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PROGRAM NOTES:PAUL LEWIS (CONCERT 1)

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI: 50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London in 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso, Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi that Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by musicologist Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say, “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

But a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops with which it opened, but now with new frilly ornaments, the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication of “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those of his aristocratic audience whose eyelids might be drooping.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic hairpin turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly gets lost on the way.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Six Bagatelles Op. 126

Throughout his career Beethoven found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience member knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some he published in collections, such as his Seven Bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119, which Paul Lewis will be playing at his spring recital next year, came out in 1823.

The Six Bagatelles of Op. 126, though, were more than just a collection: they were a matched set, conceived of as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. More importantly, the set constitutes Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they were no mere baubles. Composed at the same time that he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that typifies his late style.

Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing paired with a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, along with a willingness to write his contrapuntal voices several octaves apart. Beethoven, the architect of massive great formal structures, shows himself in these pieces to be equally a master of the miniature, deftly creating an immediate impression with his opening gestures and developing his motives with unfettered originality.

No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is a noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section.

No. 4 in B minor has character and personality in spades. It contrasts a strongly driven contrapuntal opening section with a dreamy section that alternates with it. No. 5 in G major is quietly expressive, its continuous pattern of triplets gently varied by syncopations across the bar line. No. 6 in E flat opens and closes with a riotous churn of piano sound that sandwiches a much more poised in main section. This section starts out like a barcarolle, but then drifts off to explore a wealth of musical ideas, some of them coy and playful, others verging on pure sound theatre.

Johannes Brahms
Sechs Klavierstücke Op. 118

Brahms’ late 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.

Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces of 1893 are intensely concentrated representatives of the composer’s late period, with all the classic features of his compositional style: motivic density, rippling polyrhythms, an intimate familiarity with the lowest regions of the keyboard, and above all, an ability to create musical textures of heartbreaking lyrical intensity richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. All but the first are in a clear ternary A-B-A form.

The opening Intermezzo in A minor, arrives as if in mid-thought, a musical thought of restless harmonic change and heavy melodic sighs riding atop a surging accompaniment that constantly threatens to overwhelm the very melodies it accompanies.

The second Intermezzo sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded. Its opening phrase eventually yields to its own melodic inversion and its middle section is woven through with canons.

The Ballade in G minor is the most extroverted of the set. Its heroic and vigorous opening section is contrasted with a gently undulating B section that, despite its tender lyricism, can’t help but dream in its own lyrical way of the opening bars.

In the Intermezzo in F minor, a simple repeating triplet figure echoing back and forth between the hands gives rise to canons that play out through the whole texture. Even the poised and elegiac middle section, with its bass notes plumbing the very bottom of the keyboard, unfolds in canonic imitation, just as the opening.

The Romanza sounds vaguely archaic, as its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode. Its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

The Intermezzo that closes the set is enigmatic. Proceeding at first in whispers over a rolling carpet of arpeggios originating deep in the bass, it gathers forcefulness in its middle section, revealing in its spirit of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahm’s ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40

Haydn’s Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40 is the first of three keyboard sonatas written in 1784 for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each sonata in the set is a two-movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young princess for lighter fare.

The G major Sonata’s first movement is a set of double variations, alternating between major and minor. Its Italian marking Allegretto innocente promises a theme of the utmost naiveté – and Haydn does not disappoint. The movement opens with a lilting tune of a pastoral character in 6/8 time, modestly proportioned and tastefully ornamented – the sort of thing that shepherdesses, and princesses, might delight in humming to themselves.

What follows is a study in character contrasts. The major variations noodle around the flowing 8th notes of the theme in lively patterns of 16ths, but the minor variations seem to be their evil twin. Concentrating instead on the detached notes of the theme, they use off beat accents, chromatic harmonies, extreme dynamic contrasts and sudden rhythmic accelerations to create moments of high drama.

The Presto finale is a gleefully zany romp that opens with two sections of mischievous scamper in the right hand over a steady pulse of chordal harmony in the left. After an episode of minor-mode drama in which the two hands fence for control of the narrative, the scampering sections return in full force. Haydn’s trademark wit shines through with deadpan silences, diversions to unexpected keys, and an absolutely preposterous cadence featuring a chirping crush-note in the high register comically answered by a booming echo in the bass, three octaves below.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: GEORGE LI

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: THE VERONA QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
Quartet in B at major Op. 50 No. 1

The art music of Western Europe underwent a period of transition in the mid- 18th century as the thickly embroiled scores of the Baroque, with their long spun-out melodic lines and constant harmonic churn, gradually yielded to the clearer textures, symmetrical phrases and slower harmonic rhythms of
the emerging Classical era. Haydn was one of the chief architects of the new musical style and a new musical genre, the string quartet, played a leading role in its propagation.

As an ensemble of smoothly blended stringed instruments, the quartet naturally lent itself to an equality of part-writing that Haydn exploited to create engaging musical ‘conversations’, with phrases that asked questions answered by phrases that replied to them, and featuring instruments that led the discussion while others ‘listened’ in sympathetic accompaniment.

In Viennese circles the string quartet was an all-male ensemble of wealthy amateurs and professional musicians who, like the madrigal singers of the Renaissance, made music in private for their own enjoyment. The exclusive nature of the gathering, along with its masculine sensibility, meant that in- jokes and prankish humour, of a sort that Haydn was particularly adept at concocting, were a much-appreciated element of the style. The exchange of knowing smiles and impish smirks between players was evidently a major feature of the evening’s entertainment.

Few works embody this ideal of connoisseurship like the set of six quartets Op. 50 that Haydn wrote in 1787, dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and known as the Prussian quartets. They could just as easily be called the Seinfeld quartets for their quality of improvising musical theatre out of nothing – out of mere scraps of melody and memorable fragments of rhythm.

Witness the opening Allegro movement of the first in the set, the Quartet in B at, in which the entire discursive content is laid out sequentially in the first 8 bars: the pulsing of a single low pitch by the solo cello, a cute little up-and- down gure that cadences after it’s just begun, and the same up-and-down gure cast in triplets. From these pulsing, cadencing & triplet motives alone Haydn creates an entire sonata-form movement: a monothematic movement (as was oft his wont), since his second subject, in triplets, derives directly from the triplets of his first. So seamlessly interwoven, in fact, are the motivic and formal Lego pieces of this movement that modern scholars are still at brickbats about just where the recapitulation begins.

In the Adagio non lento theme and variations, the accent is on decoration. The theme is an assemblage of small motivic gestures with many coy leaps, set in a siciliano rhythm. The following three variations and coda lace the theme with ever-more-frilly garlands of accompanimental ligree, with the lyrical core of the movement residing in the operatically-inspired central variation in the minor mode.

The Poco Allegretto minuet & trio displays a subtle quirkiness in its metrical dissonances, with a triplet-vs-duplet tussle evident in the very first statement of the theme. Accented off-beat entries and sliding chromatic lines add to the dizziness, but the sparkling highlight of the movement comes in the clever hiccuping of the 1st and 2nd violin lines in the trio.

The Vivace last movement is a bustling, high-energy romp in the spirit of an opera buffa finale, with lively contrapuntal exchanges between the instruments and hairpin changes in direction alternating with addle-brained moments of comic indecision and goofy episodes of daydreaming. Built on a simple downward arpeggio pattern, it is another monothematic sonata-form movement, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, with its veer pattern of recurring refrains.. Don’t be fooled by the apparently final-sounding cadence in the recapitulation. It’s a ruse! Haydn puts in a gran pausa, a full two-bar rest, to make you think the movement is over … then merrily begins again to lead the work to its real conclusion.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quartet No. 7 in F# minor Op. 108

The worlds of Shostakovich and Haydn were poles apart, as different as 18th- century Vienna and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Soviet ideology celebrated national folk music and looked down on elitism in art, so merely writing a string quartet, with its origins in the salons of the Viennese aristocracy, risked labelling its composer as a cultural dissident. And yet Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets in his career and there is no shortage of critical commentary that interprets them as products of their political environment.

Shostakovich’s chromatically wandering melodies seem to be searching in numb bewilderment for their place in the natural tonal world, and never really nding it. The lack of harmonic drive, the sparse textures, and generally low dynamic range seem to symbolize a kind of social alienation that is easy to map onto the daily life of citizens living under a repressive regime.

Another view, however, might see the composition of these string quartets as escaping the pressures of Soviet society rather than typifying them, as retreating to an abstract world of formal compositional practice in a direct line of descent from Haydn. Because for all their moonscape strangeness, the string quartets of Shostakovich are written “the old-fashioned way”: with identifiable musical motives developed within an imitative contrapuntal texture that lls out a large-scale formal plan – the very essence of Haydn’s string quartet language.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, written in 1960, makes a strong case for this view, so tightly is its construction based on the development of its clearly marked musical motives. The work is structured in three movements played without a break, in a large-scale cyclical design, its last movement almost entirely based on transformed materials from the first two movements.

It opens with the solo 1st violin playing a seemingly carefree series of 3-note gures, chromatically tripping down the F# minor scale to end in a 3-note ‘door-knocking’ rhythm on one note – a rhythm that permeates most of the movement, even the buoyant second theme announced by the cello. The opening scalar descent is soon developed in pizzicato triplets, ever dogged by the door-knocking rhythm, which o ciates even in the slow coda at the end of the movement.

The Lento second movement demonstrates how Shostakovich keeps his textures starkly simple and easy to grasp in the ear. In this movement he places a rhythmic ostinato in the mid-range while motivic and thematic play alternates on both sides of it. He begins with a roaming 16th-note pattern of noodling in the 2nd violin, over which the 1st violin intones a searingly intense, but chilling cantilena, soon passed to the cello in its high register. The mid- range murmuring then changes to a di erent kind of ostinato, in a constant dotted rhythm, as ghostly melodic phrases alternate above and below.

The stage is now set for the finale, which swallows the motives of the previous two movements whole and spits them out in radically new guises. This last movement is in two sections: a violently aggressive Allegro followed by a more re ective Allegretto. It opens with the series of tripping 3-note gures that began the quartet, inverted now into a de antly set of ascending gestures climbing up the scale. Soon the innocuous noodlings and dotted gures that had murmured in the background of the second movement burst into the foreground at volume as the two-part subject of a teeth-gritting fugue, at the climax of which the 2nd movement’s searing melody emerges, followed by the original descending gures from the 1st movement and their culminating ‘door-knocking’ triplets.

Taking the movement to its conclusion is an Allegretto that pores soothing oil on these troubled waters, still using materials from the previous movements, but with its slower pace and almost waltz-like musical character leading the movement to an enigmatically quiet coda much like that of the first movement, now experienced as a final bookend to the work as a whole.

Maurice Ravel
Quartet in F major

Comparisons between Debussy and Ravel are inevitable when thinking of French impressionism and the string quartets of these two composers – Debussy’s of 1893 and Ravel’s of 1903 – provide an unusually fertile ground for such comparisons. Both works exhibit a feeling for the exotic in their use of modal melodies and cozy harmonies chosen for their colour rather than their drive to arrive at a cadence. Both relish unusual textures and timbres (e.g., the pizzicato-dominated scherzos in both) and the use of a cyclic design that sees the same themes recur between movements.

But whereas Debussy’s world is more dreamlike and motivated by free association, Ravel’s more clearly focussed and formally controlled. The willingness to oat in an ever-changing moment of timeless rêverie
is uppermost in Debussy, the crystalline sense of order and classical craftsmanship is stronger in Ravel.

Ravel reveals himself to be the compositional master of the iron (formal) hand in the velvet (timbral) glove especially well in his Quartet in F major, with its layout in the four traditional movements of classical practice: a sonata-form opening movement, 2nd movement scherzo and contrasting trio, a lyrical 3rd movement, and rondo-ish finale.

Two contrasting themes motivate the formal procedures of the gently-paced first movement: a thoughtful, musing first theme introduced at the opening by the 1st and 2nd violins, and a second more introspective second theme played by the 1st violin and viola together two octaves apart. The development section sets these themes against a plush background of quivering tremolos that contribute mightily to its climax and the recapitulation is a paragon of balanced repetition, being almost a carbon-copy of the exposition. Notable in the movement’s soothing coda are the cello’s 10 bars of consecutive parallel perfect fifths (!), a harmonic practice banned in traditional harmony.

The scherzo is a kaleidoscope of colourful musical e ects: pizzicato timbres, shrieking high trills, and alternating patterns of 3/4 and 6/8 meters, suggestive of both Spanish folk-dance rhythms and the complex overlays of a Javanese gamelan ensemble. The slower, almost morose trio middle section repurposes previous melodic material to create a kind of a casserole of broken musical pasta pieces before hinting at, then diving into, a repeat of the opening section.

The third movement is a deeply lyrical rhapsody in many sections, with sinuous, sensuous melodies (many recalling previous movements) set against a number of evocative timbral backdrops. The stillness of night is almost palpable in this movement, although an underlying passion lurks deep beneath the trembling sonic foliage, a passion that nds expression in the movement’s throbbing climax.

The finale is a kind of rondo, alternating urgently propelled circling motives in quintuple meter (5/8 and 5/4) with calmer, more lyrical sections in 3/4 that nostalgically remember themes from earlier movements. Tremolo in this finale is not used as a mere background accompaniment, but rather as the main source of propulsive energy driving the movement to its exultant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Jeremy Denk

Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808

Bach’s keyboard suites are a remarkable amalgam of the florid keyboard idiom of the French, the lyrical gift for vocal melody of the Italians, and the sober contrapuntal rigour of his fellow Germans. The suites which posthumously (and illogically) came to be labelled “English” were composed sometime before 1720 and are thought to be his earliest keyboard dances.

In imitation of French practice, Bach begins his third suite in the set with a Prelude, but written in the style of an Italian concerto grosso, with motoric rhythms driving relentlessly forward in a non-stop rush of 16th notes, during which the opening pecking motif not infrequently pops its head above the fray.

A more conversational tone is offered in the following Allemande with left and right hand trading the same material back and forth, thematically inverted in the second half. The Courante is a marvel of contrapuntal bravura, with its three self-confident voices pursuing independent melodic objectives while the underlying rhythmic pulse often “goes duple” on its nominally triple 3/2 time signature.

The rhythmically stark but harmonically rich outlines of the Sarabande are simply made for ornamental in-fill and Bach provides his own ornamented version for each   half of this intense, but sombre interlude. As galanteries, the optional dances inserted between sarabande and gigue, Bach offers a major-minor pairing of gavottes, the most rhythmically dancelike pieces in the set. A quietly droning Gavotte II in the major mode is sandwiched between twin renditions of the merrily twinkling Gavotte I in the minor, while the Gigue finale serves up a toe-tapping two-voice fugue that, like the Allemande, turns its theme on its head for the second half.

 

William Byrd
Ninth Pavan and Galliard from Lady Nevell’s Book

Western music’s first great genius of keyboard music was the English court musician William Byrd. It was he who first established the idea of a rhythmically regular, harmonically-based contrapuntal keyboard idiom that the Baroque era went on to adopt as its own. The collection of his best early pieces, copied in manuscript for the music-loving Lady Nevell in 1591, is a compendium of the major genres of instrumental music of his day and includes a number of dances in the traditional pairing of pavane and galliard.

The pavane was a solemn, snooty, and minimally aerobic processional dance in duple time, unlikely to require a lathering of deodorant amongst even its most fanatical practitioners, while the more athletic galliard in triple metre was quite the stuff of sweatbands and lululemon stretch pants: all leaps, jumps and hops.

Byrd structures his Ninth Pavan and Galliard as a set of variations on the bass line and implied harmonies of the well-known Italian dance, the passamezzo, hence its anglicized moniker “Passing Measures”.

 

THE MUSIC OF RAGTIME

In the late 1890s a new genre of piano music arose in the United States that combined the syncopations of African-American dance music with the formal proportions, orthodox harmonies, and rhythmic beat of a John Philip Sousa march. The almost comical pairing of a chuckling right-hand melody constantly bobbing in and out of synch with a straight-up oom-pah beat in the left produced a delightfully off-kilter, ‘ragged’ sense rhythm that gave the new genre its name: ragtime.

Being essentially a written genre, fully composed in score and distributed in sheet music, ragtime thrived in the period before the arrival of radio broadcasting. Gradually supplanted after WWI by a more improvised style of jazz, it experienced various nostalgic revivals, most prominently in the 1970s when Marvin Hamlisch’s score to the hit film The Sting (1973) re-popularized the music of Scott Joplin.

Stravinsky’s quirky-jerky Piano Rag Music (1919) is more cubist in inspiration, presenting characteristic fragments of the ragtime genre (syncopation, stride bass) in a succession of modular blocks with irregular metres and jagged angular melodic gestures until it settles down into an eerie ostinato-fuelled impression of a broken music-box. This is Picasso’s grand piano descending a staircase.

“You want syncopation? You can’t handle syncopation!” is what Paul Hindemith seems to be saying in his thuggishly muscular Ragtime, the last movement of his Suite 1922 composed in—well, guess the year. Creating a rat-a-tat sound-world that foretells the tumultuous final pages of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata (1951), he suits up the ragtime genre as Robocop-on-Red-Bull, instructing the performer to “play this piece wildly, but always very strictly in rhythm, like a machine.” Be prepared to take cover.

Sunflower Slow Drag (1901) is a collaboration between Scott Joplin and his younger contemporary (and in-law) Scott Hayden. It displays many of the features of the classic piano rag, with a four-bar introduction and a syncopated melodic line alternating octaves and single notes, driven relentlessly onward by colourful chromatic inflections in the harmonic texture.

Conlon Nancarrow’s favourite musical structure was the canon, a fancy word for a round (think: Frère Jacques, Row, row, row your boat). He was especially fond of prolation canons, in which identical melodies run at different speeds, as in the second of his Canons for Ursula written in 1988 for the American pianist Ursula Oppens (b. 1944).

The 379 bars of this canon feature two voices percolating along at speeds in the ratio of 5:7 (this is not a piece for the math- challenged musician). The left hand enters first, at the “5” speed, followed by the right hand 69 bars later at a slightly peppier “7” rate of progress, dropping out 39 bars before the end, so that in this Pythagorean version of Aesop’s Tale of the Tortoise & the Hare, the hare wins, hands down.

American composer William Bolcom’s touchingly intimate Graceful Ghost Rag (1971) was written in memory of his father. With its unusual minor-key colouring and Brahmsian moderation of pace, it achieves an aching poignancy in a genre generally known for its upbeat mood and restless rhythmic bustle.

Donald Lambert was among the finest exponents of Harlem stride piano, with a southpaw savvy that left his fellow musicians agape in admiration. His uniquely personal 1941 arrangement of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser accomplishes the impossible. It manages to replace that swelling in the breast, that urge to stand up and salute the flag that Wagner’s stirring anthem seldom fails to inspire, with the contrary urge to sit down, loosen your collar, and order a cocktail. There’s a reason why this piece comes just before the intermission.

 

Franz Joseph Haydn
Fantasia in C Major Hob. XVII:4

Haydn’s C major Fantasia (1789) is not only one of his most virtuosic piano works— with its runs in double thirds, octave glissandi, and volleys of Wimbledon-speed hand-crossings between registers—it is also one of his wittiest, as well. When not arpeggiating its way across vast swathes of the keyboard, it divides its time between a bouncy repeated-note motive as a first theme and a second thematic idea in cheery horn-fifths.

Structured as either a ‘rondo-ish’ sonata or a ‘sonata-ish’ rondo, it upsets formal expectations at every turn with quick dives down the rabbit hole into unexpected keys followed by surreptitious chromatic creepings back up to tonal ground zero. Its sudden and rapid changes of dynamics between forte and piano are the perfect dramatic foil for the work’s almost laughably long pauses, during which pianists of whatever degree of comedic gift will have only sidelong glances and Kabuki eyebrow theatre with which to keep their audiences enthralled.

 

Robert Schumann
Carnaval Op. 9

Robert Schumann’s kaleidoscopic mini-drama of scenes from a masked ball, composed in 1834, features a colourful cast of the real and imagined characters that dominated his personal and artistic life. There are stock characters from Commedia dell’ arte (Pierrot, Harlequin, Pantalone, Columbine), his two love-interests (Ernestine von Fricken & Clara Wieck), fellow musicians (Chopin & Paganini), and even the two sides of his own split personality (dreamy Eusebius & extrovert Florestan). Completing the line-up is the patriotic marching band of the Davidsbund (League of David), the youthful defenders of ‘real art’ and sworn enemies of fossilized musical culture.

Cleverly woven into the score are cryptographic clues equating alphabetic letters with the names of musical notes (in German notation). Thus Asch (Ernestine’s home town) is spelt out in the pitches A-Eb-C-B, and the composer’s own name, S-C-H-um-A- nn is represented by Eb-C-B-A.

As we enter the ballroom we hear the Préambule’s proud fanfare, followed by the sounds of bustling guests, fragmentary waltzes, and the breathless excitement of the masked revellers. The first character we meet is Pierrot, the sad clown. His downcast mood is rendered in chromatic wanderings regularly interrupted by a jolting three-note figure as he perhaps keeps stubbing his toe. The nimble Arlequin (Harlequin) then enters with a display of ac- robatic leaps and comic tumbles until the time comes for the first waltz, a Valse noble, grandiloquent and gracious by turns.

But who is that standing off in the corner? It’s Eusebius, languorously musing to himself—until his flip-side, the passionately sociable Florestan, emerges talking a mile a minute of this and that, ever the charmer. A Coquette flirts into view, her fan all a-flutter, tossing her head back as she fills the room with coy laughter. Ah, now a suitor has pulled her aside with his Réplique (reply) to her provocative glances, pleading his amorous attentions against the backdrop of her silvery laugh.

Meanwhile the Papillons (butterflies, i.e., revellers) are whirling about the room at breakneck speed. Even the letters ASCH— SCHA begin to dance out their cryptic messages, until Chiarina (Clara) strides imperiously into view with a grave and haughty waltz. Chopin takes to the keyboard to restore calm with an achingly poetic melody over swimming arpeggios, but then Estrella (Ernestine) makes her entrance, setting the room a-boil once again. The heart of every swain is now set beating at the thought of winning her Reconnaissance (acknowledgement).

But what’s this? The lecherous old Pantalon and Columbine, Pierrot’s girlfriend, are playing out a comic scene. Why is he chasing her around that table? No matter, a seductive Valse allemande (German waltz) draws everyone to the dance floor, interrupted briefly by Paganini who offers an impromptu display of his dazzling pizzicato technique before the waltz returns. Meanwhile, sitting apart, a suitor whispers his intimate Aveu (confession of love) to a young woman, who very much likes what she is hearing.

Whew! What a press of people. Time for a Promenade out in the garden for a bit of people-watching amid the curious who stroll and the stand-offish who strut. But a commotion breaks out during a Pause in the dancing. In comes the paramilitary youth wing of the League of David in a Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins, to the spluttering dismay of the Old Fogey faction, stung at being labelled “Philistines”. They quickly get the orchestra’s bass players to strike up the dusty old Grandfather’s Dance that traditionally ends such festivities—a tune simultaneously being parodied by these impudent youngsters in the treble—but to no avail. The upstarts want the ball to end musically as it began, with the music of the Préambule, and they get their way, triumphant to the end.

Donald G. Gislason 2015

 

 

Program notes: Sir András Schiff

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 60 in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI:50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London of 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi whom Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a distracted husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say: “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

Nonetheless, a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops it opened with, but now with new frilly ornaments, in the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements, in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of different textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those whose eyelids might droop.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic wrong turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly ends up making a wrong turn.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, exist in a world of their own, governed only by the formal rules they themselves invent for their own unfolding. The Sonata in E major Op. 109, despite its three-movement structure, may be thought of in two halves. First comes a complementary pair of emotionally contrasting movements, both in sonata form, played together without a pause, the first a dreamy star-gazing fantasy in moderate tempo, the second a frighteningly focussed agitato of nightmarish intensity. The emotional volatility of these two movements is balanced and resolved by the poised and serene set of variations which serves as the sonata’s finale. These variations are based on a melody of such quiet dignity that they virtually erase all memory of the emotional wanderings of the previous movements.

The compression of form of which Beethoven is capable in his late works is evident in the first movement, the exposition of which is complete in a mere 16 bars. It opens with a melody buried within a delicate tracery of broken chord figuration that flutters innocently as if floating suspended in the air. It has barely breathed out its first two phrases and is moving to cadence, when it is interrupted by a disorienting diminished seventh chord that leads nonetheless to a lovingly lyrical duet, adagio espressivo, between left and right hand. But this second theme only has time to sing out a few bars itself before breaking out, cadenza-like, into a keyboard-spanning series of rapturous arpeggios and scale figures. And then the exposition is over, on the first page of the score. The development deals exclusively with the broken chord figuration but with the melody line more clearly exposed, and builds to a climax for the return of the opening material, presented this time with the hands at the extreme ends of the keyboard, after which a coda extends the dreamlike reverie.

The expansive mood of rhapsodic wonder is brought quickly down to earth, however, when E major changes to E minor and the second movement, marked Prestissimo, stomps defiantly into the ear. This is no scherzo: there is no trio, no contrast of mood. The development section may murmur sullenly, but this is only a momentary lull before the defiant tone of the opening, flickering with menace, returns to close the movement in the same uncompromising spirit in which it began. Remarkable in this movement is the way in which Beethoven manages to express such extremes of emotional violence within a texture so starkly ruled by the strictures of imitative counterpoint.

This is not a coincidence. The musical spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach has been hovering over this sonata since it began. The broken chord figuration of the opening movement looks back to similar homogeneously ‘patterned’ textures in the preludes of Bach, and the movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in the concluding movement, we encounter a variation melody characterized by an almost religious serenity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

Beethoven is not attempting to rehabilitate the outdated styles and procedures of the Baroque, but rather enriching the music of his own time with the density of musical thought typical of that bygone
era. And as Sir András has so aptly pointed out in his Wigmore Hall lecture on this sonata, it would be difficult to think that Beethoven was not inspired by the example of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when constructing his own for this sonata finale. The recall of the simple, unadorned theme at the end of Beethoven’s sonata has the same commemorative resonance as this same gesture at the end of the Goldbergs. Not to mention the textures of many of the variations that parallel those found in Bach’s famous set.

The first variation is not one of them, however. There is no hint of contrapuntal interest in this Italian opera aria for keyboard, marked molto espressivo, with its elegantly expressive melody and clear bass-and-chord left-hand accompaniment. Variation 2 lightens the texture with a hocket-style alternation of the hands that presents the harmonic and melodic outlines of the theme in interlocking 16th-note flashes of sound, similar to the texture of the Goldberg variation 20 and the second variation of Beethoven’s own sonata of Op. 26 (first movement).

The yeast of Baroque ferment comes overtly to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in double counterpoint, with the right and left hands regularly swapping melodies in the course of presenting the theme. Variation 4 moves the time signature to 9/8 for a change of pace to present a full four-voice texture of imitation, much in the style of Goldberg variation 3. The contrapuntal impulse emerges even more clearly in the more strictly structured imitative texture of Variation 5, richly suggestive of similar textures in Goldberg variations 18 and 22.

Beethoven’s own synthesis of old and new emerges in the final variation, which moves from a simple chordal statement of the theme to a gradual accumulation of rhythmic energy that finally emerges into a texture of whirling trills and flecks of melody flickering in the high register, before a simple re-statement of the original theme ends the sonata in a mood of spiritual peace.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C major K.545

There is a reason most piano students know this sonata. It is listed in Mozart’s own personal catalogue of his works as being für Anfänger (for beginners) and its unpretentious texture of scales, broken chords and Alberti basses, not to mention the choice of the simplest possible key (C major, with no black keys), seem to confirm Mozart’s intention to write a small-scale piece that would be ideal for teaching the musical novice the basic building blocks of keyboard technique.

But because this is Mozart (and not Czerny) the level of musical sophistication in this sonata is noteworthy. The first movement opens with a melody of the utmost simplicity, its outlines based on the three notes of the major chord, which issues into a series of rising and falling runs. These runs, however, cleverly mask the fact that the opening theme and the transition to the second theme are merged together, so that the second theme area, in G major, seems to arrive in the most natural manner possible. This more perky theme leads to a series of harmonic sequences in broken chords which summon up general agreement that a cadence would now be in order and the cadencing pattern chosen is one from which a closing thematic motive in rocking arpeggios emerges to end the exposition.

Nothing to wonder at, one might suppose, unless of course you happen to notice that the second theme is constructed by inverting the melodic outline of the the first, and that the closing theme is merely a rearrangement of the notes in the broken-chord sequences that preceded it. No, nothing to notice here.

The development immediately takes up the rocking arpeggio figure and goes minor with it, to provoke the appropriate level of eyebrow-knitting concentration that a good, roiling development section is wont to inspire. Advanced beginners in the class will no doubt notice that the recapitulation begins in the subdominant (F major) instead of the C major tonic. But is it such a bad thing to give students a little practice in a different scale pattern, one requiring their 4th finger to hit a
B flat on the way up, as well as on the way down? Pedagogical minds with hearts that beat for the general welfare of their pupils think not.

The second movement Andante is a three-part song with a development section in the middle, all ticking along over the steady rhythmic guidance of an Alberti bass in the left hand throughout. It seems gifted with an endless supply of variations for the scant few melodic and rhythmic patterns that characterize its theme, the triadic outline and dotted rhythm of which (just between us) make it a sibling to the second theme of the first movement. The middle section, which is more like the B section of a Baroque da capo aria than a real sonata-form development, dips into the shade of the minor mode to mull over a few more serious thoughts but fails to stay there long and the sunshine of the major mode soon returns to end things off with a rosy- cheeked smile.

The last movement, a miniature rondo of diminutive proportions, features a symmetrically structured playful theme alternating with two intervening episodes. As is common in Mozart, the episodes are not entirely contrasting in thematic material as the little imitative hops of the opening theme seem to keep poking their heads in the door at every opportunity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D. 958

In September 1828, as Schubert lay suffering the debilitating effects of the tertiary syphilis that would fell him only two months later, he managed a feat of compositional prowess that speaks to the steely will that coexisted with the delicacy of sentiment in the personality of this Viennese composer of distinctly bohemian habits of life. The 130 manuscript pages of his monumental three last piano sonatas, the Sonatas in C minor, A major and B flat major (D. 958-960) were all produced within this single month.

The Sonata in C minor D. 958 is undoubtedly one of his most serious works, for which he chose the key associated with so many of the greatest achievements of his idol Beethoven, at whose funeral he had served
as a pallbearer the previous year. C minor is the key of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the Symphony No. 5 and the great Piano Sonata Op. 111, as well as the 32 Variations in C minor from which the defiant opening subject of this sonata is quite obviously derived. But while Beethoven’s mind bent ever towards compactness and density in musical expression, it was Schubert’s gift to stretch, extend and elaborate his musical material in a poetic search for its inner psychological meaning.

This he does with telling effect when he transitions the uncompromising stance and abrupt rhetoric of the sonata’s opening pronouncements into less heroic territory to prepare for his lyrical second subject in E flat major. Here is where Schubert’s ability to ‘orchestrate’ on the piano is most evident. The repeated pedal tone in this simply harmonized melody, at first confined to the alto, soon shines out in the treble like a beacon of hope over all that passes on beneath it. But E flat major soon turns to E flat minor in a sprightly and slightly wicked variant of this theme.

The development begins in an expansively modulatory frame of mind, ranging widely through various keys until its interest settles on a distinctly un-settling voice of small range and ominous import in the bass, that ruminates and builds, marked with the rhythmic stamp of the opening chords to prepare for the recapitulation. This motive recurs again in the coda, emerging into the light of day in treble octaves that carry its worrisome preoccupations to the final bars of the movement.

The second movement is one of the few genuine adagios that Schubert wrote, given as he was to more moderate- tempo slow movements. It unfolds in a 5-part scheme of alternating themes in an A-B-A-B-A pattern. These themes are of opposing emotional valence, however, the first exuding elegiac tranquillity, the second more disquieting in its deliberations. Each is elaborated in a series of different textures, which only increases the emotional distance between them when they are juxtaposed in this way. The Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata seemed to have been an inspiring point of reference in the elaboration of this movement.

The restless Menuetto that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. Dance-inspired enjoyment seems impossible to achieve as each successive idea is undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in irregular phrase lengths, as a small deviation into the minor mode, or in mysterious pauses, as if the flow of emotion were cut off in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale. Here the spirit of the dance is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling, but strangely ominous rondo with the developmental features of the sonata. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback, of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig, and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short bursts of melodic ideas are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

 

 

 

Program notes: Doric String Quartet

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2

Those of us wondering in our spare moments what a happy retirement consists of might do well to consider the case of one Franz Joseph Haydn, whose life in the years 1796-97, when his collection of six string quartets Op. 76 was written, offers a model of retired bliss. The period of the 1790s saw Haydn’s official career as an active court composer for the Esterhazy family drawing to a close and his status as an international musical celebrity take flight in earnest. After two tours of England (1791-92 and 1794-95), he returned to Vienna a wealthy man, free to compose whatever he wished, whenever he wished, and his writing for string quartet bears the marks of this newfound personal liberty.

The six quartets of Op. 76 are widely regarded as the supreme accomplishment of Haydn’s career as a string quartet composer. They fulfill Goethe’s wish that a string quartet be a “civilized conversation between four independent personalities.” And yet they are more than that.

The personal stamp that Haydn put on these works prefigures tendencies which would later characterize the work of his young student, Beethoven. The first
 of these was a new level of seriousness in musical expression. No longer was Haydn’s audience presented with music of such courtesy and deference that it could easily be thrust into the background of the social setting which it graced. This was music that demanded the full concentrated attention of its listeners. Emblematic of this new seriousness was an increased use of the minor mode, a denser fabric of motives in the musical texture, and a general shifting of the centre of gravity in sonata- form movements towards the development section, where the ‘churn’ of motivic interplay dominated the proceedings.

All of these tendencies are on full display in the second of the Op. 76 quartets, nicknamed the ‘Fifths’ quartet in recognition of the intensity with which its falling fifth motive echoes throughout the first movement (occurring more than 100 times, by a rough count). Indeed, the degree to which it keeps occurring throughout the entire exposition, like a gravy boat continually passed around a table of dinner guests, has caused scholars to disagree on just where the ‘second subject’ begins, if there is one at all. And the development section only increases the density of motivic reference by adding inversions and strettos into the mix. With falling fifths ricocheting off every wall, the need to ‘re-introduce the theme’ to the listener is reduced and so the recapitulation is short, but a coda of renewed developmental vigour (also to become a Beethovenian characteristic) keeps tension high till the final emphatic chords.

A relaxed and gracious second movement, a theme 
and variations, offers an opportunity to lower the 
blood pressure somewhat. Yet within the diminutive confines of this simple theme, Haydn finds a wealth of possibilities for variety and tonal interest, dipping now and then into the minor mode and providing many a florid vamp at the top of the texture for the first violin. Attentive listeners will also notice a few sly references to the first movement’s falling fifths.

The third movement Minuetto returns to the minor mode, which along with Haydn’s use of severe contrapuntal procedure (its outer sections being in strict two-voice canon), has earned this movement
its own nickname: the Witch’s Canon. Who knew that witches were so learned? The austerely elegant minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 provides an interesting precedent for such an intensely contrapuntal, minor-mode take on this courtly dance. But then again, it might well be that Haydn is simply sending up the genre rather than offering a demonic variant of it.

The trio provides much needed relief in the major mode, but brings playful surprises of its own in the form of
a clock-like tick-tocking, as rhythmically rigid as the framing opening and closing sections are melodically severe, and an almost gypsy-like alternation between the major and minor mode.

All pretense of gravitas is abandoned in the last movement, however, which unfolds in a rollicking sonata-form movement with many a coy pause along the way. Even the minor mode has lost its tragic edge here in favour of a Mendelssohnian-style merry scamper that finally comes out of the closet to end the work in a bright and buoyant D major.

 

THOMAS ADÈS
The Four Quarters Op. 28

The multi-award-winning British composer, pianist
 and conductor Thomas Adès is a towering figure in contemporary music. A major factor in his success is that despite the modernity of his musical language, he writes from inside, and from well inside, the classical tradition, always anchoring his listener’s attention in some element of the aurally familiar. One finds within his works clearly defined melodies walking abreast with lively contrapuntal side-chatter. Musical connoisseurs will raise an eyebrow of discerning interest to discover canons and ostinati pulsing within his most embroiled textures, even while their toes prove unable to resist tapping in the face of repeated rhythmic invitations to the dance.

And he writes in the traditional genres of the classical canon. His list of works includes operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, pieces for solo piano,
and choral anthems. His sonorities, moreover, are full and resonant but, like those of Stravinsky, elegantly transparent and easy to ‘parse’ in the ear.

One never has the suspicion, when listening to his music, that he is trying to evoke the sound of an SUV driven, in tragic error, through the plate glass window of a Tim Horton’s, or to broadcast the unfiltered sonic output of radio waves received from deep space by the Hubble telescope. These things Mr. Adès does not attempt. And a grateful world thanks him for his restraint.

The crowning virtue of his compositional creed is that he composes entirely for natural instruments, without resorting to the sort of electronic gadgetry and digital trickery that have become such a blight upon the aural landscape of our time. He seeks to ‘update’ (to use his term) traditional music-making, not destroy it, nor supplant it with technology. When in need of new orchestral sounds, for example, he prefers to have his musicians scrub a washboard, rattle a bag of metal knives and forks, or lower a vibrating gong into a bowl of water rather than have them twiddle a dial, tap an electric foot-pedal, or slouch over a laptop as if absorbed in a computer game.

The Four Quarters was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and was premiered there by the Emerson Quartet in March 2011. The work takes as its subject the passage of time during a 24-hour period, with each of its four movements, or ‘quarters’, evoking a distinct time of day.

We start our journey in the late evening with a movement entitled Nightfalls, a curious plural of mysterious import. The sound of the strings, played at the opening without vibrato, is as raw as the night is dark. While the mood is meditative to begin with, the sudden dramatic contrasts of loud and soft that follow hint at the unsettling presence of things that go bump in the night.

The second movement Serenade: Morning Dew suggests in its opening pizzicato section the arrival of water droplets on the fronds and leafy limbs of outdoor plant life, and hints in its bowed sections at the glints of sunlight arriving with the dawn of a new day.

Days, another curious title in the plural, brings us to noon and beyond. Largely structured around a syncopated ostinato rife with repeated notes in the second violin, it builds to a climax in which all instruments play in unison before trailing off as they head their separate ways.

The Twenty-Fifth Hour is an impossible time of day, a fact given whimsical acknowledgement in its almost- impossible time signature: 25/16, which is divided up into repeating sections of 2/4 + 3/16 and 2/4 + 6/16. The simple dance-like quality with which it begins belies the treacherous difficulty of the alternating harmonics and stopped notes that generate its ‘yodeling’ timbral charm. The movement churns to its conclusion in the second half over throbbing sustained double-stops in the cello that nudge the increasingly acquiescent and peaceable musings of its non-knee-held colleagues ebbing towards a soft but nonetheless shocking (for contemporary music) conclusion: a major chord.

 

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130

Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, written in 1825, is a massive work comprising six movements and lasting
a good three quarters of an hour. It is also considered one of the most head-scratching, enigmatic works in the classical canon, one that has baffled musicologists and music theorists to this day.

The aspect of the work most responsible for uniting fingernail to hair follicle in a scratching motion is the last movement, the so-called ‘Great Fugue,’ a work of such formal extravagance that it moved Beethoven’s publisher to tactfully suggest that the composer might wish to replace it with something a tad more … digestible. Which he did, in fact, writing a traditional finale for the first publication of the quartet in 1826 and leaving the original Grosse Fuge to be published separately as his Op. 133.

This evening, however, the work is being performed according to its original conception and there is much to recommend this decision. For all its small-scale difficulties (the bizarre dynamic markings, changes in metre and abrupt changes in tone and mood) the large- scale shape of this work, as originally conceived, is clear. While it may be a hard nut to crack, the nut is clearly divided into an intellectually engaging outer ‘shell’ (the first and last movements) and a meaty inner ‘core’ of rewarding musical ‘nuggets’ (the four movements in between).

The two outer movements are really musical hybrids, ‘fantasies’ masquerading as more serious musical forms: the first movement is in ‘sonata drag’ while the last is
a fugue at a masked ball, changing masks faster than a flirt changes dance partners. These outer movements are colourfully ‘contrasty’ (to use Joseph Kerman’s term) while the four inner movements are remarkably uniform, each picking a single mood and sticking with
it. The outer movements flash with the dazzling charm of the fast card trick while the inner movements grab the heart in an ever-closer embrace of simple nourishing emotion.

It’s quite a ride, this quartet. So here is your dance card.

The first movement begins with a question of musical etiquette. The slow introduction to a sonata-form first movement as used, for example, in Haydn’s Symphonies 101 and 104, or Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 7, is meant to ease you gently and solemnly into the sound world of the piece you are about to hear, which normally takes off like a scalded cat once this introductory function is fulfilled. It’s like an usher who shows you ceremonially to your seat and then leaves you to enjoy your evening’s entertainment, never to be heard from again. Said usher is not expected to sit down beside you and interrupt every time a stray thought enters his head.

And yet, that is just what the slow introduction to this movement does. No sooner have you left behind the tender musings that open the work, and you start to follow the spiffy tumbling 16th-note figures of the movement’s first subject, than the slow introduction pops up again after a few bars to say ‘You know, I was just thinking …’ and then promptly disappears again. Very odd. Anyone who has sat beside a talkative stranger of questionable marble-count on public transit will know just how awkward these situations can quickly become.

But no matter, the exposition finally gets underway in earnest with a vigorously pursued agenda of constantly chattering 16ths which finally give way to a slower, more vocally-inspired second subject in longer note values. At the traditional repeat of the exposition, however, up pops your slow-introduction usher again to show you to your seat (the one you are already occupying) as if the two of you had never met. Within the frame
of expectations of the sonata-consuming public, it all seems like some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, an impression reinforced when the slow introduction returns to seat you yet a third time for the development section.

By now, however, this is the least of your problems. The development section that follows is one of Beethoven’s strangest. A ‘development’ is normally the place where all the musical washing is done as the preceding thematic material is sudsed up right proper and put through the contrapuntal wringer. But this development section is the least active segment of the whole movement, seeming more like an eerie moonwalk of trance-like calm, numbly self-absorbed in its own obsessive rocking rhythm.

And yet a perfectly normal recapitulation sets you back on familiar ground. But just as things are
drawing to a close, here once again comes the slow introduction interrupting every effort to keep the music moving forward, until finally cooler heads prevail and the musical conversation comes to a rousing conclusion.

All this might seem the height of musical impudence, but Beethoven has done this before, in one of his earliest works. His Pathétique Sonata in C minor,
Op. 13, features a slow introduction that occurs, and interrupts, in exactly the same three places within 
the first movement. A new twist on an old trick? It is quite possible that Beethoven, in melding the sectional surprises of the ‘fantasy’ genre onto the staid moorings and weight-bearing architecture of the traditional sonata, is having just a wee bit of fun here, playing peek-a-boo from behind the pillars of this musical structure, as it were, in the style of his teacher Haydn, the pranksterish inventor of the ‘false recapitulation’.

The much more straightforward inner movements begin with a furtively whispered Presto that gives every indication of wanting to be a full-on scherzo in ternary form, but its ‘trio’ middle section provides little by way of contrast. Despite its minor-mode seriousness and breathless heartbeat rhythm, the mood is more determined than grim, yet even that may be just a pose. Its quick, double-hairpin dynamic markings add a humorous ‘leering’ quality to the phrasing that the written-out glissandos in the 1st violin almost push to an open giggle of glee.

The charm offensive begins in earnest in the 3rd movement Andante, where we find ourselves more than halfway to the Viennese whipped cream that Brahms serves up in his most sumptuous slow movements. The wonderfully unbuttoned easy-breathing melody that begins in the viola and then
is taken up by the 1st violin evokes a pleasant walk in the park, the walking pace reinforced by a constant metronomic tick-tock in the accompaniment. The occasional jarring note squealed out by the 1st violin, as if someone had just pinched his bottom, reveals, perhaps, the meaning of the indication Poco scherzoso at the beginning of the movement.

The 4th movement Alla tedesca takes lilting to a whole new level in its ever more sophisticated textural treatments and melodic variations of a nostalgically simple tune, reminiscent of a waltz. Its charm is such that if there is one tune you will be found humming
in the shower tomorrow, it’s this one. A little game of ‘Who’s got the theme?’ arrives at the end, with each instrument taking a single bar of the tune (and not even in the right order) to round out the movement on a note of wit and whimsy.

We arrive at the warm beating heart of this quartet in its 5th movement, the operatically named Cavatina, and what a wellspring of operatic emotion it is. You can easily visualize the scene, with a single pensive character inhabiting a pool of light in the middle of
the stage. Beethoven confessed that he could never think of this movement without weeping, and the score bears every mark of the emotion he felt: the low tessitura of the two violins, the sigh motives on first beats of the bar, the reluctance to cadence, and, above all, the unrestrained pathos of the section marked Beklemmt, in which the 1st violin breaks away to sob openly in front of its companions.

This Cavatina was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on the Golden Record placed on the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977, meant to convey the heights of human achievement to whatever intelligent life form might find them.

The Grosse Fuge last movement, by contrast, has seemed to many to have charted the opposite path, arriving to us on earth from somewhere deep in outer space. Indeed, musical analysts with cranial cavities considerably larger than that of the present writer have spent many an hour that could more profitably have been spent sorting laundry in an attempt to understand what are referred to as the ‘problems of continuity’ in this movement, as if its overall form constituted some sort of compositional speech impediment that needed to be excused or explained.

Perhaps it is the sheer scale of this movement, in all dimensions, that so baffles the musical pundits. Was the great composer responding to an inner voice asking: “Would you like to supersize that fugue?” The movement occupies fully one third of the quartet’s entire length, and its range of expression is nothing if not extreme, with dramatically large leaps peppering the melodic outline of its fugue subject, and dynamic indications such as ff, f and sf profusely scattered throughout the score, sometimes on every beat for pages on end.

Worse still, the question of musical etiquette posed
in the first movement seems to have progressed into
a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder,
given the way the piece opens. There was, after all, no tradition of starting a fugue with a slow introduction, or an introduction of any kind whatsoever. And yet
as the finale opens (under the grandiose name of Overtura) we are served up a series of short thematic statements, each abandoned immediately after a single phrase, like someone changing TV channels with the remote every 5 or 6 seconds. Each short phrase is in a different rhythm, and has a different character.

First comes (a) a bold, strident declaration in half notes comprising an odd mix of gaping intervals and stepwise motion, ending in a trill, then (b) an almost flippant, skippy-dippy version of the same melodic intervals, but in a triplet rhythm, then (c) a more soothing placid variant of these, then (d) the same melodic intervals again, chopped up and separated by rests, before the arrival of (e) a jagged-edged, wildly leaping fugue theme, using the ‘chopped up’ theme as its countersubject.

Has Beethoven gone barking mad? Crazy like a fox, I would say. When starting out on a movement of such breathtaking length, what better way to prepare the listener for the arduous road ahead than to provide a ‘table of contents’ indicating the various transforms of the theme to be encountered along the way?

In writing this ‘fugal fantasy’ Beethoven not only treats his material according to standard fugal procedures (stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc.), he combines these with the processes of sonata development, as well, creating as wildly different versions of his melodic material as he can devise, and announcing the major variants at the outset. Then, just as he did in the Fifth Symphony, he proceeds in the course of the movement to delete notes from his theme to make it splinter into shorter and shorter fragments, until finally the texture is reduced to a series of duelling trills, like two dogs snarling at each other in a dispute over a bone.

The result is an uninhibited virtuosic display of compositional mastery, an 1812 Overture of intellectual fireworks unique in the literature of Western music.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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