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Program Notes: Nicolas Altstaedt

Henri Dutilleux
Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher

Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (1906-1999), founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, was an immensely important figure in 20th-century music. With a family fortune based on a controlling share of the Hoffman-LaRoche pharmaceutical empire, he commissioned works from some of the century’s greatest composers. These commissioned works include Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra, Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.

In 1976 Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich set about to celebrate Sacher’s 70th birthday by commissioning new works for solo cello from 12 of the Western world’s leading composers: Conrad Beck, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Wolfgang Fortner, Alberto Ginastera, Cristóbal Halffter, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Klaus Huber, Witold Lutosławski … and Henri Dutilleux.

Each piece was to use the dedicatee’s name spelled out ‘musically’, i.e., with each letter representing a musical pitch – Es being the German notation of E flat, H being B natural and R (re in the language of solfège) as D. The spelled out musical motive to be used was therefore:  E flat-A-C-B flat-E-D.

In his works Dutilleux had a tendency not to introduce his thematic material in complete form right away but rather to slowly unveil it, as he does at the opening of the first movement of his Trois strophes. First we hear E flat, then E flat-A, then E flat-A-C-B natural, and then finally the entire series of pitches making up the ‘musical spelling’ of the name Sacher. He also likes to ‘anchor’ his musical gestures around stable recurring pitches, from which his gestures depart and to which they constantly return, as is the case in this movement with the augmented 5th B flat – F# at the bottom of the cello’s pitch range. (The cello’s normal range extends down only to low C, but for this work Dutilleux has the instrument tuned down to low B flat.) Near the end of this movement he introduces a short quotation in quivering 32nd-note double-stop tremolo from Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, yet another work commissioned by Sacher.

The second movement, marked Andante sostenuto, explores the rich low register of the cello, but for most of its duration only hints obliquely at the intervals making up the musical spelling of Sacher’s name, which is revealed in six bold strokes just before the end.

This musical cryptogram also inspires the Vivace last movement, but it is buried in the intervals of the whirling pattern of triplet 16ths of the opening and in various transpositions and transformations of these pitches throughout.

While the pitches corresponding to the name Sacher may be the point of departure for this work, Dutilleux’s real ‘subject’ in these three movements is the resonance of the cello itself, and the range of possible ways for summoning it up and manipulating it.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor  BWV 1011

The six cello suites were written between 1717 and 1723, when Bach was employed as Kapellmeister to the music-loving Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. But after Bach’s death, they seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century they were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.

All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Intrigued by a 19th-century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began performing them in public and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.

From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world, leading to another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

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The Baroque suite, a collection of dances from across Europe all in the same key, was normally comprised of the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante, the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue. All of the dances are in two-part binary form, with each part played twice. Harmonically, the first part moves from the home key to end in the dominant, with the second part moving back to cadence in the home key again.

Optional dances were often inserted to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. These included the courtly minuet, the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. They often occurred in contrasting pairs, with the first minuet, gavotte or bourrée being played again (without repeats) after the second, to give a rounded A-B-A form to the whole. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.

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Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 is somewhat unusual in having its Prelude in the form of a French overture, i.e. with a slow, pompous and dead serious opening section constructed in phrases that lurch forward in dotted rhythms, followed by a quick section with a fugal texture. Bach’s opening section establishes a mood of gravitas with its triple- and quadruple stops on many of the section’s downbeats. But as for the ‘fugue’ meant to follow, how to write polyphonic music on a single-line instrument? Bach solves this problem by writing such a bouncy, well-balanced and catchy fugue subject that listeners end up ‘hearing’ the other voices in their head.

This is the Central-Bank magic of quantitative easing applied to harmonic voice-leading. It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand.

The Courante employs the same multiple-stop emphasis on downbeats as in the Prelude, but the effect is more dance-like because instead of dotted rhythms this movement uses ‘running’ notes, as its name implies, to keep things moving between points of rhythmic emphasis.

The emotional heart of this suite is its Sarabande, which contains no multiple-stop chords at all, just a steady stream of 8th notes in a single melodic line roving restlessly over more than two octaves of sonic space. While its rhythmic surface is flat, the great leaps and many sighing phrases in its melodic line create a state of continuous harmonic tension as implied dissonances hang in the air, to be resolved only in the final cadence arrived at in each section. This is the art of saying much by saying little. The stark beauty of this movement and its indomitable will to move forward, step by step, no matter the pain, made it the work chosen by Yo-Yo Ma to play on September 11, 2002, at the first anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks, as the names of the dead being honoured were read out, one by one.

The two strong upbeats leading into the following Gavotte establish us firmly back on the rough rhythmic terrain of country dancing. In this and the following triplet-obsessed Gavotte II, a constant 1-2, 1-2 pulse makes counting easy, and toe-tapping inevitable.

The concluding Gigue, with its leap-friendly dotted rhythms, agreeably balanced phrases and easy-to-follow repetitive sequences of melody and harmony, ends the suite in a mood of unbridled merriment, despite the ‘serious’ key of C minor in which it is written.

 

Zoltán Kodály
Sonata in B minor for solo cello  Op. 8

“In twenty-five years no cellist will be accepted into the world of cellists who does not play my piece,” boldly declared Zoltán Kodály of his Cello Sonata in B minor Op. 8. And he was right. When composed in 1915 this work represented the most important contribution to the solo cello literature since the Bach cello suites of the early 18th century. But because of its extraordinary technical difficulty and innovative musical language, it struggled to find an audience until Hungarian cellist János Starker (1924-2013) recorded it in 1939, winning a Grand Prix du Disque for his efforts. And as its fame grew, he went on to record it again – three more times.

The sonata’s roots lie deep in Hungarian folk music, which Kodály had studied in his travels through the Hungarian countryside with Béla Bartók in 1908. Specifically, the Sonata inhabits the sound world of the Hungarian folk lament, with which it shares the same improvisatory feel, parlando rubato (free reciting) performance style, and downward-seeking melodies. Its harmonies are non-functional but rather modal, with a preference for the pentatonic scale. And yet Kodály manages to fit these non-standard features into the formal structures of traditional Western-European art music.

This is a powerful piece, a piece that grabs you by the throat and impresses itself on you. The reason is easy to see. As Kodály says: “What musical features are characteristic of Hungarian music? In general, it is active rather than passive, an expression of will rather than emotion. Aimless grieving and tears of merriment do not appear in our music. Even the Székely [region] laments radiate resolute energy.”

This resolute energy is on full display as the work opens. It begins with two quadruple-stop B minor chords, followed by a defiant theme in a sarabande rhythm, heavily weighted on the second beat of the bar. Motivic elements announced in these opening bars will permeate the movement. The sonata’s second theme is much quieter and features a recurring murmur of neighbour notes that continually shadow its melody lines. The development deals almost exclusively with the first theme and climaxes in an orgy of trills, leading to a recapitulation which, by compensation, deals mostly with the second theme. Each section in this movement clearly opens with quadruple-stop chords, giving a degree of formal clarity to the whole.

The second movement Adagio comes closest in this sonata to imitating the sound of the human voice. Beginning its low lament deep at the bottom of the instrument’s register it is soon accompanied by the echoing ornate melody of a shepherd’s pipe and a plucked low drone, as if from a lyre, that acts as an anchoring pitch for much of the movement. Playing both arco and pizzicato at the same time, the cello imitates a solo voice in company with a fitful instrumental accompaniment. The emotional outpouring reaches a height of improvisatory frenzy in a middle section rife with quivering tremolos and rapidly accelerating figurations, before returning to the darkly contemplative mood of its opening bars.

The third movement Allegro molto vivace is a major test of endurance for the performer. It contains some of the most challenging technical passages in the cello repertoire as the instrument is called upon to imitate a wide range of folk instruments, from the jangling timbre of the cimbalom or hammered dulcimer, to the bagpipes (with drone 5ths in the bass), and plucked instruments such as the lyre. Unfolding as a series of textural variations, it alludes strongly to the repertoire of verbunkos melodies, played by gypsy bands in the 19th century to accompany town recruitment drives into the army. And the ‘flashiness’ of gypsy fiddling is everywhere apparent in variation after variation as this movement drives to its frenetic conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Evgeny Kissin

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata and Fugue in D minor  BWV 565 (arr. Tausig)

While keyboard transcription and political debate might at first blush seem to be radically different fields of endeavour, one justly famous incident on American television stands emblematic of the risks run, in both disciplines, for those who would engage in rhetorical posturing.

In the vice-presidential debate of 1988, the Republican candidate, linguistically accident-prone Sen. Dan Quayle, in attempting to wrap himself in the glory of a martyred former president, made so bold as to cite John F. Kennedy as a model for his own political outlook, only to receive his comeuppance in a stinging riposte from his debate opponent, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

One might well imagine a similar exchange taking place across the centuries between Johann Sebastian Bach and those 19th-century virtuoso pianists daring to claim their own instrument as being in a direct line of succession from the 18th-century church organ and thus a worthy instrument on which to perform his mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565. To such pretenders to the throne of musical majesty Bach might well have replied: “I know the organ. The organ is my friend. The piano is no organ.”

Whether they intuited such a rebuke or not, those attempting this feat of transcription have been legion. IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project, lists no fewer than 11 transcriptions for piano solo, as well as arrangements for the wildest assortment of other instruments. Supporters of the underdog Jamaican bobsled team will no doubt have adopted the version for solo harmonica – seriously, there is one – as their sentimental favourite.

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The appeal of this work is not hard to see. In its pairing of the two contrasting genres of toccata and fugue it offers an opportunity to showcase both brawn and brain: brawn in the toccata’s flashy passages of digital dexterity, and brain in the intellectual rigour of the fugue’s contrapuntal complexity.

The work gained a popular 20th-century audience following its appearance in Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, and its reputation was further enhanced in the 1970s by its starring role in the Dionysian sonic orgies of superstar 20th-century organist Virgil Fox (1912-1980) celebrated in mega-venues with rock concert lighting under the heading “Heavy Organ.”

Its arresting opening gesture, an inverted mordent followed by a dramatic scalar plunge down the space of a diminished 7th, is by now instantly recognizable, even by popular audiences with little knowledge of classical music. As is its fugue theme, a tick-tock moto perpetuo of 16ths outlining the notes of the D minor scale in alternation with a repeated drone tone on the dominant.

On the contemporary recital stage this work is performed by pianists in two well-known versions. The most popular is that of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), an adaptation that attempts to reproduce the architectural acoustic of an organ resounding within the vast echoing interior of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach worked.

The less-frequently-heard version that Mr. Kissin has chosen to play is by Carl Tausig (1841-1871), a student of Franz Liszt. Tausig, a leading proponent of the ‘juggling chainsaws’ school of pianism, created a much heftier, more note-heavy transcription, substantially thicker in sound than that of Busoni. Seeming to believe there was little point in writing one note where four notes would do, his version of the Bach score is more muscularly pianistic in conception. But his ear for the timbral possibilities of the piano is truly impressive. He paints the various sections of the score in a wide range of tone colours unique to his instrument, with their alternation imitating changes in timbral stops on the organ.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adagio in B minor  K. 540

Mozart’s eerie Adagio in B minor (1788) is as remarkable for its choice of key as for its daring use of chromatic harmony. B minor was a key quite sparingly used by composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and likely for very practical reasons. The simple act of modulating to the dominant – the key of F# major, with six sharps – would instantly turn the score into a furry forest of accidentals, eyebrow-knittingly difficult for performers to read, and tricky for orchestral players to tune.

B minor, then, became something of a ‘spooky’ key, evoking abnormal psychological states and foretelling dramatic, perhaps even tragic musical events to come. One has only to think of the Bach B minor Mass, the Liszt Sonata in B minor, the Chopin B minor Scherzo or Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) to get the idea. And in his Adagio in B minor K. 540 Mozart in no way shies away from these associations, but rather leans into them with a will.

A sense of drama is evident right from the start. After a solo melodic line in the right hand outlining the B minor triad, the first harmony chord we hear is a startling diminished 7th, one of many that will occur in the course of the work. What follows is a virtual compendium of the most emotionally expressive rhetorical devices used in the Classical era: plangent appoggiaturas, yearning suspensions, dramatic silences and sudden rapid contrasts of forte and piano dynamic levels.

Although composed in unimpeachably orthodox sonata form, with balanced symmetrical phrases and a motivically concentrated development section, the work seems to ‘lurch’ forward in short quasi-improvised bursts of jagged, instrumentally-conceived melody, as in a fantasia. The lovely operatic-style melodies that often grace the piano sonatas are nowhere to be found.

But most arresting to the ear are the chromatic harmonies used, especially in the development section, which seems to roam mysteriously around in tonal space. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz believed that in this work Mozart pointed the way to the harmonic language later used by Chopin, Wagner and Verdi. He points out how the opening of Mozart’s Adagio parallels the mood, texture and simplicity of the Prelude to La Traviata and this fully justifies a Romantic style of performance for the work.

It will be most interesting to see if Evgeny Kissin agrees.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major  Op. 110

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurkas Opp. 7, 24, 30 & 33

Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi from the melancholy to the exuberant, moods and tempi often boldly juxtaposed in the same piece. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.

The mazurka is in triple metre with rhythmic emphasis ‘fleeing’ the downbeat in short notes to land instead on the second or third beats of the bar, where stomping or heel-clicking gestures often occurred in performance. Drone tones in the bass are sometimes used to imitate the bagpipes and melodies might be written in exotic scales using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major).

The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated one- and two-bar units of rhythm with recurring melodic motives. Repetition is a prominent feature of the genre, especially at the bar and phrase level.

Using these simple ‘rustic’ features of compositional design, however, Chopin manages to compose salon pieces of considerable elegance by creating melodies richly bejewelled with ornamentation, by subtly playing up ambiguity between duple and triple metrical groupings, and by his use of chromatic harmony.

The boisterous Mazurka in B-flat major Op. 7 No. 1 opens with the ‘dotted downbeat’ typical of many mazurkas. The wide leaps in its melody line seem at times to land on the ‘wrong note,’ giving the impression of a drinking song sung by a tipsy reveller. The contrasting middle section, with its drone 5ths in the bass and oriental-sounding scale patterns in the treble, seems to come from another world.

Polish soulfulness is at the centre of the Mazurka in G minor Op. 24 No. 1, which unfolds in the manner of a daydream. Its reflective tone is given an Eastern European flavour by the augmented 2nds in its minor-mode melody line. Intimations of the dance do occur in passages in the major mode, but they are more nostalgic than joyous.

The Mazurka in C major Op. 24 No. 2 is a village celebration with many characters. First, we hear the band warming up in a series of I-V chords, with open 5ths in the bass, rocking back and forth to establish the key.  Then a high whistling flute or fife chirps out a bird-call kind of tune answered by the band in four-part harmony. Lilting dance melodies sprout up in abundance, some in the Lydian mode (with a sharpened 4th note of the scale) until a radical change of key introduces a call-and-answer dance, in which phrases of delicate piano melody and forte stomping chords alternate in quick succession. Notable is how the left hand takes over the melody to lead back to the opening bird-call. This mazurka ends poetically in a long fade out, with the opening I-V chords rocking quietly into the distance.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 30 No. 1 is another sadly reflective piece, one of the shortest of the group and perhaps the most enigmatic. The lack of strong downbeats in the opening section gives a kind of ‘lost’ feeling to this mazurka. Its alternation of piano and forte phrases bespeaks a kind of wavering indecision while the buzzing of bass drone tones throughout evokes the sound of village music-making. Remembered joy arrives in the middle section, but it is short-lived.

In a sign of how teasingly ambiguous is the rhythmic structure of these mazurkas, the French opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer once got into a heated argument with Chopin over the metre of his Mazurka in C major Op. 30 No. 3. Meyerbeer said that it was in duple time, while Chopin insisted that it was in triple. However you hear it, this mazurka lives up to its performance indication, Semplice (simply). Innocent and unpretentious in mood, it sways throughout, but coloured with a faint tinge of melancholy. Its middle section features an amiable duet in 3rds and 6ths.

The Mazurka in B minor Op. 33 No. 4 is a dramatic work, full of bold contrasts of mood. Although marked Mesto (sadly), there is little sadness and considerable elegance in the catchy opening tune with its merrily twinkling mordents and Scotch snap phrase endings over a gently lilting oom-pah-pah accompaniment. This section is actually a duet in a call-and-response phrase structure with a baritone voice in the bass responding genially in the major mode to the treble’s warbling call. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a passionate outburst of pianistic bravura, until the opening duet returns. Another contrasting section occurs later in the form of an exquisitely charming and poised salon melody in the mazurka rhythm. Both of these contrasting episodes have a clearly defined mood and character. And yet the exact mood and character of the opening section, which acts as a refrain linking them together, remains till the end teasingly out of reach.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante  Op. 22

In the early part of his career Chopin wrote a number of works for piano and orchestra designed to show off his skills as a pianist-composer. In addition to the two piano concertos these include the Variations on La ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni Op. 2, a Fantasia on Polish Themes Op. 13 and a Rondo à la Krakowiak Op. 14.  The last of these works, published in 1835, was his Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante Op. 22, now a staple of the repertoire most often performed in the version for solo piano.

The Andante spianato is a thing of rare beauty, entirely devoted to enchanting the ear with the soft glow of warm piano tone. The gently rippling accompaniment pattern laid down in the opening bars, an extended arpeggiation of the G major chord, makes clear the meaning of the unusual Italian indication spianato (smoothed out, level). Floating atop this smooth, level sonic surface comes a shy little melody yearning with appoggiaturas at the end of each phrase, a melody that is gradually enhanced with ever more elaborate forms of ornamentation and bathed in great washes of iridescent tone colour coming down from the highest reaches of the keyboard. A chordal ‘trio’ of sorts provides a brief pause for reflection before the smooth rippling texture of the opening returns, the right hand joining in now with the left, in the final section of the Andante.

The mood changes dramatically with the arrival of the Polonaise, which opens with a bombastic fanfare (originally played by the orchestra) leading to the entry of the proud and aristocratic polonaise theme. One could well imagine a primo ballerino leaping onto the stage to this music and doing any number of grands jetés. The theme is of course supported in the left-hand accompaniment by the polonaise’s characteristic prancing rhythm: TUM tuh-tuh TUM-tum TUM-tum.

This is keyboard writing in the grand manner, meant to impress with its daring leaps, double trills, long ‘fly-fishing-type’ spun-out melodic extensions and its cascades of gazillions of notes chattering down from the high treble with every phrase response – a polonaise indeed both grande and brillante.

As he displayed so well in both of his piano concertos, Chopin is able to write melody lines spanning two and three octaves with no loss of musical coherence, and a considerable gain in élan. By dint of endless coy variations in the melodic line, he manages to project a musical personality in this polonaise both heroic and flirtatious – no mean feat.

And while the pose of bravado is generally maintained throughout, things do calm down a notch in the contrasting middle section in the minor mode, a smoky, brooding and soulful meditation on a new theme still pulsing with the polonaise rhythm. Unbridled joy returns with the reprise of the opening theme, leading to a spectacular coda in which ear-tickling piano figuration glitters up and down the keyboard like a birthday party of over-excited children running amok with sparklers in their hands, until finally a great swirling wave of arpeggios sweeps this Grande polonaise brillante to an equally grand and brilliant conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Miloš and Avi Avital

Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 2 in A minor: Prelude | Well-Tempered Clavier 1: Fugue in C minor | Concerto in D minor (after Marcello): Adagio | Partita No. 2 in C minor: Capriccio

In Bach’s time, the instrument closest to the sound world of the guitar and mandolin was the lute. Bach wrote suites for the lute, transcribed his own works for the lute, and much of the music he wrote for the harpsichord (another plucked-string instrument), imitated the arpeggiated texture of French lute music. So, transcribing Bach’s keyboard music for these two chordophone cousins of the lute works particularly well, especially since their difference in timbre offers the opportunity to imitate the contrasts of tone colour available on a two-manual harpsichord.

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The Prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor  BWV 807 is an exhilarating two-voice moto perpetuo movement with the motoric rhythms of a Baroque concerto grosso. Its main textural feature is the rhythmic contrast between a ‘chatter-box’ stream of 16th notes and a plodding accompaniment in lumbering 8ths. Harmonies change like clockwork at the beginning of every bar, sometimes as part of harmonic sequences using the circle of fifths, at other times creating harmonic tension through the use of a pedal tone in the bass.

Rhythmic pulse plays a major role, as well, in the appeal of the Fugue No. 2 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. This pulse is driven by a playful, mordent-like ‘tick-tock’ figure sounded three times in its opening subject. And as in the Prelude, this rhythmic ‘hook’ in the fugue subject, with its many leaps, is dogged by a countersubject of scalar running figures in lumbering 8ths. But in this fugue the harmonic rhythm is much faster, sometimes changing with every 8th note.

Soothing relief from all this rhythmic counter-play comes in Bach’s keyboard transcription of the Adagio from the Oboe Concerto in D minor attributed to the Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (1669-1750), in turn now transcribed for guitar and mandolin. This work remains at the centre of the Baroque repertoire for the oboe, a virtual operatic aria for the instrument, with its unusual texture of a piercing and reedy but lyrical soprano voice set in high relief against a sympathetic string accompaniment. This work may well have inspired Ennio Morricone to create the same texture in his film score for the film The Mission.

The gentle pulse of its opening bars immediately engages the ear, as the dissonant close interval of a major 2nd resolves rewardingly into a dominant seventh, and then finally on to the tonic harmony from which the melody of the solo instrument takes upward flight. Lingering dissonances such as these, and the tension created by their delayed resolution, contribute in no small measure to the pathos emanating from the solo melodic line in this movement.

The Capriccio in Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor supplants the partita’s traditional gigue finale but nevertheless displays many gigue-like features. Prominent amongst these is its fondness for wide leaps in the melodic line – leaps of a 10th, in fact – that by dint of constant repetition in various registers come across as buoyantly whimsical and good-natured. Also very gigue-like is its structural layout in binary form, with the second half beginning with a melodic inversion of the first half’s leaping motive. Most ingenious of all in this movement, though, is the fact that it’s actually a fugue!

 

Philip Glass
Opening No. 1 from Glassworks | The Poet Acts  from The Hours Etude No. 9

Philip Glass is a giant amongst American composers. He is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of the minimalist movement in Western music, along with composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, although he prefers to think of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.”

The general idea of these composers is to limit themselves to the most elementary musical elements and by dint of repetition to create a kind of aural tapestry that undergoes kaleidoscopic changes of tone colour while pulsing, vibrating or shimmering in tonal space.

This is music that is simple, tuneful and direct, meant to be immediately appealing without irony or even emotional complexity. While the harmonies are diatonic, i.e., based on the notes of the major or minor scale, there is little feeling of harmonic tension and release, few leading tones to guide the ear in pre-ordained patterns of expectation, so every change in harmony becomes equally surprising, equally emotionally resonant.

Opening No. 1, originally scored for solo piano, is the first movement of Glassworks (1982), a six-movement suite for piano and chamber wind orchestra.  It is conceived as a series of four-voice harmonies, one chord to a bar, in repeated four-bar and eight-bar phrases, the three upper voices of the harmony constantly rocking in intervals of 3rds, 4ths and 5ths, in a 2-against-3 rhythm.

The Poet Acts is an emotionally resonant excerpt from Philip Glass’ score to the film The Hours (2002), which deals with the suicide by drowning of the British writer Virginia Woolf. This film score won a BAFTA for Best Film Music and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, a Grammy, and an Academy Award. Here, too, there are constantly wavering harmony lines in the textural in-fill, but shining through them from time to time is also a mysterious melody fragment repeated in the tonal range of the cello.

Etude No. 9, from the collection of 20 piano etudes that Glass wrote between 1991 and 2012, is similar in texture to other works on the program in that its texture features ostinato patterns in pulsing 8th notes.  But often superimposed over them are parallel streams of simple triadic harmonies in the treble. And as in many of Glass’ works, triple metre ripples in constant contrast to duple metre in the texture.

 

Isaac Albéniz
Asturias for solo guitar

The best-known piece of Spanish guitar music, Albéniz’s Asturias, began as a work written for the piano. First published as a Prelude to Albéniz’s three-movement Chants d’Espagne in 1892, it was posthumously re-published as part of the composer’s Suite española just before the First World War with the title Asturias and the subtitle Leyenda (legend), under which names it is known today.

The publisher was quite mistaken, because this work has nothing to do with the northern coastal region of Asturias and everything to do with the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Andalusia is the cultural homeland of the flamenco tradition, an art that developed under gypsy influence to embrace a passionate amalgam of guitar-playing, singing, wailing, dancing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping, the sonic echoes of which Albéniz transferred with consummate skill to the keyboard.

Many transcriptions of this piano work exist for the guitar, but the most popular is undoubtedly that of Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), who transposed it from its original G minor to the more guitar-friendly key of E minor, allowing the fingers of the right hand to play on an open string the work’s most ear-catching riff: a chiming pedal note in the treble that constantly sounds while the guitarist’s thumb picks out melody notes down below.

This opening section is structured as a long crescendo, eventually punctuated by brusque exclamatory full chords played rasgueado (strummed with the fingernails), in imitation of the sharp heel-stomp of a flamenco dancer.

The piece is in three parts. Its more soulful and pensive middle section features a free-floating melody with minimal accompaniment that eventually returns to the ‘busy-bee’ hum of the work’s opening section.

 

Manuel de Falla 
Siete Canciones Populares Españolas

De Falla’s most popular vocal work was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. Its transcription for that instrument is thus a natural outgrowth of the composer’s original source of inspiration.

The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.

The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), despite its dance-like rhythms – or perhaps because of them – delivers a mocking warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair. The Seguidilla murciana that follows is an intense argument of insistent taunts and bitter banter, conveyed in a shoulder-poking rapid-fire patter of repeated notes in the melody line.

The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the accompaniment evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.

The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that De Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.

The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.

 

Mathias Duplessy
Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin

Mathias Duplessy is a wildly eclectic French composer and multi-instrumentalist with an interest in classical music – Ravel, Stravinsky & Prokofiev in particular – and in world musical cultures, especially the music and guitar-like instruments of India, China and Mongolia. He is astoundingly prolific, having written scores for several dozen feature films and documentaries, and made more than two dozen recordings.  As a performer he is described by one critic for Radio-France International in following terms:

A guitarist of the highest virtuosity, Mathias Duplessy is one of those rare performers capable of shining in every genre: classical, jazz, oriental music, flamenco … As a composer he has assimilated all of these styles in order to compose and perform music that is uniquely his own, alive and personal, brilliant and coming from deep within, sensitive and yet contemporary.

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The composer has provided these notes on his new Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin.

“These are three differently coloured tableaux, imprinted with different influences: film music from the 1970s, a bit of Ravel or Prokofiev, some jazz and some Baroque influences. It’s music with passion and vital energy. Just like Miloš and Avi, who are formed by different cultures, and love so many different styles.

The first movement is something of a homage to Ennio Morricone. It’s a movement based on arpeggios in the guitar idiom, fast and dramatic, over which the mandolin lays down a tuneful melody with a certain nostalgic quality.

The second movement features a romantic-style melody that unfolds in tremolo in the guitar, to which the mandolin adds its own tremolo. I was really intrigued by the sound of these two instruments both playing in tremolo.

The third movement is a funny kind of mix. I wanted it to be a fun movement in which Miloš and Avi toss out challenges to each other, with virtuoso fireworks, with an energy at times jazzy, at times gypsy, and harmonies that travel between the Baroque and Prokofiev.”

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 3 in E major  BWV 1006

If polyphonic music was not meant to be played on the violin, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t get the e-mail. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 of 1720 reveal clearly the scope of his ambition in this regard. The six works in the collection are admired today not just for their ingenious exploitation of the multi-voice capabilities of the instrument, but also for their skillfully constructed melodic lines that sit idiomatically on the fingerboard.

Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) sandwiched in the middle, right before the zinger finale, the gigue.

The dances would be two parts, each repeated, with ornamentation added at the player’s discretion the second time round. Needless to say, these are not pieces meant to accompany actual dancing. They are imaginative recreations of dance genres that reproduce the general character and identifying rhythmic signature of each.

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Bach’s Partita No. 3 in the ‘bright’ key of E major – E being the top string on the violin – is an exceptionally cheery collection of dance pieces. In composing the line-up, Bach keeps the gigue finale but chucks out the allemande, courante and sarabande of tradition and instead gives pride of place to the faster, more rhythmically buoyant galanterie dances.

But to open the suite he adds a glittering Preludio that begins with a celebratory fanfare on the E major triad tumbling down two octaves in rhythmic figuration to capture our attention. What follows is a moto perpetuo of continuous 16th-note motion bobbing and weaving through a succession of related keys, keeping our ears alert with unpredictable phrase lengths, perky syncopations and captivating violin idioms such as bariolage (a succession of notes played on alternating adjacent strings, one stopped, the other open).

Bach obviously liked his handiwork in composing this piece, as he twice re-used it in fully harmonized settings for organ and chamber instruments, the version known as Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29 later becoming Track 1 on the epoch-making Moog synthesizer album entitled Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos.

After this bouncy beginning comes a contrasting movement, the slow and majestic Loure, a dance form rarely seen in Bach, although the Fifth French Suite has one.  This dance is characterized by a gentle lilt and heavy emphasis on the first beat of the bar, facilitated by a quarter-note-eighth-note upbeat. Often called a “slow gigue,” it kicks up its heels as if swimming in molasses.

Also rare is the form in which Bach presents the following Gavotte, namely en rondeau. The rondo pattern, consisting of an opening refrain theme alternating with intervening episodes, was later to become the standard format for sonata finales in the Classical era but here Bach uses it to structure his gavotte. One of the ‘lustier’ dances in the suite, the gavotte was danced with a lifted step and a skipping forward motion, embodied musically in a characteristic half-bar upbeat and short-short-long rhythm. Both the Preludio and this Gavotte en rondeau have become crowd-pleasers and are often played as independent pieces.

Daintier and danced with a more delicate ‘shuffling’ gait is the Minuet and Bach gives us two in a matched pair. When galanteries come in pairs like this, tradition says that the first will be repeated after playing the second, to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern. And here, as often occurs, the second minuet is of a pastoral character, indicated by its drone figure.

The most boisterous member of the set is the Bourée, a dance that begins with a quarter-note upbeat and features a fair amount of syncopation, especially in the opening phrase – which makes the underlying rhythm a bit hard to parse on a non-percussive instrument like the violin. This is soon compensated for in what follows, however, as symmetrical repeated phrases are sounded out first forte and then piano, in an echo pattern.

The Partita ends with Gigue in the Italian style, which is to say a hop-filled romp with plenty of harmonic and melodic sequences centred around chordal figuration. The quasi-moto-perpetuo feel of this finale makes for a balanced ending to a suite that began in just the same way.

 

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Blue/s Forms

While the name of the Black American pianist, composer and conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson might not be a household name, he is well worth remembering for his remarkable musicianship and accomplishments in a wide range of musical endeavours.

Born in New York in 1932, his mother named him after the Afro-British composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who in turn had been named after the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Educated at NYU, the Manhattan School of Music and Princeton University, Perkinson composed instrumental and vocal music, as well ballet and film scores, but refused to be pigeon-holed as a composer of ‘serious’ music. Jazz and popular music engaged him equally and he wrote arrangements for Harry Belafonte and Marvin Gaye, performing as well as a jazz pianist in the Max Roach Quartet.

Blue/s Forms (1972) for solo violin is dedicated to violinist Sanford Allen (b. 1939), the first African-American violinist hired by the New York Philharmonic, who premiered the work at Carnegie Hall. The work is in three movements and plays on the idea of the “blue” notes – the flat 3rd and flat 7th degrees of the scale – used in jazz.

This play on major and minor intervals is evident right from the start in the arresting opening of the first movement entitled Plain Blue/s, with its slip-sliding double-stops and soulful swing. Just as ‘blue’ and even more soulful is the meditative and painfully lyrical second movement, Just Blue/s. The concluding movement, Jettin’ Blue/s, channels Paganini through the rollicking musical personality of the country fiddler.

 

Eugène Ysaÿe
Sonata No. 2  Op. 27 No. 2 (“Obsession”)

Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe stands as a bridge figure between the late Romantic era of virtuoso violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski (he studied with both of them) and twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, whom he championed. Much loved by violinists and composers alike, he pushed the technique of the violin to new heights, while at the same time promoting a style of playing that was perfectly idiomatic for his instrument. He was, in short, the violinist’s violinist and the respect accorded to him by composers is indicated by the number of important works dedicated to him: the César Franck Sonata (a wedding present for Ysaÿe), Chausson’s Poème, and string quartets by Debussy, Vincent d’Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns.

Ysaÿe is said to have been inspired to write his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op. 27 after hearing a concert by the violinist Josef Szigeti in 1923. Each sonata in the series was written in honour of the contemporary violinists he knew.  The second in the set, the Sonata in A minor, is dedicated to the French violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880–1953) and bears the nickname “Obsession” (given by the composer himself) for its repeated quotations, in all four movements, of the ominous Dies irae (Day of Wrath) chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, giving the sonata as a whole an aura of supernatural spookiness and an undercurrent of ghoulish intrigue.

The opening Prelude begins with a direct quote from the opening of Bach’s Partita No. 3 followed immediately by a grotesque parody of this same opening, marked brutalement in the score. The Bach Preludio was Thibaud’s favourite warm-up piece and Ysaÿe may well be having a laugh at his friend’s expense in this shocking opening sequence. As much as this movement is a homage to Bach, it soon has to deal with the intrusive presence in its rush of moto perpetuo 16th notes with the sombre Dies irae tune, elbowing its way into the ear between cheery quotes from the Bach Partita.

The Malinconia that follows, as its name suggests, is a two-voice lament, played in the rhythm of a sicilienne con sordino (with a mute), an unusual indication in a sonata movement. The Dies irae theme only appears at the very end, over a dreary drone tone, like a sombre warning of death.

The chant tune is very present, though, from the very beginning of the third movement Danse des ombres (Dance of the shadows) in the sarabande theme played pizzicato at the opening. This theme spawns six variations of increasing complexity and animation until the opening theme returns, played arco in majestic multiple-stops, to close the movement.

The finale, entitled Les Furies, then bursts out in alternating fits of passionate multiple-stop declamation and ghostly haunting renditions, sul ponticello, of the Dies irae theme to bring this sonata to a conclusion in a mood of demonic defiance.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach 
Partita No. 2 in D minor  BWV 1004

Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin is a work of imposing gravity, a work astonishing as much for the inventiveness of its small-scale figuration as for the brilliance of its architectural construction.

As a dance suite, it sits in diametrical contrast to the galenterie-focused Partita No. 3 in E major in having among its dance movements nothing but the four canonical types – allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. But usurping the last word usually accorded to the gigue, it adds a majestic chaconne that exceeds in length all four of them together, making this dance suite, as a whole, heavily end-weighted in its aesthetic momentum.

This tilt towards the final movement comes largely through the way in which the dances preceding it are composed. It’s as if they are all waiting for the finale, expecting its arrival, giving hints along the way that something big is about to happen. Taken together, they are like a long intake of breath that finally gets released in the Chaconne.

The premonitions in this build-up are many and varied. While the suite’s allemande, courante and gigue each have their own character – evenly-paced, flowing and jumpy, respectively – they all follow a similar harmonic layout, somewhat effacing their individuality as independent pieces. They modulate to the same keys, in the same order, as if they were just melodic variations on the same harmonic pattern – as in a chaconne. And all three overwhelmingly consist of single melodic lines, further diminishing their sound impact in comparison to the bold thunderclap that strikes the ear in the opening bars of the finale.

The problem of creating full harmonies in a single-line texture is addressed by Bach by his use of the style brisé (“broken style”) typical of 17th-century French lute music, a style of writing in which chordal progressions are “broken up” into irregular and unpredictable patterns of arpeggios and running notes. In such a texture the ear is constantly engaged in the process of ‘re-composing’ this expanded version of the underlying harmonic and melodic patterns into something simpler. The profusion of notes created also offers greater opportunity for expressive nuance in performance.

Not all of the dance movements, though, are composed in this way. The third dance movement prophetically announces the finale (a) in its genre, a sarabande, like the chaconne, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar; (b) in its texture, rife with multiple-stops; and (c) in its melodic material, some of which anticipates the same figuration in the finale.

When the Chaconne does arrive, it comes in the form of a sarabande variée comprised of 64 variations on a four-bar harmonic pattern presented at the outset, the harmonies determined by a repeating bass line. There are 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, the arrival of which marks a dramatic change in mood, and then finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon. Among the many ways he finds to say the same thing over and over again, harmonically speaking, are: varying the note durations, from half notes down to 32nds; alternating simple scalar patterns with chromatic variations on them; unpredictable melodic lines in style brisé contrasted with clearly patterned sequential repetitions; tightly focused melodies in a small range alternating with wide-ranging spans of arpeggiation and running notes; single-line melodies alternating with two-voice textures; echoing call-and-response patterns between contrasting registers; single melodic lines that gradually evolve into chordal figurations whipping across all four strings in a continuous pattern of rocking arpeggios; and various sonic ‘tics’ (in popular music they would be called “hooks”) such as bell-like notes repeating through the texture in various registers.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

Program Notes: Tony Siqi Yun

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor  BWV 1004
(arr. Busoni)

The 19th century witnessed a revival of interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But the sound world of the 19th century with its new spacious concert halls and louder, more powerful instruments (played by ego-driven virtuoso performers) flourished at some remove from the tightly focused, spiritually introspective sound world of Bach from the previous century—especially in the realm of keyboard music.

The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel-framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription. And in the 19th century, the transcribers were legion.

Each transcriber saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a moody, solitary figure sitting at his organ, capable of making the great stone walls of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche shake and tremble with the force of his musical personality.

It is natural that Busoni should have been attracted to the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, as this work stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges it poses for the performer and the crystalline brilliance of its formal design.

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The chaconne is a musical form in which a recurring bass line or succession of chords serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. It presents an evolving set of ever more probing variations on the repeating bass line D C# D B♭ G A D given in the first four measures. The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon.

The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor. Busoni’s conception of the Chaconne is grandiose in the extreme. He grants himself full licence to take advantage of the sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even extending those resources to write multiple-register chord spacings more typical of the organ.

While Busoni includes many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the violin, his adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception. There are, moreover, clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of an orchestral brass choir is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, as is his imitation of timpani and tubular bells in the variation that follows not long after, with its pulsing low pedal notes alternating with chiming high octaves.

But it is the snarling timbre of the organ and ponderous peel of swaying church bells that takes this work to its conclusion, as Busoni brings the piano’s rich low register to bear on the last emphatic statement of the Chaconne’s majestic harmonies in its final bars.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ  BWV 639
(arr. Busoni)

The chorale, a hymn setting of pious verse in simple note values, was a central element in Lutheran liturgical practice. Whether sung in unison by the congregation, in four-part harmony by the church choir, or artfully refracted into a complex web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude, it presented to the congregation the word of God in the vivid pictorial rhetoric of a musical setting.

In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint in smaller note values, either derived from the same melody, or commenting on it.

This distinctive ‘layering’ of different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical device but a theological statement about the make-up of the cosmos. It painted an image of God and his flock musically depicted in a hierarchy of spiritual importance. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God in the universe while its chattering contrapuntal accompaniment gave voice to human striving here on earth below.

In Bach’s chorale prelude Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ (I call unto you, Lord Jesus Christ) the plaintive chorale melody is clearly heard at the top of the polyphonic texture. In the mid-range of this stratified texture little 16th-note sigh motives of pathos echo in the spaces between the long melody notes while in the bass a steady succession of 8th notes paces out the measure of eternity with infinite patience and sympathy. In Busoni’s transcription these bass notes, doubled into octaves and harmonically thickened, add a rich vein of overtones for the pianist’s pedal-foot to sift, providing a sonic haze of divine mystery to the quiet gravity of mood characterizing the whole.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 15 in D Major  Op. 28  (Pastorale)

The moody and rebellious Beethoven of legend is nowhere to be found in his gentle and understated Piano Sonata in D major Op. 28 (1801). Like the Sixth Symphony (1808) it carries the nickname Pastorale for its vivid evocation of the peace and contentment of country life, symbolized, particularly in the opening and closing movements, by the classic tropes of rustic music-making: open 5ths and bagpipe-like drone notes in the bass, melodies simply harmonized with the I, V and IV chords, and a preference for dance-like triple metre.

The sonata opens in just this way, with a soothing timpani-like drone note on a low D that shepherds the opening melody, with its many loving sigh motives, on a lyrical octave descent. Just at the end of the first phrase, however, the melody rises a short distance to end with a little melodic ‘flick of the tail’. This little ‘tail flick’ seems at first to be a throw-away a gesture but gathers significance as the movement progresses, eventually motivating the stormiest section of the development, and serving as a final thought in its closing bars.

The steady pulse of the hushed drone tone on D, repeated more than 60 times, makes the opening almost drowsy-making. The exposition seems to unfold in a placid succession of daydreams, sleepwalking through tonal space in smooth scalar motion from musical thought to musical thought. The only break in mood comes from the occasional sparkling run in the treble, startling the dreamer to sudden alertness…from which he then drifts back into reverie once again.

Eye-opening drama is reserved for the development section, when the major mode turns to the minor, contrapuntal conflict breaks out, and the long smooth lines of the exposition gradually disassemble into ever-smaller fragments pulling this way and that, like two dogs fighting over a bone—that is, until peace is restored for the recapitulation’s calm review of past events and a quiet close.

Having waxed lyrical for much of the first movement, Beethoven foregoes a deeply lyrical slow movement in favour of an enigmatic Andante in D minor with a contrasting middle section in D major. A teasing air of mystery hovers over the opening D minor section, reinforced by soft dynamic markings and sudden offbeat accents. The dainty trot of its left-hand staccato at the opening suggests a simple walk in the park, but the minor mode and creeping chromatic lines bespeak an air of concern, especially when in a subsequent phrase a pulsing pedal point in the mid-range refuses to yield to the pleading dissonances above. The major-mode middle section, by contrast, is almost comical in its playful exchange of pleasantries as it alternates stern gestures in the low register with coy, almost flippant triplet responses in the treble. This is Beethoven at his most arch. The closing repeat of the A section features a decorated version of the opening and even a cameo appearance of the B section—in the minor mode this time—but leaves unresolved the puzzling relationship between these two musical personalities.

The appeal of the Allegro vivace scherzo that follows is radically simpler. It opens with a succession of four long notes an octave apart, like an orchestra tuning up on the same pitch in different registers. This is followed by its opposite: four little bite-sized cadencing gestures confined to the mid-range. To these contrasts of register and rhythm, Beethoven then adds dynamic contrasts and textural thickenings to concoct a throughly engaging ‘note salad’ to entertain the ear over a vast swath of keyboard real estate. This ‘scattered barcode’ pattern of musical interest, though, meets its comeuppance in the central Trio section, in which a driven folk-like melody in the minor mode is repeated over and over with wildly different harmonizations.

The most rustic movement of all comes at the end in a lilting Allegro ma non troppo finale that, like the first movement, opens with a long drone on a low D and proceeds largely on the premise that sleepy time has arrived in the woods and village green.  Although constructed in the surprisingly sophisticated palindromic A-B-A-C-A-B-A structure of a sonata-rondo, it also resembles the first movement in seeking excitement in a development (the C section) dominated by the minor mode and contrapuntal confrontation. Those nodding off in the audience, however, will be roused from their slumber by the movement’s vigorous coda that transforms the opening drone motif into a major cymbal-crashing crescendo.

 

Franz Liszt
Réminiscences de Norma  S 394

In the 1830s a swarm of pianists descended like a biblical plague on the city of Paris, attracted by the rich harvest of opera tunes produced each year on which to feed when concocting the potpourris, fantasies and paraphrases that were their chief stock-in-trade. Flash forward to the 1840s when Liszt, enthroned as King of the Piano and touring Europe in regal style, astonished the multitudes in concerts that frequently included one of his growing list of paraphrases based on tunes from operas by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, including his Réminiscences de Norma.

Bellini’s Norma (1831), best known for its celebrated aria Casta diva made famous by Maria Callas, tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who, in a time of popular insurrection, is called upon to choose between her love for the Roman governor and her duty to the gods and to her nation.

Liszt offers a concentrated summary of the dramatic core of the opera by selecting melodies from Act I to evoke Norma’s leading role in opposing the Roman occupiers, and from the finale of Act II to represent her selfless renunciation of love, and of life itself, to further the cause of her warlike people.

The work opens with a series of stern chords and martial drumbeats, echoed high above by sparkling arpeggiations, to set the stage for a tale of war on earth and reward in heaven. These musical motifs recur midway through the piece as well to transition between opera’s Act I mood of heroic resolve and its tragic outcome in Act II.

Liszt’s inventiveness in creating novel pianistic textures in this piece is remarkable, and one can only imagine rows of cross-eyed countesses dropping like fainting goats at its premiere. In addition to scintillating cadenzas shooting up to the high register, and muscular displays of bravura octaves, Liszt offers up generous quantities of the famous ‘three-hand effect’ pioneered by pianist Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871), in which a clear melody sounds out in the mid-range surrounded by wide-ranging accompaniments above and below. This ever-so-clever piano texture is prominently featured in the second half of the work, where the majority of the most outrageous pyrotechnics are concentrated.

Liszt’s treatment of the lyrical Qual cor tradisti, with its three simultaneous layers—melody, pulsing chordal accompaniment, and martial triplet drumbeat—has been described by musicologist Charles Suttoni as “one of the most ingenious and sublime pages ever written for the piano.”

 

Franz Liszt
Solemn March to The Holy Grail from Parsifal  S 450

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual. It glorifies the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood flowing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mystery and religious symbolism radiating out from the first great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

 

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird Suite (arr. Agosti)

Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird was written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dance company, which premiered the work in Paris in 1910. Based on ancient Russian folk tales, it tells the story of the young Prince Ivan’s quest to find a legendary magic bird with fiery multi-coloured plumage. In the course of his adventures, he falls in love with a beautiful princess but has to fight off the evil sorcerer Katschei to eventually marry her. The suite presents the culminating scenes of the ballet in a piano transcription by the Italian pianist and pedagogue Guido Agosti (1901-1989), who studied with Ferruccio Busoni and taught Maria Tipo.

The Danse infernale depicts the brutal swarming and capture of Prince Ivan by Katschei’s monstrous underlings until Prince Ivan uses the magic feather given to him by the Firebird to cast a spell on his captors, making them dance until they drop from exhaustion.  The Berceuse is a lullaby depicting the eerie scene of the slumbering assailants, leading to the Finale, a wedding celebration for Prince Ivan and his princess bride.

Agosti’s piano transcription, completed in 1928, is a daunting technical challenge for the pianist. But then again, transcribing Stravinsky’s orchestral writing was always going to be a challenge, something like herding cats, because his signature melodic fragments emerge from every corner of the sound range, with tone-colours and timbral qualities outrageously difficult to capture on a single instrument. Many of his trademark sonorities result from widely spaced chord structures difficult to put within the grasp of the pianist’s mere ten fingers.

Most of the piano writing is laid out on on three staves in order to cover the multi-octave range of the keyboard that the pianist must patrol. The piano comes into its own in this transcription as a percussion instrument, to be played with the wild abandon with which a betrayed lover throws her ex-partner’s possessions off the balcony onto the street below.

Judging from the shocking 7-octave-wide chord crash that opens the Dance infernale, it looks like the first item over the railing was a full-length mirror. Agosti captures well the bruising pace of the action, with off-beat rhythmic jabs standing out from a succession of punchy left-hand ostinati constantly nipping at the heels of the melody line. The accelerating pace as the sorcerer’s ghouls are made to dance ever more frantically is a major aerobic test for the pianist.

Relief comes in the Berceuse, which presents its own pianistic challenges, mainly those of finely sifting the overtones of vast chord structures surrounding the lonely tune singing out from the middle of the keyboard.

The wedding celebration depicted in the Finale presents Stravinsky’s trademark habit of cycling hypnotically round the pitches enclosed within the interval of a perfect 5th. Just such a melody, swaddled in hushed tremolos, opens this final movement. It is a major challenge for the pianist to imitate the shimmering timbre of the orchestra’s brightest instruments as this theme is given its apotheosis to end the suite in a blaze of sonority that extends across the entire range of the keyboard.

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Lucas & Arthur Jussen

Johann Sebastian Bach
Three Chorale Preludes  (arr. György Kurtág)

The chorale, a hymn setting of pious verse in simple note values, was a central element in Lutheran liturgical practice, whether sung in unison by the congregation, in four-part harmony by the choir in a cantata, or artfully arranged into a web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude. In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint derived from the same melody—but in smaller note values. Bach was a master of the genre and produced dozens of such works.

This fractal layering of the same melody at different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical trick but a theological statement in music. It gave voice to the belief that God was immanent in all things, moving in and about the world to animate every object and being in it. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God while the chattering counterpoint that accompanied it represented that divine presence reflected in the activities of secular life.

This symbolic dimension sometimes extended down to small pictorial details in the melodies themselves. For example, the chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From deep affliction, I cry out to Thee) begins with the pitches B-E-B-C. The word ‘deep’ (tiefer) is depicted by a plunging 5th (B to E, then back to B). The word ‘affliction’ (Not) is then painfully represented by the most emotional interval of the scale, the semitone (B to C). Bach’s chorale prelude on this hymn tune starts with the melody imitated in small note values before it majestically enters in long notes buried in the middle register, in keeping with its dark message.

By contrast, the upbeat message of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), a traditional hymn for the first Sunday in Advent, begins in long notes right away, sounding in the uppermost voice, where its clarion call can be most easily heard.

The last in this trio of transcriptions is not really a chorale setting, but it is a prelude. It is the gentle and peaceful introduction to Bach’s Actus tragicus (funeral cantata) entitled Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time of all). Its subject being the Christian view of death, its mood is one of consolation, with soothing harmony chords in the lower register supporting the plaintive but resigned sighs of two imitative voices above.

Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s reverent transcriptions make available to the concert hall works previously performed only in church. Arranging these works for piano duet ensures that the full pitch range of the original is available to the ear in a concert setting. But the inability of the piano to sustain tone in the way that an organ can presents unique challenges to performers wishing to retain the same textural balance as the original setting provided.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Andante & Allegro Brillante in A major, Op. 92

The time: spring 1841. The place: Leipzig, Germany. Young pianist Clara Wieck, a former child prodigy who had toured Europe at the age of twelve, is in need of help to further her professional career but is estranged from her strict and controlling music-teacher father after defying him to marry one of his students. That student – a certain Robert Alexander Schumann, nine years her senior – also needs help with the same problem. Unable to perform in public because of a hand injury, he has gained a modest reputation as a composer of piano music, but needs to break out of that niche to gain a wider public with his recently composed First Symphony. Who will help this young married couple advance their careers?

Enter Felix Mendelssohn, conductor of the city’s acclaimed Gewandhaus Orchestra and a friend of the Schumann newlyweds. Mendelssohn organizes a fundraising concert for the orchestra’s pension fund at which Robert’s symphony will be performed, and to create a spot for Clara to play as well, quickly composes an Andante and Allegro Brillante for piano duet which he and Clara will perform together. Historians would record this concert as the first time that Robert and Clara Schumann appeared in public together on the same program.

Mendelssohn’s two-part piano duet, composed in a matter of days, is light, easy-on-the-ears salon music, but graced with the polished elegance and craftsmanship that is the composer’s trademark. The Andante is comfort food for the soul, with a yearning melody of sighing phrases covered in a chocolate sauce of warm, deeply satisfying harmonies.

The Allegro brillante, by contrast, is a nimble and scampering scherzo with the type of quick, darting figurations that Mendelssohn made famous in his Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo, composed when he was only 17 years old.

While this score is wonderfully balanced in tone and texture, what is remarkable in it is how Mendelssohn gives ample space for solo playing by each pianist—presumably to allow Clara Schumann her place in the sun along with the composer.

At the opening of the Andante, for example, and in the lyrical second theme of the Allegro, the performers take turns playing alternate phases of the melody and its accompaniment—alone. One performer will take the antecedent phrase of a musical period which is then completed in the consequent phrase by the other performer, both playing solo. At other places the left hand of the primo (upper) pianist must insert itself cunningly in between the two hands of the secondo (lower) player without causing a three-hand pile-up of digits in and around middle C. A major technical challenge for the performers in this work, then, is just getting out of each other’s way.

Considering the degree of physical intimacy this work demands of its performers, full marks to Mrs. Mendelssohn for allowing her husband to play it, in public, with another man’s wife.

 

Franz Schubert
Fantasie in F minor,  D. 940

Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, composed in 1828, is similar in structure to the composer’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy of 1822. Both are laid out in one continuous movement of four sonata-like sections played without interruption, comprising an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale containing a fugue. And both embrace the cyclical principle of reprising the first movement’s themes in their final movement.

But while the Wanderer stands out for its emphatic musical rhetoric and unabashedly muscular keyboard writing, the F Minor Fantasie entices its listeners with an inverse appeal in long passages at dynamic levels of pp, or even ppp, and a more reflective tone overall.

Nowhere is this reflective tone more strikingly evident than in the first movement Allegro molto moderato, in which a timidly pleading, almost whimpering first theme, obsessing over a number of small melodic intervals, emerges out of a hushed murmur of harmonic support. Juxtaposed with this delicate flower of a melody is a stern, implacable second theme that soon arrives to challenge it, advancing gravely and ponderously in great granitic blocks of sound. As is so typical of Schubert, the two themes in this section are presented in ‘stereo’, so as to speak – in both their major- and minor-mode variants.

The Largo second movement presents a similar juxtaposition of opposing musical personalities. Beginning with a jarring series of trills, this movement alternates between the defiant gestures of a double-dotted, French-overture-like first theme and a ‘tra-la-la’ second theme of a distinctly Italianate melodic stamp that roams blissfully carefree over an oom-pah-pah accompaniment.

The scherzo Allegro vivace provides much needed relief from all this drama with its dancelike verve and general spirit of bonhomie as the two players coyly echo each other phrases. Schubert’s quicksilver changes of mode, often alternating between major and minor in successive phrases, give this movement an intriguing tonal sparkle that is maddeningly hard to define.

The Allegro molto moderato finale brings us back full circle to the poetic opening bars of the work. But at the entrance of the imposing second theme, a brow-knitting fugal argument breaks out leading to a sustained bout of contrapuntal navel-gazing which only the opening theme, returning yet again, can quell. The uncompromisingly bleak tone of the closing bars is exceptional in the works of Schubert.

 

Leo Smit
Divertimento

Leo Smit was an immensely gifted Dutch composer whose career spanned the interwar years of the 20th century and who died a victim of the Holocaust. Raised in Amsterdam, he graduated with high honours from the Amsterdam Conservatory but in his mid-twenties moved to Paris, where for nine years (1927-1936) he absorbed at close range the music and stylistic legacy of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Les Six, especially Milhaud, Honegger & Poulenc. The personal musical style he brought back to his native Holland was thus inflected with a host of typically French traits, including a preference for light textures, formal clarity and the vivid use of harmonic colour. The jazz idiom, as filtered through French ears, was an especially marked characteristic of his music.

Smit’s Divertimento for piano duet (1942) illustrates well his neo-classical leanings. Its first movement begins with a series of imitative entries, like the opening bars of a fugue, but with the carefree jaunty air of a boulevardier strolling down a fashionable street in Paris, twirling his cane. The tender and wistful second theme that follows, however, would easily be at home in any North American jazz lounge. The musical flow in this movement is easy on the ear because of Smit’s tendency to repeat the same small melodic motives over and over when building up his phrase structure.

The Lento second movement is more atmospheric than conventionally lyrical, offered up as a slow-jazz meditation on a few short motives, hypnotically repeated, rather than structured around the presentation and development of a single strand of melody.

The finale is a punchy and self-confident moto perpetuo, full of jazzy syncopations, with the motoric drive of the Precipitato finale of Prokofieff’s Seventh Sonata and the festive mood of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

 

Maurice Ravel
Ma Mère l’Oye, cinq pièces enfantines

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

“Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’ ”

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.

 

Fazil Say
Night

Turkish musician Fazil Say is a cultural phenomenon, and a triple-threat actor on the world stage. As a pianist he plays almost 100 concerts a year and has recorded more than 40 albums featuring an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire, from Bach and Haydn to Stravinsky and Gershwin—as well as his own compositions. As a composer, his list of compositions includes works for solo piano, for chamber ensembles and for orchestra. But it is his political activism for which he is best known in his native Turkey. In 2012 he was charged with blasphemy for insulting Islam in a series of tweets in a case that was later withdrawn. He is a self-declared atheist and vehemently opposes the cultural and social policies of the Erdogan government.

These three strands of his life and career come together in Night, a piano duet written in 2017 for Lucas & Arthur Jussen and premiered by them at the Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam in April 2018. According to the composer, the work describes “a traumatic night in Turkey” – perhaps an oblique reference to the failed coup of 2016 in that country.

Beginning with the restless rumbling of a rhythmic ostinato in the lower register it spins out jagged, slightly menacing fragments of phrase with an almost ‘hip’ jazzy feel. One special effect used is the hand-muting of strings for selected notes played from the keyboard to produce a strangely dull, plucked sound reminiscent of the timbre of Turkish national folk instruments.  Structured in alternating passages of toccata-like frenetic energy and mysterious wet-pedalled goings-on, the work builds to an impressive climax that simply falls off a cliff in its closing bar.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: IGOR LEVIT

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms)

The Bach revival of the 19th century began with a performance of the
 St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, conducted by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It reached its stride at mid-century with the founding, by Robert Schumann and others, of the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society tasked with the publication of Bach’s complete works. Over the next 50 years, European musicians had ever-greater access, at a pace of almost one new volume a year, to the complete range of Bach’s creative output: cantatas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral suites, as well as works for harpsichord, clavichord and organ – the whole lot of it.

Only one problem remained: getting the public on their side. The most popular solo instrument of the 19th century, both on the concert stage and in the family home, was the piano, and while Bach wrote for virtually every performing instrument of his time, the piano was not one of them. The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel- framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription.

And the transcribers were many. Each saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own individual aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a lonely, moody, solitary figure capable of making the stone walls of his great church tremble with the force of his musical personality. Brahms, who became a subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft edition in 1856, took another view. For him, Bach was a musical craftsman whose surpassing merit resided deep in the formal structures of his scores, not in their surface effect.

His transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004 is thus an attempt to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sound of the violin on the piano. And in keeping with the severity of his approach, he wrote for the left hand alone, in order to reproduce for the performing pianist the challenges this polyphonic work would have originally posed for the solo violinist.

These challenges were not trivial. The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations. Bach’s Chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor.

The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavichord. Those used to hearing the Chaconne played in the more popular Busoni transcription will hear a new work in this rendition, one much more dependent on the musician’s ability to convey with fewer notes the greatness of its musical design through nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and expressive detail.

Ferruccio Busoni
Fantasia after J. S. Bach KiV 253

Busoni’s Fantasia was written in 1909 as an expression of personal grief at the death of his father, Ferdinando Busoni, the person who first introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is a hybrid between transcription and original composition, containing elements of both in equal measure.

Bach is present in fairly literal quotations from three works: the organ chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, who art the light of the day), from which the ‘tolling bell’ motive of four long repeated notes comes; the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen (God’s son is come) from the Kirnberger chorale settings; and the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to Almighty God) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.

Busoni’s own writing in the Fantasia envelops the quotations from Bach in shrouds of downcast rumination, as symbolized by deep explorations of the low range, and by recurring gentle echoes in the high range that are emblematic of a mystical contemplation of the Beyond. How earthly pain vies with religious faith for the mourner’s cast of mind is easily grasped in the way that some of the chorale melodies are rhythmically displaced relative to the regular beat structure of the bass, especially in the dark and brooding introduction.

The high degree of harmonic indeterminacy in the writing gives it a ‘floating’ quality, as if the thoughts behind it were struggling through a fog of confused emotions. At times piercing, patterns of falling semitones evoke the stabbing pain of mourning. This heightened degree of expressiveness, and the means used to convey it, are much akin to the pianistic rhetoric of Scriabin.

The composer’s emotional ambivalence in this liturgical collection of consecrated memories is evident in the work’s closing gestures: a pair of echoes, the first up high, in the major mode, symbolizing heavenly peace, the last down in the bass, in the minor mode, symbolizing earthly grief.

Robert Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme in E flat major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24

In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter, or perhaps because of it, he wrote down a theme offered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.

The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized
 hymn that in its downward-seeking phrases blends the pious fervour 
of communal singing with the tenderness of personal reflection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring to vary instead its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices, the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.

It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment, the aural traces of a mental window gently closing on the world .

Richard Wagner
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal (arr. Liszt)

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual, glorifying the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood owing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined, military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera
 in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of the actions and psychological states of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mood of mystery and the religious symbolism radiating out from the first great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

Franz Liszt
Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam (arr. Busoni)

In 1847, Franz Liszt ended his career as a touring virtuoso pianist and took up residence in Weimar to concentrate on composition. Perhaps it was the experience of living in a place where Bach had lived and worked that prompted his interest in organ music, or perhaps it was the awakening of the religious feelings that would later see him take minor orders in the Catholic Church. Or indeed, perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t resist the temptation of writing for an instrument that could make even more noise than the iron-framed Érard pianos on which he broke so many strings in his concert career.

His first major composition for organ came in 1850, a gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue (lasting a good half hour) based on a chorale melody from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, which had premiered in Paris in 1849. In the opera, three evil Anabaptist fanatics in 16th-century Holland connive to convince the Dutch population that they all need to be re-baptized in order to get on the right side of the Almighty. Their recruiting song Ad nos ad salutarem undam (Come to us, to the waves of salvation) is a snivelling little tune in the minor mode with numerous awkward intervals in a demonic dotted rhythm.

Liszt’s treatment of this theme unfolds in three distinct sections. In the opening section the theme is teased out in small dramatic fragments, bit by bit, its character hinted at strongly by menacing snippets of dotted rhythm that unfold in a wide variety of styles, from bombastic assertion to hushed recitative, over vast swathes of the keyboard.

The placid and quietly lyrical Adagio second movement provides much welcome relief from the rough-textured and rambunctious Fantasy preceding it. This movement presents the theme in its entirety, in the major mode, and calmly meditates on its melodic character.

All this daydreaming, however, is interrupted by a sweeping cadenza that announces a return to the minor mode and the last movement’s fugue. Liszt’s fugue subject is a nasty piece of work, highlighting the aberrant intervals and pointed dotted rhythms of the original theme. Of course, Liszt can’t stay long in a purely contrapuntal texture and his fugue soon devolves once again into free fantasy to end in a blaze of triumphalism that would make even Napoleon blush.

Busoni does a masterful job of translating Liszt’s somewhat awkward and unidiomatic organ figurations into the virtuoso language of the piano paraphrase. Mimicking characteristic keyboard textures from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Réminiscences de Norma to convey the sonic heft of the original organ work, he seems at every turn to ask: Why use just one note when ten will do?

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.

A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major   BWV 828

The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.

Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.

Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.

One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.

François Couperin
L’Atalante

It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.

Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.

The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.

Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.

This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.

The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”

Samuel Barber
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26

In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.

The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.

Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.

The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.

Johannes Brahms
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.

Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.

In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.

Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?

The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.

The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: SIR ANDRÁS SCHIFF

Robert Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme in E at major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24

In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down
to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter – or perhaps because of it – he wrote down a theme offered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.

The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized hymn that, in its downward-seeking phrases, blends the pious fervour of communal singing with the tenderness of personal re ection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring instead to vary its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices; the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.

It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment: the aural traces of a mental window on the world slowly and peacefully shutting down.

Johannes Brahms
Late Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118 & 119

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 them.

The Intermezzo in A major sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded, as its opening phrase eventually yields to a melodically upside-down version of itself 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 Romanze in F major 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 that elaborates melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

The Intermezzo in E at minor 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 moments of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahms’ ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.

Brahms’ heterogeneous collection of Four Piano Pieces Op. 119 were his last works for piano and they show him at the top of his form. The first is exquisitely refined and tonally progressive, the second and third infused with the spirit of Viennese dance music, and the fourth a heroic broadside of pianistic bravado.

The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set presents the ear with chains of falling thirds that create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between the left and right hands.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.

The Rhapsodie in E at major is the longest of Brahms’ late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet figures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of its debonair A at major section. A flamboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece – surprisingly – with a triumphant cadence in E at … minor!

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Rondo in A minor K. 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme, is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fifth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn figure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos- tinged whimpering of chromatic half-steps and the mood of forthright self- assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale figures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Johann Sebastian Bach Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor BWV 869

The last prelude and fugue in Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier pairs a uniformly patterned prelude with a long fugue based on an extended fugue subject. While it is unusual to have tempo markings in this collection, the Andante marking for the prelude and Largo for the fugue are authentically Bach’s own.

The prelude is in two parts (each repeated) and written in a three-part texture in which two upper voices converse in a friendly imitative dialogue based on two motives (a rising 4th and a descending scale) over a running bass line of 8th notes. In the second half, this imitation is intensified by a diminution of the motives to a pace of 8ths and quarters.

The fugue features a subject in even 8th notes extending over three bars and comprised of two ear-catching motives: broken chords and a series of semitone sigh motives hopping back and forth in tonal space. The other source of melodic invention in the fugue (the countersubject) is more rhythmically varied, and is also used in inversion, i.e., turned upside down – for those listeners who keep track of such things. While this is a four-voice fugue, much of the contrapuntal chatter takes place in only three voices at a time. Only two of the 20 subject entries occur in a full four-voice texture: in the opening exposition and at the very end. This is likely to ensure that the prominent motives of the subject – the broken chord figures and semitone sigh motives – will be easier for the ear to pull out of the texture.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 26 in E- at Major Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”)

In May 1809, Napoleon’s army was parked just outside Vienna and was knocking loudly at the door with a steady bombardment of cannon fire. In this perilous situation Beethoven’s close friend and patron the Archduke Rudolph was forced to flee the Austrian capital. Beethoven’s artistic response to these dramatic events was the Sonata in E at Op. 81a, his only explicitly programmatic piano sonata, published with a German and French title for each of its three movements: “Farewell”, “Absence”, and “Return”.

Explicitly linking the first movement to its “Farewell” titling are the words Le-be wohl (German for “fare thee well”) written in the score over the three melody notes that begin the slow introduction: mi – re – do. This three-note motive, written in two voices, imitates the call of the post-horn and, in the words of Beethoven scholar William Kinderman “summons up the world of carriages”, and thus scenes of departure.

This horn-call will echo through every section of the movement as a leitmotif. When the pleading chromatic phrases of the slow introduction end, issuing into the Allegro main section, this Lebewohl horn motif gets broken up to compose the first theme; it provides material, treble and bass, for the transition; and it appears at the head of the second theme as well – not to mention the development section – which is an auditory house of mirrors with Lebewohl “farewells” bouncing o every wall. Even more ‘developed’ than the development section itself is the extended coda that Sir András Schiff describes as simply “swimming in the Lebewohl motive.”

The short second movement in the minor mode laments the absence of Beethoven’s beloved friend in desolate diminished 7th chords, painful stabbing sforzandos and plangent recitative, alternating with delirious ights of fancy in the major mode that remember happier times as if in a dream.

As in the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, this slow movement is not self- contained but leads directly into the exuberant celebration of the “Return” in the last movement. Anyone who has returned from a long vacation to be greeted by the tail-wagging enthusiasms of an overly excited household pooch will immediately recognize the sentiments here described.

After an initial outburst of keyboard brilliance, the movement’s first theme is presented in triplets as a ‘pals-y’ duet (appropriately enough) first in the treble, then in the bass. The second theme is more contained and songful but nonetheless rides atop a quivering substrate of bubbling 16ths in the accompaniment. The effortlessly contrapuntal elaborations of the development section are calm by comparison and a dreamily reflective coda tries to savour its good fortune in a similarly blissful state of contentment. But this movement simply can’t restrain its giddiness and ends by ripping up the keyboard in one last explosion of joy.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

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