Johannes Brahms | Vancouver Recital Society

Stay Tuned!

Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!

×

PROGRAM NOTES:PAUL LEWIS (CONCERT 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludwig van Beethoven
Six Bagatelles Op. 126

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

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

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

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

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

Johannes Brahms
Sechs Klavierstücke Op. 118

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: 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: István Várdai

Felix Mendelssohn

Variations  Concertantes Op. 17

Felix was not the only musician in the Mendelssohn family. His older sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) was a prodigiously talented pianist and composer, although she chose marriage over a public career, and his younger brother Paul Mendelssohn (1812-1874) was no slouch as a cellist, to judge by the Variations Concertantes that Felix wrote for him in 1829.

The adjective concertantes in the title underlines the notion that this work was written for two solo instruments, not one instrument accompanying another. In the late 18th century sonatas for cello and piano were grossly lopsided affairs. In an age without sound technicians to turn a knob and boost the bass frequencies

in a chamber ensemble, piano sonatas were often published with an optional cello part doubling the bass line. This gave a bit of “oomph” to the lower regions where the sound of the early fortepiano, forerunner of the modern concert grand, was lamentably thin.

It was Beethoven who elevated the cello to the status of equal interlocutor in duo chamber works with cello, beginning with his Op. 5 sonatas for cello and piano. And Beethoven is an important point of reference in the musical style of this work (especially his Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 26), although the spirit of Mozart hovers over the variation theme with its feminine cadence patterns, as well.

The compositional task, in sets of variations such as these, is to keep the listener’s interest engaged by constantly varying the texture and mood. Mendelssohn accomplishes this in pairs of tag-team variations that see first the cello, then the piano taking a leading role.

It is Var. 7, in which the cozy, parlour haze of Biedermeier domesticity is stripped from the theme in a minore variation with flying octaves in the piano part and operatic recitative in the cello, that points clearly in the direction of the Romantic era to come. Then, after reprising the opening theme in all its simplicity in the manner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the final variation takes things further in an extended coda of Beethovenian proportions that nonetheless tapers the work to an elegant conclusion in a mood of tranquility and repose.

 

Igor Stravinsky

Suite Italienne  (arr. Gregor Piatigorsky)

Stravinsky’s music for the ballet Pulcinella, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in May 1920, exemplifies the new neo-classical style which he adopted after the First World War. Setting aside the bold rhythmic experiments and gargantuan orchestral ensembles that had propelled his pre-war ballets Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring  (1913) to international success, he looked instead to create more transparent textures, with fewer instruments, in direct imitation of music of the past.

The ballet Pulcinella features stories about the traditional stock characters of Italian commedia dell’ arte and Stravinsky’s musical score is equally traditional, using melodies from the gracious scores of Neapolitan opera composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Music this easy on the ears was bound to spawn arrangements and in 1932 Stravinsky and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky set to work on a version for cello and piano, completed in 1933.

Stravinsky’s aim was not to produce a mere pastiche of the earlier composer’s style, but rather a modernist re-imagining of Pergolesi’s melodies in a post-World-War world. He preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadences and Baroque ornamentation of the originals, but signalled a new modernist context for the work by means of numerous irregularities such as strong accents on weak beats of the bar and exaggerated dissonance in the bass-line—a clever way of increasing sonic resonance without thickening the score.

The Introduzione is the overture to the ballet, written in the Baroque ritornello style; that is, structured as a regular alternation between sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and sections played by a small group of soloists (concertino). These structural divisions are still audible in the cello and piano version, as well.

The gentle lilt and dotted rhythm of the Serenata  identifies it a sicilienne. It is based on the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes) from Pergolesi’s Il Flaminio (1735) but its overall mood of pastoral tranquillity also contained an odd hint of melancholy.

In the following Air, the cello plays the role of the socially awkward basso buffo Bastiano from Il Flaminio pleading his suit to the love of his life—unsuccessfully, to judge from the lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ‘nnamurato (1732) that follows.

The virtuoso showpiece of the suite is the Tarantella, set in the high register of the cello and featuring a whirlwind of melodies spun out at breakneck speed.

The Minuetto and finale  builds up gradually in excitement from its opening tone of sustained elegy until it finally explodes into an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an 18th-century comic opera finale, from which emerges a series of nostalgic reminiscences of the most hummable phrases from the overture.

 

Zoltan  Kodály

Sonatina for Cello and Piano

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) are considered the fathers of Hungarian art music. Their work collecting wax-cylinder recordings of folksongs in the Hungarian countryside and in Hungarian-inhabited areas of Slovakia and Romania counts among the earliest contributions to the field of ethnomusicology. While the music of both composers displays clear signs of both their Classical training and their interest in folk culture, Kodály’s synthesis of these two influences was more easily received by the Hungarian public than that of Bartók.

At the heart of Kodály’s music is an interest in melody and his Sonatina for Cello and Piano of 1922 overflows with a passionate lyricism that situates it a direct line of descent from the cello works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Dvořák.

Structured in a type of sonata form without formal development, the work owes much of its pentatonic style of melody construction to Hungarian folk music, while its often shimmering piano textures, remarkable in their variety, are clearly influenced by the composer’s exposure to French impressionism and the music of Debussy in particular.

 

György Ligeti

Sonata for Solo Cello

György Ligeti (pronounced LI-ge-ti) was a leading figure of the avant-garde in the latter half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known to popular audiences for the use of his searing scores Atmosphères (1961), Lux Aeterna (1966), Requiem (1965), and Aventures (1962) used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

His early career, before he emigrated from Hungary in 1956, was beset with the difficulties inherent in working under a communist regime suspicious of artistic innovation and other “bourgeois” tendencies. His Sonata  for Solo Cello, which was banned by the Composers’ Union for its modernity, comes from this period.

The Sonata comprises two contrasting movements, the first composed in 1948 and the second five years later in 1953. The first movement Dialogo is written without fixed metre and depicts a conversation between a man and a woman—a conversation narrowly focused on a small range of topics, it would appear, given the amount of repetition of the opening phrases.

The second movement, entitled Capriccio, is a strictly metered moto perpetuo in 3/8 time that pays tribute to the virtuoso exuberance of Paganini’s famous Caprices for violin.

 

Johannes Brahms

Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 99

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

The first movement Allegro vivace opens in sweeping fashion with a feverish quivering of piano tremolos over which the cello sets out its thematic agenda in a series of bold fanfares. This pattern of tremolos will form an important unifying motif throughout the movement as a stabilizing counterbalance to the melodic fragmentation that characterizes the principal theme.

The second movement Adagio affettuoso is in simple ternary form. Its principal theme, sung out with full-throated fervour by the cello after a brief introduction, is remarkably chromatic but vocally lyrical nonetheless. The piano takes the spotlight in the minor-mode middle section, but then welcomes the cello back to sing out once again, its theme graced with an even more decorative accompaniment than before.

If the second movement belongs to the cello, it is the piano that captures the ear in the third movement Allegro passionato, a scherzo featuring strongly assertive keyboard writing that makes the piano a major presence in the sonority. Adding to its punch and impact are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms and “oomphy” syncopations reminiscent of those in the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor.  In this movement it is the cello that gets to shine in the middle section, where it hums out a wistful melody of irregular phrase lengths that suggests the influence of folksong.

The sonata concludes with a gentle rondo of uncomplicated design written in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83. The simple, rhythmically repetitive tune that opens the movement alternates with a series of short contrasting episodes that, even when cast in the minor mode, seem only designed to highlight all the more the contentment to be gained by returning to the major.

PROGRAM NOTES: BRAHMS FESTIVAL


CONCERT #1

Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1

If there was one great figure in European music that Brahms revered more than any other, that figure was Ludwig van Beethoven. With the Great Master’s bust looking impassively down on him from the wall of his Vienna apartment, feeling behind him the great “footsteps of a giant” jiggling every teacup on the shelf, Brahms was over forty before he published his first symphony and first string quartet, the two genres that his towering predecessor had dominated.

For the first work in each genre he chose a key darkly emblematic of the brooding temperament and explosive emotional energy of his musical forbear. Both his Symphony No. 1 and first string quartet are in the smoldering, fateful key of C minor, making them tonal step-siblings to the Pathétique and Op. 111 piano sonatas, as well as to the Fifth Symphony. This key, however, had more than mere commemorative value for the score of Brahms’ first string quartet. C-natural is also the lowest pitch on the cello, allowing the composer ample space for expressive depth in his string writing.

Indeed, the sound space occupied by this quartet, its outer movements especially, could readily be described as not just Beethovenian, but “symphonic”. It opens with an anxious orchestral tremolando, recalling similar effects in the C minor quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18, and the exposition of the Pathétique. Over top races an urgent rising figure that culminates in a downward leap of a diminished 7th, the same interval that opens the Op. 111 sonata. After a bit of metrical vertigo induced by the cross-grouping of rhythmic and harmonic patterns, we are stopped short by two sharp “exclamation point” chords. In a mere seven breathless measures, Brahms takes us from a furtive piano to a defiant forte, from a textural spacing of a single octave to a gaping expanse of four and a half—from the low C on the cello to a high-high A flat in the first violin—and from a pulse- quickening pace to an abrupt crash-test halt.

It is at this point that seasoned quartet-lovers reach down to fasten their seat belts.

More seriously lyrical material intervenes leading on to a second subject in E flat—more minor than major—but the restless mood continues unabated in continuous eight-note activity, with the notable emergence of a small da-da-da-DUM motive glinting with knowing winks back at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Following an emotional climax in cascading stretto, the exposition closes with graceful arabesques from the first violin to spread soothing melodic oil over the troubled textural waters.

The development transforms the movement’s opening pulses into a mere harmonic flutter before the heavy lifting begins and the themes of the exposition are jostled about at close quarters in invertible counterpoint. The recapitulation is remarkable for its coda, an intense accelerando of fz accents that pulls back in its final bars to end with a written out ritardando in the major mode.

Between the more rhetorically fraught first and last movements, Brahms inserts two miniatures of distinctly contrasting mood. The Romanze is a Mendelssohnian voyage into the domestic coziness

and Biedermeyer Gemütlichkeit of the middle-class drawing room. This is music to curl up with in front of a fire, with a cat in your lap. The close spacing of the string writing and restrained dynamic range add to the feeling of intimacy in this movement, which alternates between a warmly expressive opening theme, brocaded with melodic variation at its second occurrence, and a slightly more heart-fluttering B-section featuring pleading groups of sigh motives.

Where an extroverted scherzo in triple meter would normally be expected as a third movement, Brahms writes instead a darkly flavoured, but deeply ambivalent duple-metered intermezzo. While nominally in F minor, it coyly refuses to either confirm or deny the fact for most of its duration. Its pattern of little two-steps, stalked by a leering countermelody in the viola, evokes a mood of mischief (perhaps there is the scherzo quality) somewhere between mincing and menacing. This is music your cat would like. Its simpler, more harmonically clarified middle section—a ‘trio’, in effect—features a remarkable accompaniment pattern in the second violin in which the same pitch is repeated on alternating stopped and unstopped strings.

The fourth movement begins with an aggressive restatement of the climbing motive that opened the first movement, with its dramatic downward leap of a diminished 7th. So tightly argued is this sonata-form movement that its development and recapitulation sections seemed inseparably grafted together. While moments of soaring major-mode lyricism appear between the clouds to bring spiritual uplift to the argument, especially in the second theme, what remains in the ear after the final coda is the cello’s low C at the bottom of the string register, anchoring this work emphatically in its opening tonality of C minor.

Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2

At a time when European music was turning towards large programmatic orchestral works performed in grandiose public concerts, Brahms continued to write music created from just the basic building blocks of the tonal system, intended for private performance by small ensembles. In so doing, he established the foundations for a rich new literature of chamber works that featured hitherto neglected instruments such as the clarinet and viola in a leading role. Indeed, the duo-sonata literature for these instruments can be said to begin with Brahms.

His special interest in the clarinet came late in life when, in 1891, he encountered the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist in the court orchestra of Meiningen (Thuringia), noted for his warm tone and expressive playing. Brahms’ last published chamber works were two sonatas Op. 120 composed in 1894 for clarinet and piano (dedicated to Mühlfeld) and then re-issued with slight revisions by the composer in a version for viola.

The second of these, the three-movement Sonata in E flat, is remarkable for its relaxed ease of expression, its underlying ethos of moderation, both in mood and in tempo. It begins with a sinuous, songlike melody with many a winding turn but nary a care in the world. A second theme arrives, less meandering but equally carefree, that even the occasional outburst from the piano cannot perturb. This first movement is what a happy contented old age sounds like.

The formal contrasts that normally distinguish sections within first-movement sonata form are attenuated in this last sonata movement that Brahms was to compose. The fluidity of form is most keenly felt in the development section, where tumult is avoided in favour of civilized lyrical conversation. Despite the odd provocation from the piano, the blood pressure rarely rises beyond a slight quickening of pulse from duplets to triplets, so that the recapitulation arrives like a welcoming hostess announcing to her guests that dinner is served. The coda, marked Tranquillo, nudges the movement to a conclusion with the viola playing beneath the piano for the last chord.

The Allegro appassionato second movement is where one would expect real fire, but this is not a whip-cracking scherzo like that in the F minor piano sonata, nor the heaven-storming scherzo of the Piano Concerto No. 2. The passion here seems more remembered in affection than vividly lived through in the present moment. Its headlong impetus, most persuasively argued for in the massively demanding piano part, is blunted by the relatively gentle pace, one-in-the-bar rhythmic feel, and frequent use of feminine phrase endings. The middle-section trio is a fervent hymn-like elegy that maintains the seriousness of mood, contrasting only in the stern evenness of its steady quarter-note motion.

The last movement, Andante con moto, is a series of variations on a gracious theme with alternating two-note patterns of dotted and even notes. The first variation staggers the viola and piano parts with rhythmic offsets, sounding almost as if preparing for a fugato. In the second, the two instruments take turns enveloping the theme in a lace-like tracery of arpeggiation. The third variation intensifies the decorative detail into a constant patter of 32nd notes while the fourth slows down the pace to linger lovingly over the resolution of a constant chain of syncopations. The original rhythmic pattern of the theme returns in the fifth variation in a sparkling minor-mode treatment leading to the finale, which builds from an almost pastoral mood to one of vigorous celebration as the work ends.

Quintet for Clarinet & Strings in B minor, Op. 115

After hearing Meiningen clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1890, Brahms was stimulated to write four great works for this musician and his instrument: the Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114, two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op. 120, and this Clarinet Quintet in B minor, composed in 1891. Works for clarinet and string quartet were a rarity in Brahms’ time, the last great work in the genre being Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet of 1789. One reason could have been that woodwinds were notoriously tricky instruments to keep in tune, but the clarinet had undergone significant improvements in the course of the 19th century and Brahms was particularly captivated by the sweetness of tone that he found in Mühlfeld’s playing, a quality that he exploited to the maximum in this work, especially in its songful second movement.

Coming as it does near the end of the composer’s life, this work is often described as autumnal, no doubt from its generally subdued tone, the falling melodic lines that begin each movement, and the piano or pianissimo ending of each. Intriguing in the work as a whole is how easily and gracefully it glides between major and minor tone colourings, giving it an overall cast of nostalgia and bittersweet remembrance.

Its opening is unusually reflective and self-absorbed for the first movement of a chamber work. The daydreaming quality is reinforced by the tonal ambiguity of its first four bars, played by the strings: is it in B minor, or D major? The clarinet enters with a delicious arpeggio up to its high range, where long held notes allow its surpassing sweetness of tone to ring in our ears. A transition in strutting triplets leads us to a more flowing second theme, announced by the clarinet. After the repeat of the exposition, the development opens with the same rising arpeggio in the clarinet against even more hushed strings to begin the working out of the themes, which is motivically intense but emotionally contained, strangely serene. It is the recapitulation, indeed, that contains some of the most forceful musical assertions of the movement, but even these soon ebb to a quiet close.

The second movement Adagio, is undoubtedly the emotional heart of the work. It is here that the expressive potential of the clarinet is shown off to fullest advantage. It is also the most technically demanding movement for the instrument. This lyrical movement, like the movement that follows, is monothematic. It begins with three simple notes that bear the weight of the world upon them, a motive which clarinet and violin ruminate over constantly, as if in disbelief at what the world has come to. Beneath is an almost static, but sympathetic pulsing accompaniment of syncopations in the other strings.

But then something astonishing happens. While the strings continue to repeat this motive, the clarinet breaks with the pack and takes off like a gypsy fiddler in wild rhapsodic flights of fancy up and down the full range of his instrument. The strings soon join in with stirring tremolos, as if to imitate a Hungarian cimbalom orchestra. But reality sets in again, and the movement ends in the wistful mood in which it began, recalling the rising arpeggio that announced the first entry of the clarinet in the first movement.

These two movements occupy more than 2/3 of the work, so Brahms ends with two shorter movements: a scherzo that pretends not to be one, and a theme with variations finale. The third movement opens with a simple folk-like tune in D major, not far distant in mood and melodic gesture from the memorable C major anthem in the 4th movement of his first symphony, but then transforms it into a peppery scherzo theme in B minor that motivates much of this movement’s active motivic play. The D major ditty returns, however, to complete the framing of this “nested” scherzo.

Brahms’ last movement, like the last movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, is a theme and variations, the theme being much like that of the previous movement, written in simple note values. But here the mode is clear: we are unambiguously in a wistful B minor with a vaguely ‘antique’ feel to its cadences. The variations are part character pieces, part solo opportunities for various members of the ‘band’. The first features the cello in a leading role. The second is a wildly extroverted gypsy fling that would be welcomed at any Eastern European wedding celebration. The third is a chummy duo between clarinet and first violin, while the fourth features a chatty conversation between all instruments. The meter changes to 3/8 in the fifth variation, preparing for the surprise return of the opening theme from the first movement, as this work bids itself a final bittersweet farewell.

 

CONCERT #2

Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2

As every parent knows, twins do not necessarily turn out alike. A case in point is the set of two string quartets, in C minor and A minor, that Brahms published as his Op. 51, works which share many characteristics, but differ in many more. There is between them a similarly intense employment of contrapuntal devices such as invertible counterpoint and canonic imitation. And there is, as well, a desire to create a wide-ranging unity of musical purpose by means of thematic links between movements.

Yet like many a second-born, the Quartet in A minor, the second of these quartet siblings, was less strictly bound than its elder brother to the rules and discipline that regulated how a polite young sonata movement from a respectable musical family should behave. While the opening of the C minor quartet is made to march in a rigorously uniform rhythmic pattern, the A minor quartet breathes free of such restrictions. It uses a more relaxed mixture of note values (indeed acting out with a 3-against-2 rhythmic pattern) and is even allowed to send its boy-pal a message to read with his secret decoder ring. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th notes of the opening theme (F-A-E) stand for Frei aber einsam (free but lonely), the personal motto of Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), leader of the Joachim Quartet that premiered many of the composer’s new works.

While the melodic writing in this first movement is often characterized by improvisatory freedom, it is anything but unfocused, often displaying great strength of character. The second theme, for example, arriving after a solo arabesque from the first violin, is as lilting an evocation of Viennese elegance as any waltz by Strauss. And the development section is rife with dramatic outbursts, beginning with the tearing apart of the smallest 16th-note fragment of the opening theme, in the manner of a dog worrying a bone. Under cover of this fierce concentration of motivic development, the recapitulation slips back in so inobtrusively that it is underway before you notice it, like a person entering a room while others are busy talking. Its climax comes when a rhythmic food-fight breaks out in a patch of syncopated- 2-against-3-against-4 that leads to a defiant conclusion.

The Andante moderato second movement overflows with lyricism, but not unalloyed. There is plenty of drama in store for the listener in the middle section. It opens with a thinly scored violin melody that is gradually gathering a warmer harmonic coating when out of the blue the first violin challenges the cello to a duel—in musical terms, a canon—while the other instruments fret like a Greek chorus, tremolando, in the background. This little Schubertian masquerade once vented (Schubert loved to put emotionally intense minor-mode dramas as contrasting middle sections of his lyrical movements) the parties dust themselves off and walk hand-in-hand back into lyrical territory to finish the work they began.

Brahms’ third movements are normally devoted to the dance, and here in a “Quasi menuetto” Brahms invites into his ballroom the bewigged silk-stockings that danced the previous century to its end. The ghostly pallour of their powdered cheeks is audible in the high string sound of the opening, and the dead past from which they emerged reinforced by the drone in the cello. The ceremonial mood is interrupted time and again, however, by the more agile steps of a fleet game of musical ‘catch’ executed brilliantly in a dazzling series of canons between the instruments, with first violin and viola taking a leading role. It is all the old courtiers can do to straighten their wigs and prance the movement to a dignified end.

The spirit of the dance pervades the final movement, as well, but that doesn’t mean that marking time is going to be easy in this rondo-like alternation of spirited and more lyrical segments. The opening dance theme, with its distinctly Hungarian freedom of accent placement, sets simultaneous duple and triple meters in competition for the allegiance of your tapping foot. Then to add to the crazed merriment, a few passages in strict imitation between the voices are thrown in for good measure. This is one of Brahms’ most energetic and ingenious finales, and leaves the listener feeling like a cat tossed in a dryer on the ‘fluff’ cycle.

Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38

It is no doubt significant that Brahms chose the cello for his first published duo-sonata, given the deep bass resonance he preferred and eagerly wrote into much of his instrumental music. Few composers, for example, would have dared fill in the minor third of a D minor chord planted at the very bottom of the keyboard, but dear old Johannes did just that at the end of the Scherzo from his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83. One feels that much of the authority that emanates from his music derives from the gravity of its timbre and the sonic impact that low notes have on the human psyche.

His Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor begins, not surprisingly, on the low E of the cello, supported by plump off-beat chords not dissimilar to those that accompany the opening theme of the Fourth Symphony, also in E minor. Moving up to the middle register, Brahms soon lets us hear the searing mellowness of the cello’s baritone register to complete his statement of the opening theme. An amiable transition with flowing triplets in the piano leads us to a second theme, more steely and determined, but just as darkly wrapped around the minor triad as the first. Contrast and relief come at the close of the exposition in a consoling lullaby of the kind that virtually defines Brahms in the popular imagination.

These three themes are worked through in turn in the development, for much of their course dogging each other’s footsteps barely a beat apart. When the opening theme returns in the cello, it finds a more pensively reflective partner in the piano, enlacing it thoughtfully with descending patterns of figuration. The second theme is unrepentant but the lullaby ensures an ending more marked by repose than rancour.

There is no slow lyrical movement in this sonata, perhaps because of the weighty matters that ballast the outer movements. Instead Brahms moves straight to the dance movement, the Allegretto quasi Menuetto. Here more than in the preceding A minor string quartet the minuet is not just ‘quasi’ but eminently danceable, although a certain antique flavor is maintained in the Phrygian cadences of the melody. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrast with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio that provides ‘period relief’ in its middle section.

The last movement is a bravura display of instrumental and compositional skill. The idea of writing a fugal last movement may have come to Brahms from the example of Beethoven’s last cello sonata, if not from similar finales in the late piano sonatas and string quartets. The texture is not unremittingly fugal however. It begins the movement in fugal style but then its thematic material is parceled out for sonata-type development in the ensuing sections, returning frequently to the fugal idiom to establish its command over the structure of the movement. Inescapable is the mood of continuous striving, struggle and defiance, only rarely relieved by calmer moments in the major mode. The dramatic octave leaps that open the movement in the piano part are developed into even greater dramatic gestures between the top and bottom of the cello register. The piano writing, rife with double thirds and trills at the top of right-hand octaves, presages the gargantuan pianistic challenges of the Piano Concerto No. 2.


Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111

At the age of 57, Brahms sent this quintet in to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, with a note announcing his retirement. “It really is time to stop”, he wrote. This was of course before he had heard Meiningen court clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who inspired him to come out of retirement to write works for the clarinet.

It is obvious, though, that with this G major string quintet he planned to go out with an impressive work, and truly impressive it is. The sound, for one thing, is luminous and luxuriantly full. Having five string players at his disposal, Brahms had no compunction about enlarging the sound even further by the frequent use of double stops. The scoring used by Mozart for his string quintets—with an extra viola instead of the extra cello favoured by Schubert—allowed for a richer mid-range, which he exploits to the fullest. The first movement’s second theme, for example, is introduced by a brace of violas.

Composed while Brahms was vacationing in the Austrian Alps in the summer of 1890, the work sends fresh mountain air up the nostrils of its listeners and evokes the vast panoramic landscapes that its composer must have seen when composing it. Nothing offers better evidence of this than its astonishing opening, with the cello holding forth against the rest of the ensemble’s quavering soundscape to spin out a fresh-as-spring melody of wide harmonic range and swaggering rhythmic vigour. In the first of the many dance forms that interlard this work, its second subject is a double dollop of Viennese waltz played by the violas. The development is strikingly symphonic in scope, with numerous contrasting sections to occupy the ear until the opening theme returns, in the first violin for the recapitulation, which takes the previous thematic material to new heights of expressiveness in the high register.

The second movement is monothematic, without contrasting sections. Its simple melody, embellished by a turn, is presented in four variations that range from the serene to the passionately declamatory. This movement is marked with unusual harmonic interest and is distinctly darker in tone colour than the first because of the prominent role given to the viola, which presents the theme at the opening and introduces its final statement with a small cadenza near the end.

The third movement is one of those wistful pieces, paced neither slow nor fast, that capture something unique in the Brahmsian musical aesthetic: that restrained middle ground between restrained sentiment and outright sentimentality best described as intermezzo. An utterly charming Trio in the major mode features dueling pairs of violins and violas that return for a final bow at the end of the movement.

The finale is a romping sonata-rondo richly imbued with dance rhythms. The principal theme, based on a mischievous snippet of four 16th notes, is given a jaunty accompaniment with many an off-beat accent. The second theme, in triplets, has its own type of swagger strongly suggestive of country folk dance. Neither, however, can match the high-kicking élan of the coda, reminiscent of the Hungarian czárdás.

 

CONCERT #3

Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in B flat, Op. 67

After writing two string quartets in the minor mode, published as his Op. 51, Brahms was in the mood for a bit of good old- fashioned fun. His third and final string quartet, Op. 67, is notable for its playful tone and a kind of bouyant, healthy exuberance that was fairly thin on the ground in the Romantic age, but common enough in music of the previous century.

Inspiration from the Classical period is most evident in the outer movements: not just in the use of square cut phrases, cleanly defined formal sections, and the occasional cadential trill, but also in the sheer confidence with which contrasting material is juxtaposed, reminiscent of the winking, good-natured merry- making of Haydn at his most mischievous, Mozart at his most childlike. Indeed the very key chosen for this work, B flat, situates it among other ‘classical homage’ works such as the St. Antony and Handel Variations in the same key. Indeed, the details which it shares with Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet K. 458, also in B flat, are striking.

Chief amongst these is the so-called ‘horn-call’ opening of the first movement The off-beat accents in this triadic theme are the first clue that rhythmic and metrical tricks await the listener in abundance, for no sooner has a toe-tapping 6/8 pattern been set up than a three-to-the-bar cross-rhythm hijacks the proceedings. After a transition section that makes no secret of its desire to reach the dominant, the second theme area turns out to be configured in alternating passages of 2/4 and 6/8— sometimes even with different time signatures on different staves simultaneously. The two opposing meters decide to “agree to disagree” in the development section, the first half of which unfolds in groups of triplet 8ths in 6/8, the latter half mainly in groups of duple 16ths in 2/4. This leaves it to the recapitulation to sort things out, where of course a merry mix-up ensues, with everyone talking at the dinner table at once.

The middle two movements are much less quirky and chaotic. The lyrical second movement, Andante, is an outpouring of lyric emotion much in the intimate, quietly yearning style of Mendelssohn, with balanced phrases, lovingly supportive stepwise motion in the bass, and an extraordinarily wide melodic range. Deep heroic thoughts however, lurk beneath the surface and they come out in a dramatic spate of double-dotted defiance that for a time seems to be channeling a Lullyan French overture. After a short period of self-doubt and a bit of brow-knitting all round, the lyric mood returns to bring back the cozy atmosphere and chumminess of the opening section.

Despite its Italian marking, the third movement is not the kind of Agitato that would have you reaching for your Pepto-Bysmol. While definitely dance-like in rhythm, it seems to wobble more than lilt. And there is something quite peculiar about its (literally) off-beat character: downbeats are often missing, the phrases run out of breath after a single bar, and the accompaniment seems almost in competition with the searching, groping melody above it. The viola gets its place in the sun in this movement, leading melodically for almost its entire duration. Even the Trio—which

starts off as a real trio, without the viola—invites it back in to pursue its melodic agenda, as before. This elegantly ungainly intermezzo is Brahms at his most characterful.

Brahms returns to classical form in his theme-and-variations finale, but with a number of sly little quirky surprises craftily hidden beneath its polished surface texture. The first is the odd little modulation to D major at the cadence of its very first phrase, prompting a slightly amusing harmonic lurch in the second phrase to get us back home to B flat in time for its cadence. And as this is a series of variations based on the harmonies of the original theme, the little joke keeps getting funnier and funnier as the variations progress.

The second surprise is when the horn-call theme from the first movement walks onto the stage unannounced. As the ending of this movement builds in theatrical excitement, there is much interplay between the themes of the first and last movements until, like the finale in a comic opera, all rivalries, rhythmic and otherwise, are quelled in an ensemble chorus of jubilation from all concerned.

Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 108

Brahms’ last sonata for violin and piano creates a great variety of musical characterizations within the relatively short span of its four movements.

As it opens, we seem to catch the violin in mid-thought, in a musing, introspective frame of mind, giving forth a wistful theme not entirely devoid of gypsy turns of phrase. The piano ruminates deep below in syncopated sympathy with its companion, soon grabbing the theme to project it out with heroic strength. The second theme, announced by the piano before being taken up by the violin, is a lyrical tidbit of small melodic range with an insistent dotted rhythm. Where the weighty mystery lies in this movement is in the development section, in which the piano intones a low A, dominant of the key, for almost 50 bars beneath relatively serene motivic deliberations from the violin above. All seems to be well during the recapitulation, but no sooner is the first subject reviewed when another development section breaks out that is as harmonically volatile as the previous development was stiflingly stable. Its passion spent, the recapitulation continues, but with the piano plumbing another pedal point, a low D, at the bottom of the keyboard.

Balancing the dark mysterious mood of the first movement is the Adagio, an openly lyrical aria for the violin, accompanied throughout by the piano. Noteworthy in its unvaried repetitions throughout this movement are the deeply affecting falling intervals and passionately expressive outbursts in double thirds, reminiscent of the gypsy manner.

Brahms’ third movements are often hard to pin down as their precise character. This third movement is obviously more scherzo than intermezzo, more subversive than sentimental. And yet it remains enigmatic because of its almost gypsy volatility of mood and mode. It opens with playful cat-and-mouse exchanges of echoing thirds in the minor mode, but soon moves into much more violent and passionate expressive terrain. Its playful exchange is more serious the second time around, but then drifts into fairy land, only to turn on a dime from major to minor and return to its opening material, as if nothing had happened in between.

There is nothing ambiguous, however, about the last movement, Presto agitato. While dance-like elements are present in its principal theme in 6/8, the thick scoring of the piano part prevents any spirit of lightness from taking hold in this turbulent and dead serious sonata-rondo. The dark clouds do break momentarily, however, for the simple chorale-like second subject, announced first in the piano. A range of textures, from throbbing syncopations to eerie unisons, ensures variety in the continuous development of ideas pulsing through this movement that lends massive end- weighting to the sonata as a whole.

Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34

Great art is not a coincidence. It’s a series of them.

Suppose you had a stray thought. Suppose that, while taking out the recycling, your life coach’s late cat, Ernestine, unexpectedly pops into your head. And suppose that, when it does, you wonder why you have never met an actual person with that name. Then later that same day—stay with me here—you struggle to pick up your chin when you notice that the cashier taking your money in the checkout line is wearing a nametag that says “Ernestine”. Even more wondrous to report, you are watching television that evening and the nostalgia channel is showing reruns of Laugh-In from the 1960s, with Lilly Tomlin in the role of … Ernestine, the phone operator. All in the same day.

Such eerie paranormal experiences are rare, but when they happen, you begin to think that the Gods of Chance are playing with your head. But Brahms lovers have these experiences all the time. A theme you have just heard can show up in places you least expect it further on, or right away: as a passing motivic flourish, or a fast-moving accompaniment figure. A twirling pattern of notes that you hardly paid attention to can later morph into that glorious melody you end up humming to yourself while waiting for your yoga class to begin. Brahms’ thematic material, once stated, simply refuses to go away, as the Quintet in F minor amply demonstrates.

And yes, he is playing with your head.

The first movement begins with a bare-bones unison statement of a theme in 8th notes rocking back and forth around a number of common chords. Then the piano picks up the pace and tries to move on to other material with a snappy round of 16ths. But wait! Those 16ths rushing by are the same melody as you have just heard, reduced in note value but reproducing the melodic outline of the previous theme perfectly. Talk about economy.

An interval as simple as a semitone—and there is a prominent one at the end of the restated main theme—can keep the entire transition to the second theme transfixed with its hypnotic power, in both the melody and accompaniment voices simultaneously.

And the second theme, when it comes, seems to have inherited quite a few hand-me-downs from its elder brother, the first theme: its minor mode, the arpeggiated chord tones, the same melodic turns at key points in its contour.

With these three elements—the first and second themes, plus the semitone motive—you can essentially “parse” the shape and formal structure of the Quintet’s first movement sonata form and its various textures. Of course, some prefer to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious melodies and invigorating rhythmic drive of the piece. To each his own.

After the turbulent and densely argued first movement comes a slow movement, in A-B-A form, of audacious simplicity and seductive Viennese charm. On the surface, it appears to have little to recommend it. The phrases are virtually all symmetrical four-bar units. The piano plays in 3rds or 6ths for most of its duration. And the same elements keep recurring over and over again: a little “Scotch snap” at the beginning of the bar, and a pattern of octave leaps in the accompaniment. And yet we are gradually drawn in by how accompaniment patterns seem to find themselves repeated in the melody itself, and the melody’s Scotch snap appears echoed in the accompaniment. Not to mention the sheer luxuriance of the enveloping string sound that, by the end, coats the ear sonically in buckets of Viennese whipped cream. This movement is positively fattening.

The scherzo that follows, allows the ear to work off all that weight in a movement that is ear-catching not only for its propulsive rhythmic drive but also because of the way that it springs from a very small number of musical elements. It begins with a suspenseful build-up of syncopations in the strings to which the piano adds a busy little circling pattern of 16ths, very much like a pesky fly circling round that you just can’t manage to swat. Relief comes quickly, however, when a fresh new melody, a stirring anthem of hope and bright cheer, arrives to sweep away all trace of the previous material. But is it really new? No. It ́s the same ‘pesky fly’ motive, in larger note values, and in the major mode. And when this busy little motive returns to be treated in fugato, its ‘contrasting’ countersubject is really just an augmented version of itself at double note values. The interlaced right- and left-hand martellato piano writing? Simple. It ́s a hocket created from the repeated notes at the beginning of the motive. Even the Trio theme in the middle section is traced from the rhythm of the anthem. And yet, despite how this whole movement seems to be constructed like a house of mirrors at the circus, it inevitably ends up being the most memorable.

After such a movement as the Scherzo, the risk of anticlimax is real. So Brahms begins his last movement with a torturously slow introduction. The main theme, when it arrives, is an uncomplicated affair, a decorated rising minor scale and little more. But this being Brahms, of course, it is hardly finished when it gets immediately repeated in inversion, coming down the scale as simply as it went up. The sections of this massive finale all derive in some way from the slow introduction, the principal theme, or any number of variations of these two. The massive coda with which the work ends is a virtual movement in itself, and settles the anticlimax question once and for all.

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

PROGRAM NOTES: SITKOVETSKY TRIO

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor, Op. 101

This is the last work Brahms wrote for the piano trio. It is a magnificent work in every respect, from the sharply etched melodies to the concision and masterly manner in which they are handled. It is also one of Brahms’s most compact scores, tightly and concisely argued using a minimum of melodic substance developed with maximum efficiency. Brahms seemed to reserve C minor for some of his weightiest, most dramatic and gravely serious works – the First Symphony, the First String Quartet and the Third Piano Quartet come to mind. The first performances – in Hofstetten and Budapest that year – were private ones. The Trio’s official public premiere took place on February 26, 1887 in Vienna with members of the Heckmann Quartet and Brahms at the piano.

The very opening is sufficient to arrest the listener’s attention and hold it for the duration of the movement: a bold, even fierce gesture that biographer Malcolm MacDonald refers to as “explosive wrath.” This first subject consists of several elements, including a tautly rhythmic figure for the three instruments in unison. The second theme, though warmly lyrical, brings no relaxation of the tension and momentum.

The second movement, also in C minor, is mysterious, almost wraithlike, yet also of great delicacy. MacDonald calls it “a profoundly uneasy movement of grey half-lights, rapid stealthy motion, and suppressed sadness.” The central episode changes to block chords for the piano and pizzicato for the strings, but the mood remains subdued. The dynamic level rarely rises above piano.

The third movement’s main features are a relaxed mood of tenderness and natural simplicity with an antiphonal treatment of piano and strings and an irregular metre of 7/4. The key is now C major rather than C minor. For the central section the music moves into another rare metre, 15/8 (five equal groups of triplets).

The sonata-form finale returns to C minor and to the spirit of grim determination that dominated the first. As in the monumental First Symphony, drama and fury give way to radiant warmth, and C minor yields to C major in the final pages.

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, Op. 66

Six years after writing his first piano trio (1839), Mendelssohn produced a second. It was first performed on December 20, 1845 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn was serving as conductor of its famous orchestra. The musicians were the orchestra’s concertmaster Ferdinand David, cellist Franz Karl Witmann and the composer as pianist.

The first movement, in perfectly constructed sonata-form, opens with a restless, flowing subject for the piano, soon joined by the strings. The second subject is a glorious, life-affirming theme in E flat major. The exposition is not repeated, perhaps since the development section is so extensive and does such a thorough job of working out both themes with great inventiveness.

The slow movement offers a good measure of consolation after the relentless pace and intensity of the first. It is a three-part structure, with the outer ones gently songlike and set to the pervasive rhythmic pattern of short-long, short-long. The central section has a more flowing quality and is sustained by the piano’s continuous triplet figures.

The Scherzo flies by in a blizzard of notes. It is further characterized by much imitative writing and by a vaguely Hungarian gypsy flavor.

In its powerful sonorities, massive piano chords, extremes of range, seriousness of purpose and overall intensity, the finale seems to speak more of Brahms than of Mendelssohn. Another feature of this movement is the incorporation of a chorale-like theme that has had scholars searching intently for its German-Lutheran origin – in vain. The Trio concludes with an extensive, exuberant coda in C major that is nearly symphonic is scope.

 

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929)

If the public today holds a slight preference for the first of Schubert’s two piano trios, the one in B flat major, this is countered by Schubert’s own preference for the other, in E flat. Both reflect the composer’s study of similar works by Mozart and Beethoven in their refined compositional technique and equal partnership of three instruments. The first performance was given on the day after Christmas, 1827 at the Musikverein in Vienna. Exactly three months later, in the same hall, Schubert performed the piano part at the only public concert he ever gave. The concert was an artistic and financial success, but the event was never repeated.

Lasting about forty minutes in performance, the E flat Trio is longer than any Schubert symphony except the Great C major. Although it does not contain as many beguiling themes as does the B flat Trio, it has even fuller, almost symphonic textures with greater brilliance and more breadth to the development sections.

The first movement is constructed from four thematic ideas. The first of these, memorable as it is, and boldly stated in the opening bars, turns out to be the one Schubert employs the least, while the last of them is the one he exploits to the fullest. The melancholy cast of the slow movement derives from a Swedish ballad Schubert presumably borrowed after hearing a tenor sing it. The Scherzo is a canon, with close imitation between piano and strings, while its central Trio section takes on the quality of a waltz. The finale breathes an air of carefree charm and lightness, at least initially. The second theme offers marked contrast of mood, metre and key. The movement develops into one of the longest Schubert ever wrote, over a thousand measures in the original version, but even in reduced form, as commonly played today, it runs to nearly fifteen minutes. Schumann’s description of Schubert’s final symphony as being “of heavenly length” can again be invoked for the finale of the E flat trio.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Stephen Hough

 

PROGRAM NOTES: STEPHEN HOUGH

 

Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 27

The nocturnes are Chopin’s most intimate and personal utterances. Some are wistful, some reflective, some melancholy, some faintly troubled and some serenely joyful. All are sensuously beautiful, suffused with elegance and deeply poetic impulses. During Chopin’s lifetime they were his most popular pieces. Twenty-one survive, the first written when he was seventeen, the last three years before his death. As the title implies, they are suggestive – faintly or strongly as the case may be – of some aspect of dusk, evening, twilight or the dark night and associative emotions.

The two contrasting nocturnes of Op. 27 are enharmonically related (C sharp minor and D flat major). As biographer Jim Samson points out, their accompaniment patterns are wider in range than the composer’s earlier broken-chord patterns. No. 1– dark, troubled and somber – is clearly in ternary form (ABA), with a central episode that speaks of triumph and grandeur only to lapse back to the morose opening material. No. 2 has been called the most voluptuous of the nocturnes. It, too, offers a melody of great beauty, but rather than evoking an aria, it resembles more an operatic duet. More often than not the theme is presented in those parallel thirds or sixths so beloved of the Italian opera composers, and even includes examples of fioriture (decorative filigree).

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano sonata no. 3 in F minor, Op. 5

“Beaten out of steel by cyclopean hands,” “Promethean strength of aspiration,” and “heaven-storming” are just some of the descriptions called forth by the virile outburst that opens Brahms’ longest work for solo piano, composed in 1853 when he was just twenty. Boldness, youthful fire and sonorities of orchestral proportions alternate with intimate meditations, tender dialogues and ardent lyricism in a grand edifice of unassailable musical logic. Brahms proceeds to fashion the sonata-form opening movement with the utmost economy of means, transforming and sculpting the highly malleable initial fragment into an astonishing world of shapes, characters and moods.

Aside from its grandly spacious design, the sonata boasts other special features. Its second movement describes in tone a poetic vision that is inscribed at the top of the page: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” The Scherzo returns us to the bold, assertive world of the first movement. Wide leaps, thundering octaves and the full range of the keyboard give it an exuberant, even epic quality. The Intermezzo represents still another novel element in the sonata. Subtitled Rückblick (backward glance), it serves both as a point of symmetry in the sonata’s overall design and as a programmatic reinterpretation of an earlier movement (the second). The air of heroic struggle resumes in the Finale, which follows without a break. In free rondo form, Brahms takes us on a vast musical journey, incorporating darkly mysterious murmurings, seething turbulence, dramatic outbursts and a chorale-like message of hope, to a triumphant conclusion.

 

Stephen Hough: Piano sonata no. 2

The subtitle for my 2nd Piano sonata, ‘notturno luminoso’, suggests many images: the reflection of the moon on a calm lake perhaps, or stars across a restful sky.  But this piece is about a different kind of night and a different kind of light: the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness; the loneliness of pre-morning; sleeplessness and the dull glow of the alarm clock’s unmoving hours; the irrational fears or the disturbing dreams which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb.  But also suggested are nighttime’s heightened emotions: its mysticism, its magic, its imaginative possibilities.

The Sonata’s form is ABA and there are three musical ideas: one based on sharps (brightness), one based on flats (darkness), and one based on naturals (white notes) representing a kind of blank irrationality.  The piece opens clangorously, its bold, assertive theme – sharps piled upon sharps – separated by small cadenzas.  Yearning and hesitating to reach a cadence it finally stumbles into the B section where all accidentals are suddenly bleached away in a whiteout.  Extremes of pitch and dynamics splatter sound across the keyboard until an arpeggio figure in the bass gathers rhythmic momentum and leads to the ‘flat’ musical idea, jarring in its romantic juxtaposition to what has gone before.

This whole B section is made up of a collision, a tossing and turning, between the two tonalities of flats and naturals, interrupting each other with impatience until the whiteout material spins up into the stratosphere, a whirlwind in the upper octaves of the piano.  Under this blizzard we hear the theme from the beginning of the piece, firstly in purest, brilliant C major in the treble, then, after it subsides to pianissimo, in a snarl of dissonance in the extreme bass of the instrument.  The music stops … and then, for the first time, we hear the full statement of the ‘flat’ material, Andante Lamentoso.  The music’s sorrow increases with wave after wave of romantic ardour, deliberately risking overkill and discomfort.

At its climax the music halts twice at a precipice then tumbles into the recapitulation, the opening theme now in white-note tonality and unrecognizably spotted across the keyboard.  As this peters out we hear the same theme but now with warm, gentle, romantic harmonies.  A final build-up to an exact repetition of the opening of the piece is blended with material from the B section and, in the last bar, in a final wild scream, we hear all three tonalities together for a blinding second-long flash, brighter than noon, before the final soft chord closes the curtain on these night visions.

– Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough’s Piano sonata No. 2 (notturno luminoso) is a joint commission with funds generously supplied by Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham; The Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota; Singapore International Piano Festival; Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts; and the Vancouver Recital Society. It was given its premiere by the composer at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, on October 9, 2012.

 

Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9

Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes, all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is Aš, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month, Schumann began writing the music that he eventually entitled Carnaval.

As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Clara Wieck. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own name. (In German terms, S=Es (E flat), and H=B natural.) The autobiographical element goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Ernestine (“Estrella”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Every piece in Carnaval, except the “Préambule”, is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure. However, two years after completing Carnaval, Schumann told his colleague Ignaz Moscheles that he was more interested in the “soul-states” conjured up by the music – the emotions and moods – than in programmatic associations of the movement titles.

 

Program notes for Chopin, Brahms and Schumann by Robert Markow, 2012.

Top