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Program Notes: Evgeny Kissin

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata and Fugue in D minor  BWV 565 (arr. Tausig)

While keyboard transcription and political debate might at first blush seem to be radically different fields of endeavour, one justly famous incident on American television stands emblematic of the risks run, in both disciplines, for those who would engage in rhetorical posturing.

In the vice-presidential debate of 1988, the Republican candidate, linguistically accident-prone Sen. Dan Quayle, in attempting to wrap himself in the glory of a martyred former president, made so bold as to cite John F. Kennedy as a model for his own political outlook, only to receive his comeuppance in a stinging riposte from his debate opponent, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

One might well imagine a similar exchange taking place across the centuries between Johann Sebastian Bach and those 19th-century virtuoso pianists daring to claim their own instrument as being in a direct line of succession from the 18th-century church organ and thus a worthy instrument on which to perform his mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565. To such pretenders to the throne of musical majesty Bach might well have replied: “I know the organ. The organ is my friend. The piano is no organ.”

Whether they intuited such a rebuke or not, those attempting this feat of transcription have been legion. IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project, lists no fewer than 11 transcriptions for piano solo, as well as arrangements for the wildest assortment of other instruments. Supporters of the underdog Jamaican bobsled team will no doubt have adopted the version for solo harmonica – seriously, there is one – as their sentimental favourite.

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The appeal of this work is not hard to see. In its pairing of the two contrasting genres of toccata and fugue it offers an opportunity to showcase both brawn and brain: brawn in the toccata’s flashy passages of digital dexterity, and brain in the intellectual rigour of the fugue’s contrapuntal complexity.

The work gained a popular 20th-century audience following its appearance in Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, and its reputation was further enhanced in the 1970s by its starring role in the Dionysian sonic orgies of superstar 20th-century organist Virgil Fox (1912-1980) celebrated in mega-venues with rock concert lighting under the heading “Heavy Organ.”

Its arresting opening gesture, an inverted mordent followed by a dramatic scalar plunge down the space of a diminished 7th, is by now instantly recognizable, even by popular audiences with little knowledge of classical music. As is its fugue theme, a tick-tock moto perpetuo of 16ths outlining the notes of the D minor scale in alternation with a repeated drone tone on the dominant.

On the contemporary recital stage this work is performed by pianists in two well-known versions. The most popular is that of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), an adaptation that attempts to reproduce the architectural acoustic of an organ resounding within the vast echoing interior of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach worked.

The less-frequently-heard version that Mr. Kissin has chosen to play is by Carl Tausig (1841-1871), a student of Franz Liszt. Tausig, a leading proponent of the ‘juggling chainsaws’ school of pianism, created a much heftier, more note-heavy transcription, substantially thicker in sound than that of Busoni. Seeming to believe there was little point in writing one note where four notes would do, his version of the Bach score is more muscularly pianistic in conception. But his ear for the timbral possibilities of the piano is truly impressive. He paints the various sections of the score in a wide range of tone colours unique to his instrument, with their alternation imitating changes in timbral stops on the organ.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adagio in B minor  K. 540

Mozart’s eerie Adagio in B minor (1788) is as remarkable for its choice of key as for its daring use of chromatic harmony. B minor was a key quite sparingly used by composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and likely for very practical reasons. The simple act of modulating to the dominant – the key of F# major, with six sharps – would instantly turn the score into a furry forest of accidentals, eyebrow-knittingly difficult for performers to read, and tricky for orchestral players to tune.

B minor, then, became something of a ‘spooky’ key, evoking abnormal psychological states and foretelling dramatic, perhaps even tragic musical events to come. One has only to think of the Bach B minor Mass, the Liszt Sonata in B minor, the Chopin B minor Scherzo or Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) to get the idea. And in his Adagio in B minor K. 540 Mozart in no way shies away from these associations, but rather leans into them with a will.

A sense of drama is evident right from the start. After a solo melodic line in the right hand outlining the B minor triad, the first harmony chord we hear is a startling diminished 7th, one of many that will occur in the course of the work. What follows is a virtual compendium of the most emotionally expressive rhetorical devices used in the Classical era: plangent appoggiaturas, yearning suspensions, dramatic silences and sudden rapid contrasts of forte and piano dynamic levels.

Although composed in unimpeachably orthodox sonata form, with balanced symmetrical phrases and a motivically concentrated development section, the work seems to ‘lurch’ forward in short quasi-improvised bursts of jagged, instrumentally-conceived melody, as in a fantasia. The lovely operatic-style melodies that often grace the piano sonatas are nowhere to be found.

But most arresting to the ear are the chromatic harmonies used, especially in the development section, which seems to roam mysteriously around in tonal space. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz believed that in this work Mozart pointed the way to the harmonic language later used by Chopin, Wagner and Verdi. He points out how the opening of Mozart’s Adagio parallels the mood, texture and simplicity of the Prelude to La Traviata and this fully justifies a Romantic style of performance for the work.

It will be most interesting to see if Evgeny Kissin agrees.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major  Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing and sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A-flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurkas Opp. 7, 24, 30 & 33

Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi from the melancholy to the exuberant, moods and tempi often boldly juxtaposed in the same piece. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.

The mazurka is in triple metre with rhythmic emphasis ‘fleeing’ the downbeat in short notes to land instead on the second or third beats of the bar, where stomping or heel-clicking gestures often occurred in performance. Drone tones in the bass are sometimes used to imitate the bagpipes and melodies might be written in exotic scales using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major).

The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated one- and two-bar units of rhythm with recurring melodic motives. Repetition is a prominent feature of the genre, especially at the bar and phrase level.

Using these simple ‘rustic’ features of compositional design, however, Chopin manages to compose salon pieces of considerable elegance by creating melodies richly bejewelled with ornamentation, by subtly playing up ambiguity between duple and triple metrical groupings, and by his use of chromatic harmony.

The boisterous Mazurka in B-flat major Op. 7 No. 1 opens with the ‘dotted downbeat’ typical of many mazurkas. The wide leaps in its melody line seem at times to land on the ‘wrong note,’ giving the impression of a drinking song sung by a tipsy reveller. The contrasting middle section, with its drone 5ths in the bass and oriental-sounding scale patterns in the treble, seems to come from another world.

Polish soulfulness is at the centre of the Mazurka in G minor Op. 24 No. 1, which unfolds in the manner of a daydream. Its reflective tone is given an Eastern European flavour by the augmented 2nds in its minor-mode melody line. Intimations of the dance do occur in passages in the major mode, but they are more nostalgic than joyous.

The Mazurka in C major Op. 24 No. 2 is a village celebration with many characters. First, we hear the band warming up in a series of I-V chords, with open 5ths in the bass, rocking back and forth to establish the key.  Then a high whistling flute or fife chirps out a bird-call kind of tune answered by the band in four-part harmony. Lilting dance melodies sprout up in abundance, some in the Lydian mode (with a sharpened 4th note of the scale) until a radical change of key introduces a call-and-answer dance, in which phrases of delicate piano melody and forte stomping chords alternate in quick succession. Notable is how the left hand takes over the melody to lead back to the opening bird-call. This mazurka ends poetically in a long fade out, with the opening I-V chords rocking quietly into the distance.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 30 No. 1 is another sadly reflective piece, one of the shortest of the group and perhaps the most enigmatic. The lack of strong downbeats in the opening section gives a kind of ‘lost’ feeling to this mazurka. Its alternation of piano and forte phrases bespeaks a kind of wavering indecision while the buzzing of bass drone tones throughout evokes the sound of village music-making. Remembered joy arrives in the middle section, but it is short-lived.

In a sign of how teasingly ambiguous is the rhythmic structure of these mazurkas, the French opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer once got into a heated argument with Chopin over the metre of his Mazurka in C major Op. 30 No. 3. Meyerbeer said that it was in duple time, while Chopin insisted that it was in triple. However you hear it, this mazurka lives up to its performance indication, Semplice (simply). Innocent and unpretentious in mood, it sways throughout, but coloured with a faint tinge of melancholy. Its middle section features an amiable duet in 3rds and 6ths.

The Mazurka in B minor Op. 33 No. 4 is a dramatic work, full of bold contrasts of mood. Although marked Mesto (sadly), there is little sadness and considerable elegance in the catchy opening tune with its merrily twinkling mordents and Scotch snap phrase endings over a gently lilting oom-pah-pah accompaniment. This section is actually a duet in a call-and-response phrase structure with a baritone voice in the bass responding genially in the major mode to the treble’s warbling call. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a passionate outburst of pianistic bravura, until the opening duet returns. Another contrasting section occurs later in the form of an exquisitely charming and poised salon melody in the mazurka rhythm. Both of these contrasting episodes have a clearly defined mood and character. And yet the exact mood and character of the opening section, which acts as a refrain linking them together, remains till the end teasingly out of reach.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante  Op. 22

In the early part of his career Chopin wrote a number of works for piano and orchestra designed to show off his skills as a pianist-composer. In addition to the two piano concertos these include the Variations on La ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni Op. 2, a Fantasia on Polish Themes Op. 13 and a Rondo à la Krakowiak Op. 14.  The last of these works, published in 1835, was his Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante Op. 22, now a staple of the repertoire most often performed in the version for solo piano.

The Andante spianato is a thing of rare beauty, entirely devoted to enchanting the ear with the soft glow of warm piano tone. The gently rippling accompaniment pattern laid down in the opening bars, an extended arpeggiation of the G major chord, makes clear the meaning of the unusual Italian indication spianato (smoothed out, level). Floating atop this smooth, level sonic surface comes a shy little melody yearning with appoggiaturas at the end of each phrase, a melody that is gradually enhanced with ever more elaborate forms of ornamentation and bathed in great washes of iridescent tone colour coming down from the highest reaches of the keyboard. A chordal ‘trio’ of sorts provides a brief pause for reflection before the smooth rippling texture of the opening returns, the right hand joining in now with the left, in the final section of the Andante.

The mood changes dramatically with the arrival of the Polonaise, which opens with a bombastic fanfare (originally played by the orchestra) leading to the entry of the proud and aristocratic polonaise theme. One could well imagine a primo ballerino leaping onto the stage to this music and doing any number of grands jetés. The theme is of course supported in the left-hand accompaniment by the polonaise’s characteristic prancing rhythm: TUM tuh-tuh TUM-tum TUM-tum.

This is keyboard writing in the grand manner, meant to impress with its daring leaps, double trills, long ‘fly-fishing-type’ spun-out melodic extensions and its cascades of gazillions of notes chattering down from the high treble with every phrase response – a polonaise indeed both grande and brillante.

As he displayed so well in both of his piano concertos, Chopin is able to write melody lines spanning two and three octaves with no loss of musical coherence, and a considerable gain in élan. By dint of endless coy variations in the melodic line, he manages to project a musical personality in this polonaise both heroic and flirtatious – no mean feat.

And while the pose of bravado is generally maintained throughout, things do calm down a notch in the contrasting middle section in the minor mode, a smoky, brooding and soulful meditation on a new theme still pulsing with the polonaise rhythm. Unbridled joy returns with the reprise of the opening theme, leading to a spectacular coda in which ear-tickling piano figuration glitters up and down the keyboard like a birthday party of over-excited children running amok with sparklers in their hands, until finally a great swirling wave of arpeggios sweeps this Grande polonaise brillante to an equally grand and brilliant conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in B minor  K 27
Sonata in D major  K 96

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 Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves 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 that ends 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 Sonata in B minor K 27 exemplifies many features of Spanish guitar music. Right from the opening (mm.3-6) you hear the flamenco Phrygian mode in the four-note descending bass line known as the “Andalusian cadence.” Even more guitar-like are the extended passages of rippling broken-chord figuration – but just how extended is one of the intriguing interpretive challenges of this sonata. There are in fact passages in both the first and second halves of this sonata in which the same measure is repeated – verbatim (!) — seven times in a row.

The Sonata in D major K 96 is sound theatre of a high order. While guitar figuration is in evidence here as well, especially in the many passages of repeated notes, more imposing on the ear is the military flavour of the opening trumpet fanfare, the trilled flourishes of snare-drums, and the stomping cadence patterns with big cadential trills. Add in copious passages of hand-crossings and you have a performance show-piece worthy of opening a piano recital.

 

Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana  Op. 16
Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented for Robert Schumann the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fictional writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.

Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work is comprised of contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.

Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.

Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.

Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the Sehr lebhaft (very slow) fifth movement and fugato in the Sehr rasch (very quick) seventh, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.

But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.

 

Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition

In 1874 Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg featuring the paintings, drawings and sketches of the Russian artist, architect and designer Victor Hartmann (1834–1873), who had died the previous year at the age of 39. Aggrieved at the loss of his friend and fellow artist, Mussorgsky set about to create his own unique memorial to Hartmann in a piano suite comprising 10 musical depictions of the works he had seen in St. Petersburg, with a recurring intermezzo melody, the Promenade, to represent the composer as he strolls along between the works displayed.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an overtly nationalist work, as is evident from many of the scenes he chose to set to music: fairy-tale creatures from Russian folklore, everyday life in the Russian countryside, and landscapes symbolic of the nation’s glorious past. This nationalism extends to his musical vocabulary as well, which at times evokes the melodic style of Russian folk tunes, at other times the austere choral hymns of the Orthodox Church and the clangorous resonance of cathedral bells.

Very Russian as well is Mussorgsky’s expressive vocabulary, which is raw, bluntly chiselled and often brutally direct, with a pictorial vividness that anticipates modern film scores. Sometimes he is Warner Bros. cartoonish, as in his depiction of the animated scurrying of gaggles of small chicks in their shells, or the chatty bickering of women in the market square. But more often it is the dark side of this alcohol-addicted composer that comes to the fore. His ghoulish evocations of the spirits of the dead put one in mind of The Blair Witch Project while his terrifying portrait of the lumbering, child-eating witch Baba Yaga recalls the most panicky chase scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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The Promenade opens the work, proceeding at a walking pace of even quarter notes structured in an alternating pattern of 5/4 and 6/4 measures. As it recurs throughout the work its forthright melody is delivered at times sparely, in a single line, at other times richly harmonized, grand and imposing, to reflect the imposing size and stature of the composer himself as he travels from picture to picture.

We are first presented with the arresting portrait of The Gnome, whose darting movements are immediately suggested by restless keyboard gestures and sudden contrasts of dynamics. You can almost see him, scrambling into a corner, crouching down, then springing up with a toothy grin. Set in the rather ‘evil’ key of E-flat minor, this portrayal is chock full of ugly chromatic intervals. And the disquieting left-hand trills in the final section only add to the sense that this menacing mischievous creature is up to no good.

After a soft and almost heavenly rendition of the Promenade, we come upon The Old Castle, which represents a troubadour singing his mournful song before a mighty stone fortress. The melody is modal, suggesting the Middle Ages. A dull throbbing pedal point, droning throughout, creates a blurry tonal mist that casts the scene far back into the legendary past.

The Promenade that follows is strongly assertive, projected in bold octaves and full chords, leading to the first whimsical scene in the collection, Les Tuileries. Here we witness the animated scene of children at play in the Jardin des Tuileries, a public park in Paris where nannies would often take the young ones in their charge for a bit of fresh air. An ostinato of coy rocking chords opens the scene and continues throughout, regularly relieved by short scampering scale passages, communicating the wide-eyed innocence and youthful exuberance of the frolicking tykes.

Next comes Bydło, a scene emblematic of the daily struggles of rural life. A Polish oxcart heaves into view from afar, the plodding of hooves getting gradually louder as it draws near, and diminishing as it passes off into the distance.

A deeply reflective version of the Promenade then cleanses the aural palette to prepare us for a welcome contrast, a scene as feather-light and treble-centred as the previous portrait was ponderous and bass-heavy: the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.  Keen to be released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter about in their shells so as to get out and explore their new barnyard home.

We are then introduced to the two Polish Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the first rich, arrogant and overbearing, the second poor, craven and whimpering. The frequent use of augmented 2nds in scale patterns is meant to suggest the character of traditional Jewish music. Such caricatures testify to the casual antisemitism that blighted Russian culture in the late 19th century, and that continued to stain the nation well into the Soviet period of the 20th century.

A repeat of the opening Promenade suggests a new beginning for our art tour as we enter The Market at Limoges, where the local women are engaged in a raucous, finger-pointing, shoulder-poking dispute over some trivial matter, their hysterical exchanges indicated by a constant chatter of 16th notes.

Then as the fracas is reaching its height of hysteria, we are stopped ‘dead’, as it were, by the arresting sight of Catacombs, where the implacable finality of the grave is symbolized in a series of starkly dissonant chords alternating in dynamics between loud and soft. Soon we are ushered even nearer into the presence of the dead in a section entitled Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead, in a dead language) in which spooky octave tremolos in the treble accompany intimations of the eerie peacefulness of post mortem subterranean existence.

We are then jolted out of this bittersweet reverie by the sudden arrival of the witch Baba Yaga who lives in The Hut on Chicken Legs—an unusual kind of home construction, to be sure. In Mussorgsky’s depiction we catch her out on the hunt, stomping her way around the forest in search of prey, her terrifying gait easily a match for the glass-jiggling foot-fall of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. A quieter, but no less unsettling middle section with some bitonal writing brings us little relief from the sheer nightmarish terror of this scene.

Then just as the monster is closing in on us, ready to grab us by the heel, we are saved by the appearance of The Great Gate of Kiev, imagined from a sketch by Hartmann for a gigantic entrance gate to be constructed in Kiev, ancient capital of the state of Kievan Rus whence the Russian nation traces its origins. The awe-inspiring majesty of the scene is evident from the proud chords that underpin a transfiguration of the Promenade theme as the scene opens out before us. A solemn hymn steeped in the tonal colours of Eastern Orthodox choral singing twice interrupts this stern processional  to sprinkle holy water on the proceedings. Eventually the piercing metallic peel of cathedral bells is heard, interspersed with reminiscences of the original Promenade theme chiming in the high treble, as Mussorgsky strains to make the piano proclaim the same ecstatic utterance that crowned the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov: Слава! Glory!

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Seeing Double: The Doppelgänger Project
Reprinted courtesy of Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley, CA

“Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe/Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt” (“It horrifies me when I see his face/The moon reveals my own likeness…”). These chilling words from one of the poems in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder of 1827 depict the uncanny moment of recognition in Der Doppelgänger. Franz Schubert set this text to music the following year—shortly before his death—as part of a collection that was published posthumously under the title Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”).

Heine actually left this poem untitled to intensify the degree of shock and surprise when the narrator realizes he is seeing his Doppelgänger, whereas Schubert clues us in to the troubled emotional atmosphere with the ominous chord sequence heard at the outset. Here, already, is a phase in the process of responding and remaking a source that we might call “doppelgänging,” in the spirit of the Danish String Quartet’s ambitious Doppelgänger Project, an initiative that combines late chamber masterpieces by Schubert with new commissions by four contemporary composers.

The fuzziness around the term Doppelgänger is intentional. On the one hand, the word is used simply to refer to a harmless lookalike (a person who can even be sought out online via image recognition apps). But the mythic implications reach deep into the psyche, providing an obsessive  trope for the Romantics—the coining of the German term is attributed to the novelist Jean Paul, later a favorite of Mahler). The notion of deceptively identical appearances that can disguise polarities opens up yet another dimension embedded within the concept. One of Schubert’s own friends described the composer as having “a double nature—inwardly a kind of poet and outwardly a kind of hedonist.”

“I think everybody has an idea of what a Doppelgänger is,” says DSQ violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. “It can be a very mystical term filled with images and history and philosophy, but it’s also something that is a very physical thing.” Similarly, through its commissioning of the four composers, the DSQ wanted to give ample leeway to each to interpret for themselves how to respond or react to the Schubert work with which they have been paired. “We’ve only created the framework and want to see some sort of inspiration going back and forth between the two. They might quote the Schubert piece or they might write something completely different. We don’t know how they will respond to the challenge.”

For example, Danish composer Bent Sørensen wrote his contribution as a counterpart to the vast expanse of the String Quartet in G major of 1826, Schubert’s final work in the genre. He incorporates Doppelgänger-like gestures into his new score—a product of the pandemic lockdowns—right down to the Schubertian title Doppelgänger.

Later installments in the series include Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (born 1970), a student of Kaija Saariaho and the late Louis Andriessen, and her new quartet responding to the String Quartet in D minor from 1824, popularly known as Death and the Maiden. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has been commissioned to write a work that the DSQ will juxtapose with the A minor Quartet of 1824 (Rosamunde). Thomas Adès will round out the series with a piece that reacts to the String Quintet in C major from 1828.

What was the criterion for choosing the commissioned composers? “It was very hard because on one side we wanted composers we like to work with, who have a musical language that we like; but we also wanted something new, something different,” observes Nørgaard. While the DSQ have burnished their reputation as excitingly fresh and insightful interpreters of the classical canon, the Doppelgänger commissions offer a way to open up new horizons. “Each of the new pieces will be a challenge, because there’s going to be a different language for each.”

(c) Thomas May 2021

 

Franz Schubert
Quartet No. 15 in G major  D. 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, one inevitably wonders whether Schubert’s mimeographic profusion of ideas should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthy tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.

No less a scholarly titan than German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has proposed that Schubert operates according to a different sense of psychological time. Some of his colleagues stress the trance-like quality of Schubert’s musical thinking, likening him to a musical somnambulist who bids us enter an enchanted world of dreams and night-wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, bemoan nevertheless the way in which his practice of “open-ended variation” betrays the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and deflates the expectation of propulsive forward drive created by Beethoven.

Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim to the ministrations of Morpheus.

This quartet is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is an ambitious quartet that lives in an enlarged sound world of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo, and replete with tutti quadruple stops that add an aggressive edge to its musical rhetoric.

Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the ‘sound-weight’ of the instruments into an imitation of an orchestral tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect. Equally ear-catching are the many sudden dramatic changes in dynamics (a Beethoven trademark) and the acrobatic pitch range within which the instruments sometimes move at rocket speed.

The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge shockingly like a primal scream—in the minor!  No lack of drama here. What follows combines the emphatic pomp of a Baroque French overture with the suspenseful ‘hinting-at-things-to-come’ of a sonata movement’s slow introduction. The first theme, when it arrives, mixes great leaps with jagged dotted rhythms over a slowly descending bass-line, continuing the tone of epic grandeur announced at the outset. The lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Shy and intimate in mood, it rocks back and forth within the smallest possible range, doing everything it can to de-emphasize the first beat of the bar. While the development section is tumultuous and intense, the movement’s two themes start duking it out long before that, interrupting each other, even in the exposition, in a continuous alternation of tranquil lilt and surging protest that plays out through the movement in the flickering shadows of quicksilver changes between major and minor modes.

The Andante un poco moto is charged with mystery and suspense. It begins innocently enough with the cello singing out a simple hummable tune in its tenor register. This is a melody that proceeds at a drowsy ‘sleepwalking’ pace, its eerie stillness reinforced by gentle reminders in the accompaniment of its opening melodic leap and by the stabilizing presence of pedal tones in the harmony. But ever and again it plunges into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return, unleashing ‘horror-film’ tremolos that vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.  These two moods – the eerie dream and the nightmare – alternate throughout the movement until the night-wandering melody ends up back under the covers in the warm embrace of a major chord in its final bars.

The Allegro vivace scherzo that follows goes off like an alarm clock with volleys of rapid-fire repeated notes that vibrate with nervous energy in the minor mode, ricocheting through every register of the quartet’s range until relieved by the calming entrance of the central Trio section, a slow gentle Viennese waltz with a rustic drone in the bass.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. It opens with a hearty foot-stomping, knee-slapping tarantella theme with a type of gypsy-style merriment characterized by quicksilver changes between major and minor tone colourings. And its second theme is an utterly outrageous parody of a Rossini patter aria.

Schubert, too long? This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Bent Sørensen 
Doppelgänger for String Quartet

Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) is widely recognized as the leading Danish composer of his generation. His musical language is rife with microtonal inflections and harmonies blurred over with glissandi.  But for all his modernist techniques, his music is still rooted in clear rhythmic textures, and above all in melody.

“I dream in melodies,” he says. He is a composer determined “to tell my stories by melodies” but with an awareness that “melodies have a memory in themselves of something else.” Perhaps this is why Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim (1931-2010) has said of Sørensen’s emotionally fragile music that “it reminds me of something I’ve never heard.”

Bent Sørensen’s String Quartet No. 5 entitled Doppelgänger was given its world premiere by the Danish String Quartet at the Musiekgebouw in Amsterdam on September 11, 2021.

 

Franz Schubert
Der Doppelgänger (arr. Danish String Quartet)

Schubert’s mournful Lied Der Doppelgänger is one of the last in the collection that the composer wrote just before his death in 1828 and was put on sale the following year by his publisher, Thomas Haslinger, who thought it would sell well if marketed as Schubert’s “last farewell to song.”

It paints a mysterious night scene in which a man stands before the house where his love once lived. There he recognizes a spectral shape equally absorbed in sad remembrance: an image of himself.

Der Doppelgänger

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;
Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe
Und ringt die Hände vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe –
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

– Heinrich Heine

The Ghostly Double

Still is the night, calm fills the streets,
In this house lived my own sweet love;
She left the town long long ago
And yet the house stands still where it was.

And there stands a man too, staring on high,
Wringing his hands, in the thrall of pain;
I dread to look upon his face,
That moonlit figure I see is me.

You Doppelgänger, pale travelling companion!
Why do you ape my song of pain,
That torments me now upon this spot
So many a night, and so long ago?

– trans. D. Gíslason

Der Doppelgänger, coming near the end of the collection, is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise, depicting a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from it by his inner pain.

The impassive, slow-moving chords of the accompaniment give no comfort at all to the lonely voice of the protagonist as he realizes he is descending into madness. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by having the singer circle round the same pitch over and over again, and by placing the singer’s vocal declamation—it could hardly be called ‘melody’—over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment,

This is a song without a melody, symbolic of a situation without hope, as dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.

(c) Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute  Op. 66

Beethoven’s set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute features twelve sharply chiselled operatic duets between piano and cello, widely differentiated in character like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the simple complaint of Tamino’s hapless sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno, that he is much in need of female company. Not that he is fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.

Mozart captures the endearing simplicity of Papageno’s rustic character in a theme harmonized virtually entirely with tonic and dominant chords. Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations, communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone, without the learned trappings of imitative counterpoint.

The first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its nifty division of the melody into little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear.

The work proceeds in the following variations with a distinctly different rhythm or figuration pattern defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale, both in the minor mode. The double-dotted rhythms of the first (Variation 10) lend an air of grim fatalism to the proceedings, much in the style of the Commendatore’s stern address to Don Giovanni. The second (Variation 11) is chillingly still, with the cello plodding eerily in the bass accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano—a perfect set-up for the finale.

The time signature changes to 3/4 in the final variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the cello belting out the tune and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends cutely, and almost unexpectedly, with a sweet little diminuendo.

 

Witold Lutosławski
Grave (1981): Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano

The abstract patterning of much 20th-century music presents a significant challenge to modern audiences. Tunes suitable for humming in the shower, you see, are typically quite thin on the ground in modern scores and the old-fashioned aesthetic of simple tunefulness is often replaced by a compositional obsession with pitch organization—a process which inevitably involves encoding abstract formal principles within a work that have scant truck with the scales and keys that small children learn about in their first music lessons.

Witness Lutosławski’s Grave, composed in 1981, which bears the subtitle Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano. This work stands astride the divide between tunefulness and abstraction in its choice of melodic materials and the processes it applies to them.

The work opens with a forthright statement in the solo cello of the famous ‘forest motive’ (the pitches D-A-G-A) announced in the opening bars of Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande. This is the subject of the work, in two senses. It pays tribute to the composer’s close friend, the Polish musicologist and Debussy specialist Stefan Jarociński (1912-1980), to whose memory the work is dedicated. And it presents the intervals of a perfect 5th (D-A) and a major 2nd (A-G-A) motivating the transformations in the melodic line (the metamorphoses) that will ensue as the piece proceeds.

Two further ‘processes’ are worth noting: the piece climbs ever higher in register as it works its way to a climax, and at the same time it experiences a written-out accelerando, with its transformations heard first in half notes, then in quarters, then 8ths, then triplet 8ths, and finally in 16ths. The work comes full circle when the forthright opening notes D-A-G-A are offered up once again in the cello, but this time drifting up to the highest register, surrounded by a sonic haze of widely spaced soft glitter in the piano.

 

Samuel Barber
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor Op. 6

The music of American composer Samuel Barber is most widely known from the use of his Adagio for Strings in the 1986 anti-war film Platoon. His songs and instrumental works, however, are equally popular in the programs of the world’s leading concert artists and ensembles. Barber’s Piano Sonata, for example, was performed more than once in the piano semifinals of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow earlier this year. But the enduring popularity of Barber’s music should be no surprise, given its vocally-inspired lyricism and its sympathy with the Romantic-era aesthetic that still lies at the heart of the modern concert repertoire.

Barber’s Cello Sonata was written in 1932 when the composer was still studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and Brahms in particular looms large as an influence on its compositional style. Among its Brahmsian features are its high-serious tone and emotional intensity, its employment of cross-rhythms, and its luxuriant use of the rich low range of the keyboard. Among its modern features, however, are its frequent changes in meter and the angularity of many of its melodies.

The first movement opens with a series of melodic leaps in both the piano and cello, much in the manner of the surging opening of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major Op. 99. A smooth songful melody soon appears in the cello as a second theme, and is then taken up by the piano, but the development section of this sonata-form movement is largely preoccupied with the melodic leaps that opened the work. Indeed, the interval of a minor 6th is a recurring motive throughout the entire movement.

Instead of writing a slow movement and a scherzo, Barber imbeds a fast-paced scherzo within his slow movement. The contrast could not be greater. The opening Adagio is slow and purposefully lyrical, with the resolution of each appoggiatura and harmonic dissonance a notable event. The Presto is a classic scherzo: fleet and lightly textured, bristling with rhythmic tricks and coy interplay between the instruments.

The finale displays Barber the neo-Romantic at full sail, plying successive waves of emotion. It opens with a passionate piano solo churning restlessly in the bass in support of a yearning right-hand melody in the mid-range. The cello when it enters is equally incandescent and the emotional range of the movement as a whole is wide in the extreme. In contrast to the often thrashing assertiveness of the keyboard texture, it also features sections of dreamy remembrance of previous movements, as well as playful episodes—all within the formal constraints of a sonata-form structure.

A major challenge for the performers is the coordination of the thorny cross-rhythms and lightning-fast changes in tempo that qualify this movement, like the others, as both willfully Romantic and unabashedly modern.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19

Rachmaninoff’s piano music is renowned both for its lushness of scoring and for the technical challenges it presents to any pianist with a hand smaller than an oven mitt. The role given to the ‘accompanying’ instrument in his Cello Sonata in G minor is no exception. The keyboard writing in this chamber work is just as opulent, its technical demands every bit as challenging as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge in baritone territory from the cello.  Most of the themes in the work are introduced by the piano and one could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.

Written in 1901, around the same time as Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is remarkable for its expressive range and the orchestral heft of its textures. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the punchy, rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that was to become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!

The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrisome patter of triplet 8th notes reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism.

The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.

The Allegro mosso finale in a triumphal G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts. It features a upbeat “sleigh ride” of an opening theme built up out of short motives, doggedly repeated, like the opening themes of the 2nd & 3rd piano concerto finales. The stand-out melody of this movement is its heartbreaking second theme announced in the cello, a wistful anthem of tribute to every underdog who has ever struggled against overwhelming odds. From time to time, however, these themes yield to the type of fervent military march that so often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Joyce DiDonato with Il Pomo d’Oro Chamber Orchestra ‘In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music’

WAR, PEACE and BAROQUE OPERA

The lust for war, the longing for peace: emotions such as these lie at the extremes of human experience. What better place to explore them than in the luridly violent, yet touchingly pathos- filled world of Baroque opera, where chaos reigns in the personal lives of kings and queens, stand- ins for our modern nation-states and their suffering populations?

Opera began at the dawn of the 17th century as an aesthetic experiment, an attempt to recover the poetic practices of the ancient world. By the time of Purcell in the 1680s it had become a dramatic genre capable of involving its spectators in the personal lives of its mythical or legendary protagonists. In the hands of Leonardo Leo, Niccolò Jommelli, and George Frideric Handel in the first half of the 18th century, opera developed into a display vehicle for the talents of an emerging class of professional opera singers—and this is where things got just a bit weird.

It was these singers—high-warbling, preening male castrati at the head of the pack—whose astonishing vocal performances began to drive the dramatic agenda in opera. The da capo aria format (A-B-A), in which the opening material returned at the end, was extremely popular as it allowed singers to “riff” on the melody line the second time round in order to show off their high register, their trills, their skill in ornamentation. Plots were often retro-engineered to provide a place for crowd-pleasing set pieces tailored to suit the vocal capacities of individual singers. In such an artistic climate, an opera might become a hot ticket for its thrilling “rage” aria, its tuneful tear-jerking lament, or for some particularly well characterized scene of worry, torment, or other extreme mental state, the more hair-raising the better. In a world still waiting for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, opera provided chills aplenty for its sensation-craving audiences.

All of these are represented in Joyce DiDonato’s curated selection of Baroque arias presented under the rubric In War and Peace.

 

WAR

Scenes of horror, scenes of woe (Handel, Jephtha, 1752)

First out of the gate is Storgè, wife of the Old Testament figure Jephtha who has rashly vowed that if the Almighty will grant him victory in battle he will kill the first person he meets on the road home—his own daughter, as it turns out. In Handel’s last oratorio, Storgè writhes in thrall to dire premonitions of impending doom, giving vent to her anxiety in a spooky recitative and an aria filled with hysterical leaps. The restless, roving orchestral accompaniment paints the wild thoughts ranging around her head.

Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro! (Leo, Andromaca, 1742)

After the Trojan war, Hector’s widow Andromache tries to save the life of her son by playing the “monster” card, daring Pyrrhus to slaughter the young boy on the spot—and her, too, for good measure.“Drink my blood while you’re at it,” she adds helpfully, by way of culinary encouragement. In an aria filled with frequent changes of mood, Andromache vacillates between blood-thirsty crazy talk and affectionate asides to her son.

Sinfonia (Cavalieri, 1600) and Chaconne in G minor (Purcell, ca. 1680)

Instrumental interludes in early opera served as sonic palate-cleansers, resetting an audience’s emotional register back to ‘neutral’ while at the same time allowing industrious stage-hands to shift furniture on stage. The Sinfonia concluding the first act of Cavalieri’s pioneering Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo repeats a descending scale figure in many guises in a layered orchestral texture featuring a slow, plodding foundation melody enlivened by ornamental chatter in the upper register. Purcell’s Chaconne uses a similar technique, repeating a bass line that prompts the upper instruments into dancelike hops or smooth-flowing descants.

Dido’s Lament (Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, 1689)

In Purcell’s retelling of the Dido story from Vergil’s Aeneid, the Queen of Carthage, having been abandoned by her warrior lover Aeneas, dies of a broken heart in the opera’s final scene. Her heart- rending plea “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate” rings out searingly against the implacable march of Fate symbolized by a chromatically descending bass line.

Pensieri, voi mi tormentate (Handel, Agrippina, 1709)

This scene in which Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, frets that her son Nero will never inherit the throne, is remarkable for the dramatic interplay between orchestra and singer. The orchestra seems to stalk this Lady-Macbeth-with-confidence-issues like a Hitchcockian evil-doer, echoing and paralleling her musical thoughts, with the oboe as voyeur-in-chief to her darkest imaginings.

Tristis est anima mea (Gesualdo, 1611)

Carlo Gesualdo was the Caravaggio of sound-painting, mixing dark and light colours to create startlingly emotional portraits of his subject matter. His spiritual madrigal Sorrowful is my soul is set in the garden of Gethsemane. Drooping sigh motives and searing dissonances evoke the pathos of the scene and an animated middle section describes the bustling crowds that have come to witness the arrest of Jesus.

Lascia ch’io pianga (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

During the First Crusade (1095-1099 AD) Almirena, love interest of the warrior Rinaldo, has been abducted by the sorceress Armida and sits down to bemoan her downcast fate. This lilting sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar, imitates perfectly the halting, sighing resignation of this dramatic character.

 

PEACE

They tell us that you mighty powers (Purcell, The Indian Queen, 1695)

Purcell’s The Indian Queen varies the classic star-crossed-lovers theme by setting its story in the New World, with the Aztec warrior Montezuma as Romeo and the Inca heroine Orazia as Juliet. A distinctly anti-war sentiment runs through the work, rendered emotionally appealing by this simple song sung by Orazia to Montezuma as they are sitting together in prison awaiting execution.

Crystal streams in murmurs flowing (Handel, Susanna, 1749)

Handel’s oratorio Susanna tells the Biblical story of how a virtuous woman is lusted after and spied on by lecherous elders of her community—an ancient prefiguring of Donald Trump in the dressing rooms of his beauty contestants. The set-up to said ogling is a lush garden complete with rippling stream to bathe in (and ample shrubberies for old men to hide in) where Susanna goes for an innocent little skinny-dip. Handel’s powers of musical description are here at their height, with the gently wafting breezes and softly burbling stream deftly imitated in the orchestral accompaniment.

Da tempeste il legno infranto (Handel, Giulio Cesare, 1724)

The simile aria, which Rossini was to send up to hilarious effect in his comic opera finales, was still alive and well in the Baroque age, principally used as a pretext for the most brazen displays of vocal acrobatics on the part of the great divas of the period. Here Cleopatra compares her rescue by Julius Caesar to the safe arrival of a boat through stormy seas. As over-the-top as the opening section is, expect even more vocal acrobatics in the reprise.

Da pacem Domine (Pärt, 2004/2008)

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been compared to the old masters of Renaissance polyphony: Josquin, Palestrina, Lasso. His minimalist style, much influenced by Gregorian chant, stresses diatonic (scale-based) melodies harmonized without the use of chromaticism or modulation. He uses a compositional technique called tintinnabuli (from the Latin for “bell”) which is based on the overlap of fundamental tones and overtones, typical of the sound-decay patterns of large church bells. His choral work Da pacem Domine (Grant us peace, o Lord) evokes the meditative stillness of 16th-century cathedrals, and the presence of a larger spiritual frame of reference, implied but unspoken.

Augelletti, che cantate (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

Meanwhile back in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, Almirena is thinking about her tender feelings for her warrior beau Rinaldo, happy to find herself in yet another lush garden where the birds are chirping merrily on every bough and branch. She eagerly joins in with the sopranino recorder in a picturesque birdsong duet.

Par che di giubilo (Jommelli, Attilio Regolo, 1753)

The Roman consul and military leader Marcus Atilius Regulus, a hero of the First Punic War (264- 241 BC), has returned home from captivity in Carthage to a joyous welcome from his daughter Attilia, who greets him with an aria expressing her elation at this turn of events. British musicologist Simon Heighes, who wrote the liner notes for Joyce DiDonato’s In War and Peace CD, tells us that this aria revels in the “boundless coloratura” that the Neapolitan school of opera-writing was famous for, supported by an attentive and vibrant orchestral backdrop that points towards the new transparent textures of the coming Classical period.

 

– Donald G. Gislason, 2016

PROGRAM NOTES: YO-YO MA & KATHRYN STOTT


Igor Stravinsky

Suite Italienne

At the end of the Great War Igor Stravinsky underwent a radical shift in his compositional techniques and aesthetic aims. Gone were the gargantuan orchestras that had performed the lush, colorful scores of his pre-War ballets Firebird and Petrushka. Gone, as well, the dense chord structures and revolutionary rhythmic tumult that brought international critical attention—and volleys of projectile produce—hurtling to the Paris stage where Rite of Spring had premiered a scant few years before.

Stravinsky’s new neoclassical style featured leaner chamber ensembles, more transparent textures, astringent harmonies, and a new respect for music of the past, qualities perfectly reflected in his ballet Pulcinella, which premiered in May 1920 at the Paris Opera. With a cast of rascally characters from commedia dell’ arte, and music largely based on the gracious scores of Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), this ballet soon became one of the composer’s most popular works, spawning a host of arrangements, including this Suite Italienne, which Stravinsky assembled in collaboration with cellist Gregor Piatagorsky in 1932.

In arranging the music of Pergolesi and his contemporaries, Stravinsky preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadential patterns, and ornamental trills of the Baroque Neapolitan style, but laced the score with spikey accents on weak notes of the bar, while stomping on the toes of the harmony by means of exaggerated passing and neighbour notes in the bass—a crafty way of maximizing sonic resonance without thickening the texture.

The suite begins with the ballet’s overture, called Introduzione. Clearly audible, even in this chamber version, is the Baroque ritornello style of the original orchestral scoring, with alternating sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and a small group of soloists (concertino).

The Serenata derives from the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes), from Pergolesi’s opera Il Flaminio (1735). The gentle lilt of its dotted rhythm identifies it as a sicilienne, but its pastoral tranquility is tinged with a hint of melancholy.

A characteristic feature of Neapolitan opera buffa was the prominent role it gave to the bass voice, exploited largely for its humorous potential in arias studded with large leaps and other comic effects. In the opening section of the Air, the cello plays the role of Bastiano from Il Flaminio, a stropping, galumphing man-servant who awkwardly pleads the case of his pining heart to the love of his life. All is not well, though, as the following lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ’nnamurato (1732) makes pathetically clear. Our swaggering swain is left alone by the end, humming a sad refrain from the preceding Serenata.

The mood picks up noticeably in the Tarantella which with its whirlwind pace and sustained use of the cello’s high register is the virtuoso showpiece of the suite.

The Minuetto e finale is one of the great musical transformation scenes in the Stravinsky canon. Opening at a measured pace in a mood somewhere between sustained elegy and proud strutting march, it builds and builds until exploding in an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an eighteenth-century comic opera finale. As the work races off to its final bars, it looks in the rearview mirror to savour once again a simple melodic phrase from the overture that must surely qualify as among the most hummable-in-the-shower tunes in the orchestral repertoire.


Heitor Villa-Lobos

Alma Brasileira (arr. Jorge Calandrelli)

The chôro, a type of urban street music arising in the nineteenth century out of a mix of European dance forms and homegrown Brazilian musical styles, inspired Villa- Lobos to compose a series of works in this popular vein during the 1920s. The composer writes into the score the lazy, languorous rubato performing style typical of street bands of the time, as well as the wide range of emotions that characterize the genre. The fifth in this series, subtitled Alma Brasileira (Brazilian soul), travels from a mood of brooding fatalism on to heights of lyrical ecstasy, and back again.


Astor Piazzolla

Oblivion (arr. Kyoko Yamamoto)

The Argentinian composer and performer Astor Piazzolla is credited with moving his country’s most famous musical genre from the dance hall into the concert hall, creating the nuevo tango by incorporating elements of jazz, classical and folk idioms, and by composing for smaller chamber ensembles instead of the large dance orchestras traditionally used.

The mood of wistful nostalgia that permeates his tangos is also heard in Oblivion, written in Rome in 1984 for the soundtrack to the film version of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 stage play Enrico IV.


Camargo Guarnieri

Dansa Negra
(arr. Jorge Calandrelli)

With the surname of a celebrated family of violin-makers and a first name recognized even by chocolate-lovers, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri seemed destined to become a musician, and indeed pursued a successful career as a conductor and composer both in his native Brazil and in the United States.

This congenial and joyful piece arose out of the composer’s contact with Candomblé, the spiritualist religion of African origin practiced in Brazil in which worshippers use dance to promote contact with the divine presence. Its teasing rhythmic complexity gives an elegance and cosmopolitan polish to the deep folkloric traditions that inspired it.


Manuel de Falla

Siete Canciones Populares Españolas

De Falla’s most popular vocal work—already performed once before this VRS season by Avi Avital in an arrangement for mandolin—was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.

The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), gives a none- too-veiled warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair while the second, the Seguidilla murciana, is an intense argument of insistent taunts and bitter banter.

The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the piano evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.

The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that De Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created in the piano by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.

The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities in the piano part supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.


Olivier Messiaen

Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus

Few indeed are the great works of Western music written in a prisoner-of-war camp, but Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is one of them. Captured by the Germans in their sweep through France in 1940, Messiaen composed this 8-movement chamber work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano at the Stalag VIIIA camp in Görlitz, Silesia (present- day Poland) and premiered the work there with his fellow musician-inmates in January of 1941 before a ‘captive’ audience of understandably attentive listeners.

Inspiration for the work came from passages in the Book of Revelation in which an angel descends in glory from Heaven to announce the End of Time. Its fifth movement, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, is a duo for cello and piano that evokes in broad majestic phrases the eternal quality of Jesus as “the Word,” “whose time never runs out.” With a tempo marking of Infiniment lent, extatique (infinitely slow, ecstatic) this movement seems to make time stand still, with its irregular groups of between three and six repeated piano chords behind a gentle but powerful overarching melody in the cello that provides a focus for this spiritual meditation.


César Franck

Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano

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 covering breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, 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.

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 (1886), a present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in honour of the celebrated violinist’s marriage, and actually performed at the wedding by Ysaÿe himself.  This work also lies at the heart of the cello repertoire, in an adaptation made soon after by cellist Jules Desart and approved by the composer.

The Allegretto 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 prompting the instrumentalist with his pitches. The cello then obliges by using these tones 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 simple chords in the piano, gradually builds in urgency until a second theme emerges in the solo piano in an outpouring of melodramatic intensity, ending 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.

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 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 more than once to change the subject 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, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that features a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically stable that it can be 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.

 

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

 

Murray Perahia…reminiscences

Murray Perahia first came onto my radar in 1972 when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition. I knew Murray’s playing through his recordings but didn’t have the opportunity to hear him live for the first time until 1983, when on a visit to London I was able to attend a recital he gave at the Royal Festival Hall. It was one of the most memorable concert experiences of my life. I was with a friend with whom I had studied music at university in South Africa, and the two of us left the hall speechless. We didn’t speak to one another until we had crossed the bridge over the Thames, to catch our Tube.

Two years later (the VRS was 5 years old) Murray Perahia played a recital in Portland on a small, but wonderful piano series. How envious was I when I found out that the only way the series was able to present Mr. Perahia was through the generosity of one of their subscribers who was a Murray Perahia fan, and was determined to get him to Portland at any cost.

Finally, three years later I plucked up the courage to engage Murray Perahia. Regrettably, he had to cancel as he came down with the flu in New York City. We found out only the afternoon before the concert, as we had been moving offices (pre cellphone days) and his manager couldn’t reach us as our telephone and fax lines hadn’t been installed. First call on the new phone number was “terribly sorry to have to tell you…”

He played his first performance for us the following year at the Orpheum and has returned to our series several times since. I have had the immense pleasure of having him practice in my home, and so has our sponsor, Martha Lou Henley. On one occasion he needed a break and went for a walk. I was panic stricken when he hadn’t returned after an hour and a quarter. Fortunately, back in those days the VRS office was located in the basement of my home, so I was able to leave the house to search for him. I did find him wandering around the side streets of Shaughnessy.

On another occasion he came to Vancouver for a concert at the time of the famous summit. We had booked him into the Four Seasons Hotel, which we then had to cancel as the Summit leaders had taken over the hotel. We re-located him to the Waterfront Hotel and let his management know. Somewhere between his management and his diary there was a ‘disconnect’. I waited at the airport for five hours, calling every hotel in town every 30 minutes to see if he had checked in. Bingo! Finally, the Wedgwood Hotel said that they had just found a room for a Mr. Perahia who hadn’t had a previous reservation but had been insistent that there had been! I asked them to send someone up to lock his door and not let him out until I arrived!

Each and every concert by Murray Perahia is a revelation and a deeply moving experience. I am so thankful that I have been a concert presenter at a time when Murray Perahia is at his prime.

Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., D.F.A.

Artistic Director

Audra Mcdonald Wows Audiences and Critics

AudraMcDonaldThe long-awaited American Repertory Theater production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has opened and the reviews are coming in. The critics are unanimous in their praise for Audra McDonald, who has set a new standard for this iconic leading lady of American opera.

“Ms. McDonald is Bess (or to use the hyperbolic speech of movie ads, ‘Audra McDonald Is Bess’),” exclaims New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, “and she can claim rights to full possession of her role, the kind of ownership that transforms a classic character forever … Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years. A four-time Tony winner for her work in both musicals and plays, Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.”

The Boston Globe‘s Don Aucoin says that “in Audra McDonald, this production boasts a Bess for the ages,” citing, for example, her duet with Lewis on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” which he calls “a thing of beauty to watch and to hear.”

“McDonald gives a stunning perf [sic].” Variety

Audra McDonald performs at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday, October 11. Avoid ticket surcharges when you book through Cory at the Vancouver Recital Society: 604-602-0363.

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