Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!
Click here to read the program notes for this performance.
Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102
The late 1840s saw Schumann take up “house music” in a big way. This does not mean that he began to DJ at raves, playing dance music with repetitive drum tracks and synthesized basslines. Rather, he had a productive period composing music specifically designed for the home market: Hausmusik. This was music meant to be appreciated by amateurs making music in their own homes, a demographic that had come to make up an increasing proportion of the German middle class during the Biedermeyer period (1815-1848) in which family life was celebrated and home activities like music-making cherished.
In Schumann’s Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano, the “popular” style of these pieces is evident in their simple A-B-A formal structure, their strongly profiled melodies, and their frequent use of drone tones in the bass.
The first piece is entitled Vanitas vanitatum, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). It is likely meant to depict a drunken soldier like the one featured in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. Its heavy peasant swing conveys something of the soldier’s alcoholic swagger, or perhaps even stagger, but offers glimpses of his tipsy charm, as well.
The second piece is like a drowsy lullaby, or perhaps just something cozy to play in a room with plenty of coals on the fire and a hot bowl of punch at the ready. This is warm home life distilled into sound.
An aura of mystery seems to pervade the third piece, which opens with a sad waltz in the cello dogged by furtive interruptions in the piano. More lyrical material occupies the middle section, notable for the high register used in the cello and the double-stop writing in 6ths.
The fourth piece offers one of those bravely optimistic and celebratory anthems that one often finds in Schumann, alternating with more fretful expressive outpourings in its middle section.
The least ‘amateur’ of the set is the fifth piece that features copious scoops of double thirds in the piano part and a restless, roving cello line determined to sing out its line on its own terms.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major Op. 69
Beethoven may have made his name in music history for his restless moods and Dionysian fury but there is another side to him that his A major Sonata Op. 69 represents well. This is the Apollonian, classical-era Beethoven, the Beethoven content to live – for the space of four movements at least – in a Mozartean world of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.
The opening theme of his first movement, for example, presented in the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, is symmetrically balanced around its opening note, the home note of A major. This solo entry of the cello and its follow-up phrase in the piano (ending in a short cadenza) is then succeeded by a solo entry in the piano and the same follow-up phrase in the cello (ending in a short cadenza). Moreover, the sonata’s second theme is a mirror image of the first, simply inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. While minor-mode turbulence intervenes from time to time, notably in the operatic outpourings of the development section, the piano and cello remain like best buddies in a road movie, always on the same page, never fighting with each other.
The 2nd movement scherzo sets out to see how much fun can be had with syncopation. At first peeking out and then hiding behind the pillars of each bar’s first beat, the two instruments find themselves dancing cheek-to-cheek (in 6ths) in the Trio’s two contrasting episodes.
The 3rd movement Adagio cantabile has puzzled many performers. Its extraordinary brevity, a mere 18 bars, barely gives Beethoven time to stretch out his lyrical limbs … and then it’s over. Glenn Gould has suggested a reason for this, a reason rooted in Beethoven’s emerging fascination with continuous form:
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.
Nonetheless, Beethoven’s last movement takes off with a merry twinkle in its eye and a bustling accompaniment of steady 8th notes in the piano to keep every toe in the hall tapping in time. The opening theme of this sonata-form movement is derived from the first movement’s opening theme. Simply bursting with good humour and bonhomie, this movement manages to be both cute and coy by turns while constantly radiating a sunniness of disposition that even the mock-worry of its development section cannot efface.
Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 11
Anton Webern presents us with among the most concentrated aesthetic experiences possible in music. Using the 12-tone technique of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, in which complete statements of the 12 chromatic tones are presented as musical ideas, he writes works characterized by an astonishing density of musical thought. This is music of meticulous craftsmanship, music under a magnifying glass, in which seemingly small gestures take on great significance.
Webern’s Three Little Pieces Op. 11 are contained within a space of 9, 13 and 10 bars, respectively, and they take less than two minutes to perform. The outer movements are relatively slow and extremely soft (ranging between pp and ppp) while the second movement is loud and fast.
Catching the essence of music this fleeting requires concentrated listening. Only repeated hearings can really bring its minute details into focus. But one characteristic that might well be perceivable right away is how the piano and cello, like an old married couple, seem to complete each other’s musical thoughts.
When one goes up, the other goes down in response, creating a kind of symmetry in their dialogue.
Sonata in G minor Op. 65
Chopin, a cello composer? Who knew? And yet the piano’s most famous composer actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, written between 1845 and 1846 for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).
In retrospect, however, the baritone range typical of the cello had always been a fertile ground for countermelody in Chopin’s piano music. Indeed some works, like the Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, or the Étude in C# minor Op. 25 No. 7, sound almost like transcriptions of works originally written for cello and piano. What most distinguishes this late sonata from those earlier “cello-like” works, however, is a new tendency towards increased chromaticism in the melodic line. Chopin’s sense of harmonic momentum is dizzyingly paced, especially in the first and last movements of this sonata.
Although Romantic in spirit, the sonata is written in the four-movement structure of the Classical era, comprising a sonata-form 1st movement, a 2nd movement scherzo, slow 3rd movement and rondo finale. The 1st movement’s opening theme might be described as a songful march, lyrical but inflected with pert dotted rhythms that add a slightly martial air to the melody’s unfolding. The second theme, by contrast, is a serene 10 notes (the first four on the same pitch) that exude a lyrical sense of repose, a repose not long held in this generally turbulent movement. The development is short, expanding on the rapturous potential of the 1st theme, in particular. Serious confrontation and drama occur only in the recapitulation, which draws much more vehemence from its material than the opening had done.
The 2nd movement scherzo is much lighter in texture and midway in mood between Mendelssohnian scamper and Brahmsian heft. Its lyrical trio is a nostalgic waltz to melt the heart of the crustiest old curmudgeon.
Lyricism of the simplest kind also prevails in the short 27-bar Largo third movement, but of a kind more vocal in its inspiration. Its widely spaced, nocturne- like piano accompaniment of eighth notes evokes a sense of calm that makes it the emotional pivot around which the whole sonata revolves.
The rondo finale reprises the martial inflections of the opening movement, but its dotted rhythms are now enlivened with a triplet energy reminiscent of the tarantella. In more lyrical sections the cello part is notable for the type of double- stop writing in 6ths one might expect in a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B-flat Major, Hob. XVI:41
In 1784 Haydn wrote three keyboard sonatas for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterházy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each is a two- movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young Princess for lighter fare.
The second in the set, the Sonata in B-flat, begins in a spirit of pageantry with an emphasis on sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent coy changes in dynamics, indicating clearly that the work was intended for performance on the fortepiano, which had largely replaced the harpsichord by the 1780s.
The female breast is given ample room to heave beneath its stiff lace bodice with the arrival of a restlessly modulating second subject dark with minor-mode colouring and rippling triplet accompaniment. A rich variety of ornamentation in the form of trills and turns maintains a high level of elegance in the melodic flow throughout.
The second movement Allegro di molto strikes a quasi-learned tone with its freely contrapuntal texture of answering phrases and its lively chatter of small leaps in dialogue with smooth runs and churning broken chords, all within the grasp of the delicate hand of a princess. In this movement as well, a minor-mode shadow falls melodramatically over the proceedings, only to be banished by a cheerful reprise of the opening material, tastefully varied at its return.
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 fiction 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 comprises 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 5th movement and fugato in the 7th, 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.
Anton von Webern
Variations Op. 27
The 12-tone system of composition propagated in the early 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, and employed by his students Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, presents a daunting challenge for audiences accustomed to listening for tunes to hum in the shower and rhythms to inspire a tapping motion in their footwear. The density of intellectual content of this music is far out of proportion with the ability of even seasoned musicians to perceive its organizing principles on a first listening.
And yet, like modernist works of abstract art that pull in the viewer’s attention at a visceral level, 12-tone works such as Webern’s Variations Op. 27 can exercise an unexpected fascination that requires no explanation.
So in listening to this three-movement work, it is merely necessary to be aware of the scale of listening at which the composer wishes to engage his audience, and that scale, in comparison with traditional music in the repertoire, is the minute. This is music for listening with an “aural magnifying glass,” music of pointillist patterns of sound unconnected to scales or keys, the elegance of which lies in the symmetry of its gestures and balance of its tonal patterning.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A Major, Op. 101
The works of Beethoven’s late period see him writing with a more relaxed approach to form and a wider sound palette, one that in the case of his piano music reaches out to the extreme ends of the keyboard. This is music of an increasingly personal stamp, wilfully pushing towards new expressive horizons with a confidence that virtually defines this composer’s ‘brand’.
His Sonata in A major Op. 101 presents us with two pairs of contrasting movements. Movements 1 and 3 are lyrical and reflective, with little by way of strong profiling in either tonality or rhythm. They seem to flow onward at the pace of personal thought and feeling. Movements 2 and 4 are punchier, driven by the momentum of a large-scale formal plan, with a decisive rhythmic edge and clear tonal outlines at the heart of which lies a yearning for the rigour of serious imitative counterpoint.
The work opens with a movement of great gentleness of expression, almost a meditation, full of rippling pulses rather than strong beats. Its exposition goes by in a single page, more a succession of dream states than a delineation of contrasting ideas, and its development merely seems to intensify rather than challenge the prevailing mood.
The second movement is a bold and forthright march with sharply chiselled dotted rhythms peppered with points of imitation (of a kind that may have inspired the fifth movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana) and an even more formally contrapuntal trio.
The slow movement is surprisingly short, more an intermezzo than a formally poised exposition of lyrical thoughts. With an air of improvisation it follows a little melodic turn figure through a series of harmonic adventures culminating in a daydreaming cadenza and a reminiscence of the sonata’s opening bars.
An ear-catching flourish of trills leads us into the finale, a sonata movement brimming with exuberance and good-humoured melodies drawn from country life, including an Austrian mountain yodel and a rollicking contradance. Each is presented from the outset with its own imitative echo, preparing us for the full-on fugue that breaks out in the development section. By his use of the extreme low register Beethoven turns the lowest voice in the fugue into a kind of basso buffo from comic opera, humorously out of place in such a learned context.
Four Dances from Czech Dances (Book II)
Bedřich Smetana was among the first composers to promote a distinctly Czech style of music in the 19th century during a period of rising nationalist sentiment in his native Czech homeland. His best-known works are his comic opera The Bartered Bride and the set of six symphonic poems based on themes from Bohemian country life entitled Má Vlast (my homeland).
Smetana was a gifted pianist and composed more for the piano than for any other instrument, with dance music playing an important role in his projection of the Czech national style. His second set of Czech Dances dates from 1879 and are intended to be artful examples of the actual music that might accompany Czech folk dancing.
Medved (The Bear) is a heavily textured stomping piece combining duple and triple metres to paint the lumbering gait of the bear, with a much sweeter middle section that imitates the sounds of the Czech bagpipes.
Hulán (The Lancer) is a slow, tender dance evoking the love of a young girl for her soldier boyfriend. Despite the subdued mood, an underlying current of intense yearning provides the performer with the occasion for flamboyant pianistic display.
Slepička (The Hen) is a vivid portrait of the race of barnyard fowl immortalized by Rameau’s La Poule and the animated film Chicken Run. Smetana’s hen is a busy creature indeed, with a daily agenda full of strutting, clucking and feathery flapping, all to a polka rhythm occasionally put humorously off-stride by unpredictable changes in metre.
Skočná (Hop Dance) is an exhilarating stomping dance for couples that sees its participants whirling each other ever more frenetically around in circles with a joyous, almost madcap abandon.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015
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.
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.
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
Johann Sebastian Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815
Bach composed suites for keyboard, for various solo chamber instruments, and for full orchestra, each comprising a varied and aesthetically balanced collection of dance movements written in the fashionable style of his day. The harmonic task given to each two-section dance is a simple one: to move, in the first part, from the home key to the key of the dominant, five notes up, and then in the second part, to return back to the home key, with each section played twice.
The moderately paced Allemande that opens this suite exudes an air of quiet assurance and harmonious calm. It is the most “conversational” of the movements in the suite, its walking bass supporting two upper voices that circle and twine round each other like two old friends who complete each other’s sentences. Beginning unusually low, the first half moves towards the middle register, while the second half begins correspondingly high and descends to the mid- zone of the keyboard.
In the Courante we move to triple metre, and a livelier pace. The single upper line moves in a continuous stream of running triplets while its jogging partner in the bass skips in time to it below. The stately Sarabande that follows restores a mood of ceremonial propriety as the hands take turns echoing the opening motive, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar.
The galanteries, or optional dances that precede the finale, are usually performed in the following order. First is the Gavotte, which in contrast with the smooth running figures of the preceding dance, moves by a succession of little leaps, imitated between the hands. A much longer second Gavotte follows, with an unusually wide variety in phrase lengths, for a dance movement.
The Air features a continuous texture of running notes, with a lively imitative dialogue between the voices in the second half. The Minuet moves in bite-sized two-note groups echoed between the hands, which gives it a sense of courtly daintiness not shared by its rougher country cousin, the Gavotte.
The real toe-tapper comes at the end of the suite in the Gigue, the most emphatic and rousing of all the dance movements. Displaying more leaps than a skateboarder’s trick set, this rollicking finale follows traditional Baroque practice of inverting the opening motive at the start of its second half.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, Op. 57
The sonata known to history as the Appassionata is one of Beethoven’s most emotionally charged and “edgy”
compositions, a work that – in its outer movements especially – pushed piano music to new extremes in dynamics, in technical difficulty, and in sheer expressive power.
Beethoven’s choice of key, F minor, allowed him to write for the full range of the piano of his day, from its lowest note (F1 in the bass) to its highest (C7 in the treble), both of which appear prominently in the score. Extreme as well is the economy of musical material used. As he was to do in the great C minor Symphony to follow, Beethoven constructs the entire compositional edifice of his first movement out of a small number of primal musical materials, all presented on the first page.
The sonata opens in a conspiratorial whisper, the furtive dotted rhythm of a rising F minor arpeggio finishing in a trill in the upper register, more eerie than decorative. The entire phrase is then repeated a semitone higher, in G-flat, introducing the Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened 2nd degree of the scale) that will haunt the entire movement. Completing the motivic line-up is a short knock-on-the-door motive in the bass, ominously tut-tutting this Neapolitan ascent with a corresponding semitone descent, and suspensefully setting up the explosion of echoing cannon- fire chords that begin the movement’s emotional journey in earnest. After a transition section buzzing with repeated notes, a calmer second theme appears in the major mode, but its dotted rhythm and restless triadic roaming show it to be merely the flipside of the first theme, as if Beethoven were playing bad-cop/good-cop with the same thematic material.
There are no formal repeats in this sonata-form drama: the emotional intensity is kept at fever pitch throughout the exploratory modulations of the development and the triumphant recapitulation in the major mode. But this is not the end. As in the C minor Symphony, this first movement is massively end-weighted in an extended coda that reaches its emotional climax in a virtuoso cadenza spluttering with rage and apocalyptic fury. Its pianississimo ending, fluttering with menace into the distance, merely recedes from, rather than resolves, the musical torment burning at its core.
No greater contrast could be imagined than that presented by the second movement, an emotionally stable, harmonically rock-solid set of variations, each with its own repeat. Far from ranging over the full expanse of the keyboard, its solemn melody spans barely a handful of notes in the mid- range. Melodic interest is thus concentrated in the bass line, but as the variations progress, it gradually filters upward into increasingly elaborate patterns of decorative detail in the upper register. Then just as the movement reaches its cadential close, a harmonically destabilizing diminished 7th chord mysteriously steps in to replace the final tonic harmony. Strident repetitions of this chord in a higher register trumpet the breaking news that the last movement is at the gates, set to begin – without a pause.
In this last movement the feverish restlessness of the first movement returns in a moto perpetuo of continuous sixteenth notes, so hell-bent on its mission that its “second theme” is barely distinguishable from the first, merely moved up into the key of the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher. As in the first movement, frequent flecks of Neapolitan harmony add a dark glint to the harmonic mix in both key areas.
Where new motives and punchy countermelodies do emerge is in the development section, which is perhaps why it, along with the recapitulation, is given a repeat. The work ends with a presto coda described as a “demonic czárdás,” stomping, skipping and finally racing to its finish in a whirlwind of F-minor broken chords cascading from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.
Robert Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2
Two artistic influences flutter over Robert Schumann’s second published work, an interconnected cycle of twelve dance pieces appearing in 1831 under the title Papillons (i.e., “Butterflies”). The first is the piano music of Schubert, especially his dance pieces and variations, which intrigued the young composer with their “psychologically unusual connection of ideas.” The second is the work of German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, with whose fanciful writings Schumann became utterly besotted in his student years in Leipzig while studying law.
It is, in fact, the scene of the masked ball at the end of Richter’s novel Flegeljahre (1804) that provides the dramatic “setting” for the cycle, a scene in which two brothers, in love with the same woman, vie to win her heart amid the gaiety and varied musical offerings of a social evening with dance orchestra.
These brief pieces, most of which are waltzes, manage to fit a maximum of drama within their diminutive formal frames. Eyebrow-raising is the occasional use of the minor mode in this collection of generally festive dances, as well as the frequent presence of two wildly contrasting moods within the same piece – features which hint at the testosterone- soaked rivalry between the two brothers. Noteworthy as well is how the personalities of the rival brothers in Richter’s novel – one dreamy-eyed and introspective, the other passionate and action-oriented – parallel the two alter-egos that Schumann was to develop for his own split musical personality: Eusebius and Florestan.
Most clearly narrative is the final dance in the set, which opens with a quotation of the Grossvatertanz (Grandfather’s Dance), a centuries-old tune traditionally played at the end of wedding celebrations. Against the backdrop of this tune, Schumann recalls the opening waltz as the clock tolls repeatedly to signal the end of the ball. The final cadence features a dominant 7th chord that is peeled up from the bottom to leave only its top note sounding, before the final chord brings a quiet close to this kaleidoscopic evening of musical nostalgia.
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1
The nocturne, popularized in the early 19th century by the Irish pianist John Field, became in the hands of Chopin one of the most characteristic genres of the Romantic era. Typically featuring an Italianate cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment of widely spaced chords in the left hand, it sought to evoke a dreamy nighttime mood through its slow harmonic rhythm and the atmospheric use of pedaling effects over recurring drone tones.
This nocturne, one of the last published by Chopin during his lifetime, seeks the same goal, but by different means. More contrapuntal in texture, it features a harmonically active bass supporting a vocal line that unfolds in an even flow of eighth notes, with overlapping phrases that avoid clear and unambiguous cadences in pursuit of the Romantic ideal of the “endless melody”.
Its middle section grandly widens the range between melody and bass while venturing further afield in its modulations before returning to the opening material, thrillingly ornamented with chains of trills and melodic filigree. A longish coda features orientally-tinged scalar elaborations ranging widely over the keyboard which lend end-weighting to the work as a whole.
Frédéric Chopin: Étude in A flat, Op 25, No. 1 Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 Étude in C# minor, Op 10, No. 4
The two sets of twelve piano studies which Chopin published as his Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), along with the Trois nouvelles études which he contributed to the Méthode des méthodes (1839-40) of Fétis and Moschelès stand, even today, as the foundation of modern piano technique. In the words of pianist Garrick Ohlsson: “If you can play the Chopin Études … there is basically nothing in the modern repertoire you can’t play.”
It is easy to imagine why the Étude in A flat, Op. 25, No. 1 is known as the “Aeolian Harp”. Beneath a steady pulse of melody notes, many of them repeated on the same pitch, strums a swirling, rippling accompaniment that challenges the pianist to split his hands conceptually in two between a melody or bass-note finger (the pinkie) and the fingers playing the accompaniment (all the rest). Particularly perilous are the exhilarating leaps – in opposite directions! – at the emotional climax of the piece.
The Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 is the “ugly duckling” amongst the Études. To each attack in the right hand is
attached, like a barnacle, a chromatic inflection a semitone away that makes it walk like it has a stone in its shoe. Its contrasting middle section in the major mode – as poised and elegant as the opening section is grotesquely limping and ungainly – is richly carpeted with a harmonically full, rolling texture that allows the left hand to sing out a simple but engaging baritone melody of small range and modest harmonic goals.
The Étude in C# minor, Op. 10, No. 4, a fiery and aggressive moto perpetuo of small running figures that change hands every few bars, is one of the longest of the Études. Bristling with chromatic inflections and peppered with sforzando accents, it makes the arrival of a stable key centre a major event on the last page of the score.
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31
The scherzi of Chopin have little of the tripping, skipping, good-humoured jesting of the genre created by Beethoven, and only the last of them, the Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, displays any of the mischievous scamper and effervescent buoyancy of the models offered by Chopin’s contemporary, Mendelssohn. Rather, these are big-boned works, projecting pianistic power and lyrical intensity with a directness and confidence very much at odds with the popular image of Chopin as the delicate performer of perfumed salon pieces.
What links them, perhaps, to their forebears is not only a broadly conceived ternary (A-B-A) form, but also a certain mercurial volatility of mood and a desire to entertain wildly contrasting emotions not just between sections, but within them.
The Scherzo in B flat minor, composed in 1837, is a perfect example. It opens with a dramatic exchange between a whimpering triplet figure and an explosive salvo of raw piano resonance, only to be followed by an ecstatic exclamation arriving from the extreme ends of the keyboard, which then in turn morphs into a yearning, long-lined lyrical melody singing out over a sonorously rippling accompaniment in the left hand.
The middle section begins in a mood of quiet elegy, but gradually is persuaded to emerge from its introspection into a lilting three-step waltz, accompanied at every turn by an attentive little duplet-triplet figure in the alto. It is this coy little waltz tune that will build up in urgency and sonority sufficient to motivate the return of the dramatic musical gestures that opened the work. A coda pulls and tears at this material to lead it to a triumphant conclusion in D flat major, the key to which it had always been drawn throughout its course.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
Leoš Janáček: In the Mists
Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music. Equally folk-like is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism, à la Debussy, but an impressionism as heard through Czech ears.
The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetitions of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato. A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of its melancholy opening theme.
The varied repetition of a four-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.
The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure, and then ends exactly as it begins.
The fourth movement, Presto, with its many changes of meter, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.
Franz Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935 (Op. 142)
Schubert wrote these four works, along with another group of four impromptus (D. 899/Op. 90) in 1827. Only two were published in the short period Schubert still had to live. The four that finally appeared as Op. 142 were published in 1838 by Diabelli, who entitled these pieces “Impromptus.”
The word “impromptu” belies the true construction of the works, for they are not improvisations at all, nor are they spur of the moment conceptions. Rather, the word is intended to evoke the idea that the music originated in a casual manner, and that it was born of poetic fantasy in the composer’s mind. Each of the impromptus explores a particular mood of tonal poetry, that mood being defined at the outset.
The somewhat elusive structure of the first impromptu combines elements of sonata and rondo. There is a wide range of moods, from the sombre melancholy of the opening to some highly excitable passages later on. Schubert’s characteristic fluctuations between major and minor tonalities are also much in evidence.
The second is designed as a simple Minuet and Trio. The music strongly recalls the mood, tempo, melodic outline and harmonic progressions of the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26 in the same key (A flat major).
The third impromptu is a theme with five variations. Schubert borrowed this wonderfully idyllic, ingratiating theme from his incidental music to the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern, where it introduces the scene of Rosamunde tending her flocks in Act IV. He also used a close variant of it in his String Quartet in A minor (D. 804).
The final impromptu, with its slightly ironic air, delights principally through rhythmic playfulness, a dancelike spirit and brilliant passage work. Towards the end, a note of veiled mystery creeps in, but this resolves into a furious rush to the finish, culminating in a swoop down to the lowest note (F) on Schubert’s piano.
Robert Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
The Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) dates from 1837, when the composer was 27. In its first edition, it was published with the title “Florestan and Eusebius,” referring to the two fictional characters, members of the “League of David”, who are actually only opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego, the former representing his extroverted, exuberant side, the latter his quiet, meditative side. The “Davidsbund” itself, purely a product of Schumannn’s fertile romantic imagination but fashioned after the Old Testament figure, represented the proud, musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. All but number 16 bear an initial at the end, indicating whether it was inspired by Florestan, Eusebius or the two together.
The spirit of the dance infuses the entire eighteen-piece set in one way or another. Mazurka, waltz, polka, tarantella, Ländler, and other dance forms are either obviously or subtly transformed in these mood pieces, which are by turns joyous, eccentric, reflective, lively, agitated, and whimsical. The opening gesture, which is used as a sort of motto throughout, comes from a mazurka by Schumann’s fiancée, Clara Wieck.
The pianist-scholar Charles Rosen offers this insightful observation about the music: “The meaning of the Davidsbündlertänze cannot be put into words, of course, but it comes closer to words than any other piece of music that I know. With its combination of memory and nostalgia, humour and willfulness… the work seems to hint at something hidden within it, intended for us to guess at and not to find. It is, in any case, the reticent Eusebius that has the last word.”
Program notes by Donald Gislason & Robert Markow, 2013.
Eric Owens’ recital divides neatly into two halves – a German half and a French half, with the final song a true rarity that bridges the geographical and cultural divide. The German songs (Lieder) all tend to be of a dark, serious or melancholic nature, while the French songs (mélodies) are lighter, even airy and effervescent, the perfect antidote to the German half. As Eric Owens puts it, Debussy “brings us out of the land of despair.”
Hugo Wolf may well be the only major composer who is remembered today for his songs alone. If it was Schubert who put the Lied on the musical map, it was Wolf who epitomized this genre to the exclusion of almost everything else. In his musical depictions of poets’ words, Wolf has few equals and no superiors. Accents, pauses, harmonic twists, modulations, textures and figurations all play a role in illuminating the text, in both the vocal and the piano writing. The Michelangelo Lieder were Wolf’s last songs, written in March of 1897 as he was approaching the onset of dementia from the syphilitic infection that later killed him. In their bare harmony, declamatory style and absence of melodic lines, these songs show the composer’s single-minded intent to concentrate on the essence of the words to the exclusion of all else. The texts are three sonnets (in Walter Robert-Tornow’s German translation) of the famous painter, sculptor and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), written when he was an old man reflecting pessimistically on life. In the first, the poet thinks back to the days when he was young and unknown. The second is an observation on the ephemeral nature of all earthly things, and the third a memory of lost love.
Although Robert Schumann wrote less than half as many songs as Schubert, his achievement is hardly less impressive, for most of them were composed in a single year, 1840, the year of his marriage to Clara Wieck. Schumann’s wedding present to Clara was the collection of 26 songs entitled Myrthen (myrtles, the flowers traditionally associated with weddings). No. 15 of this collection is the strangely despondent “Aus den hebräischen Gesängen” (From Hebrew Melodies), set to words by Lord Byron in German translation. Muttertraum” (Mother’s Dream), set to words of Hans Christian Andersen, paints a consoling picture of a mother gazing fondly at her infant son while outside ravens lurk. They look forward to feasting on his corpse hanging from the gallows, as they know the child will grow up to be a criminal. Gruesome imagery is found also in Der “Schatzgräber” (The Treasure-seeker), a magnificent and graphically realistic setting of Joseph von Eichendorff’s morality tale of a man obsessively seeking buried treasure and finally being buried himself. A different kind of desperation pervades “Melancholie,” a song of unrequited love.
The three songs of Franz Schubert on Eric Owens’ recital all deal with epic subjects of classical mythology, carry dark messages, and were composed by a young man still in his early twenties. “Prometheus,” with its frequent changes of texture, tempo and mood, and with its essential instrumental component, is more an operatic scene than a mere song. “We may all be made of Promethean clay, but only genius can be fired to produce a work as extraordinary and highly-colored as this,” writes pianist Graham Johnson. “Fahrt zum Hades” (Journey to Hades) is another impressive setting, this one to a description of a despairing man’s crossing of the River Styx and his last glimpse of earthly beauties. The poem by Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer inspired the composer to create what John Reed calls “a dramatic aria of solemn grandeur, tragic in tone and classical in its combination of deep feeling and formal restraint.” In “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” (Scene from Tartarus) we find a viscerally powerful song that none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau claimed can leave a listener “stunned and terrified.” Set to a passage from Schiller, its text alone is frightening enough, but underscored by Schubert’s chromatic, discordant music, this through-composed song in several linked sections takes on colossal proportions.
The majority of Claude Debussy’s 85 known, authenticated songs are early works, composed between 1880 and 1892. So too are the three we hear tonight. “Beau soir” was his second song to be published, yet, as Barbara Meister notes, “it is already the work of a master. From the very first measure one is intrigued by the rhythmic pattern …” There are numerous harmonic felicities as well. Despite the song’s title (Beautiful evening), the message of Paul Bourget’s poem is that happiness turns to sorrow, life leads to death. “Fleur des blés (Wheat flower) immediately followed “Beau soir,” but whereas in the earlier song the piano had essentially an accompanying role, now it is nearly an equal partner with the voice. André Girod’s poem invites images of pastoral loveliness, which are compared to features of the poet’s beloved. “L’Âme evaporée (The evanescent soul), another Bourget setting, is the first of two Romances published in 1891. Meister calls it “really a perfect duet for the two performers.” For the most part each has his or her own part, but at the song’s climax their lines join.
Cervantes’ picaresque novel Don Quixote, which recounts the adventures of the legendary “knight of the sorrowful countenance,” has inspired no end of musical compositions. Maurice Ravel’s contribution to this literature took the form of three short songs that Don Quixote addresses in homage to his ladylove Dulcinea. Composed in 1932, it was his last work. Ravel had already proven himself a master at composing music to Spanish subjects (L’heure espagnole, Rapsodie espagnole, Boléro, Alborada del gracioso). The first song is a highly fanciful Chanson romanesque, in which Don Quixote offers to fulfill whatever whimsical requests Dulcinea may present. It is set to the meter of the Spanish guajira, which alternates between 6/8 and 3/4. The second is a prayer at the shrine of the Madonna, set to the 5/4 meter of the Basque zortzico. Finally comes a drinking song in the manner of an Aragonese jota. The first performance was given by baritone Martial Singher in Paris on December 1, 1934.
During his Paris sojourn of 1839-1841, Richard Wagner composed half a dozen songs to French texts as part of his effort to become better known there. He hoped the popular singers of the day would add them to their repertories, but, as musicologist Werner Breig informs us, “the songs did not meet with much success at the time, perhaps because they were too complicated for the function they were supposed to serve.” For “Les deux Grenadiers,” Wagner used a translation by François Adolphe Loeve-Veimar of Heinrich Heine’s original ballad in German. Two of Napoleon’s troops are en route home from the disastrous Russian campaign. They mourn the capture of their beloved Emperor. One wants only to get back to his family, the other wishes for the comfort of the grave on French soil. To the sounds of the Marseillaise, the latter imagines his heroic deeds in defense of Napoleon.
Christian Gerhaher on the origins on German Lied (song):
The German Lied was born into quite special circumstances. The composer found himself creating something with no pre-existing format, which in practical performance terms was restricted to a quite intimate situation, which will later become the famous Schubertiade. That means it had a more social than an artistic significance.
I mostly perform German language songs, and in doing so have developed an idea of combining the expression of pronounced text and sung music into a personal, meaningful sound.
On favourite composers:
Schubert, Schumann and Mahler – all three in general for their faithful way of combining music and text in an authentic synthesis – all of them in a personal way.
Schubert was not only the great founder of the Lied as a musical category. He displayed in his large oeuvre an immense variety of micro-styles, all deriving from a true and honest attempt to execute the intuition that Schubert seems to have derived from reading a poem. A very special miracle that I notice constantly throughout his multi-faceted oeuvre is that Schubert treats very good poems with the greatest distinction and delicacy. He does not seem to add too much new or of his own to a perfect poem. On the other hand, he really seems to be able to ennoble weak poems, of which he set not a few.
Schumann is my personal favourite (not only as a song composer). Performing his works I like especially his trend-setting innovation of giving at least equal weight to the piano part. I also admire, as I do with Hugo Wolf, his highly delicate and quality-conscious selection of texts. I admire and feel touched by his radical artistic genius.
On Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau:
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in my view, established Lieder-singing as a kind of vocal chamber music. This achievement should not be underestimated (I think this maybe was one of his main merits). The history of Lieder performances reveals an always strongly private and emotional orientation. I would even say that such an approach to singing and interpreting this literature leads to the danger of group sentimentality,
Fischer-Dieskau’s method was, first of all, to take the composer’s intentions seriously. He dispensed, for example, with the tendency to select particular pieces from an entire song-cycle. Secondly, he sang this literature with a well-known, superb technique that combined perfect pronunciation with a helpful, bright voice-colour.
On influential singers:
[Of course,] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There was another Lieder singer. His work and not only for me, is a true, dear treasure. Fritz Wunderlich was a wonderful singer. He was and is an inspiration for singers many and varied. His timbre is a perfect example of how much imagination and will are sable to influence the quality and aesthetic value of singing.
Last night I had one of the most perfect concert experiences of my life. I have been attending a conference of music managers and presenters in Budapest. I discovered that baritone Christian Gerhaher was singing an all-Schubert song recital in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It was sold out, but after 33 years in the concert presenting world, I was able to pull strings and, to my utter astonishment, I became a guest of the Konzerthaus. So, I hopped on a train and headed back to Vienna (where I’d been just the week before) to hear the performance. The distance between Vienna and Budapest seems similar to the distance between Vancouver and Seattle. Except that, of course, one just sails through borders from one country to the next.
The Konzerthaus was packed to overflowing. There were 750 seats filled in the hall with an additional 50 seats on stage. I know this because I asked the Intendant of the Konzerthaus. I also enquired about their wonderful piano and he told me that they select and rent a new Steinway from the factory every two years.
I am guilty of over-using the word “extraordinary”, but there is simply no other word to describe Gerhaher’s voice (or voices, as he seems to have so many of them). He inhabits the text and the music he is singing. He simply delivered what Schubert intended when he wrote the songs. Nothing more and nothing less. His regular pianist is Gerold Huber and the two of them together are as one. Right down to the tiniest nuance. I can understand why Andras Schiff has chosen to invite Gerhaher to Carnegie Hall for his “Perspectives” Series. And of course, we, at the VRS are the beneficiaries of this collaboration. We jumped at the opportunity when we heard about it.
If you are a serious, discerning music lover you must not miss the Gerhaher/Schiff performance at the Chan on May 14. Don’t expect a larger than life personality like Bryn Terfel (nothing wrong with him!) but expect the most perfect delivery of song you will experience for many, many years to come. It is both deeply gratifying and humbling at the same time.
Leila (en route from Vienna to Budapest).