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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: TARA ERRAUGHT & JAMES BAILLIEU

Franz Liszt
Victor Hugo Poems

It may seem strange to think of Liszt as a song composer, so firmly is his name associated with 19th-century virtuoso pianism. But the extraordinary breadth of his musical sympathies is already clearly evident in the wide range of styles and moods in his piano compositions alone, from the bombast of the concertos and heroic feats of the Transcendental Études to the poetic reveries of his Liebestraum No. 3 and his imaginative transcriptions of Schubert lieder.

Liszt’s engagement with the song repertoire was intense and long-lasting. Over a span of 40 years he wrote over 80 songs in German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Russian, and even English. The songs based on poems by Victor Hugo (author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) date from the period 1842-1844, a time when Liszt was busy touring Europe as a piano virtuoso. The hefty keyboard textures in his earliest songs from this period (called by some “piano works with vocal accompaniment”) reflect the musical instincts of the performing pianist. Liszt later revised many of these (including the Victor Hugo songs) to re-balance the roles of voice and piano, creating simpler textures that rely more on harmonic expressiveness than pianistic muscle to get their point across. It is in these versions that they are most often performed today.

A full piano texture is still evident in the fulsome, pulsing accompaniment of Enfant, si j’étais roi, in keeping with the extravagant rhetoric of the poetic text. But the ‘big reveal’ at the end of each verse is given to the voice alone – in coy dialogue with the piano – and a coda, delicately rippling with piano arpeggios, stands in poetic contrast to the bluster of the opening.

Leaving the voice unaccompanied in many passages to thrill the listener with pure vocal tone is also the principal charm of S’il est un charmant gazon, with the piano contributing a soft, pearly chatter of harmonic support, often tapered to a whisper in delicate arpeggiated chords.

Oh! quand je dors is shot through with repeated occurrences of the four-note motive presented by the piano in the first bar. In this song, the melody line floats gently over subtly changing chromatic harmonies that tint but never mask the pure tone colours of the voice.

Comment, disaient-elles? is a question-and-answer song between men and women and is set in Spain, as evoked by the plucked-guitar accompaniment in the piano. Liszt paints the men’s questions as fidgeting nervously within a narrow range while the women luxuriate confidently in their long, lyrical phrases of reply.

Gustav Mahler
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen 

Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is often translated as ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’ but a better translation would be ‘Songs of a Journeyman’, referencing the practice of the medieval artisan (Geselle) who would travel from town to town, plying his trade. Mahler’s journeyman is a disappointed lover and his journey is a form of escape from his emotional pain, a theme already employed in Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. But in this narrative, the central figure eventually finds solace in the healing embrace of Nature.

The song cycle was written ca. 1884-1885, at a time when Mahler himself was bruised by his unrequited love for the soprano Johanna Richter. The text is Mahler’s own, written in the style of the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the music is shrink-wrapped to every nuance in the narrative, with frequent changes of pace and meter to reflect changes in mood and scene. Its musical style combines simple folk melodies with accompaniments of remarkable pictorial vividness and sophistication.

Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my sweetheart gets married) contrasts the lover’s grief with the beauty of the world around him. A quick circling motive in the piano, representing the wedding dance, is introduced in the piano in the first bar and haunts the song throughout, almost mocking the solemnity of the traveller’s sad song. A flowing middle section introduces the sounds of Nature, with birds trilling and the drone of the shepherd’s pipes setting the scene before the tone of sadness returns.

Nature is more fully explored in the walking song, Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld (I went over the fields this morning), much of which Mahler re-used in the opening movement of his First Symphony. The freshness of Nature is heard in the chirping sounds of birdsong, with spacious open intervals evoking the liberating influence of the woodland setting.

Peaceful as it is, though, it cannot overcome the power of the traveller’s grief, which returns as painful torment in Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (I have a glowing hot knife). The image of the hot knife describes the stabbing pain in the dejected lover’s heart, its stabbing force violently demonstrated in the piano part while a declamatory vocal line of rising intensity expresses the lacerating pain of the traveller’s anguish.

The concluding song, Die zwei blauen Augen (The two blue eyes), begins as a funeral march, but when the traveller finds a sheltering linden tree on his walk, a feeling of peace begins to settle over him. The music turns mostly to the major mode and the soothing power of nature makes his funeral thoughts fade into the distance. The mixture of major- and minor-mode flavouring in this song exquisitely represents the blended emotions of ebbing pain and soothing comfort that this long walk has produced.

Roger Quilter
Three Songs

Roger Quilter was born to a wealthy English family, educated at Eton College, and later pursued musical studies at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where Percy Grainger was also a student. He is known for his light orchestral music, theatre works, incidental music, and his more than 100 English art songs. While many of his songs fit within the genre of the Edwardian salon ballad, the elegance and richness of his settings has won him a permanent place in the repertoire of English art song.

Blow, blow thou winter wind is from Quilter’s Shakespeare Songs Op. 6 (1905). The text from As You Like It (Act II Sc. vii) features a biting verse and merry refrain, which Quilter contrasts by setting the verse sternly in the minor mode and the refrain – lighter and more dancelike – in the major.

Now sleeps the crimson petal is a setting of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Unusual is its harmonically rich and independent piano accompaniment, as well as its alternation of 5/4 and 3/4 measures that map the poem’s metrical rhythms with exquisite sensitivity.

Love’s philosophy sets a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley on the subject of love. If rivers and winds mingle in Nature, the poet asks, why then should we be any different? The piano score ripples with the amorous movements of natural forces in support of the singer’s discussion of “all these kissings” but rises to its peak of voluptuousness when the singer asks, in a distinctly personal vein, what all this means “if thou kiss not me?”

Richard Strauss
Songs Opp. 10, 17 & 27

Richard Strauss’ life as a composer is bookended with song. His first composition was a Weihnachtslied (Christmas carol) that he wrote the age of 6, and his last work is the justly famous Four Last Songs in the final year of his life. He composed over 200 songs, most written for – and championed – by his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, who he frequently accompanied at the piano, or conducted from the podium.

As an ardent fan of Wagner, he exploited the expanded musical vocabulary of Late Romanticism, bringing chromatic harmonic colouring to the forefront as a major expressive force in his work. And while he could write atonally, his home base was traditional diatonic harmony, to which he always returned. But in this regard, Strauss’ harmonic instincts seem to be the polar opposite of those of Rachmaninoff. While Rachmaninoff’s native mood and tone is dark, pulled ever downward to the “flat side” by an obsession with the low tolling of bells and the deep sounds of the Russian male chorus, Richard Strauss’ aesthetic ideal is the bright sound of the soprano voice; his music tends ever higher to the “sharp side” to create luminous effects with his harmonies.

Presented on this program are songs on the subject of romantic love from Strauss’ early career. His Op. 10 is, in fact, his first published song collection, written in 1885 when the composer was 21 years old.

Allerseelen (All Souls Day) frames lost love within the context of a commemoration for the dead. It illustrates well both Strauss’ use of chromatic harmony within a traditional diatonic framework, and his preference for reaching the melodic climax in his songs just before their end.

The rich, rolling piano accompaniment of Zueignung (Dedication) reveals the orchestral thinking behind Strauss’ keyboard textures. Many of his songs, once written for voice and piano, he later orchestrated, and this is one of them.

Die Nacht has been much praised for its atmospheric evocation of nighttime stillness, especially the opening, in which the sound of the piano slyly expands into earshot just before the voice steals into the texture like a thief in the night. The idea of stealing, central to the imagery in the text, is harmonically reinforced by the ‘shifty’ harmonies of the closing bars.

Ständchen (Serenade) from Strauss’ Op. 17 song collection is remarkable for its iridescent piano accompaniment, emblematic of the visceral excitement shared by every leaf in the forest, every bird on the bough.

Morgen from Strauss’ Op. 27 song collection of 1894 throbs with the classic harmonic device of Romantic music: emphatic dissonances on the strong beat of the bar, are expressive of the kind of heartfelt yearning that wafts up from the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In this rapturous love song, the voice waits some considerable time before entering, almost absent-mindedly, on the word “and,” as if caught in dreamy mid-thought. Just as ingenious is the succession of dominant 7th and 9th chords that never resolve, painting the inner elation of a lover staring in wonder at the face of the beloved.

Cäcilie and the previous Morgen were part of the four-part Op. 27 song collection from 1894 which Strauss presented to his wife on their wedding day. In Cäcilie, Strauss pulls out all the stops with a passionately churning accompaniment and soaring vocal line that express what the love of his wife means to this ecstatically happy husband.

Gioachino Rossini
Giovanna d’Arco

In 1829, Gioachino Rossini, the most famous opera composer of his time, retired from the opera stage at the top of his game after the production of his epoch-making Guillaume Tell at the Paris Opéra. He was 39 years old. He did not, however, retire entirely from composition and in the 40 years of life remaining to him, a number of smaller works dropped from his pen.

“I write because I cannot stop myself,” he explained later in life.

One of these works was the cantata (a small operatic scene for chamber performance) for soprano and piano on the subject of France’s most famous heroine, Joan of Arc (1412-1431), whose military valour in defence of the King of France during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) earned her a sainthood from the Catholic Church, and the eternal gratitude of the French nation.

Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco was written in 1832 and dedicated to his mistress (later his wife), Olympe Pélissier, whose own heroic qualities had recently been amply demonstrated when she tended to him in saint-like fashion during a particularly difficult recovery from a venereal disease acquired from a prostitute some years before.

The text, by an anonymous author, shows us the Maid of Orléans as she resolves to follow the glorious fate that awaits her. The work is structured in two arias, each preceded by a recitative and opens with a mysterious piano introduction that paints the stillness of the night and the strange sounds in it. Joan then enters to contemplate this stillness in dramatic recitative and the dire necessity that calls “the shepherdess from her flocks.”

Her first aria finds her thinking of her poor mother at home who will miss her, but who will be amply rewarded when hearing of her daughter’s exploits. In the recitative that follows, she sees the Angel of Death arrive in a blaze of light to summon her to battle, a summons she accepts with radiant enthusiasm in the concluding aria of the work.

In this aria e cabaletta, Rossini is fully back in the saddle as an opera composer, writing dazzling display passages for his singer and ending with his trademark audience-pleasing accelerando.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: YEKWON SUNWOO

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D 958

Schubert’s unabashed admiration for Beethoven is vividly on display in the opening bars of his Sonata in C minor D 958, composed in September 1828, shortly before his death. Schubert had served as a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral the year before, and his own death from tertiary syphilis was to be only months away, which may perhaps account for the unusually serious tone of this work.

The key chosen for the sonata, C minor, is synonymous with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, as expressed in the Pathétique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, the last piano sonata Op. 111– as well as the famous 32 Variations in C minor, after which Schubert’s de ant opening statement is rhythmically and harmonically patterned.

Schubert has not lost himself entirely, however, in Beethoven’s musical personality, as his choice of second theme shows. This theme is pure Schubert, a lovingly affectionate little hymn with chiming, bell-like pedal tones that Schubert somehow then manages to transform into a dance. Drama returns, however, in the development section, that chews away at the first theme’s motives before settling into a long rumination on a neighbour-note figure alternating between bass and treble. The re-transition to the sonata’s opening statement to begin the recapitulation is masterfully handled by means of menacing hints in the bass line of the aggressive punchy chords that began the movement.

Schubert’s second movement is something of an eyebrow-raiser: it is a real adagio, a comparative rarity in the works of a composer whose lyrical instincts tended to emerge at a more moderato pace. In its concentrated lyrical tone, piecemeal phrasing, and style of ornamentation, it owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor. Not to mention the accompanimental patterns that it borrows from the slow movement of another sonata in C minor, the Pathétique.

There is an anxious, worrying quality about the Minuetto & trio that it is hard to put your finger on. Minuets in a minor key are a bit odd to start with, although Mozart produced a sublime example in his Symphony No. 40 in G minor K 550. The sense of unease in Schubert’s minuet may simply be a matter of how this movement seems alienated from the spirit of the dance. Its irregular phrase lengths, the sudden disturbing changes in dynamics and unexpected silences are more ghostly than toe-tapping.

And ghostly is a good description of the last movement Allegro, in which Schubert unleashes his inner playful demon with wicked glee. This moto perpetuo movement, with its dancelike tarantella rhythm (likely patterned after the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3), is both thrilling and strangely ominous, reminiscent of the night ride in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig. The keyboard writing is brilliantly effective, however, especially in the galloping second theme, with its cross-handed texture of melodic fragments jockeying between high and low register, leaping across a steady horse-hoof pulse in the middle of the keyboard.

Percy Grainger
Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier

The Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger is best known for his arrangement of the English folksong, In an English Country Garden. He also wrote piano paraphrases, many of which he labelled “rambles,” presumably to indicate the meandering pleasure he took in wandering through the musical meadows of other composers’ works. His most elaborately wrought of these is based on the love duet between Sophie and Octavian (Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein) in the final scene of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

Grainger was an admirer of Richard Strauss, the great virtue of whose music lay in its sumptuous “vulgarity” (Grainger’s word), vastly preferable, in his view, to the demeanour of modesty and emotional restraint of, for example, Ravel. Armed with these premises, the modern listener should be prepared, when listening to Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble, for an encounter with the aesthetic tastes of a bygone era, an era of ear-tickling “frilly” pianism offered up in a tenor of open-hearted emotionalism encapsulated in the term “schmaltz”.

Grainger composed this paraphrase in what he calls his “harped” style, one in which waves of harmonic colour are heard to ripple across the entire sound register of the instrument in poetic arpeggio formations, and even the notes of chords written on the same stem are not always served up in solid blocks but rather “sprinkled” out in digital sequence. It is a style that luxuriates in the amount of keyboard real estate it can occupy in a single phrase, with each tuneful scrap of melody intoned in the mid-range paired with a sonic echo somewhere in the outer regions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the distance between the concert hall and the piano lounge narrows considerably during the performance of this work.

Audience members with a bird-watcher’s interest in rare sightings will want to train their opera glasses on the pianist’s shoelaces before the piece begins to catch a glimpse of the middle “sostenuto” pedal being deployed as selected bass notes are silently depressed above on the keyboard.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B at minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff ’s second piano sonata is in three movements bound together by the cyclical recurrence of common musical motives. It sounds like one continuous work in three parts, however, as the first movement closes softly and is followed by a bridge section at the opening of the second movement that recurs at the end to connect it to the finale. This sonata is a massive work in which Rachmaninoff projects his trademark sense of pianistic power and musical muscle as convincingly as he does in his piano concertos, with which the sonata shares some large-scale formal design features: a fast middle section in the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis of lyrical melody at the end of the last movement – prominent features of his 2nd and 3rd piano concertos.

The work opens with one of the great dramatic gestures in the piano repertoire, an arpeggio plunging to the bottom of the keyboard followed by a cannon-echo above that outlines the first theme: a falling 3rd, and chromatically descending melody, developed over a series of cadenza-like passages before a calmer, more hymn-like second theme appears in the major mode, also based on the chromatic melody. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fist-chords of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a fever that has ebbed, but not quite run its course.

The second movement opens with a series of questioning phrases, as if bewildered and almost dejected. Solace does come, though, in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright and ringing bell-strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The lyrical climax of the movement comes shortly thereafter in a heart-breaking series of harmonic sequences that tug at the emotions as only Rachmaninoff can. The mood then turns darkly ruminative, as fragments of the first movement are worried and fretted over until the opening material is recalled and the questioning phrases return.

The finale interrupts this mood of contemplation with a cascade of sound and a series of stabbing gestures that issues into the first theme, a wild ride surging onward in a solid wall of sound, reinforced by the frequent tolling of the lowest B at on the keyboard, plumbed over and over again. Rachmaninoff ’s lyrical instincts then take over to offer us a warmly generous and expansive second theme that later becomes the exalted subject of the movement’s apotheosis. The movement ends, like the concertos, with a scramble to the finish in reworks reminiscent of the ending of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto.

Maurice Ravel
La Valse

Ravel had been planning to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz since 1906, when he began to sketch out a piece he called simply Wien (Vienna),a tribute to the “waltz king,” Johann Strauss II. But it was only under a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the famous Ballets Russes, that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev hated the work after hearing it played in Ravel’s two-piano version, but the composer published it in an orchestral version anyway and it premiered in 1926. Meanwhile, the original solo piano version produced when the work was composed endured as a daunting enigma for intrepid pianists to master and perform.

The problems to be confronted are many. With three authentic versions issuing from the pen of the composer, what is a pianist to do? The solo piano score is an ultra-compressed version of both the two-piano and orchestral versions. A signi cant portion of it is written with a third staff above the regular piano part to indicate prominent lines in the other versions, so every performance is by definition a kind of transcription: the pianist must decide just how much to include. Leave out the slyly creeping chromatic ligree in the inner lines and much of the piece’s Viennese charm is lost. Omit the extravagant glissandi at climactic high points and the piece loses a major source of its propulsive exuberance.

Yet another problem is that the score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass in preparation for bits of waltz rhythm to emerge haphazardly above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between an uninhibited, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.

Ravel describes what he called his poème chorégraphique as follows: “Swirling clouds a ord glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program notes: Maximilian Hornung & Benjamin Engeli

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102

Long before Martha Stewart made middle-class home furnishings a “thing,” the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) ushered in a bourgeois age of cozy home interiors that celebrated domestic family life and gave music a prominent place within it. Biedermeier Europe enjoyed the blessings of peace after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 much as the Eisenhower era did in North America after WWII. But instead of washers, dryers, and TV sets, the European ‘mod con’ most in demand was the piano, an instrument that afforded middle-class families the luxury of home music-making once reserved for the wealthier classes.

As a consequence, the market for Hausmusik (music for amateur performance by small ensembles in the home) expanded considerably. This market had its peaks of refinement in the works of Schubert and Mendelssohn, and its valleys of vulgarity in the variations and potpourris of lesser composers, as annoyingly popular in Biedermeier drawing rooms as YouTube cat videos on computer screens today.

Robert Schumann, after spending the 1830s composing solo piano music exclusively, made up for lost time at the end of the 1840s with a bumper crop of Hausmusik including his Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano. The simple “popular style” (Volkston) of these pieces is evident in their simple three-part (A-B-A) form, their strongly profiled melodies with little emphasis on development, and in their prominent use of drone tones in the bass.

Schumann was not engaged in a form of musical “slumming” by evoking the musical idiom of the rural countryside. This was not Dolly Parton arranged for chamber ensemble. For him, the folk music of a nation was emblematic of its very soul, providing a bulwark against the cheapening of musical taste that “fashionable” music threatened to enact on an unschooled public. Hence, the codas of these pieces reveal flashes of sophistication that see them end more artfully than they began.

The first is entitled Vanitas vanitatum (from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) and is likely a humorous depiction of the drunken one-legged soldier in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. It has a heavy peasant swing to it but, like many an engaging tippler, is not without occasional touches of sly whimsy.

The drowsy second piece may make you yawn. Its long-held bass drone foreshadows Brahms’ famous lullaby. The third begins with an aura of mystery, its ‘sombre waltz’ opening yielding to more lyrical effusions remarkable for the high register of the cello in which they are set, and for the use of double stops in 6ths.

The fourth piece alternates between a nostril-expanding march and an equally breast-swelling lyricism while the fifth, the least ‘amateur’ and most developed of the set, pairs a piano part full of scampering double thirds with a wide-ranging and restless cello line of steely determination and wilful exuberance.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69

The furrowed brow of care is nowhere to be found in this remarkably sunny and serenely confident sonata from Beethoven’s middle period. Composed between 1806 and 1808, it overlaps the composer’s work on the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies yet evinces none of the disruptive tumult of the celebrated C minor Symphony nor the wondrous, walk-in-the-woods pictorialism of the Pastorale. It seems perfectly content to live in its own world, a world characterized by an almost Mozartean sense of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.

Consider the opening. A rhythmically tranquil theme, beginning with a rising 5th, is presented by the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, its balanced mix of open and stepwise intervals symmetrically arranged on either side of the home-key note of A. This gesture then finds the perfect continuation of its thoughts in the luxuriantly relaxed and songful reply of the piano that drifts as high in its register as the cello ended low.

The second theme of the movement is similarly tongue-in-groove with the aforementioned, being a mirror image of the opening theme, inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. And throughout it all, cello and piano bask in a honeymoon of mutual admiration and support, even when touring through quite a bit of minor-mode drama and Italian-style pathos in the development section.

The second movement scherzo makes up for the first movement’s overall stability of pulse with a serving of jumpy syncopations and offbeat accents, enlivened by a large helping of contrapuntal side-chatter and imitative cross-talk. The two appearances of the movement’s much-less-skittish trio provide a measure of relief from the twitching, but in the end, even they get caught up in the general mêlée.

The third movement Adagio cantabile holds more surprises in store, however. Like a marathon runner who smiles at the press at the starting gun and then, after rounding the first turn, takes a cab to the finish line, this movement calls it quits after a mere 18 bars of lyrical reflection, proceeding directly to the last movement.

Cellist Leonard Rose thought this regrettable, but Glenn Gould saw it as part of an emerging pattern in Beethoven’s later works: a tendency to break down the walls between movements, to write sonatas as a single continuous thought:

It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end… to make things all of a piece.

Whatever the reason, the Allegro vivace last movement, in sonata form, is as toe- tapping a finale as could be imagined, its chuckling good humour kept bubbling by an almost constant 8th-note patter in the piano. And because this sonata lives in a thematic hall of mirrors, its main theme is an inversion of the piano’s delicious opening phrase in the first movement.

 

Leoš Janáček
Pohádka for Cello and Piano

Leoš Janáček is a one-off in music history. His is a voice of visionary ecstatic utterances, of mysterious murmurings evoking the folk music of his Moravian heritage, all tinged with the blurry soft hum of its favourite instrument, the cimbalom. As American conductor Kenneth Woods puts it:

Janáček comes from nowhere and leads to no one. There is simply no music before or after Janáček that sounds like his. His music is infinitely easy to recognize and completely impossible to replicate.

Janáček was fascinated by the study of speech rhythms and his music, while often misty and atmospheric, is strongly imprinted with the rhythm of the human voice. Utterly indifferent to the compositional conventions of his time, he creates his textures out of short bursts of melody that shimmer with sudden changes of modal colouring. These build to powerful emotional climaxes by the repetition of ostinato fragments that rarely seem to start on the strong beats of the bar.

Janáček’s Fairy Tale (Pohádka) for cello and piano dates from 1910, and after numerous revisions, reached its final form in 1923. Like much of his instrumental music, this three-movement work is programmatic, loosely based on scenes from The Tale of Tsar Berendyey by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).

While the story is long and convoluted, the gist is that the handsome young Tsarevitch, Prince Ivan, has had his soul promised to the King of the Underworld, Kashchei, but on mature consideration decides that he would much rather run away with the grumpy King’s fetching young daughter, Maria, a decision which leads to an adventure-filled chase over hill and dale until the two lovers finally reach safety and live happily ever after.

Just how Janáček’s score relates to the events of the tale is not really clear, but many interpreters see the cello in the role of the young prince, with his signature dotted- rhythm motif announced at the outset, and the piano as Maria. Steven Isserlis offers a very suggestive version of how the music illustrates the story, as follows.

The first movement, he says, opens with the dreamy setting of a magical lake where Ivan and Maria first meet. Enraptured by each other’s company, they fall into a love duet, but then big bad Kashchei arrives and they have to escape to the pounding of horses’ hooves.

The second movement is full of magic. In a nearby palace Ivan gets a spell put on him so he will fall in love with someone else and in a fit of pique Maria turns into a blue flower, prompting an achingly lyrical outpouring in the middle section. But a magician who does house calls finally releases them both and they rejoice in their good fortune in each other’s arms throughout the final movement.

 

Richard Strauss
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 6

While some people’s children are perfectly content to play in the mud for as long as the sun shines each day, taking only small breaks to tip over a vase or torture the household cat, others—the young Richard Strauss comes instantly to mind—prefer to while away their infant hours composing German lieder or small character pieces for piano, commensurate with their limited handspan on the keyboard.

To say that the composer of Til Eulenspiegel and Der Rosenkavalier was a prodigy is to state the obvious. Reportedly able to read musical scores before he could decipher the alphabet, Richard Strauss began his ‘mature’ period as a composer at an age when most of us were preparing for the high school prom. His Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 6 was begun when he was only 17 and completed two years later in 1883.

It is a radiantly confident work marked by boundless exuberance, passionate lyrical intensity, and no mean degree of compositional skill, its phrases driven forward with an irresistible harmonic momentum, parcelled out with consummate formal mastery. The cellist encounters a score extending over the entire range of his instrument while any pianist with a hand smaller than a catcher’s mitt will need to arpeggiate many of the work’s Brahmsian left-hand chords.

The first movement Allegro con brio opens the work with a heroic introduction leading to a first theme of rhapsodic sweep beginning high on the fingerboard over an undulating piano accompaniment, and this is followed by a sombre second theme, just as passionate, rising up from the lowest string. The development section percolates along, bubbling with imitative motivic play, until unable to hold off the urge to burst into a full-on fugato. Call this boy a show-off if you will, but he sure can write imitative counterpoint.

The second movement Andante ma non troppo is a richly hued but dark collection of ruminative melodies over which the lyrical spirit of Mendelssohn hovers benevolently, as it does over the Allegro vivo finale, with its mixture of coy drawing-room coquettishness and scherzo scamper.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

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