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Program Notes: Faust Queyras Melnikov Trio

Ludwig van Beethoven
Kakadu Variations in G major Op. 121a

Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations comprise an introduction and 10 variations on a popular theme from the Viennese stage. It has a compositional history that extends over more than two decades, with a first version of the work likely dating from around 1803. By 1816 Beethoven had had another look at it and enlarged the slow introduction considerably. Then finally, just before its publication in 1824, he added a spiffy fugal section to balance out the architecture by giving more weight to the final variation. Stylistically, then, this work is something of a three-layered musical cake, with contributions from his early, middle(ish) and late style periods.

The slow introduction is a dramatic set-up for the entrance of the variation theme, but at almost a third of the duration of the entire work, it certainly takes its time getting there. Filled with dynamic surprises, pregnant pauses, and echo effects, it projects a mood of mystery and expectation—one that is totally undercut, mind you, when the ditsy little main theme makes its anticlimactic arrival.

Ich bin der Schneider Wetz und Wetz (I am the tailor, whet and whet) was the hit tune from The Sisters from Prague, a popular stage work that debuted in Vienna in 1794. Its simplistic harmony and catchy melody—remarkably similar to that of Papageno’s aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s Magic Flute—made it instantly popular. Indeed, this aviary association may well account for its popular title Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (meaning cockatoo). Or perhaps it was just that in Viennese dialect Wetz und Wetz (imitating the repetitive actions of blade sharpening) had sexual connotations that made the phrase a bit too racy to perform in front of children.

The variations that follow this chipper melody are remarkable for the number of trio members going AWOL. Variation 1 is for piano alone. Variation 2 is performed by violin with piano accompaniment while the cellist files his nails, and Variation 3 is scored for cello and piano, allowing the violinist time to check her cell phone for e-mails. Variation 7 has no piano part at all: it is merely a string duo between violin and cello. Other variations, however, make up for this absenteeism with an abundance of lively three-part contrapuntal discussion. Variation 9 combines the customary minore variation with the traditional Adagio, harkening back in tone to the work’s slow introduction, but with a more sustained sense of Neapolitan-style pathos and lament.

All the more jolting, therefore, is the galumphing ‘Farmer John’ jollity that opens the last variation, a jollity that soon transforms, with little notice, into a full-on fugal exposition in the minor mode. Simplicity reigns in the end, however, as the strings and piano play cat-and-mouse with each other, trading scraps of the theme back and forth until it comes time to wrap things up with a rousing swirl of figuration in all instruments.

During the long gestation of this work, Beethoven remained true to the funhouse mood of the melody he was treating, but he could have had no idea of the extra chuckles he was unwittingly preparing for future listeners. An irregular distribution of smirks throughout the hall will identify audience members of a certain age who recognize at the end of Variation 4 an anticipatory reference to Monty Python’s I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No. 2

The first performance of Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No. 2 took place in Vienna at the home of Countess Marie Erdödy in December of 1808. The intimate setting of the work’s premiere and its dedication to the Countess herself may account for the gentle tone that characterizes its four movements. Notable in its formal layout is the lack of a deeply emotional slow movement, the inner core of the work being comprised instead of two allegrettos.

With its square symmetrical phrasing and decorative piano textures, the compositional style of this trio is distinctly ‘retro’, looking back to the period of Mozart and Haydn, with the formal procedures of Haydn, in particular, being an important point of reference.

The work opens with a slow introduction—a Haydn trademark—that demurely introduces each of the three instruments in turn. The triplet pulse of the following Allegro gives the two principal themes of the movement a mildly dancelike character, the first full of skips and hops but coyly inflected with little sigh motives, the second more flowing but with a waltz-like lilt that only gets more pronounced in the development section. A Haydnesque surprise awaits in the recapitulation when the piano’s sparkling forays into the keyboard’s highest register are interrupted by a sudden reprise of the slow introduction, setting the tone for the movement’s quiet close.

The Allegretto second movement is a set of double variations, a formal pattern much used by Haydn, in which variations of two contrasting themes alternate throughout the movement. Beethoven’s two themes are in contrasting tone colours, the first being in a primly demure C major, the second in a peasant-stomping C minor. Both, however, are united in their desire to hop away quickly from the downbeat, either with the ‘Scotch snap’ figure that opens the movement or with any number of variations of it that occur throughout.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the third movement Allegretto ma non troppo was by Schubert, not Beethoven. Its concentration on simple, singable melody, devoid of contrapuntal distraction, is what one would expect from a Schubert impromptu. But here, once again, Beethoven is looking back, not forward, with a melody taken from the Largo of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88.  A middle section featuring stark antiphonal responses between piano and strings prevents this honeyed melody from becoming cloying in the ear.

Beethoven ends his trio with an extroverted and chattery finale in sonata form, brimming with busy-bee scale motifs and a constant patter of bustling chuffa-chuffa accompaniment patterns. There is an almost Brahmsian weight to this movement that derives from the extraordinarily wide range of tone coming from the piano, which both plumps up the ensemble’s sonority with rich cushions of sound from the deepest reaches of the keyboard and sugar-coats it with ear-tickling sparkle in the highest register.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in B-flat major Op. 97  “Archduke”

Beethoven’s last piano trio, completed in 1811, is a monumental work dedicated to his longtime friend, patron, and only composition student, the Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), youngest son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Laid out in the conventional pattern of sonata-form first movement, scherzo and trio, lyrical slow movement and rondo finale, its extraordinary length allowed Beethoven to think musically at a symphonic scale in the traditionally more compact genre of chamber music.  It also permitted him the scope to engage in a sumptuous play of instrumental sonorities, writing the violin part unusually low, the cello line uncharacteristically high, and allowing the piano unfettered access to the sparkling upper reaches of the keyboard.

The work opens with a serene and relaxed piano melody based structurally around the B-flat major chord, a melody both noble and tender. This melody’s further elaboration by all three instruments reveals distinctively Beethovenian touches of dissonance in the harmony that add a countercurrent of ‘grittiness’ to the placid surface emotion being evoked. In contrast to the triadic first theme, the second theme is a prancing little pattern of repeated notes that soon mellows into a liquid flow of scale figures traded between instruments and the exposition ends with a flourish of fanfares and cadencing trills.

The development section, where drama and conflict is expected, is remarkably calm and lyrical, meditating at length over the opening motive of the movement before becoming obsessed with the second theme’s scale figures in an ear-catching texture of piano trills and pizzicato strings. The recapitulation arrives unobtrusively out of a soft blur of pianissimo trills. Indeed, understatement appears to motivate the entire movement and it is only at the end of the coda that all instruments join forces to glorify the opening theme with a triumphant burst of jubilation.

By contrast, Beethoven is not about to let the following scherzo pass by unnoticed and digs deep into his bag of mischief in structuring this more-than-quirky movement. Its scherzo theme is a rhythmicized scale rising up over the space of an octave, answered by a similar scale descending the same distance. What could be simpler? But then, like a cat that has caught a mouse and lets it go a short distance before catching it again, Beethoven toys with this scale, letting it venture out in small steps but always pulling it back home.

His dark humour is let off the leash, however, in the trio section, which begins with a slow fugato creeping up the chromatic scale like a swamp creature crawling out of a lagoon to scare the local population. Good thing the swamp creature brought his dancing shoes, though, for the rollicking Austrian ländler tune that soon breaks out on shore. It’s quite a musical menagerie, this scherzo, but by means of convincing transitions and juxtapositions Beethoven manages to make all three musical motives seem like neighbours celebrating together in the same village square.

Ingenious as the scherzo is, the real gem of this trio is the Andante cantabile variations movement that follows. Its elegiac hymn-like theme is humbly offered up by the piano, richly harmonized in the low register before being received into the warm embrace of the strings. The magic begins right away in the first variation with an evocation of  star-gazing wonder on a clear summer’s night as the piano paints twinkling points of light over a wide range of the keyboard. Each variation that follows becomes more animated until finally the theme is recalled in its original setting and lovingly remembered in a rhapsodic duo between violin and cello over gently pulsing triplets in the piano.

The rondo finale, that immediately follows without a break, sends us home with a spring in our step. This movement’s upbeat refrain theme, with its bouncy and buoyant stride bass accompaniment, has a cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness about it that almost suggests French café culture, but the muscular punchy episodes that sandwich its recurring appearances remind us that we are here firmly on German soil. In the end, the movement’s lighthearted devil-may-care mood turns to sheer giddiness with a tarantella-like race to the finish line.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

LEILA GETZ: HATS ‘ON’ TO TWO EXTRAORDINARY MUSICIANS!

Following their incredible journey through the Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas in three concerts for the Vancouver Recital Society, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov were anxious to blow off excess steam and see something of Vancouver before they left for their next engagement in San Francisco.

So I, as the tour guide, and Allison Hart, one of the concert sponsors and the driver for the tour, set out with the musicians on Sunday after they had changed and packed up. We headed down to Granville Island where the plan was to take them on a quick tour of the market before driving through Stanley Park, and then continue on to West Vancouver, where we were to meet the rest of the Beethoven Project sponsors for dinner.

At Granville Island we re-fueled the musicians with strong coffee and literally ran around showing them the wonders of the market. Then, we walked over to the Net Loft into the craft gallery where Alexander made a purchase. Isabelle walked across the corridor and spied Edie’s Hat Shop. “Oh,” she said, “I love hats!”  In we went. The young salesman pointed out that the store would be closing in three minutes, to which Isabelle responded, “Oh, you may not want to close in three minutes as you have some serious customers!”

As it turns out, Isabelle has the perfect head and face for hats. Every single one she tried on looked fabulous on her. Meanwhile, Alexander (who is a HUGE fan of Fred Astaire) asked whether they carried Top Hats. And of course, as you can see from the photograph, they do!

We left Edie’s hats 45 minutes later having purchased a total of 6 hats among us. Now there was no time to drive through Stanley Park, but we were wide awake from our hat shop adventure and decided to wear our hats to dinner. We turned a few heads, and had a wonderful dinner.

Is this really why artists so enjoy coming to Vancouver? 

PROGRAM NOTES: THE BEETHOVEN PROJECT


Ludwig van Beethoven

The Ten Violin Sonatas

Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more appeared by early 1803, making a fairly compressed time span for a medium in which Beethoven was to write just one more in 1812. All but the tenth were written before the composer was 32 years of age. Yet all of them, to varying degrees, show Beethoven straining at the reins that in his early years still tied him to the genteel world of eighteenth-century classicism.

Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was usually the case with eighteenth-century works of this type, but it was hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. In these ten sonatas, Beethoven explores the ways and means of combining two voices of unequal sound mass into a dramatic partnership and coherent unity, “a colloquy of reciprocal enrichment,” in Louis Biancolli’s words.

Beethoven was renowned in Vienna for his prowess as a pianist, but he was also intimately familiar with the violin. He had taken lessons as a youth in Bonn, and later, at the age of 24, he sought further study with Ignaz Schupannzigh in Vienna. Hence, Beethoven was in an ideal position to explore the expressive potentialities and technical challenges of the violin as well as of the piano, some of which may sound “easy” to the casual listener, but which even today demand superior musicians to do them justice. Violins were undergoing changes in construction during Beethoven’s lifetime (longer neck, fingerboard and strings; higher bridge; greater tension on the strings), resulting in greater range and volume of tone. These did not go unnoticed by Beethoven, who made steadily increasing technical demands on the instrument.

Concertgoers wishing to delve deeper into the intricacies of these sonatas can be directed to books written by two of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Joseph Szigeti (The Ten Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin, 1965), and Abram Loft (Violin and Keyboard, Volume II, 1973).

Program 1 (May 26, 8:00pm)

Sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1

Right from the opening of the first sonata, there is a vigour and urgency to the music nonexistent in the many violin sonatas of Mozart and his contemporaries. Furthermore, there are numerous unconventional key relationships and excursions into remote tonalities. Notice that the violin, not the piano, first presents the lyrical theme that immediately follows the opening gesture. As for the new-found energy and urgency of the music, one can point to but a single pause for breath in the entire first movement (at the repeat of the exposition). The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set, while the finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and which incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.

Sonata no. 2 in A major, Op. 12, no. 2

“Where’s the beef?” Some concertgoers may remember this catchy slogan used for a promotion by a hamburger chain some years back. Similarly, one might well ask, “Where’re the themes?” in the first movement of Beethoven’s second violin sonata. In fact, there really aren’t any. Themes and melodies are not what this movement is “about.” Clearly, however, it is not the meagre musical material Beethoven works with that sets the sonata’s musical standard, but rather how he manipulates it. Not one listener in a hundred is likely to fault Beethoven for lack of a nice tune, such is the music’s jocular tone, harmonic sideswipes, impish humour and fascinating interplay of violin and piano. The slow movement is based on a lyrical, melancholic theme in A minor. Each of its two parts is announced by the piano, then repeated by the violin. The concluding movement is a high-spirited rondo with frequent humourous touches.

Sonata no. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, no. 3

The third sonata features a sense of grandeur, power and majesty found in few other works of Beethoven’s early years. In addition, the piano writing is often of near-heroic proportions, by far the most substantial in the first three sonatas, and scarcely equalled in any of the subsequent sonatas. The violin is far from idle, but much of the piano work might just as well have been channeled into a sonata for solo piano. The second movement constitutes the emotional centre of gravity in this sonata. This is the first adagio we encounter in the traversal of these sonatas, and one of the finest slow movements in early Beethoven. To Abram Loft, it is music of “wonderful, timeless tranquillity … a lovely bouquet, fragrant with gracious melody and luxuriant turns and roulades.” The finale is a rollicking, joyous rondo with a catchy if hardly distinctive main theme. Frequent contrasts of dynamics and register are a constant feature of the movement.

Sonata no. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer)

The ninth of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano is the grandest and most impressive of them all. It is by far the longest, is the most difficult, contains the richest textures, and to a greater extent than any other, puts both musicians on an absolutely equal footing throughout. Beethoven originally wrote his Kreutzer Sonata for a man named Bridgetower, but they had a falling out and Beethoven dedicated it instead to a certain Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the work and even called it “outrageously unintelligible.”

Of the ten sonatas, only the Kreutzer has a slow introduction, a feature usually reserved for grand, imposing works Throughout the opening movement the violinist is called upon to execute numerous chords in triple and quadruple stops (playing across three and four strings simultaneously). The theme of the Andante con variazioni, the longest movement in all ten sonatas, is lofty, elegant and noble in its simplicity. In the finale, the rapid, nearly continuous rhythmic pattern of long-short-long-short belongs to the tarantella, a dance that originated in Italy and, according to legend, served to counteract the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider.

Program 2 (May 27, 11:00am)

Sonata no. 6 in A major, Op. 30, no. 1

Op. 30 dates from1802, the year Beethoven began sketching the mighty Eroica Symphony, a work as far removed as could be imagined from the pervasive geniality and charm of the first of the Op. 30 sonatas. But the two works share a common characteristic in the compositional process at work in their opening subjects. In the sonata, piano and violin share the material, with each hand of the piano part a separate element in itself. This means there are actually three strands of melodic material at work, intertwining and coming together to form a coherent whole. Similarly, in the Eroica, cellos, violins and winds all contribute individual melodic strands to the complex first subject. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement is in ternary form, with the outer sections distinguished by the persistent dotted rhythm (long-slow-long-slow), the inner portion by gently rippling triplets in the accompaniment. The final movement is a theme and variations set in which violin and piano take turns in presenting the melodic strands of the theme.

Violin sonata no. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2

Without question, this sonata is one of the grandest in the violinist’s repertory. It is a work of drama, passion, power and almost symphonic scope. The key of C minor immediately alerts us to music of serious import. Of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, this is the “biggest” in feel and scope. It is also one of just three (Nos. 5 and 10 are the others) to boast four movements rather than the standard three.

The first movement opens with a darkly mysterious, almost menacing subject divided into several epigrammatic components, a subject eminently suitable for development later on. The strongly contrasting second subject in E-flat major, march like yet playful, is introduced by the violin. The slow movement is one of heavenly beauty. The scherzo movement truly lives up to its title (“joke”) – witty, playful, full of rhythmic quirks and rough humour. The finale returns to C minor and, unusually for a large-scale work that opens in the minor tonality, finishes in the minor as well. Relentless dramatic tension and emotional strife mark this uncompromising movement.

Sonata no. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no. 3

This has been dubbed the “charmer” of the Op. 30 sonatas. Like many other works in G major, it breathes the air of unspoiled nature, untroubled emotions, lively spirits and gaiety. Indeed, Beethoven composed the sonata during the pleasant summer days he spent in the beautiful woods outside Vienna at Heiligenstadt.

The first movement is in standard sonata form with two themes in contrasting keys, a development section and a recapitulation. The central movement is neither slow nor a minuet (Beethoven specifies the tempo of a minuet, not a minuet itself). It consists of a series of slightly varied restatements of the opening subject, all set to music of enchanting loveliness and rococo grace. The final movement, a rondo, bubbles along with vivacious good humour and a strong suggestion of a peasant’s bagpipe droning away in the bass.

Program 3 (May 27, 3:00pm)

Sonata no. 4 in A minor, Op. 22

Abram Loft assesses the A-minor sonata in these terms: “In no other Beethoven sonata will the duo find a greater challenge to its sense of drama, of timing, of musical repartee … It is one of the most exciting pieces that amateur or professional can play.”

There is much that is unusual about this sonata. It is one of just two in a minor key (the seventh in C minor is the other) Its relentless first movement is in 6/8 metre, unusual for an opening movement of a sonata, as is the tempo marking of presto. Still another unorthodox point to note is the introduction of a new theme (in F major) within the development section, and still another one (in A minor) at the juncture of the development and recapitulation. The playful second movement is neither a slow movement nor a scherzo, but combines aspects of both and supports three full themes. The rondo finale returns to the driving momentum of the opening movement, its urgent main theme, always initiated by the piano, returning frequently and unvaried while in between statements of this theme are found a wealth of episodes contrasting in mood, texture, key, dynamic level and register.

Sonata no. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (Spring)

In the Spring Sonata of 1801, we see Beethoven poised on the threshold of his second-period style. He has still not completely bid farewell to the genteel world of Classicism – graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance – yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and vigour, a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation.

This is the most popular of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. It opens with a flowing theme of spontaneous lyricism and gentle radiance, suggestive immediately of the freshness and beauty of spring that has earned the sonata its nickname. The second movement is deeply felt, so much so that some listeners find in it an anticipation of some of Schubert’s most expressive pages.

Op. 24 is Beethoven’s first violin sonata to have four movements. The “extra” movement is extremely short (barely a minute), but it perfectly bridges the sublime simplicity of the second movement and the gracious lyricism of the finale. The finale is a more or less conventional rondo.

Sonata no. 10 in G major, Op. 96

A gap of ten years separated Beethoven’s tenth and final violin sonata from his ninth. The biggest differences between this sonata and its predecessor – easily observed when the two are played in tandem, are its more intimate and restrained tone, gentler sonorities, and the avoidance of drama and heroics.

Like the Kreutzer Sonata, the first movement of the tenth contains three themes, the first of which is imbued with the gentle warmth and grace. The slow movement presages Beethoven’s late style – an adagio of ineffable beauty and restrained exaltation. Here, writes violinist Abram Loft, the players are “as close to paradise as one can approach in this world.” The short and jocular Scherzo in G minor brings us down to earth from the rarefied heights of the previous movement. The finale is a theme and variations movement. The theme has a folksy quality, and proceeds with a gentle swagger in unbuttoned (Beethoven liked the term aufgeknöpft for such music) good humor. Beethoven toys with our expectations as the music makes little detours through changes of tempo and ventures into new harmonic regions, as if the composer were reluctant to bid farewell to his last violin sonata.

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