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Program Notes: Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih

Reynaldo Hahn
Variations chantantes sur un air ancien

The Venezuelan-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn is best known for his contribution to the French song repertoire with his more than 100 mélodies published between 1890 and his death in 1947. He is equally well known as the sometime romantic partner of writer Marcel Proust, whose epic novel À la recherche du temps perdu paints in perfumed prose the social rituals and creeping decadence of a society ripe with elegance but rapidly approaching its best-before date.

Hahn was a perfect fit for this Proustian Parisian world of the Belle Époque (1871-1914).  His musical aesthetic was refined, but conservative and essentially backward-looking, especially in matters of harmony.

Witness his 1905 Variations chantantes sur un air ancien (Singing variations on an ancient air), which exhibit not even a whiff of modernism and could easily have been composed 50 years earlier. Situated in the rear-guard of musical developments of the time, this work offers no hint of the colourful dissonances and convulsive rhythms that within a few years would astonish Parisian audiences in the revolutionary ballets of Stravinsky: Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Instead, Hahn reaches back for his musical inspiration to the 17th century, taking as his variation theme the aria Beato chi può (Blessed is he) from the opera Xerxes (1655) by Italian composer Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676). In Act IV scene 6 of Cavalli’s opera a high court official laments the tiresome rituals and constant intrigues of the Persian court and longs for a simpler life of ease and pleasure.

In keeping with the original operatic setting, Hahn’s Variations chantantes begin in an elegiac mood with a melody of dignified beauty lyrically sung out by the cello, a melody both courtly and sentimental. This theme remains clearly recognizable throughout the variations that follow, merely decorated with simple melodic filigree or slightly altered in rhythm.

Two musical motives from the original aria are highlighted throughout: an expression of longing conveyed by numerous two-note sigh motives, and the expectation of happier times in an oft-repeated four-note rising scale figure shared by cello and piano alike.

*                      *                      *

Steven Isserlis relates in a press interview that while he had long been aware of this work, he was unable to find a printed copy of the score for many years. Until, that is, “after a world-wide search” he discovered it close to home in the library of London’s Royal College of Music, where he discovered as well “that he was the first to borrow it in seventy years!”

 

Gabriel Fauré
Sonata No. 2 in G minor  Op. 117

Gabriel Fauré is a composer of what the French would call ‘discreet charm’. His discretion, composition-wise, is easy to spot in his Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, composed in 1921 near the end of his life. The work features the pared-down style typical of late Fauré, a style in which there are fewer things for the ear to keep track of while listening.

The texture, for one thing, is simple and transparent, the emphasis being on single-line melodies in both instruments, with few multiple-stops in the cello or thick chordal sonorities in the piano. The rhythmic patterning is relatively bland, with large sections proceeding at a steady underlying pulse, meaning that the major ‘action’ in the piece happens in the shifting shades of its pastel harmonies and the subtle chromatic inflections of its melodic lines.

Providing a steely underpinning to this work’s unruffled sonic surface is a surprising degree of academic rigour – not surprising from this Paris Conservatoire professor who counted Ravel, Enescu and Nadia Boulanger among his students.

The first movement Allegro, for example, begins with a simple scalar theme in canon between cello and piano, a theme rendered all the more intriguing by its many syncopations. A second theme, of considerably emotional warmth, is introduced in octaves by the piano, structured in a series of descending 3rds. The development section draws its urgency from its many chromatically climbing lines but issues into the recapitulation so ‘discreetly’ that you barely notice it’s happening until it is well underway. Hint: it’s the cello that introduces the canon this time, reversing the order of entry in the exposition.

The Andante slow movement is the star attraction of this sonata, having provided its creative impetus in the first place. You see, in 1921 Fauré had been commissioned by the French government to compose a funeral march for a commemorative service at Les Invalides in Paris marking the 100th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Napoleon. Unwilling to let this chant funéraire become a one-day wonder, Fauré re-used it in this slow movement, girding it in full chords in the piano part in imitation of the orchestral scoring of its first performance. Fauré’s chamber version retains the solemn character of the original setting with a slow trodding accompaniment in steady quarter notes accompanying a melody line expressing downcast grief and noble resignation with its many falling 5ths.

A lighter mood springs out of the Allegro vivo finale which features two contrasting themes. The first presents a polite disagreement between the instruments as to whether the melody should go up or go down. The piano keeps presenting rising melodic material while the cello insists that descending scale patterns are the way to go. But just as they are about to reach agreement on the matter, a four-voice harmonized chorale-like melody comes to the fore to change the subject. As these two themes are discussed throughout the movement a kaleidoscopic series of modulations keeps the conversation colourful.

 

Thomas Adès
Lieux retrouvés

Thomas Adès must surely rank as Britain’s leading contemporary composer, and one of its most imaginative – ever. This contention is amply demonstrated by his tour-de-force Lieux retrouvés, written for Steven Isserlis in 2009 as a co-commission from the Wigmore Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival and Carnegie Hall.

Adès is a great fan of Marcel Proust, whose perfumed prose captured like no other French writer the essence of moments in time and places visited. Each of the four movements of Lieux retrouvés (places rediscovered) conjures up in Proustian style an authentic sense of place, to create a concert piece that Steven Isserlis readily admits is one of the most technically challenging he has ever attempted.

This work has garnered the unstinting praise of critics such as Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who wrote: “The purely musical elements of the work are what grabbed me: the rippling figures for piano and cello that spin out in crazed, cyclic riffs; the crystalline piano harmonies that sound as if wind were rustling the chimes in a pagoda; the feisty, industrialized propulsive bursts in the finale.” (New York Times, 21 March 2010)

Steven Isserlis describes it this way: “What can one say about this extraordinary work? Not only can Adès’s work as a whole not be categorized, even this piece cannot be pigeon-holed in any way. He takes influences from everywhere—from Offenbach, from jazz, from the French baroque, even from minimalism—and creates his own individual language within this one composition.”

Thomas Adès describes the work as follows:

“Les Eaux. The movement of the waters is recreated in flexible fluid counterpoint which eddies and flows according to how each line responds to the other current, whether in similar forward motion or opposition, or swirling around, or inside, an obstacle.

“La Montagne. In three parts: first, a harmonized tune marked “Tempo di Promenade”, presented in canon with itself at two different speeds. Then, a Ländler-trio with a new tune. Finally, the return of the Promenade tune of the first part, also eventually in canon, with the trio tune superimposed. There is a short coda of mountain air and then a flag is planted in A major.

“Les Champs. Slow movement.”

To which Steven Isserlis adds: “The slow movement takes us to a peaceful field at night, the animals at rest, their breath rising to heaven – rather riskily represented by the highest notes I’ve ever had to play lyrically.

Thomas Adès continues:

“La Ville – Cancan Macabre. Liszt wrote a marvellous late piano piece called Czárdás Macabre. This however is a galop, taking the most famous galop – Offenbach’s Cancan – as a model. There is also a Trio section, entirely in a high register.”

 

Robert Schumann
Adagio and Allegro  Op. 70

Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 was written in 1849, and for horn, not for cello. Intended as a piece of Hausmusik (art music written to be performed in a domestic setting by amateur performers), it sought to take advantage of recent advances in instrument design that had allowed the horn to play in precise semitone steps by the use of valves.  This, of course, is not a problem for the cello, violin or oboe, which are listed on the title page of published scores as alternate instruments for the piece.

Marked Langsam, mit innigem Ausdruck (slowly, with intimate expression) the Adagio is written in the sentimental Biedermeyer style of the period, with numerous languid sigh motives built into the melodic line and a frequent exchange of loving phrases between the instruments.

The love-fest gets an abrupt wake-up call, however, when the Allegro breaks out, marked Rasch und feurig (fast and fiery). Here the cello has its work cut out for it to reproduce the piercing fanfare timbre of the horn. But Schumann’s scoring of the piano part allows the solo instrument to shine when it needs to while providing a palette of rich harmonic support rising up from the bass regions of the keyboard. This is especially true in the contrasting middle section where the solo instrument gets to sing out in its mid-range as it recalls the introspective mood and tender tone of the opening Adagio.

 

Johannes Brahms
Sonata No. 2 in F major  Op. 99

The Sonata in F major Op. 99 is an adventurous work combining the restless energy characteristic of the young Brahms with the lyrical luxuriance of the composer in his mature years. Composed in the summer of 1886 while the 53-year-old Brahms was vacationing in the Swiss countryside, it breathes the clean fresh air of the mountain slopes and often echoes with hints of rural folksong. The sound palette is full and resonant, especially the piano part, which is written with a symphonic sonority in mind.

This is especially true of the orchestral sweep that characterizes the sonata’s opening, with its rich carpet of tremolando figuration in the piano supporting bold fanfares in the cello line, a melody line that seems to be shouting important news in all directions, like a town crier. The second theme, announced by the piano, is by contrast a more smoothly connected melody. The tremolo figuration of the opening is not just sonic filler: it functions as a stabilizing counterfoil to the disjointed character of the sweeping opening theme and plays a major role at the opening of the development section as well. Especially noteworthy in this movement is the magical passage that prepares the recapitulation, a passage in which time seems to stands still as the cello plays tremolo while the piano enacts great leaps from the bottom of the keyboard to the top.

The Adagio affetuoso second movement in simple ternary form carries the major emotional weight of this work. It opens with a procession-like tune in the piano setting the scene for the cello to emerge in full-throated glory, singing out a richly chromatic but ever-so-lyrical melody that shows off the instrument to advantage in its high range. A middle section in the minor mode gives the piano a place in the sun, as well, but the pool of light on the stage in this movement goes to the cello, which returns in the third section to wax lyrical once again, enveloped by an even more lavishly decorative piano accompaniment.

If the second movement belongs to the cello, the propulsive energy of the following Allegro passionato scherzo is driven by strongly assertive piano writing. Cresting and subsiding in waves of sound, the opening section builds up sound resonance through the frequent use of pedal tones in the bass combined with a constant chatter of eighth-note motion above. Adding to the intensity of effect are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms, and syncopations that recall the opening of the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. Where the cello emerges more clearly is in the trio middle section, in which it hums a wistful melody configured in simple note values. Its irregular phrase lengths suggest the influence of folksong, but a number of odd melodic turns indicate that it has more on its mind than it is letting on.

The sonata ends with a fourth movement rondo much in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83. Gentle and tuneful, its principal theme alternates with a short series of contrasting episodes, none of which spoils the overall mood of contentment that characterizes the movement as a whole.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

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