping with its role as music for dance performance, the tonal language is relatively simple, in parts reminiscent of the clear textures of his ‘Classical’ Symphony in D (1917). Also present in abundance are Prokofiev’s trademark quirks: quicksilver diversions to remote keys, melody notes that land one note off from where you expect them to go, and his classic “off-road” harmonic wanderings within phrases that always somehow manage to find their way back home just in time for the final cadence.

The suite begins with two dance movements in a popular vein that introduce us to the moods and manners of the common folk of fair Verona, where the composer sets his scene. The carefree opening Folk Dance gets its ‘folkiness’ from its simple two-voice texture and the drone-like elements in its bass line. The following Scene: The Street Awakens is simpler still, its chipper mood guaranteed by the steady pulse of its prancing accompaniment.

We then go indoors for the arrival of guests to the Capulet ball. The opening Minuet theme is ceremonially repeated as new guests arrive, alternating with more flowing passages as each new arrival wanders in to inspect the room.

Juliet as a Young Girl sees our 14-year-old heroine playfully scampering around her room as she gets dressed, incessantly fussed over by her Nurse. Moments of tenderness intervene when she catches sight of her own beautiful self in the mirror.

The heavy pulse, eccentric tone clusters, and fractured harmonies of Masks alerts us to the fact that Romeo and his best mate Mercutio are crashing the party. The widely-spaced arpeggiated chords in the left hand of this piece are a major test of the pianist’s agility and endurance.

Romeo and Juliet meet and dance together for the first time in the most famous and recognizable piece from this ballet, the dance of the Montagues and Capulets. Ominous, elegant, seductive and sinister, this music sums up the entire dramatic conflict of the ballet’s storyline.

This is followed by the calm and soothing reassurances of Friar Laurence, whose quiet dignity and seriousness of purpose is conveyed in the steady deliberate pace of his music portrait.

Mercutio, by contrast, is portrayed as whimsical, brash and self-confident, almost to the point of recklessness. The amount of wide-ranging keyboard scamper in this piece tells us that here is a guy who runs with scissors.

The Dance of Girls with Lilies shows us Juliet’s girlfriends, who have come to wake her up on the day she is to be married to Paris, the husband her family has chosen for her. The recurring minor harmonies in this piece hint that there is something wrong, something unstated but slightly creepy, about her situation.

The finale is an affectionate look back at Romeo and Juliet before Parting after they have spent the night together. Their drowsiness as they are awoken by the rising sun is conveyed by the static harmonies and chiming pedal tone of the opening. A mood of blissful nostalgia hovers over this piece to bring the suite to a close on a note of romantic reverie.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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