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Click here to read the program notes for this performance.
The Simón Bolívar String Quartet’s scheduled performance at the Vancouver Playhouse on September 17 has been postponed to a future season. The current volatile and violent situation in Venezuela, which has heightened following last week’s election, has made it almost impossible for the quartet to navigate around Caracas to make arrangements for their North American tour. Both the USA and Canada have withdrawn most of their diplomatic staff from the city, and there are now very few airlines flying in and out of Venezuela. Given that the situation is expected to escalate before it is resolved, the sad decision was made to postpone the tour, which, in addition to the scheduled VRS engagement, had included planned performances at the Ravinia Festival and Cornell Concert Series.
Alejandro Carreño, 1st violinist with the quartet, said, “This is a regrettable moment for us as Venezuelans, and a dark process of our history. Artistically this tour was very important for the quartet, and that is why we want to let the presenters and public know how sorry we are about this situation, which is out of our control. We hope to reschedule these concert dates where possible, so that we can return soon to these important places. We are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received from our team and colleagues; their commitment and support is invaluable to us as artists. We very much hope to be able to perform internationally as a quartet again in the near future.”
We are obviously very disappointed that we won’t be able to hear the Simón Bolívar String Quartet this season, however our primary concern is for the safety and wellbeing of the members of the quartet and indeed the people of Venezuela in these difficult times. We’ll be keeping in touch with quartet, and we very much hope to present them in a future season. So stayed tuned for more on that…
In the meantime, I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with my contacts in Europe and North America trying to find an equally brilliant quartet to present on this date. And the good news is, I’ve found one! The Verona Quartet — hailed by The New York Times as an “outstanding ensemble of young musicians” — will be stepping in to replace the Simón Bolívar Quartet. The venue, date and time of the performance are unchanged.
The Verona Quartet has a wonderful program:
Haydn: String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 50, No. 1
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
Ravel: String Quartet in F major.
In my 38 years as a concert presenter, I’ve dealt with cancellations before. But never due to political and civil unrest.
Our thoughts are very much with the Simón Bolívar Quartet.
Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., DFA
Founder & Artistic Director
In 1782 Mozart’s patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, showed the composer a number of manuscripts of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and encouraged him to make string arrangements for performance at the Baron’s regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts in his home. The result was a collection of Bach fugues arranged for string trio and for string quartet.
The E-flat fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a four-voice fugue of remarkable design. Its voices enter in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) to build up a four-voice texture firmly grounded in the home key, and almost all subsequent appearances of the theme enter in the same keys as the opening: E flat and B flat.
The harmonic stability that characterizes the formal plan, however, is enlivened by a fugue subject of great vitality, created out of an ear-catching mix of melodic leaps laid out in a pattern of note values accelerating from slow to quick. Combined with the built-in phrase repetition in the theme itself, the result is almost dance-like.
Arranging this fugue for string quartet allows the work’s contrapuntal texture to be presented in higher sonic relief to the listener’s ear, with long notes swelling in the middle in a way impossible on the keyboard, and short notes articulated crisply by means of adroit bowing.
Dmitri Shostakovich was the ugly duckling of 20th-century composers, a thickly bespectacled, chain-smoking musical intellectual whose scores, while contemporary in their sound palette, often bristled with the contrapuntal intensity of a previous age. No stranger to the larger forms of symphony, concerto, and opera, he focused increasingly at the end of his life on the more intimate genres of the song cycle and the string quartet. Following the diagnosis of a heart condition in 1965, his works became darker in spirit, beset with a tragic undertow no doubt influenced by the experience of his declining health.
His 15th string quartet was his last, composed in 1974, the year before his death. Written in the dark key of E-flat minor, it unfolds as an uninterrupted sequence of six slow movements, all marked Adagio. Beneath the death-inspired melancholy of this work glimmers faintly the memory of living human emotions, expressed in the titles given to each movement.
The first movement Elegy opens with an eerily subdued fugal exposition in the low range of the instruments. Its melodically inert, death rattle of a theme whispers out three notes on the same pitch, then continues to circle listlessly around it in the modal style of medieval chant. A second theme, based on a C major arpeggio, eventually emerges but brings scant cheer, as the entire movement, the longest of the work, never rises above the dynamic level of mp.
Not so the sharply profiled second movement Serenade, which begins with a 12- tone row of snarling—or perhaps shrieking—crescendos, each on a single note played by a single instrument, swelling from ppp to sffff. In the course of this movement these violent gestures play against an absent-minded waltz, to curious effect.
The short Intermezzo features a similarly odd pairing between an exuberant, almost ecstatic cadenza in the first violin and scattered melodic musings in the other instruments. Genuine sustained lyricism arrives for the first time in the Nocturne, as the viola pours out its soul against a delicate tracery of arpeggios in the other instruments. Played with mutes, this movement rarely features more than three instruments playing at a time, giving it a quality of nocturnal intimacy.
There is no mistaking the grave, commemorative tone of the following Funeral March, in which we hear the pure minor chords and dotted rhythms of traditional funeral music projected with surprising aggressiveness in both chordal declarations and solo laments.
The concluding Epilogue sums up the previous emotional terrain with cadenza-like flights of fancy alternating with dull echoes of both the first and second themes from the first movement. Its flurry of trills has been compared to “the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard”.
The late quartets of Beethoven are known for raising the bar in terms of formal experiment and range of expression, but the first of these, the Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, is almost shockingly conventional in this regard. Tuneful in the most popular manner, its expressive aspirations rarely exceed those of the common air or folksong, and its four separate movements are laid out in the most traditional of formal patterns: a sonata-form first movement, theme-and-variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a sonata-form finale.
What this quartet does have in common with many late-period works is the extravagant dimensions of its theme and variations movement—it clocks in at over a quarter of an hour in length, in a league with the variation movements of the late piano sonatas Opp. 109 and 111. Equally remarkable is the sustained lyrical impulse that broadly dominates the first two movements, to the detriment of Beethoven’s trademark penchant for striking contrasts and high-voltage drama, which only join the party in the scherzo.
A hint of the more “muscular” Beethoven is given in the first movement’s opening fanfare, a fanfare that recurs several times throughout the movement. But at each appearance it can’t help melting into song, the operating principle of the movement seeming to be that of leisurely continuous variation rather than dramatic set-up and release. This is evident in the minor-mode second theme, which is minimally contrasting and echoes fragments of the first, while the development, for the most part, prefers to stretch out its melodic lines like toffee instead of fragmenting them like peanut brittle. The question “Why can’t we all just get along?” seems to have found its answer in this movement.
The theme of the second movement’s variations is a lyrical ascent of scale notes extending over more than an octave followed by a series of gracious descents. Eminently vocal in character, this melody was actually split off from the quartet and published separately as a song after Beethoven’s death. The six variations that follow unfold calmly with an admirable simplicity. They maintain the gentle flow and relaxed feel of their founding melody, and rather than dressing it up with ornamental curlicues, they simplify it, as in many of Beethoven’s late variation sets, seeking to reduce it to its core constituents.
The Beethoven of contrast and drama returns in the scherzo. Its theme is a mischievous collection of little gestures comprised of dotted rhythms and purring trills, creeping up the scale in stages, answered imitatively by its mirror opposite coming down in the opposite direction. The opening and closing sections of the movement swing wildly between clever counterpoint and rampaging unisons while the trio alternates between breathless scurrying and rustic swagger.
This rustic quality is much in evidence as well in the final movement Allegro. Its folk-like character is conveyed in a seemingly endless stream of simple, tuneful, and symmetrically phrased melodies (Joseph Kerman calls it a “medley”), imprinted with the oafish good humour of drunken village dancing. Near the end, a heavenly trill in the first violin summons the rustics to heed the angels of their better natures, and the husky rhythms of their revels give way to the smooth flowing lines of human concord as the work ends.
Donald G. Gíslason 2016
Perhaps it has been a deficiency in my musical education, but I have found it hard to warm to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.
Written in 1950-51 and influenced by Bach and in a lineage of prelude collections by Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, these works have generally remained on the outskirts of the repertoire.
This is changing however, in part due to the championing of Alexander Melnikov, who will give us a still rare opportunity to hear a significant portion of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues on November 13. This will certainly be the first time I will hear more than one or two of the prelude-fugue pairs at one time.
Because of Melnikov’s program, and more because I am turning pages for this performance, I thought it incumbent on me to learn more about this great composer’s magnum opus.
My new appreciation began with the arrival of Robert Markow’s programme notes. He wrote: “In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of twentieth-century piano literature.” You can read the full set of notes here.
Alexander Melnikov wrote in the liner notes to his own recording, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.” Hear more about Melnikov’s thoughts on Shostakovich in this video.
There is no doubt all of this is revealed in Melnikov’s 2010 recording, which has contributed to a rediscovery of the Preludes and Fugues and the next stage of my appreciation.
Played with “clarity” and “virtuosity and audacity” (The New York Times), the Neo-Classical elements of the pieces resound, and Shostakovich’s response to his self-imposed aesthetic restriction is endlessly inventive and inspired (imagine writing in a clearly defined tonal centre in the 1950s!).
Each listening of Melnikov’s recording exposes the depth and breadth of these bold works and, as suggested in The Guardian, “Alexander Melnikov makes you wonder why these works are considered monotonous or didactic.”
Indeed, I now have to wonder why it is we do not hear these works more frequently, and how it is they have been missing in my musical appreciation. That has all changed in the hands of Alexander Melnikov.
Alexander Melnikov performs at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, November 13 at 3pm. Tickets are available from the VRS Box Office, call Cory at 604-602-0363. Tickets are also available from Ticketmaster either online at ticketmaster.ca or call 1-855-985-2787 (service charges apply).
Dmitri Shostakovich: 12 Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87
Like many of the great composers before him (Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, among others), Shostakovich possessed the skills of a keyboard virtuoso, and might well have sustained a successful career as such. Among his prizes was one from the First International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1927). But Shostakovich’s compositional talent also showed itself early. His graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory, the First Symphony, catapulted him at the age of twenty to worldwide attention, and he decided to devote the bulk of his efforts to composition. Significantly enough, the First Symphony contained a prominent part for the piano. Shostakovich continued to write music for his instrument throughout his twenties – about half his output during these years was for or with piano – which he also performed. Thereafter, coinciding with the sharp reduction of his performing activity, he wrote only seldom for solo piano. Among the works of his later years was the monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, written in late 1950 and early 1951.
The inspiration came principally from Bach, as it has for similar sets from other composers: Hans Huber, Castelnuovo-Tedesco (for guitar duo) and Niels Viggo Bentzon for preludes and fugues together; Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich himself (Op. 34) for preludes alone. In 1950, Shostakovich was sent by his government as the head of a Soviet delegation to East Germany for the ceremonies surrounding the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the events was a piano competition in Leipzig, where Shostakovich sat on the jury. One of the contestants was the 26-year-old Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier so impressed Shostakovich that upon returning to Moscow, he undertook to create a similar work himself. Unlike Bach’s two books of preludes and fugues, each of which proceeds up the steps of the chromatic scale alternating major and minor keys (C – C-sharp – D, etc.), Shostakovich’s (like Chopin’s) move through the so-called “circle of fifths,” which begins with C major and its relative minor (A), then adds one sharp for G major/E minor, then two sharps, etc. (at this point the flat keys take over in reverse order, decreasing in number down to one – F major/D minor – where the cycle ends).
The first performance presented what amounted only to a teaser: Shostakovich offered four of the preludes and fugues at a recital on November 18, 1951 in Leningrad’s Glinka Hall. The cycle was not given as a unit until a year later when Tatiana Nikolayeva performed it at the same venue in two sessions, on December 23 and 28, 1952. There is conflicting evidence as to Shostakovich’s feelings about whether the 2½-hour cycle should be played complete in performance. He himself never did so, though he recorded all of it. He did often perform the preludes and fugues in groups of three to six, as have many other pianists, notably Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Selected numbers have been arranged for such diverse instruments as organ, accordion, double bass with piano and string orchestra.
In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of twentieth-century piano literature. To Tatiana Nikolayeva, it is music “of great depth, of unsurpassed mastery and greatness. They are 24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world. …The breadth of images and characterizations is very great: from tragedy to humor, from gaiety to the grotesque.” Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers maintains that “if there is a single work among his large output that assures us that Shostakovich is among the handful of great composers [of the twentieth century], this collection is it.” And for tonight’s pianist, Alexander Melnikov, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.”
In an interview accompanying his recording of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Melnikov suggests that one of Shostakovich’s aims was to see what he could do with the forms beyond Bach, what he could do with material completely unsuitable as a fugal subject. Take for example the first fugue (C major), which employs only the white keys of the piano throughout, or the seventh (A major), whose subject is built entirely from a major triad. In the preludes too, there is in each one a sense of experimentation, of compressing a single idea into a few pages of music to see where it will go. Each one has a “message.”
NO. 1 IN C MAJOR: The cycle gets underway with a sarabande, a stately Baroque dance in slow triple meter with its characteristic rhythmic pattern. Chordal writing alternates with flowing chromatic passages. The fugal subject is built almost entirely from the intervals of the fourth and the fifth.
NO. 2 IN A MINOR: The Prelude is a toccata-like affair (“pure harpsichord textures,” says Melnikov), with a single line of rapid sixteenth-notes running in perpetual motion throughout. The Fugue has been compared to some of Shostakovich’s polkas for its jaunty, humorous mood. The five-note rhythmic cell upon which it is based recalls a jocular passage from the third movement of the Fourth Symphony.
NO. 3 IN G MAJOR: The stern Prelude sounds like its inspiration could have come from a liturgical chant, while the Fugue could not be more different in character – witty, playful, dancelike, and demanding virtuosity and crystalline clarity of execution to make its effect.
NO. 4 IN E MINOR: The Prelude is a three-part texture consisting of (1) ponderous, sustained octaves in the depths of the piano’s range; (2) a continuous, even stream of eighth notes, usually in the middle voice; and (3) a slower-moving melodic line that includes numerous “sighs.” (Bach associated E minor with the Crucifixion.) The Fugue is actually a double fugue. Two separate subjects are introduced in turn (the second in slightly faster tempo), then are combined fortissimo in a towering musical edifice.
NO. 5 IN D MAJOR: “A graceful, wistful dance-song over a lightly arpeggiated accompaniment” is how Wilfrid Mellers describes this Prelude. The Fugue consists of “a theme stuttering in repeated notes, with farcical clownish effect.”
NO. 6 IN B MINOR: A striking Prelude built on the double-dotted rhythmic figure (extra-long notes alternating with extra-short ones) flashes fire and energy in contrast to its Fugue, notable for a flowing, placid surface.
NO. 7 IN A MAJOR: The spirit of Bach hovers over the Prelude. Its meter of 12/8 (four groups of triplets) was far more common in the Baroque era than it is today. The fugal subject is based entirely on the notes of the tonic chord (A – C-sharp – E). This fugue might be considered Shostakovich’s “water music” inasmuch as the texture – glistening, sparkling, gently undulating – not to mention the continuous development of a single arpeggiated chord, bring to mind the opening scene of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold.
NO. 8 IN F SHARP MINOR: One of the briefest preludes sits beside the longest fugue by far of the twelve we hear tonight – nearly nine minutes in Melnikov’s performance. The Prelude is written in simple two-part texture, and in Shostakovich’s inimitable fashion combines a playful ambiance with a touch of the sinister. It is also the first prelude we have encountered to feature Shostakovich’s hallmark rhythmic pattern, short-short-long. The Fugue too incorporates this rhythmic figure into its fold. The subject is exceptionally long – nine measures – and thereafter unwinds in three-part texture to an unrelenting tread and highly dissonant harmony.
NO. 9 IN E MAJOR: In a reversal of the process found in the previous Prelude and Fugue, No. 9’s focal weight rests in its Prelude – longer by far than the Fugue. This Prelude is also notable for its extremes of range, which cover nearly the entire keyboard; three staves are required to notate it. The Fugue is the only one of the 24 in two voices only, and exudes an atmosphere of joy and exuberance. Many listeners hear in it strong reverberations of a Bach two-part invention.
NO. 10 IN C SHARP MINOR: Again the spirit of Bach informs this Prelude. In fact, it, as well as its Fugue, is often regarded as the most Bachian of the set. The words of Bach biographer Philipp Spitta regarding the C sharp minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier might equally apply to Shostakovich’s in the same key: “…it is as though we were drifting rapidly over a wide ocean; wave rises over wave … as far as the eye can reach, and the brooding heavens bend solemnly over the mighty scene.”
NO. 11 IN B MAJOR: The B major Prelude suggests an orchestral conception, particularly the jocular, light-hearted movements of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9. For sheer, unabashed joy and an almost reckless sense of abandon, the Fugue is hard to beat.
NO. 12 IN G SHARP MINOR: The Prelude is written in passacaglia form (a method of composition in which a set of variations is constructed over a repeating bass line or chord progression). As the key of G sharp minor has five sharps, the meter for the Fugue is appropriately 5/4. The intellectual rigor with which Shostakovich creates a fugue from his angular, raw-boned subject is truly awe-inspiring. Melnikov calls it “the most harmonically complex fugue of the cycle so far, played at a breakneck pace, reaching an impossible degree of emotional strain and desperation. Thus, the stage is set for the culmination of the first volume.”
Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.