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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 pro le 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 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 o ered 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 rst 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

PROGRAM NOTES: SCHAGHAJEGH NOSRATI

Johann Sebastian Bach
GOLDBERG VARIATIONS BWV 988

Historical Background

Such was Bach’s mastery of his musical materials that he was often tempted to explore a particular genre or compositional technique in a systematic way by providing a quasi-exhaustive compendium of its possibilities. Fugue, for example, is represented in the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1744), both sets presenting a prelude and fugue in each of the major and minor keys, and in The Art of the Fugue (unfinished at his death), with its 14 fugues and 4 canons all derived from a single theme in D minor.

Similarly encyclopedic in scope and ambition is Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen, published in 1741 and known today as the Goldberg Variations. This monumental exploration of the variation form ranks as the largest single keyboard composition published in the 18th century and in it, Bach displays his command of the popular musical styles of his day, the most advanced virtuoso techniques for playing the harpsichord, and the arcane skill of writing canons at intervals ranging from the unison to the ninth.

The work gets its name from an anecdote told by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) in his 1802 biography of Bach. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, we are told, was a young harpsichordist in the employ of Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who frequently resided in Leipzig where Bach was Cantor of the city’s Thomaskirche. Among the young Goldberg’s chores was the task of easing the Count’s insomnia by playing to him from an adjoining room on the many nights when he found himself sleepless. The Count is said to have asked Bach for a contribution to Goldberg’s repertoire of night-watch pieces and the “Goldberg Variations” were born.

Setting aside the dubious compliment of commissioning a work expressly designed to induce sleep, musicologists have raised a collective eyebrow of skepticism at the numerous improbabilities in this account, noting how the title page of the first edition lacks a dedicatory inscription to the Count – in breach of established custom – and the troubling fact that when it first appeared in print, the young Goldberg was a mere stripling of 14.

Reception

After publication, a change in musical taste toward simpler, more transparent textures meant that the Goldberg Variations were largely neglected in the latter half of the 18th century. And they fared little better in the 19th, although Beethoven appears aware of them when composing his Diabelli Variations and Brahms his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. They entered the 20th century as the privileged domain of the feathery flock of harpsichordists, with Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who first recorded the set in 1933, as Mother Hen to the brood.

In the Golden Age of Pianism before the Second World War, the public was enamoured of big-name pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hoffmann, whose careers were predicated on concert programs filled with expansively emotional, sonorously room-filling works from the Romantic era. The scaled-down, intellectually concentrated sound world of the Goldberg Variations, with their ‘sewing machine’ rhythms, probing explorations of chromatic harmony and awkward hand-crossings, was considered too ‘antiquarian’ and too ‘esoteric’ for the piano repertoire by most pianists. Until June 1955, when a 22-year-old Canadian pianist walked into the New York studios of Columbia Records to record his debut album – an album that became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.

What Glenn Gould revealed, in a career bookended by his landmark recordings of the Goldberg Variations, was the emotional richness and feverish excitement that lay hidden in this much-neglected work. Like an art-restorer cleansing the Sistine Chapel of the grime and haze that had built up over centuries, in Gould’s 1955 recording brought to a public inured to the warmly pedalled sound of Romantic piano music a dazzling clarity of texture and a kaleidoscopic range of tone colours, accomplished by the fingers alone. In his 1981 recording, in which the tempo of each variation is regulated by a “constant rhythmic reference point,” he revealed the intellectual depth of the work, and the breadth of interpretive possibilities that it offers to the performing pianist.

Glenn Gould single-handedly placed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the standard repertoire – and not only of the piano. According to the Goldberg Variations Discography website, since 1955, there have been more than 600 recordings made of the Goldbergs, including versions for organ, string trio, and saxophone quartet. While a performance by a historically informed recorder ensemble would no longer be a novelty, a breathless world has still not heard this work on kazoos or in car commercials. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

The Aria

The theme that Bach wrote for his variations is in G major, identifiable as a sarabande tendre by its stately rhythmic profile, recurring emphasis on the second beat of bar, and highly expressive style. Floridly ornamented in the French manner, its 32 measures unfold in the traditional two-part form of a dance movement. A 16-bar opening section leads from the tonic (G major) to a concluding cadence in the dominant (D major), and is then repeated. The second 16-bar section, also repeated, begins in the dominant and works its way back to end on a final cadence in the tonic. The repeated sections, both in the aria and in the variations, provide an opportunity for the performer to vary the performance by means of changes in dynamics, articulation, and ornamentation.

The harmonic rhythm of the Aria is deliberately slow – one chord to the bar – which allows for maximum freedom in spinning out a wide variety of variations, since these are based not on the melodic content of the Aria, but rather on its bass-line and underlying harmonies, in the manner of a chaconne.

The Variations

There is a large-scale symmetry in the way that Bach arranges his variations, reflecting that of the Aria itself. First of all, the set is rounded out by a repeat, at its conclusion, of the Aria with which it began. Secondly, the set divides evenly into two halves, the first half ending on an enigmatic open 5th that concludes the plaintive Variation 15, the second half beginning with a bang on a robust G-major chord that begins the French overture variation, No. 16. (Many a performance will see a pause inserted at this juncture, emphasizing the contrast between the two halves of the work.)

Thirdly, the 30 variations are organized into ten groups of three, each group containing: (1) a dance or genre piece; (2) a virtuoso display piece – bright in mood, and most often featuring a number of hand-crossings; and (3) a two-voice canon, which is to say a round, in which a melody is accompanied by itself, entering a set number of beats after its initial appearance, and beginning a set interval above its initial note. In keeping with Bach’s systematic approach, these canons – spaced out every three variations – begin at the unison and progress to the ninth in Variation 27 (the only canon not accompanied by a running bass line by way of harmonic support). Such a layout ensures variety in the succession of variations, and is aided by the extraordinarily wide range of meters used: 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, 12/8, 9/8 etc. There is even one variation, No. 26, in which one hand plays in 3/4 while the other is in 18/16.

The display-oriented virtuoso variations feature two kinds of hand-crossing: the Italian type, à la Scarlatti, in which one hand crosses over and above the other to catch a note perilously distant from its home turf (e.g., Variations 5 and 14); and the French type, à la Couperin, in which the running melodic lines of the two hands cross over each other in the same patch of keyboard terrain, risking a digital derailment of both (e.g., Variations 8 and 11). Usually, the latter are indicated by Bach as being played on both manuals of the harpsichord, but alas! – such an expedient is not available to the struggling pianist.

The inclusion of canon variations helps to mask the recurring regularity of the Aria’s four-bar phrases and ground bass, repeated in various degrees of elaboration in each variation. Moreover, the canons are not always straightforward rounds. Variations 12 and 15 each feature a canon inversus, in which the leading voice is accompanied by itself – turned upside down!

*                      *                      *

The emotional heart of the work comes in Variation 25 in the minor mode, described by Wanda Landowska as the work’s “crown of thorns.” At an Adagio tempo, it is the longest of the set, although it has the same number of measures as the other variations. Its extraordinary expressiveness and aching beauty derives from the combination of its plangent melodic leaps, agonizing chromaticisms and halting syncopations.

After this variation begins a build-up in energy as the work races towards its climax, with sonorous written-out trills invading the inner voices of Variation 28 and hammering fists of chords chopping between the hands in Variation 29. According to the pattern already established, one would expect a canon at the 10th in Variation 30, but here Bach surprises us with a musical joke, a quodlibet (Latin for “what you please”) that fits two popular ditties into the harmonic scheme of the Aria. Simultaneously playing or singing melodies that fit together harmonically – often songs on distinctly salty, secular themes – was a congenial and witty pastime at Bach family get-togethers. A modern equivalent might be playing Dvorak’s Humoresque in G flat while singing “Way, down upon the Swan-eee River.”

The two overlapping folk tunes that Bach shoe-horns into service over the ground bass of his Aria are the urgent love lyric:

Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her

I have been away from you so long, come here, come here

and the anti-vegetarian anthem:

Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben  Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I would have stayed longer

Coming at the very end of the work, there is something of the chorale in this variation, something good-natured and healing that gathers all hearts in song, as at the end of a church cantata or Lutheran religious service.

*                      *                      *

It remains only for the Aria to echo once again in our ears, repeated note for note as it was at the beginning. This gesture of return, too, has spiritual echoes that are intuitively felt, but difficult to put into words.

Bach inhabited a world made comprehensible to him by his Lutheran faith, a world in which the divine presence penetrated every piece of Creation. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach paints in sonic form the secular and the sacred world – the secular through the music of popular genres and dance forms, and the divine through canons and the miraculous geometric transforms of their musical themes.

The melodic voice of the Aria, returning once again to our ears, seems small and vulnerable with respect to what had come before, and we with it. In this return to the work’s beginnings, we hear – and share – the humble voice of a pious man before his God.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: ALBAN GERHARDT & STEVEN OSBORNE

Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008

The instrumental suite, with its predictable allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue sequence of dances and its un-predictable addition of various galanteries (minuets, bourrées, gavottes, etc.), was a staple of the Baroque.

Arising from neither of the period’s two great wellsprings of musical emotion – religious piety and operatic bombast – the subtext of the suite was social gaiety in an intimate setting, but not just any setting. The tone had more than a whiff of aristocratic elegance about it, its imaginary terpsichorean world being one of crisp court etiquette rather than rollicking village merriment. This was the music that housewives of the Baroque era’s rising middle class heard in their head as they reached for Hello magazine, or Majesty, in the checkout line at the local fishmonger’s.

In this context, the second of Bach’s set of six cello suites from ca. 1720 is a remarkable example of the genre. Written in a minor key, it constitutes an exceptionally dark and serious take on the dance culture of the French court, from which the religious and dramatic impulses of Lutheran Germany cannot be excluded as inspirational prompts in its creation.

The opening Prelude is homogenous in its texture of running 16th notes, from which a recurring habit of pausing on the second beat of the bar stands out
as a distinctly sarabande-like feature. Its opening arpeggio spelling out the D minor triad sets out a pattern of similar arpeggiated approaches to this second- beat pause that will pervade the movement as a whole, building tension in waves of melodic and harmonic sequences that seek ever higher ground.

The dances that follow are in binary form, each comprised of a first section that drifts away from the home key followed by a second section that returns to it, with each section played twice. The Allemande begins assertively, with
a quadruple stop that establishes its punchy style of rhythmic emphasis
that, combined with its wide range of motion, provides it an exceptionally rambunctious start to the dance set. The Courante hikes up the intensity a notch further in a driven moto perpetuo of virtually constant 16th-note motion.

The clear harmonic outlines of this breathless movement make it one of the most toe-tapping of the suite.

Darkest of the dark in this collection is the extraordinarily grave Sarabande, set in the deepest register of the instrument. A feeling of intense longing comes through in its long-held dissonances and its bewildered, searching phrases beset with anxious hand-wringing trills.

Minuets I & II form a matched pair of musical contrasts: the first in D minor, thickly scored in multiple stops but with an overtly dancelike lilt; the second in a contrasting D major, sparingly laid out in a single owing line of melody. We see in this pairing a precedent for the future matching of minuet & trio in the Classical era.

The concluding Gigue is true to its origins in the English or Irish jig, characterized by wild leaps, repetitive rhythms, and angular lines of melody that constantly change direction. Sombre as this suite is as a whole, its rollicking finale recaptures some of the genre’s elegant exuberance and élan.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109

The grandeur of Beethoven’s musical imagination is tellingly displayed in his antepenultimate piano sonata, a three-movement work that first dreams, then rages, and finally drifts beyond all mortal care to end at peace with the world. Its first movement is a gentle star-gazing fantasy, its second a sharply focused agitato of nightmarish intensity. To conclude, Beethoven reconciles these emotions – the lyrically expansive and the rhythmically driven – in a theme- and-variations finale that gives each its place in the sun.

The first movement is remarkable for its compactness. It opens with a pleasing sequence of harmonies divided between the hands that seems to oat in the air like the uttering of a bird’s wings until a harmonic surprise leads to an affectionate duet between soprano & tenor voices. This second subject is itself interrupted by a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soaring up and down the keyboard.

These three contrasting elements – uttering broken-chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement. But it is the first of these, the uttering broken-chord harmonies, with which Beethoven is obviously in love. It pulses through the entire development and concludes the movement in a coda that seems to drift to its conclusion, ebbing away rather than emphatically ending.

All the more shocking, then, is the contrast between this improvisatory first movement in E major and the arrival of its evil twin, the turbulent second movement in E minor, that follows without a pause. Here, signs of struggle are evident in the competing aims of a call-to-arms figure urgently rising up in the right hand and a stern passacaglia-like bass line grimly descending in the left.

This is no scherzo: there is no peaceful, contrasting ‘trio’ middle section. Rather, it is an unorthodox sonata-form movement driven to continuous contrapuntal development. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism manages to give a sharp edge of pathos to the movement’s violent outbursts and mysterious murmurings.

And then the clouds part, a warm spirit of peace and reconciliation shines down from the heavens, and the sonata ends with a theme-and-variations movement imbued with more than a hint of religious ecstasy.

And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while the same movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of keyboard-spanning arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to Baroque practice is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hiccupping division of material between the hands. Baroque instincts move into the foreground in the contrapuntal explorations of Variations 3 to 5. In his final variation, Beethoven transforms his theme from
a plain chordal harmonization into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before settling down to earth to take leave of his theme once again, presented once again in all its original simplicity – just the way Bach ended his Goldberg Variations.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D Major Op. 102 No. 2

The second of the two sonatas that Beethoven published as his Op. 102 is a particularly thorny creation: elemental, sinewy, and unyielding in its pursuit of musical ideas at the expense of musical sentiments. This is not the place to look for pleasant tunes to hum in the shower.

It comprises three sharply chiseled movements: a sternly brisk first movement with a drill-sergeant edge to it, an emotional black hole of a slow movement, and a full-on gritty fugue finale to let the duffers know just who they are dealing with. It’s quite a ride, this piece, and coming at the very start of Beethoven’s so-called “late period”, it gives a taste of the denseness and concentration of musical thought to come in future works.

The sonata opens with an arresting fanfare, ideal for deep-sleepers to program into their alarm clocks. These four quick notes and a big leap set the tone of brusqueness and forthright direct statement that characterizes the exposition throughout. The military bearing of its musical manner is reinforced by the frequent use of “snap-to-attention” dotted rhythms, bare-bones unison accompaniments, and the odd feeling that there is a bugle somewhere playing along with its many motives based on the major triad. Even the patriotic second theme sounds like a slow-motion fanfare. Only in the development section in the middle of the movement, and in the suspenseful coda at the end, does one move inside from the military parade square and begin to feel the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic plan, in place of the exposition’s barked-out orders and responses.

The second movement is oppressively Baroque in mood, its dark emotional tenor reinforced by a dirge-like pace and almost Brahmsian fascination with the low register of the piano. The movement’s opening melody of even 8th notes – with a pause at the end of each phrase – suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm that serves to accompany it. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. More expansive lyrical sentiments inhabit the middle section in the major mode, but all in vain, as the Grim Reaper returns to restore the grave tone of the opening, its rhythmic ‘limp’ having now become a twitching ‘tic’.

In keeping with Beethoven’s emerging tendency in his late period to isolate his musical material before developing it, he begins his transition to the finale by spelling out the rising scale figure that will become his fugue subject, first in the solo cello, then echoed back in the piano – like a magician who first shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. This fugue subject, when it arrives, is metrically a bit ‘o ’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar to the advantage of the second. This makes trying to follow the dazzling patchwork of fugal entries a daunting exercise in mental concentration, for which a tapping foot is only a distraction. The buzzing series of trills in the texture near the end point to their successors in the ‘sound-symphony’ finales of the last piano sonatas.

Claude Debussy
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor

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

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

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

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

Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Cello & Piano in E minor Op. 38

Brahms’s first published duo sonata, written between 1862 and 1865, is sombre in tone and antiquarian in inspiration. It is a weighty work – so weighty, in fact, that it stands complete without the emotional ballast of a slow movement at its centre. It features a sonata-form first movement generously proportioned in its three themes, a remarkably dancelike minuet and trio, and a fugal finale.

The shadow of Johann Sebastian Bach hangs long and dark over this sonata. Its opening theme seems to owe much in its outline to an inversion of the opening subject of Bach’s Art of the Fugue while the fugue subject of the finale is a dead ringer for the opening of the Contrapunctus 13 from the same work.

The sonata opens serenely with the cello rising up from its deepest register underneath a plush covering of o -beat chords much akin to those accompanying the opening theme of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, also in E minor. A section of rippling triplets leads to a second theme in the minor mode that is evocative of struggle, with its close imitation between the instruments and its singularly Brahmsian metrical pattern of 3/4 groupings in 4/4 time.

A final theme emerges with the consoling character of a lullaby – and who better to write lullabies than Brahms? These themes are treated in sequence in the development section and reviewed in the recapitulation to complete a template-perfect sonata-form structure.

The second movement minuet is distinctly archaic in flavour, not only in its modal scale patterns and Phrygian cadences, but also in its dainty, genuinely danceable ‘minuettish-ness’. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrasts with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio, that comes replete with its own rhythmic irregularities and slightly gypsyish alternations between major and minor.

Is the last movement a real fugue? It would appear to begin like one, channelling Bach with its dramatic octave-plunge fugue subject. But doubt begins to creep in when a lyrical and owing second theme appears in the relative major. The relaxed graciousness of this theme, an evident contrast to the stern character of the opening fugue subject, puts us squarely in sonata- form territory. And sure enough, both themes are masterfully juxtaposed in the ensuing development section. The manner in which Brahms seems to amalgamate these two very different themes – the Baroque-fugal and the Romantic-lyrical – into one continuous thread of music narrative, switching from one to the other at close range, is the measure of his historical and musical imagination.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825

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) inserted right before the zinger finale, the gigue. Each dance is in binary (two-part) form, and performance tradition has it that each part will be played twice. When the galanteries consist of a matched pair of the same dance form, another tradition says that the first will be played again after the second to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern.

Bach’s partitas are much grander and more technically challenging than his English Suites and French Suites, with larger individual movements. The Partita No. 1 in B flat, published in 1726, is quite an upbeat affair, ranging in mood from cheerful and celebratory in the opening movements to ecstatic, almost manic, in its closing gigue. Even when the pace is slow, as in the sarabande, the tone remains distinctly bright and chipper.

A prelude is intended to introduce the listener to the key they will be hearing a lot of in the course of the work and Bach’s Praeludium does a bang-up job of this, feeling its way methodically through the various scale degrees of B flat until we think we know them as old friends. It blithely ignores its other task, however: to warm up the player’s hands with simple passagework. Anyone who has attempted the opening mordent on a 32nd note without first dipping his fingertips in a hot double espresso will know exactly what I mean.

The fireworks begin in earnest in the Allemande, a toccata-like romp of 16th-note chatter up and down the keyboard, often split between the hands. The following movement is not the usual ‘flowing’ French Courante but its more lively Italian cousin, the Corrente, with enough hops, leaps and swagger to almost classify it as a gigue.

The Sarabande is the longest movement in the work, clocking in at a robust 4-5 minutes of performance time. Normally a slow stately dance in triple meter with a distinct inclination to “sit” with some sense of ownership on the 2nd beat of the bar, this sarabande diverts our attention away from the slow pace of harmonic movement in the bass by means of pertly alive and florid elaboration in the treble.

As galanteries Bach puts in a brace of menuets (the fashionable French spelling of “minuet”). The first ticks along in a constant flow of 8th notes like a mechanical clock while the second is all soothing and sustained in a rhythmically even succession of quarter notes.

The Gigue is a breathless vehicle for the keyboardist’s acrobatic skill, as impressive to watch as it is to hear, with hand-crossings between the bass and treble in every bar to create an antiphonal ‘echo’ effect throughout.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major Op. 7

The title page of Beethoven’s fourth sonata, published in 1797, proclaims this work as a Grande Sonate, a title it richly deserves, not only for its technical demands and extravagant length (Beethoven’s longest sonata until the Hammerklavier Op. 106), but also for its panoramic range of expression. It comprises a sonata-form first movement churning with rhythmic bumps and dynamic surprises, a slow movement of extraordinary expressive grandeur, an unusually lyrical scherzo and a rondo finale with robust contrasts of tone and mood.

Noticeable right off the bat in the first movement is how melody-making takes a back seat to the manipulation of raw sound. The movement opens with a rhythmic tapping in the bass that morphs into a series of scale passages in contrary motion. Rude shocks interrupt the flow until a smoothly flowing second theme can establish a more lyrical train of thought. The development section mulls over the contrast between this lyrical strain and more disruptive impulses, especially Beethoven’s trademark elbow-jabs of syncopation, and the recapitulation is remarkable for an even more forthright assertion of the kind of “rough” texture that the piano is capable of providing with sufficient prodding.

The contrast between the fortissimo ending of the first movement and the piano opening of the second, marked Largo con gran espressione, is shockingly dramatic. This movement, too, makes use of dynamic contrasts but in a different way. It is the silences and pauses inserted into the opening theme, combined with its deep resonance in the lower registers of the keyboard, that give this movement its immense gravitas and extraordinary depth of feeling. Its middle section is full of harmonic tension and an almost operatic sense of drama.

The 3rd movement scherzo Allegro opens in a soothing vein, its gently playful phrases of irregular length toying with the listener’s expectations while still maintaining a distinctly lyrical tone. The Trio in the monstrous key of E flat minor is a real piece of work, murmuring away conspiratorially in a rippling shimmer of broken chords punctuated regularly by sharp ffp accents.

The rondo finale is by turns gracious and volcanic, an odd combination that Beethoven pulls off with aplomb. The opening theme is lovingly endowed with many little sigh motives and colourfully orchestrated in both the mid and high registers of the keyboard. Its main thematic foil in the movement is a stormy patch of heavy chords over a surging left-hand accompaniment of rolling broken chords in the minor mode. These two poles of musical emotion, the gracious and the grumbly—Sir András Schiff calls them “Beauty and the Beast”—somehow manage to be reconciled when the churning left-hand accompaniment figure turns to the major mode to walk the sonata home in its final cadencing gestures.

Frédéric Chopin
Waltz in A minor Op. 32 No. 2
Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2
Waltz in A flat major Op. 42

 In the early 19th century the growing popularity of the waltz occasioned a fair bit of pearl-clutching among the ‘better’ classes of European society, with old maiden aunts and celibate priests leading the scolding with choruses of “Get a room!” Viewed as scandalously risqué for its daring combination of embracing couples and whirling movements, it nevertheless climbed the social ladder until it emerged by the end of the century as the very symbol of elegance, sophistication and social refinement.

The waltz developed in the last half of the 18th century out of country dances from Austria and Southern Germany, and in the Romantic era was absorbed into the world of salon music for the well-heeled. While it maintained its essential musical characteristics—triple meter with one chord to the bar—various nuances congenial to the Romantic spirit were introduced.

Chopin’s cultivation of the “sad waltz,” the waltz in a minor key, was one of these. Another was the amount of melodic content he saw fit to give to the left hand. His wistful, almost moping Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2 displays both of these qualities. It opens with a texture that sees the normal role of the hands reversed: it is the right hand playing the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern while the left sings out a mournful melody in the cello range tinged with pathos. While the major mode does appear to provide a bit of sunshine from time to time, the mood remains nostalgic, with more than a hint of melancholy.

The alternation of minor and major seems more evenly matched in the Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2, a sad piece that stops just short of whimpering by maintaining a nobility of sentiment throughout, especially in its gracious use of melodic ornaments.

The Waltz in A flat Op. 42 is popularly known as “the two-four waltz,” on account of its intriguing matching of duple rhythm in the right hand with the traditional “bass-chord-chord” triplets of the waltz in the left. Register-spanning arabesques of keyboard effervescence make for some ear-tickling listening, interrupted from time to time by outbursts of passion that justify the grand manner of its apotheosis on the final page.

Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat Op. 39

The piano music of Carl Maria von Weber was a fashionable pillar of the repertoire in the first half of the 19th century and much played, both at public concerts and in the home. It suffered eclipse, however, with the rise to prominence of those piano composers of the following generation who were most influenced by it: Liszt, Chopin & Mendelssohn. It stands as a curious cross-breed of stern Beethovenian high-seriousness, polished salon charm, and the exotic wildness of German Romanticism that made Weber famous across Europe as the composer of the opera Der Freischütz (1821).

His Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat, begun in 1814 and completed in 1816, was obviously intended as a display vehicle for the composer’s considerable talents as a pianist. Weber had a huge mitt of a hand, which made the daredevil leaps and elephantine chords of the score much easier to manage for him than for mere mortals. Brilliance is the dominant characteristic of the keyboard writing in this sonata, combined with a preference for getting a full sound out of the instrument by dint of throbbing chords in the mid-range while the right hand frolicks high in the treble like a sportive child at a water park. The colourful, scintillating textures of Chopin can be heard on the horizon in this kind of keyboard writing.

More captivating still is Weber’s sheer delight in piano tone, allied to what his biographer John Warrack described as “the new expressive content he showed that music could hold.” This emphasis on the poetic is evident from the opening bar of the Piano Sonata No. 2: a hushed tremolo in the left hand intoning an infinitely soft quivering octave on A flat that allows a horn-like broken-chord melody to blossom above it. These tremolos are more than just incidental colouring. They recur with dramatic force in the tumultuous development section, both at its outset and its climactic conclusion, giving the impression of a sonata movement that is really aspiring to be a dramatic scene from one of Weber’s operas.

The second movement Andante is a theme and variations that begins with an unusual texture of sustained melody notes in the treble over a sparse harmonic accompaniment that vanishes as soon as it sounds, like a kind of musical ‘Snapchat’ message. The variations are as ingenious for their keyboard textures as for the musical ideas they develop.

The third movement is called a Minuetto but it is really an outrageously theatrical scherzo, full of off-beat rhythms and razz-ma-tazz, out-of-the-blue sound gags. The Trio is somewhat more lyrical, but hardly soothing, with its rapturous flights of passion in the right hand urged on by anxiously throbbing chords in the left.

The rondo finale, with its chromatically dribbly main theme, graciously disposed in neatly balanced phrases, is remarkable for the amount of important thematic play it gives to the left hand, although right-hand sparkle is certainly not lacking in the more display-oriented sections of this movement. What is unusual in such a showpiece is how Weber ends the work quietly, with a modest tapering off of the piano sound he loves so much.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

 

Program Notes: Dover Quartet with Avi Avital

Sulkhan Tsintsadze

Six Miniatures for String Quartet and Mandolin (arr. Ohan Ben-Ari)

 The Soviets promoted the ideal of music rooted in the traditions of their native soil and in this regard it would be hard to find a composer more congenial to Soviet ideals than Sulkhan Tsintsadze, one of the leading composers of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Honoured throughout his long career for his prodigious output of operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works and film music, Tisintsadze is especially known in the West for his music for string quartet, above all his many sets of miniatures, each a picture of traditional life in the land of his birth.

Tsintsadze’s scores are remarkable for their wit and for the level of picturesqueness they achieve using just the standard effects of traditional string writing. In these short pieces, with their toe-tapping rhythms and melodies built up out of short repeated phrases, we hear the exotic sounds of traditional Georgian folk songs and imagine the colourful gestures of village dancing. Exhilarating glissandi convey the élan of the Georgian folk idiom and pizzicati the plucking of national stringed instruments.

In Shepherd’s Dance we hear a pastoral bagpipe drone in the cello and the fluty sound of the pan’s pipe in the strings higher up. The drone element is even more evident in the double-stops of the cello solo that opens the fighting song Satchidao, with its exotic Middle-Eastern-sounding scale pattern reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof.

We can imagine a group of whirling village dancers in the spiffy, almost breathless pace of Indi-mindi. Sentimental lyricism breaks out in Suliko, a waltz melody in sixths that wafts nostalgically over a light oom-pah-pah accompaniment. And it is in these lyrical moments that we hear Tsintsadze the film composer, writing for a popular audience.

 

Bedřich Smetana

Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From My Life”

It was in 1874 that Smetana first began to hear high-pitched sounds and experience other auditory disturbances, unmistakable symptoms of the disorder known as tinnitus which within two years would take away his hearing entirely. It was thus as a completely deaf 52-year-old composer that he wrote his first string quartet in 1876, a string quartet with an autobiographical program referred to in its title: From my life.

The life he had led was marked by a string of personal misfortunes. Three of his four daughters had died in infancy and his wife had predeceased him, as well. And yet his professional life in music and his early experience of falling in love provided him with inspiring moments of real exaltation. These strongly personal emotions he expressed in a string quartet remarkable for its orchestral conception of sound and consequently its technical difficulty. In fact, it was initially judged to be unplayable, due to his frequent use of multiple-stops.

Despite its programmatic themes, this work displays the standard four-movement pattern of the traditional string quartet, with a sonata-form first movement, followed by a scherzo, a lyrical slow movement and a rousing finale.

The first movement opens with a depiction of the composer’s youth, a troubled period in his life when he was afflicted with powerful yearnings, expressed by the strongly attacked motives of the solo viola over hushed tremolos in the other instruments. The falling interval with which each motive abruptly ends stands emblematic of the struggles he will face and the misfortunes that will befall him. But present in this movement is also a potent force of optimism, expressed by the second theme in a placidly peaceful G major. Despite a development section full of fretting over the first theme, it is this more peaceful second theme that will dominate the recapitulation, balancing out in a quiet ending the worrying tone of the movement’s opening theme.

The dancelike character of the second movement scherzo is evident in its tempo marking: Allegro moderato a la Polka. Smetana confesses that he was fond of dancing, and composed a great deal of dance music in his youth. The tone here is unpretentiously upbeat, full of hops, skips and boisterous good spirits. And really now, is there anything more joyous than the sugary dominant 9th chord that opens this movement? The middle section trio, by contrast, with its soothing off-beat chords and Palm-Court-like insouciance, is total suavity from beginning to end – a tip of the hat, Smetana says, to the aristocratic circles he frequented as a young buck.

The slow movement Largo sostenuto pays tribute to the composer’s childhood sweetheart, Kateřina Kolářová, whom he married in 1847, and who died of tuberculosis ten years later. Beginning with a cello soliloquy that soulfully repeats the falling intervals of the quartet’s opening, this movement develops as a series of variations on two themes, sometimes lovingly enveloped in a nurturing accompaniment of adoring countermelodies, sometimes throbbing with drama and youthful ardour.

The Vivace final movement is indelibly stamped with the effervescence and natural vitality of Czech folk music, presenting passages of a strongly marked – even punchy– rhythmic character alternating with solo “lead breaks” by individual instruments. The music suddenly stops, however, as ominous tremolos prepare the way for a long-held ultra-high E in the first violin, representing the abnormal sound that Smetana began to hear in his ear as his hearing slowly disappeared. The movement then lurches slowly to its conclusion, recalling memories of themes past, until it fades into the very silence that marked the composer’s final years.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Chaconne from Partita in D minor for Violin BWV   1004

The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges that it presents to the performer and for the monumental brilliance of its formal architecture.

At its core is a 4-bar pattern of chords, stated at the outset, that serve as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s 4-bar thematic pattern comes in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar. There follow 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, 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.

Avi Avital stands in a long line of transcribers of this work. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn arranged the work for violin and piano, while Busoni created the canonical version for piano solo that Benjamin Grosvenor played at his VRS concert in 2015. Not to mention, of course, the version that Andres Segovia created for guitar.

Each instrument or combination of instruments offers new possibilities for clothing the elegant structure of this work in new sonic garb. Some, like Busoni, have sought to expand its sound palette to match that of the organ. Brahms, on the other hand, conceived of its musical riches as capable of being contained within the small compass of the pianist’s left hand alone. It will be of great interest to see where Avi Avital takes this celebrated piece, sonically and interpretively, on the mandolin.

 

David Bruce

Cymbeline for String Quartet and Mandolin

David Bruce was born in Connecticut in 1970 but grew up in England where he received his academic musical training, graduating in 1999 with a Ph.D. in composition from King’s College London under Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He has received numerous commissions from Carnegie Hall and was composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House from 2012 to 2013. His latest opera, Nothing, often described as “a modern-day Lord of the Flies,” was premiered at Glyndebourne in February 2016 and will be performed in Aarhus, Denmark this year.

There is a directness of appeal in Bruce’s music that derives from the intriguing strangeness of the simple musical textures he creates, textures featuring exotic scale modes, engaging rhythms, wind-chime-like timbres, and above all a magical connection to intimate human emotion.

“Cymbeline” is an old Celtic word that refers to the Lord of the Sun. The composer’s first impulse in creating this work was an association that he intuited between the colour of the sun and the warm golden timbre of the mandolin and string quartet playing together.

The work is structured in three movements conceived as a temporal sequence of primal daily sun events (sunrise, noon, sunset) which the composer describes as follows:

The sun was one of the first objects of worship and it has been surmised that the idea of a holy trinity … relates to the three distinct positions of the sun: sunrise (father), noon (son), and sunset (spirit). Sunrise is “the father of the day”; midday represents the fullness of energy, the son; and sunset is a time for contemplation and reflection – the spirit. To me, these three states represent not just “father, son and spirit” but also perhaps, the reflection upon an action about to happen (sunrise), the action itself (noon), and the reflection on the action that happened (sunset).

Cymbeline was written especially for Avi Avital and is dedicated to him and his wife Roni, in honour of their recent marriage.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Winterlude – Suite Saturday with Jean-Guihen Queyras

A Bit of History

Few scholars doubt that Western music was better off for the release of a certain “Bach, Johann Sebastian” from the county jail in Weimar where he had languished, in unsuitable company, for the better part of a month in the autumn of 1717. Court organists can be a stroppy crew at the best of times, and court music directors even more so. But Bach, court organist and music director at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, had pushed ducal patience to the limit.

The cause of all this workplace turmoil was a job offer that Bach had received from the Duke’s brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. In his rush to pack his bags and cancel his magazine subscriptions, it appears that Bach had failed to observe the finer points of court etiquette – like getting official permission to leave – and several weeks in hoosegow was Officialdom’s response.

Now, readers of a no-nonsense mindset will no doubt be wondering just where all this is leading, and the answer is simple: it leads to the six suites for solo cello that Bach composed at the court of Prince Leopold in or around 1720.

The Prince, you see, was a Calvinist. He had no need for the type of liturgical warbling that composers at Catholic courts were required to produce en masse, as it were. But the Prince was indeed a music-lover. He is said to have played the harpsichord, the violin, and perhaps also the viola da gamba. When the orchestra at the court of Prussia was dissolved in 1714, Leopold eagerly scooped up the best orchestral players to form the core of his own musical establishment and made instrumental music the centrepiece of his princely entertainments.

Bach’s move from Weimar to the court of Prince Leopold, then, pointed his compositional activities firmly in the direction of secular music, and it was to his tenure as the Prince’s Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723 that we owe such works as the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and the Six Suites for Solo Cello.

* * *

No autographed manuscript of the cello suites has survived, although numerous copies were made, the most authoritative being that of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, made c.1730. After Bach’s death, these works 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 these works 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. Having been intrigued by a 19th- century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began to study the cello suites seriously and performing them in public. Then in 1936 he recorded Suites 1 & 2 at the Abbey Road Studios in London 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 and Casals’ recordings from the 1930s are still an important point of reference for cellists performing today, alongside another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

 

The Baroque Dance Suite

Bach’s time at the court of Anhalt-Köthen had one lasting influence on his compositional life: it instilled in him a love of the dance, as evidenced by the number of dance suites he composed while there.

The Baroque suite, a collection of dances all in the same key, was the ideal DJ party mix for an evening of toe-tapping entertainment among the European middle to upper classes with a taste for international musical culture. In its standard form it presented a buffet-style sampling of the major musical styles of Europe: the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante (or its peppier Italian variant, the corrente), the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue.

Additional optional dances known as galanteries were often added to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. Among these insertions were the courtly minuet (or menuet in French), the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. 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.

All of the dances following the prelude are composed in binary (two-part) form. The task of the first part is to find its way to the key of the dominant (five scale tones up from the home key) and land on a satisfying cadence there in its final bar. The job of the second part is then to find its way back to the original key and lay down an even more satisfying cadence – a kind of “Honey, I’m home!” gesture – to let you know that the piece is now finally over. The fact that each of these two parts is normally played twice seemed to matter little to the Baroque ear.

One other practice worthy of note is that of returning to the first of the minuets, gavottes or bourrées after playing the second (contrasting) one, giving a rounded A-B-A form to this brace of optional inserted dances.

* * *

Dance suites were a popular genre of keyboard music in the Baroque period but writing for a solo instrument like the cello, that could play only a single melodic line, posed distinct challenges. 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.

But hold on. How do you play harmonies – which is to say chords – on an instrument that only plays a single melodic line? Multi-string chord-playing is possible, of course, but writing multiple stops in every bar is a sure way to send your performer into physio looking for multiple finger splints. The answer is to imply the harmonies you want your listener to hear by slyly emphasizing – and frequently returning to – important fundamental chord notes and tendency tones so that one actually begins to hear a multi-voiced harmonic structure beneath all the fancy filigree. This is how harmonic tension and anticipation is created and when done well you find yourself expecting a certain chord pattern to follow another one – even if neither is stated outright.

This the monetary 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, this aural perceptual “dance within the dance.”

 

A Few Recommendations

While every listener will have his or her favourites from among the 42 individual dance movements in this collection of suites, the following have etched their way into my musical memory in a way that I cannot, in all honesty, fail to mention.

The opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in G has almost become synonymous with Baroque cello music itself. Its nobility of sentiment far transcends what one might expect to admire in a simple repetitive pattern of broken chord figures and connecting scales. The key of G is important here, as the bottom two strings, low G and the D above it, are open strings on the cello and Bach plays to the natural resonance of these two strings in crafting this prelude. The result is a rocking, undulating pattern of tones that evokes a sense of being at peace with the world.

Bach’s sense of sonic resonance is operating at a high level, as well, in the massive build-up of sound in the Prelude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, but this one puts you through the ringer. It features the same rocking pattern of wide-stretching broken chords, made all the more sonorous by the stabilizing presence of the low G used as a pedal tone beneath increasingly dissonance harmonies striving above it.

For sheer grit and dogged resolve it would be difficult to beat the headlong thrust of the Courante from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. This dance turns the cello into a veritable street fighter with bravado to spare. The perky lilt of the Courante from the Suite No. 6, however, makes this same dance form into a real toe-tapper by simply arranging 8ths and 16ths in the right pattern of leaps and scales.

Among the sarabandes, that of the Suite No. 2 D minor wins the prize for wringing the greatest amount of expression out of a single, slow melodic line. But the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C minor is memorable in a different way. Consisting entirely of 8th notes leaping widely over the entire range of the instrument, it manages nonetheless to tell a gripping story full of harmonic tension and much anticipated tension release.

There really is no contest among the galanteries. The Bourrée from the Suite No. 3 in C major has been a favourite since my early adolescence, probably because of the number of popular arrangements that have been made of it. Its easy- going mood and self-evident harmonic drive make it the sort of thing you hum to yourself in the shower. Almost as hummable is the Bourrée from the Suite No. 4 in E flat, with its wonderfully symmetrical phrases.

The gigue with the street cred to really jig it up big time is the one from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. The huge leaps in this movement give this dance movement a specially memorable swagger that stays in the memory long after it has finished.

And finally, a special note of admiration is due to the cellist himself, who in the Suite No. 6 in D will be playing, on a four-stringed cello, a piece originally written for a five- stringed instrument!

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

 

Antonio  Vivaldi

Siciliana in D minor (arr.  J. S. Bach and Alfred Cortot)

Nothing could be more  Baroque than an arrangement of an arrangement. The Baroque was a period in music  history in which music  travelled freely between instruments and instrumental ensembles. Bach’s Organ  Concerto No. 5 for solo organ BWV  596, composed sometime between 1713 and 1714, was actually his transcription for organ of the slow  movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor Op. 3 No. 11 (RV 565)  for two violins,  strings, and continuo. Bach’s organ version was then  in turn  transcribed for piano  by the French  pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) who  recorded his arrangement in 1937.

Written in the lilting dotted rhythm characteristic of the dance  form known as the siciliana,  it evokes  a gentle, pastoral mood tinged with tender melancholy, created by the characteristic use of Neapolitan (flat second scale degree) harmony.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor (arr.  Busoni)

For the Baroque organist the combination of toccata and fugue caught both heaven and earth  in its compositional grasp,  pairing fingers and brain,  keyboard virtuosity and contrapuntal mastery. In the 20th century Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor became one of the most popular and recognizable of organ works in this genre,  thanks  largely to its inclusion in Walt Disney’s  animated film  Fantasia (1940) and its subsequent championing by organists as diverse as the austere E. Power  Biggs  and the ever-flamboyant Virgil Fox.

The transcription of this organ work by pianist and industrious Bach-transcriber Ferruccio Busoni  (1866-1924) sets itself  the task of conveying in piano  sonority not only  the flamboyance of the Toccata’s virtuoso flourishes, but  also the complex and rich colouring of the thickly contrapuntal textures that make up the Fugue, with its chattering violinistic subject and many  pedal  points. For this the pianist’s right pedal  foot must be as skilled  as the fingers on his two hands.

 

Franz Schubert

Moments Musicaux Nos. 2 and 3 D. 780

The six small piano  pieces  that Schubert published in 1827 as Moments musicaux are as close as we can get  to hearing what a Schubert evening, a Schubertiade, must have sounded like with Schubert himself at the piano.  These pieces, while congenial in mood, are intimate, almost confidential in tone. They are meant for home  entertaining, and not  far removed from the spirit of song. The melodies are singable and the keyboard range  used extends little beyond the range  of the human  voice.

No. 2 in A flat opens  with a succession of lyrical melodic fragments of small range that stop and start as if a daydream were  being constantly interrupted, and then re-begun. Even the more  sustained tone of the middle section in the minor mode seems to circle  contemplatively around a single  note,  as if caught in a state of reverie.

No. 3 in F minor is the most popular piece  in the set and was subsequently published separately under  the exotic title Air Russe, presumably because  dance- like pieces  in the minor mode were  thought typical of Eastern Europe.  Remarkably homogenous in rhythm, its middle section in F major  is more  characteristically Viennese  than Russian.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata in F minor Op. 57 “Appassionata”

Beethoven’s 23rd  piano  sonata  of 1804-1805  is one of the works that,  along with his Fifth Symphony, stands  in the public imagination as emblematic of the composer’s explosive temperament; his angry pose of heroic resistance against all forces that would seek to tame  his indomitable will. Its outer movements, in particular, explored new terrain in terms of dynamic contrast, expressive range  and sheer technical difficulty. It was not  by chance  that he chose the key of F minor for this work,  as this key allowed him to write comfortably for the full keyboard range of his day, from F1 in the bass to a high  C7 in the treble, both of which appear in the score.

And  as he did in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven chose to make his point with a bare minimum of motivic material, the elements of the entire first movement all being presented on the first page  of the score. First there  is the eerie pattern of dotted rhythms that softly rise through an F-minor arpeggio to culminate in a mysterious trill.  Then the repeat of this gesture a semitone higher introduces the idea of Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened second degree of the scale). This is answered by a corresponding semitone drop in the bass, setting up an explosion of sonority that rips down from the high  treble to the very  bottom of the keyboard. The motivic intensity of this movement is so dense that even the second theme,  in A flat, is a mere  variant of the first.  The opening fireworks are balanced, formally, by an extended coda  (as in the Fifth Symphony) that first erupts in apocalyptic fury  and then  relents to end the movement in a quivering tremolo, seething with menace  still, that recedes into  the sonic distance.

The Andante con moto slow  movement, a theme with four variations, is everything that the first movement is not: emotionally stable  and harmonically conventional, its expressive gestures played out  within a relatively small range  circling around the middle of the keyboard.

The dying embers of fading anger  that ended  the first movement return to life in the third movement, announced by a clarion call to arms on an unstable diminished 7th chord. This finale  is a moto perpetuo of restless  16th notes  ranging feverishly in a combination of arpeggios and scale patterns over  wide  swathes of the keyboard.

Here, too, motivic economy is much  in evidence: witness how  the second theme is merely a reproduction of the first,  but  placed in the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher.  Things  come  to a head in a closing Presto  section, described by Sir András Schiff  as a kind  of “demonic czardas,” that stomps and skips until  a final whirlwind of moto perpetuo material returns to sweep  the work to its conclusion in a cascade  of broken chords rattling from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.

 

Sergei Prokofiev

Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata  No. 6 is the first of the three  “War Sonatas” (Nos. 6, 7, and 8) written between 1939 and 1944 while  the Soviet Union  was at war with Nazi Germany. The Sixth  Sonata  was completed in 1940 and demonstrates well the obsessive rhythmic drive,  percussive attack, and dissonance-encrusted harmonies that characterize Prokofiev’s style  of piano  writing. The work comprises four movements which,  given  the extreme modernity of their  musical language, are laid out  in a surprisingly traditional pattern: sonata-form first movement, second movement scherzo,  slow  third movement, and rondo finale.

The sonata  opens  with an arresting ‘motto’ that descends three  scale steps, doubled with first a major  and then  a minor 3rd (C natural then  C #), creating a brilliantly colourful bitonal effect that,  even if it weren’t stutteringly repeated almost 40  times  in the course  of the exposition, would be memorable. A more tranquil second subject offers a contrasting vision  of where things are going, but  both are put  through the wringer in a development section peppered with repeated notes  before the opening motto returns in a recapitulation of brutal directness enacted over  a keyboard range  of more  than six octaves.

The Allegretto second movement has been called  a “quick march” and with a dependable four staccato beats  to the bar its metrical regularity comes  as a welcome relief  after the chaotic events  of the first movement. Its espressivo middle section adds a more  expansive note  of mystery and wonder to the proceedings. This movement ends almost humorously as its colourful harmonic pulses veer into port in the very  last bar.

The slow  waltz Tempo  di valzer  lentissimo, while  lacking any real Viennese  sense of lilt, has a wonderful vulnerability about it that is quite touching despite, or perhaps because  of the searching quality of its constantly shifting inner  voices,  even in the more  turbulent middle section.

The work closes, like the other two War Sonatas, with a toccata of breathless drive that scampers playfully between tonal centres like it owned them  all. It becomes increasingly haunted, however, by the thematic ghosts of the first movement and ends firmly in the grip  of the opening motto.

 

Mily Balakirev

Islamey Op. 18

Islamey  is one of those  lesser known pieces  from the 19th century that nonetheless had a significant impact on successive generations of composers. It was quoted by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Scheherazade, by Borodin in Prince Igor, and it remains  in the orchestral repertoire today thanks  to arrangements made  by Alfredo Casella and Sergei Lyapunov.

Mily Balakirev was the unofficial leader  of the Russian Five, a handful of musicians including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and César Cui who  sought to ground their  works in authentic Slavic musical traditions. Balakirev was himself an avid collector of folk tunes, and it was on a visit  to the Caucasus in 1863 that he first encountered the dance  tune  known as ‘Islamey’  that would become the first theme of his eponymous work for piano  solo, subtitled Fantaisie orientale.

A folksong popular among the Tatars  of Crimea  forms the subject of the work’s more  tranquil and lyrical middle section.

Islamey  was likely  composed as a virtuoso showpiece for Nikolai Rubinstein to perform at a concert held in late 1869 at the Free Music School  in St. Petersburg, founded by Balakirev. Rubinstein’s subsequent remark that he found certain passages  “difficult to manage” gained the work a reputation for being unplayable and it has doubtless driven many  a pianist into  physiotherapy—perhaps even psychotherapy—for attempting it. Scriabin was said to have injured his right hand while  trying to learn it, and Ravel famously remarked that his Gaspard  de la nuit was an attempt to write “a piece  more  difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey.”

Among the interpretive challenges the work presents is the choice of tempo. Long  stretches of interlocking passagework between the hands need to be able to “speak” well on the keyboard if the peppery rhythmic vitality and dancelike character of its opening theme are to be captured. Otherwise all one hears is a blur  of notes.  For Islamey  is more  than a mere  circus  act. It stands  at the apex of Romantic-era works for the virtuoso pianist and counts as a significant contribution to the cause of 19th-century musical nationalism in Russia.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: The Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
Well-Tempered Clavier II
Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major BWV 876 (arr. Mozart)

In 1782 Mozart’s patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, showed the composer a number of manuscripts of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and encouraged him to make string arrangements for performance at the Baron’s regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts in his home. The result was a collection of Bach fugues arranged for string trio and for string quartet.

The E-flat fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier  is a four-voice fugue of remarkable design. Its voices enter in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) to build up a four-voice texture firmly grounded in the home key, and almost all subsequent appearances of the theme enter in the same keys as the opening: E flat and B flat.

The harmonic stability that characterizes the formal plan, however, is enlivened by a fugue subject of great vitality, created out of an ear-catching mix of melodic leaps laid out in a pattern of note values accelerating from slow to quick. Combined with the built-in phrase repetition in the theme itself, the result is almost dance-like.

Arranging this fugue for string quartet allows the work’s contrapuntal texture to be presented in higher sonic relief to the listener’s ear, with long notes swelling in the middle in a way impossible on the keyboard, and short notes articulated crisply by means of adroit bowing.

 

Dmitri  Shostakovich
Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor Op. 144

Dmitri Shostakovich was the ugly duckling of 20th-century composers, a thickly bespectacled, chain-smoking musical intellectual whose scores, while contemporary in their sound palette, often bristled with the contrapuntal intensity of a previous age. No stranger to the larger forms of symphony, concerto, and opera, he focused increasingly at the end of his life on the more intimate genres of the song cycle and the string quartet. Following the diagnosis of a heart condition in 1965, his works became darker in spirit, beset with a tragic undertow no doubt influenced by the experience of his declining health.

His 15th string quartet was his last, composed in 1974, the year before his death. Written in the dark key of E-flat minor, it unfolds as an uninterrupted sequence of six slow movements, all marked Adagio. Beneath the death-inspired melancholy of this work glimmers faintly the memory of living human emotions, expressed in the titles given to each movement.

The first movement Elegy opens with an eerily subdued fugal exposition in the low range of the instruments. Its melodically inert, death rattle of a theme whispers out three notes on the same pitch, then continues to circle listlessly around it in the modal style of medieval chant. A second theme, based on a C major arpeggio, eventually emerges but brings scant cheer, as the entire movement, the longest of the work, never rises above the dynamic level of mp.

Not so the sharply profiled second movement Serenade,  which begins with a 12- tone row of snarling—or perhaps shrieking—crescendos, each on a single note played by a single instrument, swelling from ppp  to sffff. In the course of this movement these violent gestures play against an absent-minded waltz, to curious effect.

The short Intermezzo features a similarly odd pairing between an exuberant, almost ecstatic cadenza in the first violin and scattered melodic musings in the other instruments. Genuine sustained lyricism arrives for the first time in the Nocturne, as the viola pours out its soul against a delicate tracery of arpeggios in the other instruments. Played with mutes, this movement rarely features more than three instruments playing at a time, giving it a quality of nocturnal intimacy.

There is no mistaking the grave, commemorative tone of the following Funeral March, in which we hear the pure minor chords and dotted rhythms of traditional funeral music projected with surprising aggressiveness in both chordal declarations and solo laments.

The concluding Epilogue sums up the previous emotional terrain with cadenza-like flights of fancy alternating with dull echoes of both the first and second themes from the first movement. Its flurry of trills has been compared to “the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard”.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in E-flat major Op. 127

The late quartets of Beethoven are known for raising the bar in terms of formal experiment and range of expression, but the first of these, the Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, is almost shockingly conventional in this regard. Tuneful in the most popular manner, its expressive aspirations rarely exceed those of the common air or folksong, and its four separate movements are laid out in the most traditional of formal patterns: a sonata-form first movement, theme-and-variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a sonata-form finale.

What this quartet does have in common with many late-period works is the extravagant dimensions of its theme and variations movement—it clocks in at over a quarter of an hour in length, in a league with the variation movements of the late piano sonatas Opp. 109 and 111. Equally remarkable is the sustained lyrical impulse that broadly dominates the first two movements, to the detriment of Beethoven’s trademark penchant for striking contrasts and high-voltage drama, which only join the party in the scherzo.

A hint of the more “muscular” Beethoven is given in the first movement’s opening fanfare, a fanfare that recurs several times throughout the movement. But at each appearance it can’t help melting into song, the operating principle of the movement seeming to be that of leisurely continuous variation rather than dramatic set-up and release. This is evident in the minor-mode second theme, which is minimally contrasting and echoes fragments of the first, while the development, for the most part, prefers to stretch out its melodic lines like toffee instead of fragmenting them like peanut brittle. The question “Why can’t we all just get along?” seems to have found its answer in this movement.

The theme of the second movement’s variations is a lyrical ascent of scale notes extending over more than an octave followed by a series of gracious descents. Eminently vocal in character, this melody was actually split off from the quartet and published separately as a song after Beethoven’s death. The six variations that follow unfold calmly with an admirable simplicity. They maintain the gentle flow and relaxed feel of their founding melody, and rather than dressing it up with ornamental curlicues, they simplify it, as in many of Beethoven’s late variation sets, seeking to reduce it to its core constituents.

The Beethoven of contrast and drama returns in the scherzo. Its theme is a mischievous collection of little gestures comprised of dotted rhythms and purring trills, creeping up the scale in stages, answered imitatively by its mirror opposite coming down in the opposite direction. The opening and closing sections of the movement swing wildly between clever counterpoint and rampaging unisons while the trio alternates between breathless scurrying and rustic swagger.

This rustic quality is much in evidence as well in the final movement Allegro. Its folk-like character is conveyed in a seemingly endless stream of simple, tuneful, and symmetrically phrased melodies (Joseph Kerman calls it a “medley”), imprinted with the oafish good humour of drunken village dancing. Near the end, a heavenly trill in the first violin summons the rustics to heed the angels of their better natures, and the husky rhythms of their revels give way to the smooth flowing lines of human concord as the work ends.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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