Johannes Brahms | Vancouver Recital Society

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PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Ludwig van Beethoven
11 Bagatelles Op. 119

Beethoven’s Op. 119 is a catch-all collection of pieces written without any preconceived formal plan for the enjoyment of amateur piano enthusiasts. The last five were published first as a contribution to a pedagogical publication called the Wiener Piano-Forte Schule (1821), with the first six added to that set for a separate publication in 1823.

The popular market into which they were lightly tossed may account for the dance-like pieces in the set: No. 1 is a minuet, No. 3 an allemande and No. 9 a frenetic little waltz. Some of the two-voice writing in these pieces has an archaic, baroque feel to it, especially in the florid ornamentation of No. 5.

Beethoven may not have always had the amateur performer in mind, however, given the technical challenges written into some of these short “Kleinigkeiten” (trifles), as he called them in German. Some feature sustained passages of awkward hand-crossings (Nos. 2 and 7) and casually inserted left-hand trills. No. 7 even demands the pianist to play sustained trills and a separate melody line, all in the same hand – a texture found in the composer’s most advanced piano works, such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 111. Others, like No. 8, are harmonically adventurous in a manner that anticipates the character pieces of Schumann.

It is obvious that Beethoven granted himself free rein in composing these pieces, and the prize for eccentricity goes to the laconic Bagatelle No. 10. In its short frantic 13 bars of staggered left- and right-hand entries, it pants away like a family dog leaping up at the dinner table for treats.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat Hob. XVI:49

This sonata was dedicated to Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s personal physician at the Esterhazy court, where Haydn was employed. From their correspondence, it appears that Haydn was carrying on something of a dalliance with her and this sonata, composed between 1789 and 1790, seems designed to address both her feminine sensibility and her considerable skills as an amateur pianist.

And yet there is a Beethovenian directness to the way that the first movement’s thematic material is thrown out in bitesized bits, similar to the brusque opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, Op. 2 No. 3. Haydn does us a favour here by isolating these short motivic units – two snappy questions and a lyrical reply – because virtually the entire range of ideas explored in this movement derives from them.

When Haydn got an idea in his head, he liked to run with it as far as he could go. So many of this sonata’s movements are monothematic, their nominally contrasting themes all variations on a small sequence of motives declared at the outset. In this sonata movement, the mere rhythm of the ‘lyrical reply’ – dum-dum-dum DUM – becomes an important motivic element throughout, and in fact, in its stripped down form becomes the obsession of the development section.

The Andante cantabile second movement is in a simple A-B-A formal layout, with its A section a poised and perky slow melody dolled up from the get-go with frilly ornaments of a distinctly feminine stamp. Its B section takes the melodic curve of the opening bar of the movement and plunges it dramatically into the minor mode, with a visual drama created, as well, by the many hand- crossings effected by the left hand.

The finale combines the repeating refrain and contrasting episodes of a rondo with the minuet structure featuring a contrasting trio (hinted at in its Italian indication Tempo di minuetto). The breezy whistling-in-the-wind quality of the opening tune has a folk-like simplicity about it, reinforced by its drone bass. But Haydn widens the range of theatrical roles that his dedicatee-performer can play when, halfway through the movement, he casts this blithe little tune into the minor mode.

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

The jovial, witty and ever-cheerful ‘Papa’ Haydn writing in a minor key? What brought that on?

The 1770s, when Haydn’s Sonata in B minor was composed, was the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in German culture, an age when aberrant emotions were all the rage in music; and what better tonal avouring than the minor mode to convey these emotions? Composers such as C. P. E. Bach rode this cultural wave with enthusiasm, writing works that elicited powerful, sometimes worrisome, emotions by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps and poignant harmonies of the type that minor keys were especially adept at providing.

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

This cross-over period between harpsichord and fortepiano plays out in the nature of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. The first is austere and slightly mysterious, amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style mordents on its opening melody notes. The second churns away in constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious Sturm und Drang tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a lyrical slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio – but where is the emotional drama in that? Haydn has a plan. His minuet and trio feature thematic material as dramatically contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps everywhere, one as large as a 14th. The trio, normally con gured as sugary relief from the sti formality of courtly dance ritual, is daringly in the minor mode, set low, and grinds grimly away in constant 16th-note motion.

Haydn wouldn’t be Haydn if he didn’t send you away with a toe-tapping finale and such a movement ends this sonata. To that end, Haydn’s go-to rhythmic device is repeated notes, and this nale chatters on constantly at an 8th-note patter, interrupted at random, it would seem, by surprising silences and dramatic pauses – as if to allow the performer to turn sideways and wink at his audience.

Johannes Brahms
Vier Klavierstücke Op. 119

Brahms’s last works for the piano were a set of Four Keyboard Pieces, Op.119. Like the previous short piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117 and 118, they are complex, dense and deeply introspective works, full of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities but by no means obscure. They are works to be savoured for Brahms’s mastery of compositional technique and for the bountiful wellspring of Viennese sentiment and charm that animates them from within.

Written with complete disregard for the kinds of piano textures considered normal in the late 19th century, the piano pieces of Op. 119 explore new possibilities in harmonic and rhythmic practice, as well. Harmonic changes frequently occur on weak beats, and metrical regularity is often attenuated by harmony notes held over from the previous bar.

The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set is a prime example. Its glacially descending arpeggios in chains of falling thirds 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 left and right hand.

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 Rhapsody in E at major is the longest of Brahms’s 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 gures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of a debonaire A at major section in the classic style of late-19th-century salon music. A amboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece, surprisingly, with a triumphant cadence in E at minor.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

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: BENEDETTI ELSCHENBROICH GRYNYUK TRIO

Franz Schubert
Adagio from Piano Trio in E at Major Op. 148 D 897

Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments. Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. Sounding like a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.

The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E at chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering”. (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E at in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.

Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.

What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio in C Major Op. 87

Brahms’ second piano trio is a deeply serious work, thickly scored for piano, and roiling with the rhythmic ambiguities that are a trademark of the composer’s mature compositional style. Begun in 1880 and completed in 1882, the same period that produced the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B at, it treats the piano very much in the style of that ‘symphonic’ concerto, giving the instrument a massively wide field of play extending to both ends of the keyboard, the hands often separated by as much as four or five octaves.

The violin & cello frequently play in unison or in parallel, pooling their sonic resources to provide a stable sonority in the mid-range of the texture, where the important thematic material is most often presented.

The first movement opens with a broad theme laid before the listener by the violin and cello alone, doubled at the octave. Comprised only of bold melodic leaps, it has the air of a fugue subject, or a fanfare. Themes abound in this movement – there are at least four important ones – but sectional divisions in sonata form are hard to de ne, as the music seems to unfold in a continuous flow. It is a ow that is anything but regular on the rhythmic front, however, as cross-rhythms and conflicts between duple and triple motivic groupings keep the texture restless and irregular, reduced in the ear to great swells of sound and counterbalancing ebbs.

The texture is much simplified in the second movement Andante con moto, a theme and five variations on a folk-like theme, flecked with a biting “Scotch snap” in its melody line and a ponderous Volga-boat-song-like throbbing in its accompaniment. Brahms knew well the gypsy violin style from his youthful days touring with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi (c.1828-1898) and this style of music is alluded to in the double-stops of the strings and parallel sixth patterns in the piano.

It is one of the oddities of this work that the most melt-in-your-mouth Brahmsian lyrical melody comes in the Trio middle section of the Presto scherzo, not the Andante. Nervous and jittery, if this movement sounds a touch Mendelssohnian, it’s Mendelssohn on too much Red Bull.

Can a movement be both jovial and serious? Brahms proves that it can in his congenial, but sombrely animated sonata-ish rondo finale. This a movement that delights in the continuous variation of its themes, balancing its coy playfulness with an impressive heftiness of texture.

Mark-Anthony Turnage
Duetti d’Amore

British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage is internationally renowned for his orchestral and chamber works, as well as three operas. His compositional style is modernist, rife with sharp percussive accents, but also features outbursts of sustained lyrical emotion. Both popular music and jazz, especially Miles Davis, are important influences on his style.

It is no secret why the music of Turnage resonates so strongly with younger listeners. Breathlessly contemporary, it often alludes to engaging aspects of modern life and popular culture. His opera Anna Nicole catalogues the life of model and television personality Anna Nicole Smith while his string quartet, Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad, references Led Zeppelin.

Duetti d’Amore (Love Duets) is a collection of five miniatures on the subject of modern love, commissioned by Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich and premiered by them in 2015. The work is shrink-wrapped around the instrumental personalities of the two performers, presenting them in musical narrative as the male and female partners of a romantic couple who quarrel, embrace, and make up in an ongoing pattern of stormy interaction.

It features no advanced instrumental techniques and unfolds in an alternation of aggressive and lyrical duets, with Duetto 2 and Duetto 4 being the more sustained and lyrical portraits of this love bond, Duetti 1, 3 and 5 the more fiery aspects of the relationship. Duetto 5, the “Blues” finale, brings their discord, and mutual attraction, strongly into focus.

Maurice Ravel
Piano Trio in A minor

Ravel’s concern for classical form and balanced structure may be summed up in his only-half-joking comment concerning the progress he was making on his Piano Trio in A minor: “I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes.” In this trio Ravel offers us a classically proportioned four-movement work in the traditional format: two sonata-form movements bookending a scherzo and slow movement.

Completed just after the Great War had broken out in August 1914, this work dreams far above the tumult of the conflict. This is understandable as Ravel was far from the front at the time. He was near the Basque town in southern France where he was born, and the imprint of Basque musical culture is strong in this work, most evidently in the rhythmic patterning of the first movement, with its unusual time signature of 8/8. The 8 beats of the bar are divided up 3+2+3 throughout, a pattern common in Basque dance music. The movement has two distinct themes, clearly distinguished in tone, and the texture is shiningly transparent due to the skillful way in which Ravel positions the instruments in sonic space so as not to cover each other.

Ravel’s exalting scherzo second movement has a number of unusual features. Its title, Pantoum, refers to a Malaysian interlocking verse form, popular with many French poets, that Ravel incorporates into the structure of his already- formally-structured A-B-A scherzo & trio. A staccato opening theme alternates with more lyrical phrases, often grouped for the ear with scant regard for the 3/4 time signature. But then something even more irregular happens in the trio: the strings continue on fidgeting in 3/4 while the piano calmly intones a lyrical sequence of cool chords in 4/2, after which the sides switch places, which is to say metres. This movement is the champagne sorbet of the trio as a whole.

The slow movement is a Passacaille, a series of variations based on a wandering eight-bar theme announced deep, deep in the bass that migrates up through the cello to the violin, and then swells to a great climax before receding back to the spare texture with which it began.

Ravel goes full-on orchestral in his finale, a movement which features some tricky challenges for the instrumentalists, starting with the violin’s 4-string arpeggio pattern – all in harmonics – that opens the movement. Other touches of orchestral sound colour are the plush tremolos in the strings that often surround the piano like a fur collar, or the electrifying high trills in the same instruments. Alternating between 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, this movement drifts in a seemingly timeless world of spontaneous, irregular pulsations that build to an ecstatic finish that sees the last pages blaring out toujours ff, as it says in the score: continuously very loud.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: NIKOLAJ ZNAIDER & ROBERT KULEK

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Violin & Piano in G major Op. 30 No. 3

“Who are you, and what have you done with Ludwig van Beethoven?”

Such is the question that Beethoven enthusiasts raised on the Pathétique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, and the late quartets might wish to ask of the musician responsible for the Violin & Piano Sonata in G major Op. 30 No. 3. Dating from 1802, the very year in which Beethoven accepted that he was going deaf, it gives scarce evidence of coming from a composer remembered for his rebellious unorthodoxies, one who bequeathed a deeply personal intimacy to instrumental music.

This sonata, by contrast, is sociable and chatty, marked by an uncomplicated joyfulness. It appears to typify rather than challenge the achievements of the Classical era. Its clear phrasing and transparent textures point to Mozart while its vigour and wit are classic Haydn. And yet, if Beethoven is here writing “inside the box”, as it were, he makes sure that the box throbs with energy and feels his sharp elbows knocking from inside, because the rhythmic profile, in its outer movements at least, is distinctly Beethovenian, full of the sudden irregular accents and propulsive drive that would become his trademark.

The first movement’s exposition presents us with three energetic themes.
It opens with a run scurrying back and forth, issuing into a rising arpeggio capped o by a comical chirp from the violin, like Tweety Bird chiming in late, after the beat, in a Bugs Bunny skit. The second theme is surprisingly in a minor key, but every bit as energetic as the first. Finally, a nonchalant closing theme, skipping merrily over a drone bass, completes the line-up. Remarkable in the second and third themes especially are the off-beat accents given to the weakest beat of the bar, the second 8th note in 6/8 time. A steady eight- note pulse and many tremolo figures, exploited thoroughly in the development section, keep this movement bustling and bubbling along in a style that pre-figures the buoyancy of Mendelssohn.

There is no slow movement. Instead comes a real, danceable minuet, moving in even careful steps, with all the graceful pauses that would allow courtiers to exchange polite glances, and a wealth of turns and trills to go with their frilly cuffs and collars. Or so it seems, until Beethoven takes this courtly dance for a stroll in a few other directions, with many a diversion into the minor mode and even an oom-pah-pah rhythm. But the straight-laced minuet tune keeps coming back again and again, and maybe this contrast is the whole point. The closing gesture of the movement is a cutesy trill played cheek-to- cheek in unison by the piano & violin together, a sly wink, perhaps, at a genre that Beethoven would later abandon in favour of the more openly eccentric scherzo.

The last movement has been called a Rondo alla musette and for good reason. There is a country hoedown feel to it, with its drone bass and steady rhythmic pulse. Chewing over the two parts of its theme – one in 16ths, the other in 8ths – it conjures up images of village dancing and presents a daunting challenge to those who frown on toe-tapping during recitals.

Sergei Prokofieff
Sonata for Violin & Piano in D Major Op. 94a

If Prokofieff’s Sonata in D major is remarkably tuneful and easy on the ear, it might be because when he composed it in 1942, he was also working on the film score to famed director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The sonata, originally written for flute and then adapted for violin, is diatonic in its harmonies, as immediate in its appeal as any film score, and its layout in the four movements of the traditional sonata, each clearly structured, makes it especially accessible to audiences familiar with the major works of the classical canon.

The first movement Moderato opens with a dreamy violin melody suspended in the air above a solid steady-as-she-goes piano accompaniment. The second theme in a dotted rhythm is more jaunty, but eminently whistleable. Prokofieff’s adherence to classical norms extends as far as repeating the exposition (!) while his development section adds rhythmic interest but is so in love with its themes that it reproduces them almost intact throughout. And you can hardly blame him.

The second movement Presto is an energetic scherzo full of repeated rhythmic patterns that sometimes doesn’t know if it wants to be in two, or three beats to the bar. Nonetheless, it manages to be full of almost dancelike sections, and even stops to smell the roses in a more lyrical but still quirky middle section.

The third movement Andante opens with a wide-ranging but pleasing melody of a beguiling simplicity. It picks up the pace, however, in an almost jazzy middle section that seems obsessed with all the di erent combinations of notes you can invent within the space of a major third. These two melodies, the broad lyrical one and the busy decorative one, are brought together to close off the movement in a spirit of chumminess and mutual cooperation.

The exuberant fourth movement Allegro con brio presents and balances an extraordinary range of themes, beginning with a strutting, nostril-flaring march in the violin. A further section sees the piano stuck in the mud, plodding along repetitively in the bass while the violin performs pirouettes in the air above it. A complete contrast is provided by a lyrical section that bursts gloriously into song halfway through. Gluing the whole movement together is a constant, faithful pulse of 8th notes in the piano that swells in the final pages to end the work in a state of joyous exaltation.

Dmitri Shostakovich (arr. Dmitri Tsyganov)
Preludes Op. 34: Nos. 10, 15, 16 & 24

Shostakovich’s set of 24 Preludes for Piano Op. 34 was composed in the winter of 1932-33. Representing as they do all the major and minor keys, in strict order, the set invites comparisons with similar collections by Bach and Chopin. The personal, individual stamp that each prelude receives is wholly Chopinesque, while neo-baroque Bachian contrapuntal textures abound.

Each prelude is sharply etched in mood, with a concentration of effect resulting from an elemental simplicity of texture. Arrangements of these pieces abound. This set of four is by Dmitri Tsyganov (1903-1992), a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and founding first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet that premiered the vast majority of Shostakovich’s string quartets.

The tension in these pieces is between expectation and arrival. Their steady rhythms and predictable phrase structures set up regular surprises for the listener when the melody line or harmonic underpinning so often go “o the rails”. Almost as shocking, however, is when they manage to arrive at a perfectly conventional and pleasing cadence. The final result is a kind of thrilling grotesqueness, easily interpretable as having a satiric bite, but not entirely dismissible as pure comedy: the aura of melancholy and lament is far too vivid in the ear.

This forlorn, “sad clown” affect simply oozes from No. 10 in C# minor, with its dance-like accompaniment playing straight man to the pensive musings of the violin.

The mock-waltz feel is even stronger in No. 15 in D at major, with the violin playing the oom-pah-pahs this time. By the time it finally breaks into song, the piece, sadly is almost over.

No. 16 in B at minor shifts between patriotic song and goose-stepping military march with many a melodic misstep along the way.

The last prelude in the set, No. 24 in D minor, accomplishes the impossible: creating a cross between a French gavotte and a march, with a furious pattern- prelude section in the middle.

Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Violin & Piano in D minor Op. 108

Brahms’ third and last sonata for violin & piano is a full four-movement work, but remarkably compact and varied in its range of expression. It opens in an introspective but troubled frame of mind, with the violin musing obsessively over a repetitive melodic pattern. The piano restlessly ruminates far below until it grabs 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.

The third movement Un poco presto e con sentimento is teasingly ambiguous in mood. More subversive than sentimental, it stands somewhere between an intermezzo and a scherzo. It opens with a playful hops of a minor third, but the minor avouring is undercut by ickering allusions to the major mode. Its almost gypsyish volatility of mood, however, soon leads it into more hefty and passionate expressive terrain. In other places, though, an almost Mendelssohnian aura of fairyland magic hovers over the proceedings, especially the wispy ending that softly and slyly blows out the candle on this enigmatic movement.

There is nothing ambiguous, however, about the Presto agitato last movement. 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.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

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.

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