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Program Notes: Anna Fedorova

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Fantasia in D minor K. 397

Mozart’s D minor Fantasia is a bundle of mysteries; an intriguing sound-puzzle for the listener but a labyrinthine minefield of interpretive choices for the pianist. Mere slavish attention to the details of the printed score—the motto and creed of historically informed pianism—risks missing the point entirely in a work so obviously based on the spirit of free improvisation, with its seven distinct sections, three cadenzas, and constantly changing tempos and moods.

Worse still, the work that dates from 1782 remained unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791 and the first printed edition (Vienna, 1804) simply ends on a cliff-hanging dominant seventh chord. This has prompted subsequent editors to bring the work into port with an additional 10 measures provided by “another hand” (to use the scholarly phrase), not without a certain measure of eyebrow elevation on the part of purists, to be sure.

Sniffing at the brute amateurishness of this solution, Mitsuko Uchida, for one, ignores these additions and instead repeats the opening arpeggios at the end of her recording of the piece to bring a rounded symmetry to the form and preserve Mozartean authorship throughout.

What will Ms. Fedorova do? In a piece predicated on improvisatory surprise, it is perhaps best for listeners not to know in advance.

 

Frédéric  Chopin

Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49

Despite its generic title, Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor of 1841 is every bit as nationalist in sentiment as his mazurkas and polonaises, based as it is on motives from many of the patriotic songs nostalgically sung by his fellow Polish emigrés in Paris who, like Chopin himself, were unable to return to their native land after the failed Warsaw uprising of November 1830. Indeed, Theodor Adorno has described the work as a “tragically decorative song of triumph to the effect that Poland was not lost forever, that someday […] she would rise again.”

It begins in the low register of the keyboard with a mysterious march of uncertain import. What begins in imitation of the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a military parade soon drifts almost imperceptibly into the gentle lilt of dance music in an elegant aristocratic salon. Wide-spanning arpeggiated passagework links the various sections of the work that move through moods of restless anxiety to forthright defiance, and, finally to the exultation of military triumph, evoked in a strutting cavalry march.

At the very heart of the piece, however, is a restrained Lento sostenuto that calls a momentary truce to all the patriotic posturing to express the simple nobility of the Polish soul, an echo of which is heard in recitative before the work swells resolutely in rippling arpeggios to its conclusion.

 

Toru Takemitsu

Uninterrupted Rests

Toru Takemitsu rose to prominence in the 1950s to become, in the words of his countryman Seiji Ozawa, “the first Japanese composer to write for a world audience and achieve international recognition.” Largely self-taught, he was influenced by the music of Debussy and Messiaen, by the musique concrète experiments of Pierre Shaeffer, and by Balinese gamelan music, becoming known especially for his sensitivity to the play of timbre and sound colour.

Uninterrupted Rests (1952-1959) is a work in three movements that seeks to capture the mood of a nature poem by Shūzō Takiguchi about the heaviness of a dark night with the wind and cold weighing on every moth and twig.

Takemitsu shared John Cage’s view that silence was an actual presence in music, rather than an absence, and his score reflects this by giving dynamic markings even to rests, to indicate the intensity with which they are to be felt.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Preludes Op. 32 and Op. 23

Rachmaninoff’s masterful control of pianistic colour and sonority is on full display in his Preludes Op. 23 (1901-03) and Op. 32 (1910). By no means miniatures, these works are more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 and 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

The Prelude in G major Op. 32 No. 5 makes colourful use of the high register to present a delicate melody floating placidly above a murmuring accompaniment in the mid-range, hazily blurred in the ear by the unusual five-against-three patterning of the left and right hands. It is hard not to think of birds chirping on a clear cold winter’s day when listening to this prelude.

The bright and jangling open-fifth accompaniment figure that begins the Prelude in G# minor Op. 32 No. 12 tempts and taunts a pensive baritone melody in the darker regions of the keyboard below that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency.

The muscular Prelude in B flat Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and dynamism of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over three octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied, but equally tumultuous, middle section.

 

Robert  Schumann

Fantasy in C Major Op. 17

Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasy Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenage daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wiecks. The Fantasy’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in the movement’s mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).

That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a grand sonata in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”

The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.

The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices, and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.

Schumann’s three-movement “sonata” was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Ksenija Sidorova

The Concert Accordion

 

Early Beginnings

The accordion has for centuries been associated with music of a light or popular nature. Its portability, full harmonic texture and penetrating, reedy timbre have made it the ideal mini-orchestra for country dances and the perfect one-man house band for city cafés and music halls. The very sound of the accordion oozes nostalgia. Indeed the sound of accordion music has long been cinematic shorthand for identifying a film’s setting as the city of Paris, even before the Eiffel Tower comes into view.

It took a long time to develop the idea that the accordion might be taken seriously as a concert instrument, partly because opportunities for developing skill in performance through professional instruction were few. Then, of course, there was the problem of repertoire. What pieces were there for concert accordionists to play? And finally, the instrument itself needed to be improved, in the way the piano and orchestral instruments had been strengthened and made more versatile in the 19th century, in order to provide a worthy vehicle for the compositional inspirations of major composers.

In the early 20th century, major progress on these issues was made in the Soviet Union, with meaningful contributions from Denmark and England. Folk music, the core of the accordion repertoire, was at the centre of Soviet policy on music education and so the first professional accordion program was established at the Kiev Conservatory in 1927, with similar programs subsequently appearing in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Russian cities.

On May 22, 1935, the renowned accordionist Pavel Gvozdev gave the first accordion recital in the Soviet Union in Leningrad and two years later performed a new concerto for accordion and orchestra by Feodosiy Rubtsov (1904–1986) in the Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, events which greatly stimulated interest in the artistic potential of the accordion.

 

The Accordion Gets a Makeover

Of even greater importance were changes made to the instrument itself in the period following WWII. Two types of accordions were in use. The traditional Russian accordion, the bayan, had buttons on both sides of the bellows while the piano accordion featured a regular piano keyboard on the right and buttons on the left. Both used the Stradella bass system for the left hand, an arrangement of single bass notes over a single octave alternating with buttons that played major, minor, diminished, or dominant 7th chords. While this configuration was ideal for the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern of dance music, it represented a serious barrier to composing for the concert repertoire.

With the arrival of the free-bass system with its arrangement of single-note buttons extending over a wide range, accordionists were able for the first time to play bass melodies and create their own chords, instead of having to use the pre-set chords of the Stradella system. In addition, new stops were devised that expanded the range of timbres available on the instrument. The accordion had now become a fully polyphonic instrument, capable of performing in chamber ensembles and of performing transcriptions of classic works in the concert repertoire.

 

The Modern Accordion

One of the first to exploit the new possibilities of these improvements was the Danish accordionist Mogens Ellegaard (1935–1995) who, from the 1950s onward, challenged composers to write serious works for the accordion. One of his first commissions was the Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro for accordion and orchestra (1958) by the Danish conductor and composer Ole Schmidt (1928-2010).

While the Russian bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips (b. 1948) moved the bar forward in his country, championing in particular the music of Astor Piazzola, Ellegaard’s student, the Scots-born Owen Murray, brought his teacher’s enthusiasm for the accordion back to Britain. After graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1982, Murray made history by being appointed professor of accordion at the Royal Academy of Music in 1986, marking the arrival of academic respectability for the accordion in one of the most prestigious musical institutions in Europe.

Murray’s student at the Royal Academy, Ksenija Sidorova, continues the work of creating a place for the accordion on the concert stage, playing both transcriptions of established works in the classical canon and a growing number of modern and contemporary compositions written specifically for the accordion. She plays an artisan-crafted instrument from the workshops of the Italian manufacturer Pigini in Ancona, considered the Rolls-Royce of accordion-makers. Her instrument (which she calls “the Beast”) has a left-hand range of four and a half octaves, and a special chin-activated stop which allows lightning-fast changes in timbre.

 

Program Notes

 

Piotr Londonov

Scherzo-Toccata

Piotr Petrovich Londonov was a prolific contributor to the accordion repertoire through his many arrangements of Slavic and Scandinavian folk songs. This breathless, almost frantic, Scherzo-Toccata is extremely popular among accordionists, judging from how often it has been played at international competitions and the number of YouTube videos of the piece currently online.

Written for bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips as a test piece for a competition in Geneva in 1979, it combines the repeated-note figuration of the traditional chattering toccata with the repeated short phrase fragments of the scherzo, alternating between sections of purposeful drive and carefree cheerfulness.

From Kesenija Sidorova: Scherzo-Toccata was a compulsory piece for several accordion competitions, and is frequently performed by accordionists all over the world. It is a cheerful short piece, which explores different techniques on this versatile instrument.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” K. 265

The sheer audacity of writing piano variations on a theme so childlike and innocent as “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”) is a gesture uniquely Mozartean in its impertinence. The only modern equivalent would be the fugues based on tunes by Britney Spears that are so impudently posted on YouTube nowadays by composition students with too much time on their hands.

Mozart’s treatment of the theme is for the most part figural. He slices & dices the structural harmonic outline of his thematic material to re-present it with pearly right-hand decorations and insurgent left-hand runs, in coy echoes and ever-so- serious imitative entries, and finally with the obligatory set pieces: a poised and elegant operatic adagio followed by a rousing eggbeater of a finale.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Barcarolle Op. 10 No. 3

Rachmaninoff completed his group of Salon Pieces Op. 10 in 1894. The third of the set is a barcarolle, a type of character piece patterned after the boat songs of Venetian gondoliers. But the rocking motion typical of the barcarolles of Chopin and Mendelssohn is here given a mere suggestion by Rachmaninoff in the quavering triplet figures that flutter throughout the first section, perhaps in imitation of water lapping at the edge of a boat.

In the middle section, the accompaniment evolves into an animated swirl of frothy running figures that only serve to further emphasize the lonely isolation of the main melody singing out below in the baritone range. This hauntingly timid, rhythmically uncertain melody comes across particularly well in the plaintive reed timbre of the accordion, so well that one could easily imagine this mood piece having been originally written for the instrument.

 

Anatoly Kusyakov

Autumnal Sceneries

Composer Anatoly Ivanovich Kusyakov paints the autumnal geography of his native Russia in six musical landscapes that employ the full sonorous resources of the accordion. His musical language is a modernist extension of traditional harmony that features dense chordal structures marbled through with contrapuntal motives.

Autumn reveries introduces us to the Russian landscape in a series of bellows-heavy sighs alternating with simpler phrases of a more optimistic stamp. Leaf-fall paints the dance of leaves in the wind with a fast-moving treble scurrying above a slower- moving melody in the bass below. The quirky gate of Soiree Mood conjures a vision of some character out of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. One could easily imagine the scene of an ugly duckling moving slowly and awkwardly across the landscape.

Forgotten Chimes has a chorale-like dignity reminiscent of Bach’s organ music with its monumental build-up of harmonic tension and instrumental sonority. Cranes describes the passing of majestic birds overhead in a series of soulful dissonant chords over a relentless ostinato bass. The final scene, Wind Dance, is the most virtuosic of the set, featuring both hands moving in fast figuration at a breathless pace.

From Kesenija Sidorova: The first movement, Autumnal reveries, immerses us in the spirit and mood of autumn—rain drops, wind, distant memories of summer. The second movement reminds us somewhat of the last movement (Presto) of Chopin’s B flat minor piano sonata, Op.35, “wind howling around the gravestones”.

The third movement is very picturesque, with interweaving lyrical and wild themes.

The fourth movement, Forgotten chimes, depicts the ruins of the cathedral and the distant sound of the church bells. The fifth movement, Cranes, is inspired by a poem of the same name by Rasul Gamzatov about the souls of the fallen soldiers, who,

“Were buried not in soil to be forgotten,

But turned into white cranes in flight instead.”

The final movement dispels the heavy dark mood with its sarcastic accentuated patterns and melodies inspired by Russian folklore.

 

Semionov Viatcheslav

Red Guelder-Rose (“Kalina  Krasnaya”)

From Kesenija Sidorova: Semionov is regarded as one of the pioneers of the contemporary accordion and is a well-known concert performer, pedagogue, and composer. Since 1995 he has held the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation. Guelder  Rose was composed in 1976 in memoriam to a great Russian film director, Vassily Shukshin, who directed and acted in the movie of the same name. It was the most successful film of the year (1974) and is widely known even outside of the USSR.

The song is about an unrequited love. It instantly became popular and sometimes is mistakenly regarded as traditional.

 

Alfred  Schnittke

Revis Fairytale

Satire is a powerful force in politics. The Soviet authorities knew this when, in 1978, they banned The Inspector’s Tale, a stage adaptation of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel satirizing official corruption in czarist Russia. But Alfred Schnittke’s incidental music to this production survived the ban to resurface in in the 1985 ballet Esquisses (Sketches), which added a whole host of other Gogol characters to the mix. The music from this ballet lives on in the suite created by accordionists Yuri Shishkin, Friedrick Lips, and Ksenija Sidorova, entitled Revis Fairy Tale.

This is music with satiric intent woven deep into its fabric. Chichikov’s Childhood attempts to reveal the psychological make-up in early childhood of the central protagonist in Dead Souls, who absurdly seeks to buy from Russian landowners the ownership rights to their deceased serfs. The musical styles of Haydn, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky bear witness to the grotesquely simplistic thinking that was Chichikov’s special gift since birth.

Officials scurries along in mock-bureaucratic haste, helped along by snippets of Mozart’s Magic Flute  overture, while Waltz channels Shostakovich’s genre-deflating practices with slow-motion oom-pah-pahs and a comic choice of timbres.

The last piece in the set, Polka, evokes the improvisational whims of the gypsy violinist, starting slow but then accelerating to an exhilarating pace, flickering all the while between major and minor tonalities.

From Ksenija Sidorova: This fairy tale was first transcribed by Russian accordion virtuoso Yuri Shishkin, and subsequently by F. Lips and K. Sidorova. In the first movement, the happy childhood of Pavel Chichikov is polystylistic, combining familiar themes from many sources such as Mozart’s Magic Flute  and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The waltz represents one of the scenes in Gogol’s Dead Souls, and the last movement, a Polka, recalls the character Akaky Bashmachkin from a short story, The Overcoat, also by Gogol. In the story the hero scrimps and scrapes in order to buy himself an overcoat to replace his threadbare one, but late one night he is mugged by two robbers who steal it. Receiving no help from the authorities, but rather a reprimand, Bashmachkin becomes ill and dies but his ghost haunts the city, stealing other people’s coats in revenge.

 

PROGRAM NOTES: KIRILL GERSTEIN


Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite no. 6 in D minor, BWV 811

Bach’s Partitas, English Suites and French Suites – six of each – collectively rank among the glories of the keyboard literature. Each is a four-part sequence of dance movements, all in the same key but varied by rhythm, tempo and mood: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Each has a different national origin, respectively German, French, Spanish and English/Irish. To this basic framework additional movements, usually of French origin (Minuet, Gavotte, Bourrée, Passepied, etc.) are found between the Sarabande and Gigue. These dance movements are generally in two-part form, with each half repeated. An imposing Prelude introduces each of the Partitas and English Suites.

The moniker “English” Suites is a misnomer. Bach did not so designate them, and even if he had, they are stylistically more French than English in their orientation, taking as their point of departure the keyboard style of French harpsichord music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arranged by Ferruccio Busoni
Giga, Bolero e Variazione

Like Franz Liszt two generations before him, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) spent the earlier part of his career on the concert circuit as one of the most sensational piano virtuosos of his time. Also like Liszt, he arranged and transcribed numerous works for piano solo. In 1909, he published four “books” collectively called An die Jugend (each lasts only four or five minutes) of his freely adapted transcriptions of other composers’ music. The third of these was based on the music of Mozart. The three sections are played without pause. The gigue is derived from Mozart’s Gigue K. 574, the “bolero” is actually a free fantasia on the fandango (a courtly Spanish dance) in the third act of The Marriage of Figaro, while the virtuosic variation is developed from the gigue material.

Oliver Knussen
Ophelia’s Last Dance

Ophelia’s Last Dance is a nine-minute work commissioned for Kirill Gerstein by The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The pianist gave the world premiere there on May 3, 2010. When he gave the New York premiere a few days later, Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times that “it begins with a dash of light-textured sparkle and a gently chromatic line, and as it grows more emotionally charged, its language veers toward neo-Romanticism rather than the harmonic density of Mr. Knussen’s earlier music.”

This piece is an expansion of an idea that dates back to 1974 and was initially intended to become part of Knussen’s Third Symphony, which occupied him throughout the 1970s. Fragments then went into his Ophelia Dances, Book I (1975) for chamber ensemble, and finally found their way into the present work for solo piano, thus “continuing the dance in various ways,” as the composer says.

Carl Maria von Weber
Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65

Weber composed his brilliant Aufforderung zum Tanze (Invitation to the Dance) as a solo piano piece in 1819. It may well have been the first concert waltz (one conceived specifically for listening rather than for dancing), but its popularity was ensured through choreographic interpretation, beginning with Berlioz’ orchestration for the Paris Opera in 1841. The “invitation” portion lasts only a small fraction of the entire work. According to Weber’s own explanation, the invitation by the gentleman is made to the lady in the opening passage, followed by her demure responses and eventual acceptance. The dance is a series of contrasting waltzes, during which the dancers declare their love. At the end he thanks her. They part. Silence.

Schubert-Liszt
Soirées de Vienne no. 6: Valse-Caprice d’après Schubert (Allegro con spirit)

Schubert wrote an enormous number of little dance pieces for piano – waltzes, galops, Ländler, Deutsche, écossaises and minuets – to the tune of nearly four hundred. From this vast treasure trove Liszt chose nine waltzes and filtered them through the alembic of his own musical personality, calling them Soirées de Vienne, or Valse-Caprices. Biographer Bryce Morrison notes that Liszt was attracted to Schubert’s waltzes because of “their mix of both subtle and direct qualities,” which resulted in Liszt “tinting their exuberance and melancholy with a stylized command peculiarly his own.” Liszt was obviously fond of these works, first published in 1852, as he performed them often. The sixth is by far the most popular of the Soirées, with its sturdy opening theme, its echt Viennese lilt and its numerous passages of scintillating filigree decorating Schubert’s charming melodic lines.

Robert Schumann
Carnaval, Op. 9

Preambule
Pierrot
Arlequin – Valse noble
Eusebius
Florestan
Coquette
Replique
Papillons
Lettres dansantes
Chiarina
Chopin
Estrella
Reconnaissance – Pantalon et Columbine –
Valse allemande
Paganini
Aveu
Promenade
Pause
March des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins

Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is As, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Schumann met Ernestine at the Leipzig home of the piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, with whom she lodged and studied piano. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month he began writing the music that became Carnaval.

As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Wieck’s daughter Clara. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own. (In German terms, S=Es (E-flat), and H=B-natural.) The coincidence seemed to Schumann like fate knocking at the door. He loved puzzles, ciphers and numerical symbolism. This provided just the stimulus he needed to begin a new, large-scale composition. Schumann arranged the Asch motto into two additional variants – S-C-H-A and AS-C-H (As=A-flat) – and later inserted all three mottos into the score between the eighth and ninth numbers (between “Réplique” and “Papillons”) as double whole notes, calling them “Sphinxes,” meant only to be seen, not heard. Every piece in Carnaval except the “Préambule” is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure.

 The autobiographical element of Carnaval goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Estrella (“Ernestine”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Other images of a masked ball at carnival time (the pre-Lenten season) make fleeting appearances. The final number portrays the rout of cultural philistines by the band of David, marching defiantly in 3/4 metre.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

PROGRAM NOTES: ELIAS STRING QUARTET

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet no. 18 in A major, K. 464

This is the fifth of the six “Haydn” quartets – everyone a masterpiece – that Mozart wrote in the mid-1780s. The identification with Haydn derives from the older composer’s direct influence on his colleague in the matter of string quartet writing. Specific elements of this influence can be seen in the equal importance given to all four parts, and in the masterful contrapuntal, imitative, and rhythmic manipulation of motivic fragments throughout an entire movement. It was after a performance of this quartet, plus two others in the set, that Haydn made this oft-repeated remark to Mozart’s father: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

That “profound knowledge of composition” reveals itself everywhere in the quartet. In the first movement, both main subjects (the first of which contains no fewer than four motivic fragments) are developed contrapuntally almost immediately after being presented. In the Minuetto the opening subject consists of a rising lyrical element and a falling articulated one; these are immediately combined, superimposed on each other and developed accordingly. The movement is also remarkable for the expressive use of silences and for frequent and dramatic alternation of loud and soft. Characteristics like these pervade the quartet. But what gives this music its almost magical appeal is Mozart’s supreme ability to combine this high order of craftsmanship with artistic beauty, elegance of expression and a sense of a totally natural unfolding of musical events.

Leo Janáček: String Quartet no. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata)

Very few works of chamber music owe their inspiration to extramusical sources. Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 is one of these. (Other well-known examples include Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 (From My Life) and Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, entitled Intimate Pages.

Janáček, unlike most other composers, did not produce a string quartet until late in life (to be technically correct, he wrote a quartet during his student days in Vienna in 1880, but this has been lost). The First Quartet dates from 1923, when the composer was 69, the Second from 1928, the year of his death at age 74. The First Quartet’s subtitle refers to both a short novel by Tolstoy and a sonata for violin and piano by Beethoven. Both have relevance to Janáček’s quartet.

Tolstoy’s novella (1889) is the story of a married woman caught in the dilemma between remaining faithful to a man who treats her cruelly and having an affair with a violinist who adores her. The violinist, ironically, was introduced to the woman by her husband at a soirée during which Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (No. 9, Op. 47) was performed. Tolstoy describes in detail the effect the music had on those present. Among other observations, the author believes music generally to be “one of the main intermediaries for encouraging adultery in our society.” At any rate, the husband returns unexpectedly early from a business trip several days later to find his wife and the violinist in passionate embrace. The “poor, exhausted, beaten, sorrow-worn woman” is thereupon murdered. Janáček’s compassion for this unfortunate woman found its way into artistic expression through his First String Quartet, which was given its premiere by the famed Bohemian Quartet on October 24, 1924 in Prague.

In preparing to write the quartet, Janáček annotated a copy of Tolstoy’s work with specific ideas about the relationship between the sonata and the novella. However, the composer made no effort to trace any kind of dramatic program in his quartet. Rather, it presents and expands emotional and psychological states to which various musico-dramatic touches have been added. To some listeners, the opening of the third movement of Janáček’s quartet is a veiled quote from the slow movement of Beethoven’s sonata.

One might assign specific themes to characters or moods, if one wishes, but it is the overall sense of theatre that makes the quartet such a compelling work. Not one of its four movements is in sonata form. Instead, motifs and rhythmic devices are presented, repeated, juxtaposed and combined in constantly changing tempos and metres. In a work lasting less than twenty minutes in performance, there are no fewer than 61 changes of tempo and 25 changes of metre. Over and above all this we find liberal use of such special effects as sul ponticello (playing on the bridge of the instrument, which produces an eerie, ghostly sound), harmonics and ostinatos in addition to more traditional effects like trills, pizzicatos and muted passages.

Robert Smetana, in his introduction to the score published by Hudebni Matice, recommends that we approach this music “as a passionate confession of the principle and power of emotional relations between man and woman in life and in art, to grasp the music not as decor, but as an integral part of life, a part that is often excessively painful, and to hear in it the intense personal participation of the composer.”

Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, Op. 13

Three great composers wrote a great string quartet in A minor within just a few years of each other in the early nineteenth century: Beethoven (Op. 132), Schubert (No. 13, Op. 29; D 804) and Mendelssohn. But while Beethoven’s and Schubert’s quartets are among their last compositions, composed in 1824-1825, Mendelssohn’s is the work of a young man who has not even reached his maturity. He was eighteen when he wrote it. Although it is assigned No. 2, it was actually his first (not counting an even earlier, unnumbered composition), composed in 1827 but it was published second. The first performance was given in Paris on February 14, 1832.

Listeners will easily note a number of special features of this quartet. First and foremost, it is an astonishingly mature work for an eighteen-year-old. A composer twice or three times Mendelssohn’s age would have been proud to offer it as his own. But then, Mendelssohn had been writing music on this level at an even earlier age – the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream come readily to mind.

Mendelssohn’s quartet opens and closes in A major, which normally would lead us to call it a quartet “in A major.” But those opening and closing passages are only a prologue and epilogue framing the main body of a work in A minor (the second movement alone is in a different key). It is difficult to think of another multi-movement work that behaves like this.

Then there is the powerful influence of Beethoven’s late quartets which Mendelssohn obviously knew, even though they had been written but a few years earlier. This influence can be seen in the advanced harmonic language, tightly knit counterpoint, recitative passages and use of motivic fragments for developmental purposes. Another Beethovenian device is the use of a three-word question as the source of inspiration. The last movement of Beethoven’s quartet Op.135 has as its motto “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). For Mendelssohn it was “Ist es wahr?” (Is it true?). But while Beethoven’s impetus came from a trivial incident involving payment of a fee, for the youthful Mendelssohn it was something more serious. He was all aflame over a young lady (we’re not sure who), who inspired him to set a song to a short poem, possibly by himself, possibly by a friend named Gustav Droyson (pen name J. N. Voss). “Is it true that you’ll always be waiting for me beneath the leafy path?” runs the opening line.

The quartet begins with a warmly consoling, richly scored, chorale-like passage that gives no hint of the emotional turmoil and contrapuntal displays about to be unleashed. It is the perfect foil. Near the end of this short passage Mendelssohn twice presents the “Ist es wahr?” motif (long-short-long), exactly as it appeared at the beginning of the song. Then a rumble from the viola, a few bars of “scurrying” for all four strings, and we’re off on a deeply troubled journey through a long, sonata-form movement pervaded by the “Ist es wahr?” motif. Its rhythm is everywhere, even if its melodic profile is not. As a further measure of the emotional heat of this movement, the second theme, announced by the first violin, is in E minor, not major, as would be the case in most any other sonata-form movement of the period. Here, incidentally, is one of the few moments where the “Ist es wahr?” rhythm is absent. The development section consists of an intense, at times almost violent working out of the “scurrying” figure and, to no one’s surprise by now, the rhythmic pattern of “Ist es wahr?”.

The spirit of Beethoven is nowhere more pronounced than in the adagio movement, with its soulful, hymnlike opening subject and aura of Innigkeit (inwardness). More Beethovenian influence is seen in the use of fugato (a short passage in fugal style but not a fully developed fugue) and in the highly advanced harmony of the central episode. Perhaps nowhere else did Mendelssohn ascend to such levels of expressive dissonance as he did in this movement.

The main theme of the Intermezzo has a folk-like simplicity to it, gently wistful, as if “smiling through the tears.” The movement’s central episode has the characteristic feathery lightness of touch we associate with the Mendelssohn of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Octet, though even here imitative counterpoint holds sway, even to the point of two different ideas – one lightly tripping, the other lyrical – bounced about simultaneously at one point.

The finale begins with one of Mendelssohn’s most daring and dramatic gestures – the equivalent of a recitative delivered by an impassioned operatic character, sung by the first violin to throbbing accompaniment from the other strings. It is a gesture Mendelssohn may well have learned from the analogous passage in Beethoven’s Ninth or his A-minor quartet (Op. 132). In fact, the similarity in both rhythm and melodic outline is remarkably close to the corresponding passage in Op. 132. Thereafter it returns in varied form three more times interspersed with fresh melodic ideas. The incisive, five-note pattern (three short, two long) that constitute the recitative’s rhythmic hallmark turn up again and again throughout the movement like a kind of musical genetic code. Again, as in the first movement, the second theme is in E minor, not E major.

Mendelssohn saves his greatest surprise for the end. The music seems to be hurtling toward a thrilling conclusion. The fourth recitative passage interrupts the proceedings, and we revert to the tranquil music that opened the quartet nearly half an hour ago. Here Mendelssohn expands that material into a postlude of 25 measures, exactly the length of the song that was the quartet’s raison d’être. It brings a satisfying sense of closure; “Ist es wahr?” has come full circle.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

An interview with Rodion Pogossov

Pogossov 2Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Where are you today?

I’m in Hamburg right now, singing my first Verdi role in the opera “Don Carlos” at the Hamburgische Staatsoper.

When did you realize you wanted a career in music?

I was inspired at the age of 17 by my teacher and by classical music that I discovered. I always sang when I was a kid, but only in school and children’s productions, and I never thought at that time about becoming an opera singer. I guess it’s very rare to hear an 8 or 9 year old child say “I want to be an opera singer!”! I was lucky enough to study as an actor of musical theatre where I received voice, ballet, and acting coaching, and also some training in acrobatics. Honestly, at first I was disappointed because there was too much ballet, and we were dancing three times a week. I started thinking that I was maybe in the wrong place; not because I didn’t like ballet, but because ballet didn’t like me! One day I remember saying to my friend that I wish I could break a leg, and I ended up doing just that within two weeks (not on purpose of course) which enabled me to concentrate on my voice lessons. This gave me such joy and I discovered the depth and beauty of classical music.

Who are the great influences in your life and in your music?

My family, my friends. In music; composers, my colleagues…

How does your approach to singing and characterization differ when performing a recital versus performing in an opera?

When you sing a concert you are alone on the stage, you don’t have any costume for the character, no set design, no light design; basically you have to create an atmosphere for the piece on your own and make it believable and contagious. In an opera production it involves hundreds of people, everything works for the story, and everything helps you to create the right atmosphere. The Director helps to create the character of the role, the conductor – the musical character. Meanwhile in recital you have to do it by yourself. The singer is expected to sing with more colour, nuance and more detail in concert, especially when you sing with a piano. Sometimes the orchestra doesn’t give you this opportunity, and everything should be a little bigger. I think it helps your operatic roles a lot when you sing recitals, and visa versa for your recital experience after singing in opera productions. I like both disciplines!

What can you tell us about your Vancouver program?

It’s quite an eclectic program, combining different time periods from 17th-20th century, different languages and styles. It’s a pot-pourri: a little Russian music, of course, some ancient music, and it finishes with ‘Largo al factotum’, from Il barbieri di Siviglia. Figaro is one of my favourite roles, and it’s actually very hard to find a piece for lyric baritone that makes a good end to the programme. I’m also singing Poulenc’s comedic Chansons Gaillards, which is very rarely done, but it goes down well with the audience. It’s based on troubadours’ songs – young guys singing songs all about sex to the girls. The music is incredibly beautiful and serious, but the words are full of double entendres. I have to try to keep a straight face!

Many in your Vancouver audience likely will hear you for the first time. For those who are not familiar with your singing, how would you describe your performances and concert experiences? (or: for those who are not familiar with your singing, what is the one most important experience you wish to convey through your performance?)

I usually try not to think about the result, and just try to enjoy the process and share with the audience the beauty of this music of such great composers, and to tell the story. It’s my hope that someone will find something in common with the stories being told.

What is the concert experience like for you, as the performer?

As an opera singer it’s good to do recitals. It allows you to be flexible with your technique. And sometimes you get tired of opera and you want some more intimacy with the audience. There is no decoration, no movement, no costume, no orchestra – you have to create characters on stage all by yourself. For me as an artist it is always important to find a contact with audience. I like this phrase: “You don’t step on stage to eat, you go there to be eaten”. 

What influence does your Russian heritage and language have on your interpretations and choice of repertoire?

Of course it will be the primary influence in Tchaikovsky’s songs and in Onegin’s aria, with all the depth of Tchaikovsky’s music and Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin. And it gives me an in-depth understanding of the text.

You are much in demand, and no doubt you travel a lot and often alone. How do you manage to find a balance between the demands on your professional life and your personal life?

It’s not easy, but I try not to lose my personal life while pursuing my career. In the end the bigger the personal experiences in life, the more it influences you as an artist, so you have to grow in both directions, personally and professionally.

What are your concert highlights in 2012?

Musically, I’m most looking forward to singing the Antique arias, Barber, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Rossini, Korngold and some Zarzuelas; which makes up the body of the majority of my recital work.

Thank you for participating in our interview. We are very much looking forward to hearing you in Vancouver on February 26, 2012.

Rodion Pogossov will perform with pianist Mikhail Senovalov at the Kay Meek Centre on Sunday, February 26, 2012.

Rodion Pogossov: Programme Notes

Alessandro Stradella: “Pietà, Signore”Pogossov

Orphaned at the age of eleven, Alessandro Stradella went on to lead one of the most colourful lives of any composer who ever lived. He was involved in Mafiaesque schemes, had a reputation for womanizing, got himself wounded by pursuing avengers, and was eventually murdered. In between all this he found time to compose. Alas, the only piece by Stradella that has his name attached to it, and that has any degree of circulation today, “Pietà, Signore” (a heart-rending plea to the Lord for mercy in suffering), was actually written by someone else,  possibly the Italian Rossini, possibly the Belgian historian-theorist-composer François Joseph Fétis, or possibly the Swiss-born composer and pedagogue Louis Niedermeyer.

George Frederick Handel: “Ombra mai fù”

The recitative and aria from Handel’s light and elegant opera Serse (or Xerxes, London, 1738), “Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fù,” is not only the most famous number from Serse, but it may well be the most famous vocal number from any of Handel’s forty-plus operas. In mock-heroic terms, Xerxes, King of Persia addresses an affectionate tribute to the foliage of a plane-tree in the garden of his residence at Abydos, located on the southern shore of the Hellespont.

Antonio Cesti: “Si mantiene il mio amor”

Antonio Cesti’s life was scarcely less tumultuous than Stradella’s. Like Vivaldi, he trained for the priesthood. However, he couldn’t keep his hands off the ladies, and in 1658 got himself released from his vows. Rumour has it that he died by poisoning. Most of his output was for voice, and his magnum opus was the huge, five-act, 24-scene opera Il pomo d’oro (The Golden Apple), produced in 1667 on the occasion of a royal wedding.

“Si mantiene il mio amor” is a dolorous aria from Cesti’s first opera Alessando, vincitor di se stesso (Venice, 1651). It is sung by Efestione, a general in the army of Alexander the Great. Efestione is in love with Campaspe, but he has been promised to Alexander’s sister Cina, and he dares not risk offending the powerful Alexander. “My love survives on pain, sorrow and distress,” he sings. “I love, even without hope.”

Samuel Barber: “Un cygnet”

While many other composers of the mid-twentieth century were jumping on bandwagons, afraid to be left behind by the latest fad, ism or experiment, Samuel Barber remained true to his inner conviction of writing music founded on tonal centers, emotional expression and traditional values. His music breathes lyricism, heartfelt emotions, nostalgia, and, in some cases, highly dramatic gestures.

“Throughout his life, Barber was never without a volume or two of poetry at his bedside,” writes pianist John Browning. “Poetry was as necessary to his existence as oxygen.”  The Mélodies passagères (1950-51) are settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and constitute the only songs Barber set to verses in a foreign language. They were first performed in Paris in 1952 by two of France’s preeminent musicians, baritone Pierre Bernac and composer Francis Poulenc, who also recorded the songs. Barbara Heyman, in her monograph on Barber, observes that the Mélodies passagères are close in style to the French art song “not merely because of the texts, but primarily because of their semi-parlando vocal lines, fluid piano accompaniments marked with gentle syncopations, and expanded tonal language.” The haunting “Un cygne” (A Swan), third of the five Mélodies passagères, is imbued with the gliding quality we associate with this bird, but also with a pervasive darkness and gloom. The meaning of the text, like that of the other “passing melodies,” is enigmatic, even elusive: “A swan moves over the water surrounded by itself… a whole moving space. And draws near, doubled … on our troubled soul.”

Francis Poulenc: “Chansons Gaillardes”

Francis Poulenc was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of mélodies in the twentieth century. Numbering nearly 150, they were written across a 42-year span, Poulenc’s entire adult life. For the most part the songs are tonal, tuneful, concise, and use texts from some of the best French poets of the twentieth century, among them Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard and Max Jacob. For the Chansons gaillardes (1925-1926), however, he turned to anonymous texts from the seventeenth century. They deal mostly with earthy, even risqué subjects in an often satirical, playful or flippant manner. Even the songs about death and fate do not take themselves very seriously. The first is about a fickle mistress, the second is probably the most lugubrious drinking song ever written, the third a paean to a beautiful girl, the fourth a promise to love forever (subject to the will of the Fates!), the fifth a salacious comparison between wine and women, the sixth a variant of poet Robert Herrick’s admonition “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (the most lyrical of the songs), the seventh an exuberant recommendation to remain single and never marry, and the last praise for womanly charms.

The great French baritone Pierre Bernac gave the first performance on May 2, 1926 with the composer at the piano. As Poulenc was a highly accomplished pianist, he wrote lively parts for his instrument.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”

Korngold’s middle name was well chosen (he added it himself), for in precocity and fluency, he rivaled his namesake of years before, Mozart. He wrote his first major orchestral work at fourteen (premiered by that titan of the podium, Arthur Nikisch, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) and two one-act operas at eighteen (premiered by Bruno Walter at the Munich State Opera). Korngold was not yet 24 when his full-length opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) was first heard on December 4, 1920. Initially, the opera was so popular that some eighty theaters produced it. 

Die tote Stadt is adapted from Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges – la Morte (1892), a dream-tale suffused with images of death and decay, and descriptions of a sleepy, stagnant, deserted city. Paul imagines that the young dancer he has met (Marietta) is actually the re-embodiment of his late wife Maria. The acting troupe of which Marietta is a member shows up in Act II. Among them is the character Fritz, who plays the role of Pierrot in the troupe. Marietta asks him for an impromptu song, one that “makes you dance and sway, dream sweetly in the moonlight’s ray, a song that lures and beguiles.” The music Korngold wrote for Fritz fulfills these demands perfectly. Further, the words to his song (“My yearning, my dreaming, returns to the past, the days of young love …”) allude to Paul’s own situation vis-à-vis Marie and her stand-in, Marietta.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Papagena, Papagena, Papagena”

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was Mozart’s last opera, premiered on September 30, 1791 just a few weeks before his death. Virtually unique in the annals of opera, it combines low camp with high morals, the comic and the serious, the ridiculous and the sublime, plus generous doses of mischief, satire, theatrical effects, Egyptology and Masonic symbolism in a work of unsurpassed genius. The aria we hear tonight comes from near the end of the opera. The birdcatcher Papageno, one of the flightiest yet most likeable characters in all opera, is at the end of his rope – literally. He has despaired of ever finding a sweetheart and is about to hang himself. He thought he had found one in Papagena, but no, he’s been stood up. Or so he thinks. All turns out right just after his “suicide aria” ends.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: “Kogda by zhizn’”

Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera was highly personal. He tended to avoid spectacular battle scenes, marches, exotic locales, large contingents of supernumeraries and other trappings of “grand” opera. “Give me a subject in which the human element will predominate: love, jealousy, ambition,” he wrote.  I search for powerful, yet intimate drama, based on a conflict of situations which I have experienced and that I feel.” These words offer a custom-made prescription for Eugene Onegin (1879), Tchaikovsky’s fifth completed opera and the best known. It received its first professional production on January 23, 1881 (a student production had been given two years earlier).

Tatiana is in love with Onegin, to whom she pours out her feelings in a long and famous letter. But the next time they meet, Onegin advises her that he is not the marrying type; he is not even the type for warm affection. It is best that she know this now, he tells her, before any more emotional damage is done. The story comes from Pushkin, but it fit Tchaikovsky’s own life to a T. If ever there were a case of art mirroring life, this is it, for less than two months earlier, the composer had found himself in a very similar situation.

Tchaikovsky: three songs

Tchaikovsky wrote more than one hundred songs spread more or less evenly across his entire creative life, but only a few are well known. In these songs, writes his biographer David Brown, “Tchaikovsky probed directly into the human soul to expose its desires and passions, its joys and sorrows, its tenderness and its vulnerability. … he favoured verses concerned with strong, personal feeling.”

The Op. 38 songs were published in 1878, the year of the Violin Concerto. “Amid the Din of a Ball,” set to a poem of Alexis Tolstoy, is steeped in nostalgia and is one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular. A young man reflects wistfully on the vision of a beautiful woman he spies in a crowded ballroom. Set to the waltz rhythm, the image calls to mind similar scenes in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (also a waltz), and Roméo et Juliette.

“Why?” comes from Tchaikovsky’s first set of published songs, Op. 6 (1875), which also includes his most famous, “None but the lonely heart.” Set to a poem of Heinrich Heine, it asks eight questions, each beginning with the same word and inquiring about some aspect of nature. The music moves forward relentlessly, culminating in a fortississimo outburst of anguish for the final question, “Why … did you forget me?” The piano postlude suggests resignation.

In “Don Juan’s Serenade,” another A. Tolstoy setting, we find the same lilting metre that Don Giovanni used in his serenade in Mozart’s opera (Tchaikovsky adored Mozart), but in place of suavity and elegance we find in Tchaikovsky the Don’s legendary arrogance and bluster. There is no mistaking the piano’s imitation of a furiously strummed guitar.

Federico Moreno Torroba: “Amor vida de mi vida”

Like Vaughan Williams, Moreno Torroba has a non-hyphenated surname, though one sometimes sees it also spelled with the hyphen. Moreno Torroba made his fame, both as a composer and a conductor, mostly through music for guitar and through zarzuela, the traditional Spanish version of comic opera. He is credited with a large role in making zarzuela known to international audiences, but he also wrote serious operas, of which the last, El Poeta, written in 1980 at the age of 89, starred Plácido Domingo in the title role.

The aria “Amor, vida de mi vida” (Love, Life of My Life) comes from the zarzuela Maravilla, premiered in Madrid in 1941. The story involves the classic love triangle with a complication from a family member: Raphael loves Elvira, who is having an affair with Faustino, who is the manager of Elvira’s mother Marvilla, who is an opera singer who will be Raphael’s partner in the next production. Such is the fame of Rapheal’s poignant aria that it turned up in Three Tenors concerts, sung by Domingo.

Gioachino Rossini: “Largo al factotum”

Great operatic comedies are far less plentiful than operatic tragedies. The Barber of Seville (1816) indubitably stands at the very pinnacle of this small repertory, and year after year ranks as one of the Top Ten most frequently performed operas of any kind, not surprisingly in view of its irrepressible high spirits, rich humor and wealth of great tunes. The barber of the title is Figaro, the same Figaro as in Mozart’s opera. Here he is about ten years younger and not yet employed as a servant in a royal household. His role, which he hugely enjoys, is the crafty, resourceful, clever citizen of Seville ever-ready to assist anyone and everyone with anything. Figaro is fully aware of his popular standing in the community, and shows no inhibitions in boasting about it. This he does in his enormously exuberant entrance aria, “Largo al factotum” (I’m the factotum).

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

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