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PROGRAM NOTES: Jerusalem Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

Richard Strauss
String Sextet from Capriccio

Capriccio (1942), Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?

The year is 1775 and the setting is the aristocratic chateau of the aesthetically refined Countess Madeleine in the French countryside. Philosophical questions do double-duty as proxies for romantic intrigue since the Countess’ two main suitors are a composer and a poet. In a flirtatious spirit of free enquiry, she sets them the task of jointly writing a work that will reveal the relative merits of their respective artistic domains—and marriage proposals. (Spoiler alert: the Countess decides, in the end, that she can’t decide.)

The opera begins with a lusciously scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama. This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.

*                      *                      *

The musical style of the sextet, in keeping with the opera’s historical setting and its philosophical message, is certainly backward-looking, at least with respect to the revolutionary musical developments of the early 20th century. The spiky neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s own look-back at the 18th century, his ballet Pulcinella, is nowhere to be heard in this score.

Richard Strauss is here writing in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality with which he began his career in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a style of writing in which even the most remote key centres are made instantly accessible by means of smooth, but highly chromatic voice-leading practices, with the aim of bringing wondrously varied harmonic colourings to the surface of the music.

The result is a radiant brightness of tone, enhanced by Strauss’ skillful disposition of his six instruments in sonic space to produce the silken sheen that is the trademark of his string writing, so different from the ‘thick chunky soup’ texture of Brahms’ string quartets.

Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the 1st violin in the opening bars, a motive remarkably similar to the ear-worm phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motives in the texture, elaborated over many endearing and nurturing points of imitation, that makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.

 

Arnold Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

On a cold moonlit night a couple walks in a barren, leafless grove of trees. She is carrying a child that is not his, she tells him. Despairing of finding true happiness, she had longed to find purpose in life through motherhood and had let down her guard with a man she didn’t love. Now, having found a man she does love, she is wracked with guilt. They walk on. Let that not be a burden to you, he replies. The special warmth we share between us will transform that child into ours, mine and yours. As they embrace, his breath and hers kiss in the night air, and they walk on, bright with a feeling of promise under the vault of heaven.

Such is the story told in the poem Verklärte Nacht (1896) by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s eponymous chamber work composed in 1899. Its premiere in 1901 caused a scandal, both for the work’s association with Dehmel—whose poetic preoccupation with sex had seen him thrice put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy—but also for what was perceived as the immoral “sensuality” of Schoenberg’s score. The German public evidently felt discomfort basking in the lyrical warmth of a work about premarital sex, especially one based on a story that so closely parallelled the Christian Nativity narrative, and used the religious language of “transfiguration” in doing so.

But Schoenberg’s chamber tone poem tells a sympathetic story of secular transformations: of a frightened pregnant young woman into a reassured mother-to-be, of a problematic unborn child into a bond uniting future spouses, and of a cold moonlit night into a warm natural setting for the nurturing of human love.

*                      *                      *

The musical language Schoenberg uses combines the most important—and even opposing—tendencies of his time. Few relationships in German music of the late 19th century were more adversarial than those between the proponents of Wagner’s free-roaming evocations of psychological states and the supporters of Brahms’ craftsmanlike control of abstract formal structures. And yet Schoenberg seems to create a delirious synthesis of both ideological positions.

The probing chromatic harmonies, long-held sighs and paroxysms of ecstasy found in Tristan und Isolde are much in evidence in Schoenberg’s score, as is Wagner’s use of rising sequences of melodic phrases to portray rising levels of emotional intensity. The texture, however, is thoroughly contrapuntal, with frequent imitative interplay between the instruments, and with melodic motives developed in the Brahmsian style of “continuous variation”.

The story is told in an extended narrative arc that begins in a sombre D minor, with long, slow notes in the bass to indicate the deliberate walking pace of the couple, and a descending scale indicating the dreary prospects for the upcoming conversation. The ensuing musical discussions are fraught with anxious emotion, hammered home by the oft-repeated motive of two descending semitones in the texture, and the first half, in which the young woman tells her story, ends in a despairing whisper.

The male figure’s reassuring reply, however, opens the second half in a softly radiant and consoling D major that only builds in tenderness and intimacy as the magical transformation of man, woman, child and natural landscape takes place before our ears. The shimmering glassy sound of harmonics at the very end is the perfect emotional correlative of the serenity that comes when human sympathy conquers all obstacles.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence Op. 70

In 1890 Tchaikovsky spent three months at the Florence villa of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, composing his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he sketched out the slow movement of what would become the four-movement sextet he completed on his return. Published under the title Souvenir de Florence, it nevertheless shows little by way of Italian musical influences, apart from the Adagio serenade. The third and fourth movements in particular are Russian to the core, brimming over with folk tunes and the vigour of village dancing.

Even more surprising is the neo-classical bent of the work, not just in the clarity of its string textures and the simplicity of its rhythmic pulse, but also in its routine application of Mozart-era symphonic counterpoint, with numerous passages of cascading imitative entries gracing the score, and even a full-on fugue in the finale.

*                      *                      *

The sonata-form first movement bursts onto the scene with the brash, bold confidence of a gypsy violinist leaping over a campfire. The first sound to hit your ear is a minor 9th chord, a tart burst of harmonic flavouring that snaps you awake like the bracing first bite into a Granny Smith apple. The movement’s first theme is a hearty thumping romp with numerous rhythmic quirks, backed up by an oscillating oom-pah-pah accompaniment that owes much to the string textures of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. The second theme, by contrast, soars serenely in long held notes over a rambunctious accompaniment. The development is entirely in the mould of contrapuntally obsessed development sections of the Classical era while the recapitulation’s race-to-the-finish coda prompts a return to the minor mode—a tonally colouring that had been virtually forgotten in all the previous merriment.

The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto begins with a richly textured slow introduction followed by a naively simple tune in the 1st violin suitable for singing under an Italian window sill. Certainly the pizzicato string accompaniment offers a ready-made substitute for a guitar or mandolin. But the serenade turns into a duet when the a solo cello joins in. Hardly less enchanting is the ‘whispering wind’ middle section, played by all instruments a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow).

The third movement is heavily inflected with the folk music idiom. It opens with a modest little tune in the dorian mode marked by bird-calls of repeated notes and plaintively inconclusive cadences. Its moderate pace and overlapping thematic entrances almost suggest a ceremonial dance ritual, but Tchaikovsky has other plans, driving the repeated-note motif into much more energetic territory, a direction confirmed by a middle section strongly reminiscent of the Trepak from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite.

The musical scent of Russian country life is even stronger in the last movement, as indicated by the drone-like accompaniment pattern that strums on alone for four bars at its opening. The theme that arrives to float on top of it is eminently folk-like in its small range and modal character. Tchaikovsky is quick off the mark to capitalize on its rhythmic potential, adding punchy off-beat accents, exhilarating runs and large leaps to its developing character until a long-limbed and wide-ranging lyrical tune brings a measure of breezy relaxation to the proceedings. The star attraction in this movement is the fugue, perhaps matched only in vigour and sheer visceral exhilaration by the Beethoven’s-Ninth-style final page where, even if Tchaikovsky didn’t write a blaring brass section into the score, you could almost swear you hear one, anyway.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PINCHAS ZUKERMAN & YEFIM BRONFMAN


Franz Schubert

Sonatina for violin & piano in A minor  D. 385

It humbles me to think, paraphrasing Tom Lehrer, that when Schubert was my age, he had already been dead for several decades.  Lest I forget, there are his first three sonatas for violin and piano, which he composed in a sprint of creative friskiness during the spring of 1816, at the tender age of 19.  Youthful as these works may be, their naïve charm shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the models left by Mozart, and something of the path being charted by Beethoven, whose work he much admired.

But why, enquiring minds will want to know, are these works known as sonatinas when they have every claim to the more dignified title of sonata?  The answer lies in their publication history.  In the bohemian margins of Viennese life in which young Franz lived, not every work issuing from his pen found a place in print, at least not during his lifetime.  In fact most didn´t.  The manuscripts were gradually fed to publishers after his death and it was they, the publishers, who christened them with names suitable to the market of the time. So the works which Schubert himself referred to as his violin sonatas, when published by Anton Diabelli in 1836 as the composer’s Op. 137, were marketed as “Sonatinas” in order to plump up sales in the expanding market for amateur music-making.

The choice of A minor as the key of the second in this set is a nod toward Beethovenian drama.  Even more so is the opening texture of half notes against a throbbing left-hand chordal accompaniment, immediately recognizable from the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1.  Also dramatically Beethovenian are the widely spaced intervals of the piano´s melodic line, followed by wider, even more daring leaps in the violin.  It is not long, however, before Schubert’s characteristic songfulness surfaces in the tuneful second theme, following which a fair bit of fan-fluttering in the piano texture completes the musical material treated in this sonata-form movement. The development section is short and uneventful, the recapitulation without surprizes.

The second movement Andante opens with a melody of great dignity and poise.  Constructed out of simple note values and expressively ending its phrases with feminine endings, this melody gives the violin ample scope to charm the ear with its singing tone.  A contrasting section with more varied harmonic colouring and smaller note values alternates with the opening theme to create a formal structure of balanced repose.

The Menuetto is diminutive in form and emotional range. While formally in a frowning D minor it constantly wants to lean over and smell the roses in F major.

The last movement is the most compositionally intense of the work.  Although it opens in the manner of the other movements with a simple singable melody, it soon works itself into a froth of thematic development that lets us know who studied counterpoint, and who didn´t.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata for violin & piano in C minor  Op. 30 No. 2

You are always in for a good ride when Beethoven writes in C minor.  There is something about this key that brings out his ‘classic’ persona as the composer capable of developing fragmentary, enigmatic utterances into explosions of fist-shaking defiance. And more often than not, he also surprizes us with his grandeur of spirit by offering remarkable displays of lyrical eloquence, and even playful humour, in the same work.

On this score, the Sonata in C minor Op. 30, No. 2 will not disappoint.  Its tense and brooding outer movements enclose two much more unbuttoned inner movements that provide repose and distraction from the overarching mood of psychological turmoil. Composed in the spring of 1802 under the composer’s recognition of his increasing deafness, the three sonatas of Op. 30 were published the following year as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.”

This decades-old naming practice points back to a time when free-standing piano sonatas were published with an optional, and relatively easy violin part patched over top to provide increased opportunities for participation in a home-entertainment setting.  Beethoven’s violin part, however, is anything but optional or amateur in nature.  It dialogues fully and freely with the piano throughout, and the number of double and triple stops in the score indicates clearly that it was composed for the professional violinist. That said, the wide-ranging piano part would have to count as the major contributor to the rich carpet of sound characterizing the work as a whole.

The first movement shows Beethoven playing with his thematic material like a cat playing with a mouse.  It opens with a menacing motive that ends with a throw-away gesture. Pauses add to the suspense until the violin takes up this material, with the piano rumbling below.  Contrast comes with the second theme, a simple little march of Mozartean stamp that adds a dotted rhythm to the movement’s thematic mix.  The exposition is not repeated but, as if by compensation, the recapitulation has an extended coda, an innovation that was to become a hallmark of Beethoven’s expansion of sonata form.

The second movement in ternary form is a study in calm, tranquil lyricism, its middle section exploring slightly more dark, minor-mode territory than its dignified opening theme.  Remarkable in this movement is the variety of decorative patterns that Beethoven finds to give a richly textured background to his melodies.

The third movement is an emotionally healthy scherzo in the untroubled key of C major, full of musical wit and compositional surprizes. The grace notes of the opening theme contribute to a skipping, tripping momentum that is quickly subverted by accents on unexpected beats of the bar.  The Trio plays humorous havoc with the squareness of its canonic melody by confusing the beat count with off-beat accents in the lead-up to the cadence.

Drama returns in a big way in the sonata-rondo finale.  It opens with a rumble and a harmonic hand grenade—an augmented 6th chord—tossed into the air, requiring immediate resolution to the dominant.  The intervening refrains are generally less confrontational, rarely rising above the threat-level of wicked merriment, but a furious coda reminds us never to underestimate the enormous reserves of emotional energy this composer has to draw on.

 

Johannes Brahms

Sonata for viola & piano in F minor  Op. 120, No. 1

We owe this sonata to the interest that Brahms had in the clarinet near the end of his life as a result of hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinet of the Meiningen court orchestra.  The two sonatas for clarinet or viola that he published in 1895 as his Op. 120 are among the very last works published during his lifetime, revealing his last thoughts on the form of the classical sonata.

The Sonata in F minor is a darkly lyrical work that exploits the low range of the viola. In the course of its four movements it moves from a mood of passionate yearning into steadily brighter emotional territory to end, exceptionally for a minor-key Brahms sonata, with a finale in the major mode.

We see the economy of Brahms’ musical thought at the very beginning of the first movement.  While the wide-ranging melody presented by the viola in bar 5 is the apparent main theme of the movement, it is the opening motive, the first four notes of the short piano introduction of bars 1-4, that dominates musical discussion from start to finish. This simple motive is still echoing in the ear at the end of the coda, marked Sostenuto ed espressivo.

The mood of calm reflection continues into the second movement, Andante un poco adagio.  Apart from the opening poco forte there are only two more bars of forte in the entire movement, which is dominated by the markings piano, dolce, espressivo and pianissimo.  Remarkable in this movement is the thinly textured piano part, a scoring that allows the viola to sing out melodically throughout. This is especially important when the opening melody is repeated later on in the lowest range of the instrument.

The Allegretto grazioso third movement sees Brahms at his most grandfatherly in an affectionate intermezzo that can’t help but tip occasionally into a lilting Austrian Ländler.  Even the darkish implications of its minor-mode middle section are lightened by the syncopated ‘rain-drop’ texture in the piano.

The bright mood so far established is given a firmer rhythmic base in the fourth movement, a rondo in the eye-brow-raising key of F major (for a sonata that began so seriously in F minor).  The three bell-like repeated notes announced at its opening pop up everywhere in this exuberant finale, which is flecked by quicksilver changes of harmonic colour and joyously chummy exchanges between the two instruments.

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D. 

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