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Program Notes: Z.E.N. Trio

Franz Schubert
Notturno in E-flat major  Op. 148

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. With the resolute character of 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 flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat 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.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944).  Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

 

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published  it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Narek Hakhnazaryan

 

Program Notes: Narek Hakhnazaryan

César Franck: Sonata in A major

For most of his life, Franck led a relatively quiet existence as an organist and pedagogue, emerging from obscurity as a composer only near the end of his life. His only violin sonata (which has also been arranged for numerous other instruments, notably flute, viola and cello) was created in 1886 as a wedding gift for his friend, the famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave the premiere the same year. This sonata remains one of the composer’s most popular works, and well demonstrates his spontaneous, exuberant variety of romanticism.

The first three notes (D – F# – D) of the cello’s initial statement serve as the sonata’s principal thematic link. This opening movement is in standard sonata form, with the first theme assigned initially to the cello, the second to the piano. The serene lyricism of the first movement is replaced by restless excitement and intense passion in the second. The tension gradually abates, and a less stormy Quasi lento section follows. After restatements of material from both sections, the movement closes with a coda, which consists of a long crescendo building to an exciting climax. The third movement has an improvisatory nature, and features cadenza-like passages for the cello. The finale is without doubt one of Franck’s most charming and inspired creations. Canonic imitation (one voice following the other at a specified time interval) at the octave is used throughout, creating between the two instruments a remarkable dialogue seldom matched in the repertory of the accompanied sonata.

Frédéric Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3

Everyone knows that the piano was the heart and soul of Chopin’s existence, but if the composer could be said to have had a second love, it was for the cello. His interest in this instrument began in his teens. Scattered among his many piano pieces are four works that include cello: the Introduction and Polonaise brillante; a Trio for piano, violin and cello; the Grand Duo Concertante for cello and piano; and the Cello Sonata – in fact, the sum total of his chamber music output except for a set of variations for flute and piano.

The work we hear this afternoon was composed in two separate parts. First came the Polonaise in October of 1829 when Chopin was just nineteen, written for the amateur cellist Prince Radziwell and his teen-age pianist daughter Wanda. However, the dedication went to another cellist, the Viennese virtuoso Josef Merk. For still a third cellist, the Pole Józef Kaczynski, Chopin wrote the Introduction in April 1830 for a performance together with the Polonaise. The brilliante part of the title may be Chopin’s or it may be the Viennese publisher Mechetti’s. The polonaise is indeed brilliant in its effect, despite the composer’s own opinion that there was “nothing to it but dazzle.” True, “there is dazzle, and plenty of it,” writes Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski. “After all, brillant means sparkling. But there is also bravura, verve and a Slavic, typically polonaise vigor, as well as an undeniable feel for the spirit of the dance.”

György Ligeti: Solo cello sonata

György Ligeti followed in the line of distinguished twentieth-century Hungarian composers that runs from Bartók and Kodály through Sándor Veress and Miklós Rózsa. When he died seven years ago at the age of 83, he was internationally recognized as one of the leading composers of his generation. Since the early 1960s, Ligeti (pronounced LIG-ih-tee) had been on the cutting edge of experimental music as one of the leaders in the emancipation of sound effects, timbres and textures from their traditionally subordinate roles, giving them a raison d’être of their own. Many of us became aware of his music through Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the instrumental sonoric tapestries of Atmosphères (1961), the Requiem for voices and orchestra, and the choral Lux aeterna (1966) were used as fitting backdrops for desolate moonscapes.

The two movements of this nine-minute sonata were written five years apart in very different character, though the composer refers to this period of his stylistic development as “prehistoric.” “Dialogo,” composed in 1948, consists of alternating statements of pizzicato chords – brief, submissive, conciliatory – and lyrical outpourings – expansive, reflective, ruminative. “Capriccio” is a virtuosic display of madly scurrying fragments of varying lengths that exploit to the fullest the cello’s enormous range.

Due to the repressive Hungarian regime under which Ligeti lived until 1956 (when he fled the country) and to his unsettled life for years thereafter, the first public performance of the sonata was given only in 1983. The score was published in 1990 and first recorded that year by Matt Haimovitz.

Mikhail Bronner: The Jew: Life and Death

Mikhail Bronner studied composition with Tikhon Khrennikov and orchestration with Yriy Phortunatov at the high School of the Moscow Conservatory, then continued his studies at the Moscow Conservatory where he completed graduate work in 1981. Soon thereafter he began attracting professional recognition, particularly for his ballet scores for An Optimistic Tragedy (1985) and The Taming of the Shrew (1996), both presented at leading theatres in Moscow. Much of his music is theatrically oriented, and much of it relates to Jewish history and/or Old Testament themes and characters. His Jewish Requiem (1994), performed throughout Germany, is a notable example. The Jew: Life and Death dates from 1996. It is a deeply introspective, passionate work that portrays with grim realism in the space of ten minutes the tragic element in Jewish history. Images of sighing, weeping, the desperate wringing of hands and the anguish of darkly troubled souls are portrayed with grim realism.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Nocturne, Op. 19, no. 4, and Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62

As Tchaikovsky is one of Bronner’s favorite composers, it is entirely appropriate that Bronner’s work be followed by music of the Russian master. The Nocturne is a transcription Tchaikovsky made in 1888 of a piano piece dating from 1873 (the fourth of the Six Pieces Op. 19). Written in simple ternary form (ABA), its central, slightly faster episode was borrowed years later by Stravinsky as one of the tunes he incorporated into his ballet score The Fairy’s Kiss. When the melancholic opening material returns it is slightly varied.

Tchaikovsky wrote the Pezzo capriccioso for his cellist fried Anatoly Brandukov, who gave the first performance on December 7, 1889 with the composer conducting. The title is meant to suggest a kind of flippancy or “toying around” with a basic mood. In doing so, the soloist gets to demonstrate a variety of skills:  tone quality, singing line, technical agility and control in the high range.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

SOME THOUGHTS ON OUR UPCOMING 12-13 SEASON

 

Today we want to share with you a few thoughts and facts about our recently announced 2012-2013 season:

UP FIRST: On October 5 András Schiff will open the 33rd season with an all-Bach program. In fact, András was one of the first artists who launched the Vancouver Recital Society in 1981. Like so many artists who followed, he made his Canadian debut in Vancouver.

CHEZ NOUS: The earliest performances were presented at the Granville Island Stage, but the Vancouver Playhouse was soon chosen as the ‘home’ for the Vancouver Recital Society. In the upcoming season we will present six afternoon performances at this downtown location.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: The VRS established its second ‘home’ soon after the opening of the Chan Centre at UBC in the spring of 1997. Now going into our 16th (!) season at this venue, we continue to present four afternoon performances along with four evening performances. Of course, Mr. Schiff adds a very special ninth performance at the Chan Centre.

In total, the 2012-2013 consists of 15 performances of which 10 are scheduled on Sunday afternoons.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: we are very excited with our new, low “entry” price. For the first time it is possible to select a series of four performances for only $80 – or $20 for each performance.

AH, TO BE YOUNG AGAIN: our young audience members now have greater access then ever before with our Youth Club and Ru35 programs. Throughout the season, tickets can be had for as little as $16.

A POPULARITY CONTEST?: In our recent survey you ranked your favourite composers and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin came out on top. Happily, our 2012-2013 artists will give us a lovely dose of these top-rankers. As we have seen, Bach is in the best hands with András Schiff. Schubert is well represented throughout the season, most notably by Paul Lewis whose program is dedicated to the monumental three late piano sonatas. Adding to the Schubert repertoire are Simon Trpceski and Behzod Abduraimov. Behzod also brings us the ever-popular “Appassionata” sonata by that ever-popular composer, Beethoven. Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan brings Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, and pianist Stephen Hough includes Nocturnes on his program.

2012-2013 is shaping up to be a most exciting season. Series tickets are currently offered at exceptional prices with fantastic benefits (complimentary parking passes!). Call our office at 604-602-0363 and we’ll be happy to discuss all our subscription options.

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