live music event Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

Stay Tuned!

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

×

PROGRAM NOTES: BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV

Richard Wagner
Isolde’s Liebestod arr. Franz Liszt

The 19th century in Europe was an age in which psychological states went mainstream in the arts, becoming a particularly powerful stimulus for musical expression. A new genre, the nocturne, for example, captured that eerie feeling of being alone with one’s lyrical thoughts at a still point in the night. Other constellations of feelings and moods were captured in the era’s invention of new “character pieces” such as impromptus, rhapsodies and moments musicaux.

No 19th-century composer went further in marshalling the resources of musical expression into direct and compelling proxies for emotional experience than Richard Wagner. And none of his operas exhibit a more focused concentration on one single emotion, romantic love, than Tristan and Isolde (1859).

Wagner’s opera tells the tale of Isolde, an Irish princess promised in marriage to the King of Cornwall who, on her way over to be married, falls in love with his nephew Tristan after they drink a love potion together. Tristan’s death in consequence of this betrayal sets up the final scene of the opera, the Liebestod (“love-death”) scene, in which Isolde, standing over Tristan’s dead body, commemorates him rapturously by imagining their passion and his death as a single indissoluble unity.

Wagner vividly brings to life the insistent quality of the emotion of love through his use of the same phrases, repeated over and over again in a continuous chain of chromatic harmonies which seem to open up new vistas of experience with each occurrence. The feeling of yearning and love-longing is so tellingly conveyed by the use of suspensions and delayed resolutions that it is hard not to feel like an adolescent again while listening.

Liszt lavishly layered his transcription with tremolos to evoke the fine gradations of orchestral colour in Wagner’s score, and thickened the keyboard texture with a machine-gun spray of repeated chords to convey the massive impact of a full orchestral tutti. These techniques inevitably raise questions of musical taste, and it is the performing pianist’s challenge – as it always is when playing Liszt – to avoid suggesting the kitschy excesses of staged melodrama or silent-film music.

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor

“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.

The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.

Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.

The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.

The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.

In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.

Sergei Prokofiev
10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op. 75

Prokofiev completed his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and by all accounts this was not a good year to be a Soviet musician. It wasn’t the low pay or difficult working conditions that were top-of-mind for most, but rather the risk of being dragged from their homes and executed by firing squad. Comrade Stalin, you see, was getting grumpy and his Great Purge (1936-1938) had begun.

Plans to produce the ballet had to be cancelled, due to its association with a theatre director who had been purged. So in 1937, as friends and neighbours were randomly disappearing from the apartment block where he lived, Prokofiev moved to salvage his ballet by fashioning a number of suites from the score, including one for piano entitled 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, which he performed in public that year and published as his Op. 75. His strategy worked. Performances of the suites, both for orchestra and for piano solo, sparked interest in mounting productions of the complete ballet, which began in 1938, and Romeo and Juliet went on to become one of the composer’s most successful works.

In creating a version for piano, Prokofiev was coming full circle, as the original score had been composed for piano first, and then orchestrated. These pieces, then, are not mere orchestral reductions, but pianistically conceived scene paintings with the hands of the virtuoso pianist in mind. In keeping with its role as music for dance performance, the tonal language is relatively simple, in parts reminiscent of the clear textures of his ‘Classical’ Symphony in D (1917). Also present in abundance are Prokofiev’s trademark quirks: quicksilver diversions to remote keys, melody notes that land one note off from where you expect them to go, and his classic “off-road” harmonic wanderings within phrases that always somehow manage to find their way back home just in time for the final cadence.

The suite begins with two dance movements in a popular vein that introduce us to the moods and manners of the common folk of fair Verona, where the composer sets his scene. The carefree opening Folk Dance gets its ‘folkiness’ from its simple two-voice texture and the drone-like elements in its bass line. The following Scene: The Street Awakens is simpler still, its chipper mood guaranteed by the steady pulse of its prancing accompaniment.

We then go indoors for the arrival of guests to the Capulet ball. The opening Minuet theme is ceremonially repeated as new guests arrive, alternating with more flowing passages as each new arrival wanders in to inspect the room.

Juliet as a Young Girl sees our 14-year-old heroine playfully scampering around her room as she gets dressed, incessantly fussed over by her Nurse. Moments of tenderness intervene when she catches sight of her own beautiful self in the mirror.

The heavy pulse, eccentric tone clusters, and fractured harmonies of Masks alerts us to the fact that Romeo and his best mate Mercutio are crashing the party. The widely-spaced arpeggiated chords in the left hand of this piece are a major test of the pianist’s agility and endurance.

Romeo and Juliet meet and dance together for the first time in the most famous and recognizable piece from this ballet, the dance of the Montagues and Capulets. Ominous, elegant, seductive and sinister, this music sums up the entire dramatic conflict of the ballet’s storyline.

This is followed by the calm and soothing reassurances of Friar Laurence, whose quiet dignity and seriousness of purpose is conveyed in the steady deliberate pace of his music portrait.

Mercutio, by contrast, is portrayed as whimsical, brash and self-confident, almost to the point of recklessness. The amount of wide-ranging keyboard scamper in this piece tells us that here is a guy who runs with scissors.

The Dance of Girls with Lilies shows us Juliet’s girlfriends, who have come to wake her up on the day she is to be married to Paris, the husband her family has chosen for her. The recurring minor harmonies in this piece hint that there is something wrong, something unstated but slightly creepy, about her situation.

The finale is an affectionate look back at Romeo and Juliet before Parting after they have spent the night together. Their drowsiness as they are awoken by the rising sun is conveyed by the static harmonies and chiming pedal tone of the opening. A mood of blissful nostalgia hovers over this piece to bring the suite to a close on a note of romantic reverie.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: ANDREA LUCCHESINI

Domenico Scarlatti
Six Sonatas K 491 – K 454 – K 239 – K 466 – K 342 – K 146

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of the Iberian peninsula, where Scarlatti worked at the royal courts of Spain and Portugal.

A frequent pattern in these works is for technically challenging figurations in the right hand to be repeated in the left, so their value as teaching pieces was recognized early. They were, in fact, first published under the title Esercizi. Their survival in the modern repertoire no doubt derives from the flurries of repeated notes and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half ending in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The sounds of court life come alive in the ceremonial fanfares of trumpets and volleys of brass choirs in the Sonata in D major K 491, with its simple repeated phrases and stomping cadence patterns enhanced with big cadential trills.

A similar ceremonial atmosphere reigns in the repeated-note drum beat of the Sonata in G major K 454 – until it erupts into exuberant multi-octave runs and frothy patterns of keyboard effervescence.

The clicks of castanets are heard in the snappy rhythms of the ever-so-Spanish Sonata in F minor K 239 while the following sonata in the same key (K 466) strikes a more wistful poetic mood with its plaintive whimpering phrases of complaint and heart-breaking cadential harmonies.

The Sonata in A major K 342 chases its own tail with scurrying patterns of scale patterns that only rarely stop to catch their breath.

The final work in the set, the Sonata in G major K 146, balances elegantly trilled scraps of melody with diving arpeggio gestures that suggest the brash strokes of the flamenco guitarist.

Luciano Berio
Six Encores

The Italian composer Luciano Berio had a gift for aphorism, for saying much and suggesting more in a brief span of time. His Six Encores written between 1965 and 1990 represent well Berio’s fascination with the piano as an instrument that generates pure sound rather than harmony or polyphony. Each piece demonstrates a single process at work, the unfolding of a single formal principle. The first two pieces in the set, for example, are concerned with the resonance that lingers when a piano key is played and not released.

The delicacy of Brin (French for “wisp, strand”) can be intuited from its name. A single, colourfully chromatic chord played at the very end contains all the notes “wispily” spun out before it arrives, the “strands” out of which it is slowly being put together. The pedalling here is watery, the mood reflective and sentimental, in keeping with Berio’s dedication of this piece to a friend who died at the age of 20, commemorated in the chiming of a high B-natural, the highest note in the piece, which occurs exactly 20 times.

In Leaf the overtones of notes held down cast a haze over the fistfuls of tone clusters punched out staccato. This and the preceding Brin, in the kaleidoscopic variety of viewpoints from which they present the same small amount of tonal material, have been compared to a “sound mobile” twisting in the air, to be taken in from all sides.

The four remaining pieces view the piano as a means of evoking the qualities of the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – and are named to associate each element with the keyboard (Klavier) of the instrument.

Wasserklavier is devoted to water and has been called “a loving forgery.” It re-imagines the Brahms Intermezzo in B flat minor Op. 117 No. 2 and the Schubert Impromptu in F minor Op. 142 No. 1 by passing their motivic components through a “refracted” contemporary lens. The descending 2nds of the Brahms Intermezzo, in particular, seem to come at the ear as if from a kind of fun-house distorting mirror.

Erdenklavier evokes the solidity of the earth with ringing open intervals – 4ths and 5ths – in a single line of melody featuring notes struck at widely differing dynamic levels and pedalled so as to last different amounts of time.

Luftklavier paints the air, a medium vibrating with energy, thanks to a colourful ostinato in the mid-range against which isolated pitches play in the wind on either side. The persistent fluttering tremolos in the score are reminiscent of Debussy while the rat-tat-tat of repeated notes recall Prokofieff’s Toccata Op. 11.

The last in the series of “elemental” pieces, Feuerklavier, rivals Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme in its tremolo-crazed depiction of the unpredictable patterns of flickering flames as they lick the air.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B flat major D 960

It would be wrong to judge Schubert by the standards set by Beethoven, who represented the logical extension of an outgoing rationalist Classical age. Schubert represented the intuited beginning of a new Romantic age, an age in which formal models, previously held together by patterns of key relationships and motivic manipulation, would find coherence in a new kind of structural glue based on the psychological drama of personal experience.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Schubert’s approach to the Classical era’s pre-eminent formal structure, the sonata. Like a good tailor adjusting an old suit, he lets out the seams of strict sonata form to allow it to breathe with the new lyrical air of his age. Concision and argumentative density are replaced with timeless daydreaming and lyrical breadth. Schubert’s sonata movements often contain three major themes instead of the standard two, arrived at and departed from by way of unexpected, sometimes startling modulatory surprizes. By this means he blunted the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving large-scale tonal tensions. Rather, he directed the listener’s attention to the moment-by-moment unfolding of melodic contours and harmonic colours. And yet even these moments are frequently punctuated by thoughtful pauses. In the end, what Schubert aims to create is a balanced and satisfying collection of lyrical experiences within the formal markers of the traditional sonata: exposition, development, and recapitulation.

Given these lyrical aims, it should not be surprizing that he favoured moderate tempos such as the Molto moderato of the first movement of his Sonata in B flat D 960, a work composed just months before his death in 1828. Its opening theme features a peaceful melody, with a hint of pathos in its second strain, supported by a simple pulsing accompaniment and ending with a mysterious trill at the bottom of the keyboard. This trill will be an important structural marker in the movement, repeated (loudly) at the first ending of the exposition and just before the start of the recapitulation.

A second theme of a more serious cast and a third of hopping broken chords round out the exposition, each passing fluidly between the major and minor modes like a tonal dual citizen, mirroring the dual modes of sweet yearning and inner anxiety that characterize the composer’s ‘outsider’ persona generally in works such as Die Winterreise. Major becomes minor and minor major as well in the development, which maintains the initial pulse of the opening as it builds to a fierce climax.

The second movement Andante sostenuto is surreal in its starkly spare texture of layered sonorities, featuring a somber but halting melody in the mid-range surrounded on both sides by a rocking accompaniment figure that quietly resounds like the echo inside a stone tomb. Only Schubert could create such a melody, one that combines sad elegy with tender reminiscence and pleading prayer, relieved only by the nostalgic strains of the movement’s songful middle section.

The third movement scherzo is surprizingly smooth-flowing in a genre known for its mischievous wit, but mixes it up with twinkling echo effects in the high register and exchanges of melodic material between treble and bass. The trio is more sombre and contained, expressing its personality more through syncopations, sudden accents, and major-minor ambiguities than through wide-ranging scamper and exuberance.

One might actually think that some of the lightness of mood from the previous movement had influenced the start of the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which keeps wanting to start in the ‘wrong’ key (C minor, for a movement in B flat), but quickly sorts itself out to offer us one of Schubert’s most unbuttoned, ‘bunnies-hopping-in-a-box’ merry themes. And more still await us as a gloriously songful melody takes over, only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatically forceful new motive in a dotted rhythm that charges in, like a SWAT team breaking down the door of an evil-doer’s lair. But it was all a misunderstanding, of course, and these threatening minor-mode motives are soon dropped in favour of an almost parodistic variant of the same material in the major mode, something that kindergarten children might skip to at recess. The force of Schubert’s imagination ensures that this last movement of his last sonata is as vivid and riotous a ride through the rondo genre as that of his Erlkönig “through night and wind.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: EDGAR MOREAU & JESSICA XYLINA OSBORNE

Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 143

Mozart meets Stravinsky – in a Paris cabaret. As unlikely as such a meeting might be in historical terms, it is about as good a description as you can find for the musical style of French composer Francis Poulenc. The directness of his writing, its exuberance of expression, and its bright sense of tonal colour and theatrical flair owe much to Stravinsky while his love of balanced phrases, clear formal proportions and transparent textures points fondly back to Mozart. Like his fellow composers in the group known as Les Six, he steered clear of both the vaporous aesthetic refinement of Debussy’s Impressionism and the weighty emotional rhetoric of German Romanticism, finding his inspiration instead in the naive sentimentality, carefree tunefulness and lively wit of the music hall, the circus and the cabaret.

Poulenc was first and foremost a melodist, one of the great melodists of the 20th century. His melodic lines are rhythmically square and full of wide intervals, giving them a light, breezy quality. His harmonies are conventional, but often extended with added 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, which he treats as tonal colour rather than functional tones that need resolving. This pastel tonal palette of blurry overtone notes fits in perfectly with his love of a ‘wet’ piano sound, drenched in pedal.

Poulenc’s Cello Sonata (1948) comprises the four movements of classical tradition: a sonata-form first movement, a lyrical slow movement, a playful scherzo and an exuberant finale. Remarkable in the work as a whole is the arm-in-arm chumminess of the two instruments that frequently echo back phrases to each other – a compositional ‘tic’ evident right off the bat in the congenial exchange of balanced 4-bar phrases that follows the bright fanfare of the opening bars. The movement presents a variety of themes, both animated and broadly lyrical, but does little to develop them, largely due to Poulenc’s nonchalant approach to modulation. He slips in and out of keys as if he were holding up a series of colour swatches to see which tone would fit best with the living room furniture.

A more serious tone is evoked in the second movement Cavatine that begins with the piano gently laying down a plush bed of saturated harmonies over which the cello sings out its nostalgic, slightly mournful melody. In working over this theme, the movement explores some rich sonic terrain in the lower register, occasionally achieving an almost Brahmsian feeling of intimacy, especially noticeable in the concluding lullaby section.

The third movement is entitled Ballabile (meaning “suitable for dancing”) and functions as the sonata’s scherzo movement. True to its billing, it playfully prances and struts in a manner reminiscent of a music hall number featuring Maurice Chevalier in a straw hat, twirling his cane.

The finale is an aesthetic puzzle. It begins with a sonorous and seemingly dead serious Largo that quickly yields the field to a rollicking tune of running triplets treated in close imitation. Eventually a mock-serious march appears, and then a lyrical theme of considerable tenderness. It is hard to resist the notion that Poulenc is having us on here, in true cabaret style, especially when the grave opening returns at the end, like a policeman appearing on the scene to take all the merry-makers off to jail.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 119

When Andrei Zhdanov became Stalin’s minister of culture in 1946, he gleefully banned the works of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova before setting his sights on the Soviet Union’s leading composers. The Zhdanov Decree of 1948 accused Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Sergei Prokofiev of formalism, the ideological crime of elitism said to infect composers who cravenly paid tribute to the formal conventions of cultural life in the capitalist West in preference to the native musical culture of the masses in their own country. How, in such a climate, Prokofiev was able to get his Sonata for Cello and Piano (1949) past the censors of the Soviet Composers Union remains a mystery, but it may well have to do with the calibre of the musicians tipped to perform the work at its 1950 premiere: pianist Sviatoslav Richter and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Nevertheless, if formalism is the crime, this sonata is guilty as charged. It comprises three of the traditional four movements of the classical sonata: a first movement in sonata-allegro form, a scherzo and trio second movement, and a rondo finale. Working in its ideological favour, however, may have been the simplicity and direct appeal of its musical materials – a nod in the direction of the folk idiom – and the amount of time the cello spends singing from its lowest register, evoking the bass voice which Russian vocal music has always favoured.

Indeed, the work begins with a full-throated melody in the cello at the bottom of its range. This ruminative melody will book-end the sonata as a whole, returning in glory in the final pages of the finale. More directly lyrical is the second theme, introduced in a loving duet between the instruments that counts as the sentimental highlight of the movement. (Who knew that Prokofiev could write melody with such grace?) The development ups the emotional temperature in exploring these themes con espressione drammatico as the piano, too, explores its bottom register, and the recapitulation echoes this intensity of emotion in an animated coda that nonetheless ends the movement in a mood of serenity.

The scherzo second movement opens with a coy, stop-and-go pattern of childlike little chords in the piano. This leads to more a more rambunctious kind of play between the instruments that creates sparkle and animation by contrasting the extreme registers of each instrument. Faithful to the humorous intentions of the genre (scherzo is Italian for “joke”), the outer sections of this 3-part movement create their animated – almost cartoonish – good spirits by means of skippy staccatos in the piano and perky pizzicati in the cello. The central trio, by contrast, while still expansive in the range of tonal space it occupies, is all flowing honey and mellifluous melody, as tradition demands.

The last movement is rondo-ish in structure and features the simplest, clearest textures of the entire sonata. Its opening refrain is shockingly tuneful, spelled out in balanced answering phrases constructed out of breezy wide melodic intervals and even a couple of Scotch snaps – the sort of thing you might cheerfully hum to yourself while washing the family car with a garden hose. The two intervening episodes are miles apart in mood: the first bristles with lively scampering melodies, the second is serene and reflective.

Taking his cue from the finales of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev brings the sonata to a close with a grandiose apotheosis, in which the first movement’s opening bars are recalled in a gloriously broad retelling, accompanied by exhilarating swirls of runs in both instruments.

César Franck
Sonata in A Major Op. 42

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter assigned to cover breaking news on the 19th-century Belgian music beat, is not wide of the mark in observing that

“There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music – soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels.” (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and actually performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist. Soon adapted for cello by cellist Jules Desart, it lies at the heart of that instrument’s repertoire, as well.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the cello over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second emerges in the piano alone, which takes centre stage in an outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity ending, however, in a dark turn to the minor. The cello will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-dum-de-dum’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the cello. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the cello tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata. No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased and all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that features a simple and tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

“It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.”

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

Top