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Program Notes: Jerusalem Quartet and Hila Baggio

Yiddish – A new viewpoint

When we were approached by harmonia mundi to think of a concept for a ‘different’ album, an album that would challenge our standard repertoire, we took great care to find a subject that we had a natural connection with, but that would be interesting for the general public. Naturally we gravitated to Jewish music.

It is quite fashionable today to revive cabaret music from the Weimar Republic. But the Jewish connection to this music is rarely underlined. We feel that the irony, the word games and the interest in ‘lowbrow’ subjects reflect a direct influence of Jewish culture, which until 1919 was mostly barred from integrating with general German culture. This inspired us to create a project highlighting Jewish culture as an important influence on much of today’s western culture as a whole.

Until 1939, Poland was the centre of the Jewish world. It housed the world’s largest Jewish population, with a thriving cultural scene that included theatre, literature, music, opera, and even one of the biggest film industries of the time. After the Second World War, few Jews remained in Poland. Worldwide, Yiddish was replaced by Hebrew, and the few institutions dedicated to Yiddish culture now treat it mostly in a historical sense. For us, Yiddish is the language our grandparents spoke behind closed doors, and Yiddish music is something that exists in the deep background of our childhood.

This program sets out to show that Yiddish culture did not die in the Holocaust, but rather spread and influenced much of wider western culture. For example, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe transformed Vaudeville into the Broadway we know today, and Hollywood was largely founded by Jewish immigrants and refugees.

To symbolize this, we chose five songs as the heart of our album. The songs were written by different composers/lyricists and would have been performed in Poland between the wars in a cabaret setting. Together, they come together to paint a picture of Jewish street life in Warsaw between the wars. We aimed to create a ‘current’ viewpoint on this music, not one through the lens of the calamity that followed. To set these songs for soprano and string quartet, we approached Leonid Desyatnikov, whose innovative writing for strings captured our imagination.

To frame these five songs in a broader context, we picked two wonderful pieces by composers who are emblematic of Jewish artists and their general cultural contribution. Erwin Schulhoff was Czech, but was highly successful in Germany between the wars. As a communist and a Jew, he was deported to a concentration camp where he died of tuberculosis. His Five Pieces for String Quartet is in its own way cabaret music. Erich Wolfgang Korngold perhaps represents German and Austrian Jews who chose to assimilate with the general culture. He was invited to Hollywood to write film scores and ultimately became the foremost film composer of his time, which saved his life.

We dedicate this program to our grandparents.

-Ori Kam

 

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Erwin Schulhoff
Five Pieces for String Quartet

Erwin Schulhoff was born to a Jewish family in Prague in 1894 and showed musical talent from an early age. The composer Antonín Dvořák advised him to pursue a career in music. Schulhoff began to study at the Prague Conservatory in 1904, continued to take piano lessons in Vienna from 1906, and from 1908 studied composition in Leipzig with Max Reger and subsequently in Cologne with Fritz Steinbach. In the meantime, he had laid the basis of a career as a pianist. In 1918 he was already known as a composer and received the Mendelssohn Prize for his Piano Sonata Op. 22.

His music up to the First World War had shown influences ranging from Brahms and Dvořák to Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin. Following his service in the Austrian army, he adopted a more radical stance both artistically and politically. In the next few years, he composed in a more expressionistic idiom he had learned from Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. In addition, he was influenced by the radical style of the Dada school espoused by Georg Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz was to find its way into much of Schulhoff’s music from that period.

During the late 1920s, Schulhoff managed to create a rapprochement between these competing aesthetics which can be seen in a number of his chamber works and concertos, the First Symphony, the ballet Ogelala, the ‘jazz oratorio’ HMS Royal Oak and his opera about Don Juan entitled Flammen (Flames), which was a failure at its Brno premiere in 1932. In that year he also composed his Second Symphony in a clear-cut neo-Classical style. Soon after, he composed the cantata Das kommunistische Manifest (The Communist Manifesto), in which he expressed his political beliefs, setting texts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the socialism and communism. Looking to the Soviet Union for a solution of the political and economic problems in central Europe, he focused on the symphony as the best medium through which to communicate his ideology and emotions. Schulhoff composed six more symphonies between 1935 and 1942, though the Seventh and Eighth remained unfinished. He lived in Prague during most of the inter-war period, working as a pianist in theatre productions and radio broadcasts, but found himself without any means of support after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. Having taken Soviet citizenship, he was arrested before he had completed the process of emigration to the Soviet Union and was then reported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg where he died in August 1942.

Schulhoff was no stranger to the string quartet medium, having written a Divertimento in 1914 and a full-length Quartet Op. 25 some four years later. His official String Quartet No. 1 was composed between the years 1920 and 1924 and was a great success. Schulhoff had been encouraged to write another work for string quartet. This is how the Five Pieces for String Quartet were composed in 1923. The work was first performed in Salzburg on 8 August, 1924. Although the work follows the outlines of a Baroque dance suite, each of the pieces is a self-contained miniature that emulates a particular dance style in a manner which unashamedly recalls the popular music of the era.

  

Leonid Desyatnikov
Yiddish – 5 Songs for Voice and String Quartet

The Five Songs for Voice and String Quartet is a piece based on Yiddish songs that were performed in Poland between the two world wars. The composer Leonid Desyatnikov chose five songs representative of Yiddish cabaret style, which portray the lives of Jews in urban Poland, their joy, their suffering and hope. Jewish musicians and performers were dominant in popular music in Poland and collaborated in composing Polish and Yiddish songs. Their works influenced cabaret music throughout Europe as well as Hollywood film music and Broadway theatre music in the United States.

Desyatnikov chose these songs to commemorate the life of Jewish cities before the Holocaust. As he writes: ‘Yiddish – 5 Songs for Voice and String Quartet – are based on the material of cabaret songs that circulated in Warsaw and Łódź between the two world wars. “My cycle is a series of free transcriptions of such songs. Usually, this type of music is assigned to the “lowbrow” area. It is the eclectic culture of the assimilantes, the lumpenproletariat and the outsiders, the culture of cheap chic, and at the same time – in its best forms – a brazen, talented culture full of self-irony and latent despair. The strict, staid sound of the string quartet transforms this music into an exquisite gravure.”

The first song is a nostalgic paean to the city of Warsaw, and the second a parody of an American song that relates the fate of a Jewish prostitute. The third and fifth songs are from the repertory of Yiddish ‘thieves’ songs’, reflecting marginal groups of the Jewish underworld. The fourth song is a duet between a man, Yosl, and a woman, Sore-Dvoshe, who live in poverty but dream of having a large family and enjoying life in the big city.

Yiddish was a vernacular and literary language of the Jews of Europe from the twelfth century onwards. We know of Yiddish folksongs as early as the fourteenth century. During World War Two, hundreds of songs were composed and sung, but many were lost forever. After the Holocaust, Yiddish did not continue to be a living language of Jewish communities in Europe, and became an academic, historic language. Thus the song cycle, in its new and sophisticated arrangement, brings together ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ cultures of language and music with a bitter smile and humanity.

 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold 
String Quartet No. 2  Op. 26

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in 1897 in Vienna, the second son of a high-ranking music critic, Julius Korngold, who wrote for the Viennese newspaper Die Freie Presse. Erich’s prodigious musical talent placed him and his family at the centre of high art society at a time when a parallel avant-garde society of cabaret, film and small theatre was growing in popularity and prestige. Both societies expressed disquiet over the future of their cultural heritage. The means of their expression would prove indicative of where the fissures within that culture lay.

Korngold’s life spanned the two world wars, which proved for some to be an undeniable force for radical change to the artistic idiom. Composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith and Krenek became absorbed in creating and promoting new tonalities which could be aligned with older traditions. Korngold was one of many exceptions in that he remained true to his contemporary idiom, described by himself as an extension of natural evolutionary processes. Initially promoted by his father as the only truly natural use of tonality, Korngold’s musical style is attributed equally to his unique character and to his musical mentors, Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss. Erich never wavered from his belief that music should cope with the horrors of his time by serving to elevate the soul rather than drag it down. When the possibility of delineating creative development into early, middle and late styles was still an officially recognized measure of the true artist, Korngold’s musical style merely matured while remaining intact, essentially romantic, effusive, luxuriant and, most significantly, harmonious.

In 1934 Korngold was invited by Warner Brothers to compose music for the film A Midsummer Night’s Dream in America – in retrospect, this proved to be the lifeline that saved him and his loved ones from the gas chambers in occupied Europe. Behind this invitation stood his friend the theatre and film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), who later also emigrated to the United States. Korngold went to America in 1934 but returned to Europe in 1937 to conduct and resume his career as an art music composer. However, within a few months he received another invitation to compose a film score; his acceptance of this offer actually saved his life and those of his family in 1938, just before the German occupation of Austria.

Korngold composed many film scores for full symphony orchestra and became one of the pioneers and leading exponents of film music. He won two Academy Awards. After the Second World War, in 1949, he attempted to resume a European career but this was not a success, and after a few concerts and premieres he returned to Hollywood in 1951. He died a few years later, at the age of sixty, believing that he had been forgotten in Europe.

Korngold is most closely associated with large-scale works, his operas and film scores, but throughout his career he composed chamber music and an impressive collection of songs. In February 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, he began to look for a country of residence in Europe. During this year he conducted operas and composed chamber music, including his four-movement Second String Quartet Op. 26, which was premiered by the Rosé Quartet in Vienna on 16 March 1934, just before he left for America.

Though far less known than the First Quartet (1920-22), the Second presents a self-assured composer who knows how to combine Schoenberg’s expressionism with Romantic sonorities, and a complex chromatic language reminiscent of Richard Strauss with his own confident handling of timbre, colour, and a broad emotional range which is characteristic of his musical language. In this quartet the music of the countryside of Korngold’s native Austria is expressed in ripe Viennese sensuality.

 

– Gila Flam

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet II

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor D. 810 (Death and the Maiden)

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is a sombre work, with all four of its movements set in a minor key. It takes its name from the composer’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) that provides the theme for the quartet’s slow movement, a set of variations. The poem’s depiction of Death coming to claim a young life may well have had personal resonance for the 27-year-old Schubert, since in 1824, when this quartet was written, symptoms of the disease that would kill him four years later had already begun to appear.

Despite the despairing backstory, or perhaps because of it, the first movement of this quartet is unusually muscular in its scoring, thick with double-stop accompaniment patterns and punchy triple- and quadruple-stop chords at important cadences. This orchestral quality is evident from the startling salvo of string sound that opens the work, comparable in its dramatic abruptness to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fanfare-like call to attention announces the serious tone of the movement while at the same time introducing the descending triplet figure that will be the principal motive of its first theme, presented immediately following. The other important motive dominating the movement arrives in the work’s second theme: a small grouping of notes ending in a lilting dotted rhythm, lovingly offered up in thirds, Viennese-style.

Schubert’s treatment of these two motives in this movement displays his more ‘relaxed’ notion of the structural principles underlying classical sonata form. While composers in the era of Mozart and Haydn considered their key choices and modulation patterns to be the harmonic pillars and load-bearing walls of a sonata-form movement’s musical architecture, Schubert, by contrast, was more interested in interior decorating than structural engineering. Rejecting sonata form’s traditional concentration on just two tonal centres – the home key presented at the outset and its alternate, presented in the second theme – he preferred to spin his tonal colour wheel more freely so as to choose just the right tonal accent for this little motive here, and the right tonal shade to paint that broad thematic space there.

While not ignoring the form’s three-part division into exposition, development and recapitulation, Schubert lets this pattern out at the seams to create a more vibrant palette of harmonic possibilities. The tonal drama that interests him happens at a moment-by-moment pace, riding forward on waves of harmonic colour. The triplets that appear so portentous as the movement opens, when cast in different tonal colours, become a daisy-sniffing, walk-in-the-park hummable tune. And the lilting dotted-rhythm motive, so gracious at its first appearance, becomes worrisome when constantly repeated in the minor mode.

Schubert’s treatment of his musical material in the following slow movement is much more regular and formally proportioned. The theme for this movement’s set of variations is in two parts, each repeated. The first is a direct quotation of the piano introduction to the Death and the Maiden lied, with its plodding funeral-march rhythm and mournful repetition of melody notes evoking the sorrow that death brings. The second part maintains the processional rhythm but is more hopeful, ending in the major mode to reflect the lied text’s depiction of death as the Great Comforter. Most of the variations decorate the theme with an elegant application of melodic embroidery in the first violin. But the third variation breaks this pattern with its frightening acceleration of the theme’s processional rhythm, a pacing that some have compared to the galloping of Death’s horse.

The Allegro molto scherzo is of a rough Beethovenian stamp, predicated on the play of small, repeated motives, frequent syncopations, and sudden contrasts between piano and forte. Its Trio middle section is a gently swaying Ländler that counts as one of the few moments of sustained lyrical repose in this quartet.

The rondo finale, marked Presto, is a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory emotional states. Alternating between the driving vehemence of its tarantella refrain in the minor mode and the almost celebratory spirit of its major-mode episodes, this movement is bound together by its boundless energy alone, an energy that seems to transcend major-minor distinctions. Witness its whirlwind coda, that clearly signals an intention to end the work in the major mode, only to switch back to the minor for its last hurrah, yet with no loss of breathless exuberance.

 

Lotta Wennäkoski
Pige

Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski began her musical education studying violin in Budapest before taking up studies in composition, first at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and then at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, studying under composer Louis Andriessen.

Having begun her career writing scores for short films and for radio plays, her compositional instincts tend towards the picturesque and the accessible, with textures immediately understandable in terms of musical gesture. She is the diametrical opposite of a ‘brutalist’ composer, preferring to lure rather than berate the listener and she has even been called a ‘lyricist’ amongst contemporary composers.

While she enjoys an international reputation, having received commissions from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as from the BBC Symphony, she also likes to perform at daycare centres, singing songs with the children and explaining to them the language of modern music.

As a composer of both string music and songs, she is uniquely qualified to compose a work responding to Schubert’s lied Death and the Maiden, especially since many of her compositions for voice deal with issues affecting women. Among these are her song cycle Naisen rakkautta ja elämää (The Love and Life of a Woman) from 2003, based on Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben song collection, and her recent opera project, Regine (2021), about the wife of Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard.

She describes herself as a timbral composer, with a fascination for changes in tone colour. Slip-slidey glissandi are a recurring feature in her string scores and her music often has a strong sense of pulse, communicated in ostinato patterns, against the background of which melodic fragments poke out on the surface of the texture.

Most importantly, her music is fundamentally optimistic in outlook: “I belong”, she says, “to a generation of composers who see the outside world as an opportunity rather than as a threat.”

Composer’s remarks:

Something fierce, something soundless, so have I written in my notebook when planning the string quartet Pige. It has been an inspiring task to write a work to be paired with the Death and the Maiden quartet by Franz Schubert. The “Doppelgänger” idea was greatly feeding my imagination from the very beginning. It’s also been an honour to write music for the hugely expressive musicians of the Danish String Quartet.

The first movement Vorüber, ach, vorüber! is based on the first half of Schubert’s lied that lies behind his Death and the Maiden quartet. This “maiden’s song” has not found its way to his string quartet, so I wanted to use its material in mine. The second movement Daktylus borrows its idea from the haunting pulse of Schubert’s chant of Death. Something fierce and something soundless can be heard here – along with other aspects to the dactyl rhythm.

Schubert’s quartet is wonderful music and of course an unmissable boulder, and “death and the maiden” is a tempting and gloomy motif in art history. On the other hand, I just couldn’t help seeing the motif also as the never-ending image of a dirty old man desiring the young female body… The third movement thus turns its gaze to the girl herself. Pigen og scrapbogen, “The Girl and the Scrapbook”, is joyful textural music – compiled of fragments and freely handled quotations that might spring to mind when thinking of a vital girl’s life.

Pige is Danish for girl. I wish to thank the Danish String Quartet and the co-commissioners for the opportunity to write this music.

Lotta Wennäkoski, March 2022

 

Franz Schubert
Death and the Maiden
(arr. Danish String Quartet)

Schubert’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) is a setting of a two-stanza poem by German poet Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). Like Schubert’s previous lied Der Erlkönig (1815), it features an emotionally dramatic, high-stakes conversation about a coming death, but in this lied the Grim Reaper himself takes part in the conversation, in person.

While he is not the first to speak, his presence is strongly intimated in the opening 8-bar slow introduction, whispered out pianissimo in the monotonous TUM tum-tum rhythm of a funeral march, impassive and virtually devoid of melody, evoking the silence and stillness of the grave. This introduction, which provided the theme for the 3rd movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, is itself a kind of musical Doppelgänger, echoing another dramatic scene of death foretold – in the same droning monotone, the same key of D minor, and in a virtually identical rhythm – when the Commendatore arrives to escort Don Giovanni down to Hell in the last act of Mozart’s opera of 1787.

The voice of the maiden enters in bar 9. She pleads with Death to let her go, as if he were some kind of lecherous elderly suitor making inappropriate advances to her.

In the lied, her melody line rises gradually in pitch to underline her growing sense of concern:

Pass by, oh pass by!
Go, you wild skeleton-man!
I’m still young! Go, then,
And touch me not
And touch me not.

The second stanza gives Death’s cunning, seductive and bittersweet reply:

Give me your hand, you lovely tender thing!
I am your friend, I’m not here to make you suffer.
Don’t be afraid. I’m not a wild man.
You’ll sleep gently in my arms.

The lied ends with the return of the introduction as a postlude in the major mode, its steady unchanging rhythm transformed from a portent of death into a gentle consoling lullaby.

The intertwining of love and death, brought to the stage earlier in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and later in the Liebestod of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is expressed with elegant simplicity in this short German lied by Schubert.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Castalian String Quartet

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D minor  Op. 76 No. 2  (“Fifths”)

Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet for his leading role in transforming the genre from its origins as light entertainment into a vehicle for serious composition, worthy of standing beside the instrumental sonata and the orchestral symphony.

His earliest quartets were divertimento-like, comprised of five movements (two of which were minuets) and were written in Rococo style with an eye towards simplicity, grace and elegance. These were carefree works with simple textures and uncomplicated formal designs and were aimed at amateur musicians of moderate ability.

Beginning with Haydn’s Op. 9 quartets of 1770, however, a different type of quartet begins to emerge, laid out in just four movements, each distinct in character and mood. And the transformation is complete with the publication of his Op. 20 quartets in 1772. These are technically demanding works based on the relentless pursuit of motivic development, bristling with learned counterpoint and even fugues. They require players alert to the cross-chatter of lively ensemble playing, in textures that represent, as Goethe was famously to remark, an intelligent conversation between four individuals.

The string quartet had become, in the words of Haydn scholars Floyd and Margaret Grave, “an exemplary genre for connoisseurs.”

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In the six quartets of Op. 76, completed in 1797, we catch Haydn near the end of his career and at the height of his powers, during the period in which he was also composing his oratorio The Creation. The second quartet in the set, in D minor, is remarkable for the extreme contrasts of mood that characterize its four movements, which alternate between high seriousness and playful contentment.

The work opens in eyebrow-knitting earnestness with a falling-fifth motive in the 1st violin that gives the quartet its nickname (“Fifths”), accompanied by a hand-wringing patter of anxious 8th notes in the other instruments. These two motivic elements – half-note fifths set against 8th-note counter-play – will constitute virtually the entire motivic material from which Haydn’s fashions this movement, with the half-note fifth motive playing the leading role throughout. It even chaperones the second theme, meant to contrast with it. It seems to be always in circulation somewhere in the texture, getting passed around between the instruments like a decanter of sherry between gentlemen in dinner jackets smoking cigars. In the development section there is hardly a single bar without this motive in some voice or other, either straight-up, inverted, in stretto, or in diminution.  Needless to say, this quartet was aptly named.

The Andante più tosto allegretto that follows is a kind of variation movement – but then again, everything in Haydn seems to be a “variation” because of his mono-thematic mindset: using the same motives over and over again in different guises throughout a single movement. Here he seems to wink slyly back at the first movement by running its “falling interval” motive into the ground through constant repetition. The melody line features simple falling fifths, filled-in chordal fifths, and fifths filled in with runs. In the end, though, it is the constant tick-tock in the first violin of falling thirds that makes the whole movement sound like a kind of grandfather clock, coyly aided and abetted by a dainty pizzicato accompaniment in the other instruments.

This is Haydn’s dry humour at its most arch.

The Menuetto is even more eccentric still. Sometimes called the Hexenmenuett (Witch’s Minuet), it opens with an austere, bare-bones two-voice canon between upper and lower voices in D minor.  This is followed by a trio that begins on a series of repeated notes on the pitch D, sort of implying D minor from the previous section – but no! A lusty full-throated D major chord suddenly bursts into our ears in the same repeated-note pattern to resolve the ambiguity.

Haydn is known to have burst out laughing at his own musical jokes when listening to his string quartets performed by others. This movement may well have been one of his real knee-slappers.

Haydn ends this quartet with a short snappy finale which, like many of Haydn’s finales, has a rural dance flavour to it, with drone tones aplenty and the first violin playing village fiddler throughout. It opens with a bustling little theme that seems to be urgently chasing its own tail but then after 8 bars comically stops dead in its tracks under a goose-egg fermata as if cross-eyed in confusion. The recurring motive of a pick-up 8th note, characteristic of both the first and second themes, provides continuing onward momentum while repeated notes keep the listener’s toes tapping and some acrobatic wild leaps in the first violin keep the circus atmosphere alive. This is a movement full of personality and while written in D minor, it actually spends most of its time in the major mode, ending in an exuberant flurry of D major figuration.

 

Fanny Mendelssohn
String Quartet in E-flat Major

In her youth Fanny Mendelssohn revealed a musical talent just as precocious as that of her younger brother Felix. Both received the same rigorous musical training: keyboard instruction from pianist Ludwig Berger (1777-1839), a student of Muzio Clementi, and lessons in counterpoint and composition from composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832). In 1824, Zelter noted in a letter to his friend Goethe that Fanny, barely 19 years of age, had already composed no less than 32 fugues.

But while Felix might be free to pursue a musical career, Fanny, as the daughter of a well-to-do family of high social standing, was not.  Her path in life, according to the social conventions of the time, was to be a wife and mother, a role she fulfilled when in 1829 she married, in a love match, the court painter Wilhelm Hensel (1795-1861). With the support of her husband, though, she continued to compose throughout her life, producing over 125 piano pieces and 250 lieder, as well as various chamber works. But nevertheless, many of her early compositions (including one of Queen Victoria’s favourite songs) had to be published under her brother’s name, and the vast majority of her almost 450 completed works remained unpublished during her lifetime.

Frau Fanny Hensel née Mendelssohn did, however, have a private musical career, continuing to take part in the Sunday musicale concerts that had been held weekly in the Mendelssohn family’s elegant Berlin home since 1823 with audiences of up to 200 guests. A list of composers she programmed for these concerts in the period from 1833 until her death from a stroke in 1847 reveals much about her musical ideals and the models she used in her own compositions. Topping the list were 40 works by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, followed by Beethoven (38), Bach (16), and Mozart (13).  Her admiration for these composers is easily discernible in her String Quartet in E flat major written in 1834, which may well count as the first quartet by a female composer in the Western canon.

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Based on a piano sonata started five years earlier and written largely in the Mendelssohnian style of Romantic-tinged classicism, this four-movement work presents some interesting anomalies. The first of these is the choice of an Adagio for its opening movement, a deviation from classical decorum that raised an eyebrow of disapproval in her brother Felix, but which might have been inspired by the example of a similar slow opening movement in Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C# minor Op. 131.  Similar, as well, to this Beethoven quartet movement is the concentrated emphasis on imitative counterpoint, testifying to what the New Grove Dictionary refers to as the composer’s “Bachian proclivities.” The movement unfolds rhapsodically as a free fantasy that ruminates fervently and at length over its opening phrase, a downward melodic gesture ending with a sigh motive.

The Allegretto that follows is very much in the vein of her brother’s Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo: fleet and acrobatic, but with a scurrying middle-section fugato like the scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The third-movement Romanze is the emotional heart of the quartet, remarkable for its extraordinarily wide expressive range and creepy-crawly chromatic harmonies. It begins tenderly with a gently pulsing carpet of repeated notes that blossoms into a shy, wistful and slightly plaintive melody of small range contrasted immediately after with wide melodic leaps reminiscent of the two-voice single-line melodies found in Bach. These simple thematic elements, however, soon don their Wellington boots to huff and puff through a heavy developmental section of churning 16th-note passages echoing with passionate intensity through tonal space until the demure mood of the opening returns to close the movement as it began.

Now it is at just this point in the proceedings that listeners with perfect pitch might start to wonder just where the “E flat” in this “String Quartet in E flat” was planning on making an appearance, because up to this point the work seems to be spending almost all of its time anywhere but in E flat major. In fact Felix Mendelssohn noted in a letter to his sister that the first two movements are “not in any particular key” whatsoever and was all “Don’t get me started” when discussing the key scheme of the third movement.

We can feel confident, however, that his worst fears were allayed by the rock-solid harmonic foundation on which his sister constructed the concluding movement. This finale is in a regular-as-rain sonata form with an exposition moving from a tonic E flat to its dominant, a massive development section with no awkward surprises, and a small but tidy little recapitulation to tie a neat formal bow around the whole package. The reason for this sudden falling-in-line on the harmonic front is that the expressive effect of the movement has little to do with its harmonic design but is predicated entirely on its unstoppable forward momentum.

It opens with a flurry of whirlwind figuration, derived perhaps from the Presto finale of Felix’s Fantasy in F# Op. 28, or possibly inspired by the finale of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332.  And the 16th-note motion initiated at the outset rarely stops to catch its breath throughout, even acting as a kind of Peloton running strip underneath the more lyrical second theme. The development section features some impassioned Beethovenian counterpoint between starkly contrasting thematic ideas and the whole movement goes by like a blur.

 

Franz Schubert
String Quartet in G major  D 887

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Schumann Quartet

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quartet in D major  K. 499 “Hoffmeister”

Mozart’s most accomplished string quartets are generally considered to be the ten he wrote after moving to Vienna in 1781, beginning with the set of six dedicated to Haydn, published in 1785 and ending with the set of three dedicated to the King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, published in 1791. In between came a ‘one-off,’ the four-movement Quartet in D major K. 499 composed in 1786 and dedicated to Mozart’s friend and fellow Freemason, the music publisher and composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812).

This is a quartet that gets ever more  compositionally ‘weighty’ with each movement. Its minuet and finale are unusually intense in their use of contrapuntal procedure, perhaps as a result of Mozart’s discovery and study of the works of Bach. And its slow movement pulls out all the stops in its search for deep expressiveness, perhaps under the influence of Haydn.

The first movement Allegretto is surprisingly light, both in its thematic material and the elaboration of it.  It opens with a gentle fanfare as all four instruments in unison hop through the notes of the D major triad, ending with four repeated notes on the dominant. These two motives—the arpeggiated triad and the jolly repetitions of a single note—will pervade the movement to such an extent that one can hardly even speak of there being a second theme at all. The entire movement unfolds as a series of loose variations on its opening bars.

The Menuetto is where things get interesting. Normally conceived of as a place of mental relaxation and toe-tapping repose, this minuet gets ever ‘brainier’ as it goes along, with creeping chromatic lines and small points of imitation in the opening dance steps preparing the way for full-on canonic imitation in the minor-mode trio. Arrestingly novel is the way in which Mozart plays “bait and switch” with the cadencing bar of the trio, turning it surprisingly into the first bar of the minuet when returning to the opening material.

The Adagio pleads its case with poise and dignity in slow, halting dotted rhythms, which soon give birth to the long lines of florid decoration in the first violin that will dominate the movement. Unexpected harmonic turns and pulsing accompaniment figures deepen the expressivity of the thematic material. Notable is the way in which Mozart often divides the quartet into pairs of upper and lower instruments that echo each other’s sentiments in alternation.

In his Allegro finale Mozart paints a chiaroscuro of light and dark textures. Nothing could be easier to follow than its playful opening, that features a teasing series of short phrases tossed out by the first violin between pauses. And yet few things could be more eye-crossing and eyebrow-knitting than the dense contrapuntal entanglements that these simple triplet figures get enmeshed in before the movement ends.  Perhaps the dedication of this work to a close personal friend allowed Mozart the freedom to express his own personal character, by turns mischievous and learned, in this quartet.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quartet No. 9 in E flat major  Op. 117

In 1962, Shostakovich had risked the wrath of the Soviet authorities with his controversial Thirteenth Symphony that featured settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar denouncing widespread antisemitism in the Soviet Union. It should not be surprising, then, that he would turn to the more intimate, less public genre of the string quartet for his next major work, the String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major (1964), which is laid out in five continuous movements in a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast pattern.

The power of Shostakovich’s musical language in this quartet lies in its ambivalence. His use of recurring themes and musical motives, presented and developed in various voices of the texture, and in various contrapuntal contexts, is in line with the rhetorical heritage of the string quartet going back to the time of Haydn and Mozart. The way in which these themes and motives are treated, however, is more in line with the soul-destroying rhetoric of Soviet double-speak.

The first movement, for example, opens with a jaunty melody featuring a rising 3rd and falling 4th, eminently suitable for whistling on a bright sunny day. In Shostakovich’s setting, though, it is deprived of the cheerful harmony it deserves, and instead is fraught with worry, hounded by the constant murmuring of menacing running figures—as if being followed by the KGB. This is a melody that constantly changes direction, like a prisoner pacing in his cell, unable to escape the dull drone on the cello below.

The almost clownish second theme, strutting about in staccato, has even more reason to be merry with its octave leaps and chipper oft-repeated motive of a filled-in minor third. But its leering accompaniment seems more mocking than supportive. And then there are those worrying murmurs from the running figures that keep coming back to keep watch on the proceedings.

The second movement evokes an air of fervent prayer, as emotionally intense in parts as Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. Emphasis on minor chords in the harmony creates a mood of unremitting sadness while its hymn-like texture of four closely-set string voices seems almost claustrophobic.  The first violin’s rumination on the filled-in minor 3rd motive, mournfully slowed down, provides a thematic link to the immediately following third movement Allegretto.

And here is where the real fun begins as the first movement’s filled-in minor third motive is transformed into a madcap polka, complete with oom-pah off-beats and the ‘Lone Ranger theme’ (AKA the fanfare from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) thrown in for good measure. One can only imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of the Soviet censors. All that’s missing is Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat poking his head out from the wings to clap and yell “Hey!” at the end of every phrase.

The fourth movement takes as its theme the worrying running figures that murmured throughout the first movement.  Extreme contrasts in texture characterize this Adagio, mixing creamy Debussy-esque chord streams with lonely solo musings and abrupt multi-string pizzicati, as if the flow of musical thought were coming apart at the seams.

All is saved, however, in a last movement of impressive vigour and real exuberance, the longest movement of the quartet. Typical of Shostakovich, this finale reviews the themes and dramatic gestures from previous movements, including the murmuring running figures, the emphatic pizzicati, and the ‘Lone Ranger’ theme. It culminates in a mighty fugue and a long, exhilarating march to its final, punchy proclamation in unison of the one motive that has dominated this work from start to finish: the filled-in minor third.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet in E minor  Op. 44 No. 2

Mendelssohn wrote in a neo-Classical style that prized simplicity and directness of expression in clear transparent textures and balanced formal structures, effortlessly enriched with Baroque-style counterpoint. In the age of Liszt he seemed to be channelling Mozart. And yet his credentials as a Romantic composer were considerable. Lyricism came naturally to him and he had a real gift for pathos.

Unique amongst composers of the post-Beethoven generation, Mendelssohn seemed unperturbed by the challenge of integrating the Romantic notion of music as feeling, an emotion to be experienced, into the logical structure of the Classical sonata, with its conception of music as idea, to be analyzed and processed. All of these qualities are on full display in his four-movement Quartet in E minor Op. 44 No. 2, composed in 1837.

Its opening Allegro assai appassionato balances the emotional states of brooding restlessness and welcome repose. It opens with a panting accompaniment supporting an arching theme that travels up the E minor triad and down again, ending with a sigh motive. Many have noted the resemblance between this theme and opening of the Violin Concerto in the same key that he was to write the following year. The second theme, in a sunny G major, is based on the rhythmic profile of the first, using many of its motives as well, especially the sigh motive. This equivalence is made explicit when the E minor first theme reappears, dressed in the happier G major tonality, near the end of the exposition. For Mendelssohn, then, the contrast expected in sonata-form between first and second themes is represented by the contrast between minor and major. It is the psychological contrast, in feeling and emotion, between tone colours, not between thematically distinct musical materials.

The two theme siblings are then developed using the classic devices of the Classical era: modulation, fragmentation and close imitation. And the recapitulation, which arrives with the infinite subtlety and nuance of a morning sunrise, holds only one surprise in store: its quiet ending.

The fleet and light-stepping scherzo is so associated with the Mendelssohn brand that such movements by other composers are often called ‘Mendelssohnian’. And in this quartet the composer in this second movement does not disappoint. The defining gesture, or ‘hook’ of this movement (to use the jargon of popular music) is the feathery shiver of repeated notes with which it begins. Spicy features of this scherzo are Mendelssohn’s delirious use of cross-rhythms, hemiola, and even a hint of fugato. Once again turning Classical forms to Romantic use, Mendelssohn creates no separate ‘trio’ to contrast with the animated motion of the scherzo, preferring instead to grab moments of occasional lyrical relief on the fly at various points in the movement’s trajectory.

What follows is not the classic slow movement but rather an Andante, very similar in style to one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for piano. With his indication nicht schleppend in the score, Mendelssohn warns against “schlepping” in the tempo, lest the movement’s dignified lyricism devolve into mere sentimentality and smarminess. To keep things moving along, he provides a constant ripple of 16th-note figuration in the accompaniment beneath the soaring melody line, which is projected almost exclusively by the first violin.

The sonata-rondo finale is remarkable for its driving energy and integration of disparate musical materials into a continuous flow by means of flawless transitions and motivic linkages. Mendelssohn’s ability to communicate urgency without panic, and breeziness without flippancy, allows him to construct in this movement a panorama of interconnected moods, all loyal to the same overarching rhythm.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Doric String Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin

Jean Sibelius
Quartet in D minor  Op. 56  Voces Intimae

Sibelius’ Quartet in D minor was completed in 1909 and has five movements, symmetrically arranged in an arch form around the lyrical third-movement Adagio, with scherzos on either side separating it from the opening movement and finale.

The name Voces Intimae derives from a Latin inscription (meaning “intimate voices”) written in the composer’s hand above three mysterious repeated chords in the manuscript of the lyrical slow movement. And indeed, the whole quartet seems like one long conversation between inner voices, given how much motivic material the movements share between them.

The work opens with a short duet between violin and cello that affirms the work’s allegiance to the simple D minor scale. When all four instruments join together they introduce at the top of their first phrase an important musical motive: a single step up, followed by a downward leap of a 4th. This motive will dominate the development section in the middle of the movement and is emphatically proclaimed in its closing bars. Another melodic pattern repeated throughout the entire quartet comes in the movement’s second theme, a short skip up and down the scale with a dotted rhythm.

Sibelius’ slivery coolness of affect in this movement results from his constant use of running scale passages, often in all four voices simultaneously. His ideas are mostly presented linearly, in contrapuntal lines that often move together in the same note values, rather than in the standard texture of foreground melody with supporting background harmony. Block chords in this movement are reserved for special moments of emphasis that separate phrases or formal sections.

The brief second movement follows without a break and its tone is that of a Mendelssohnian scherzo that transforms the principal motives from the preceding movement into a feathery moto perpetuo of pulsing string tremolo, either scurrying along in unison like the string lines that open the famous finale of his Fifth Symphony, or richocheting acrobatically through sonic space.

The emotional heart of this quartet arrives in its third movement Adagio, structured around the alternation of two themes in contrasting tone colours—one major, the other minor. It is during the first appearance of the minor-mode theme that we hear the three mysterious chords that have given this quartet its nickname. Abandoning the contrapuntal ‘coolness’ of previous movements, Sibelius allows the first violin to pour its heart out in a series of tender melodic lines pleading for resolution, their sense of yearning reinforced by sigh motives and sobbing syncopations.

If the first scherzo in this quartet owes much to Mendelssohn, the second, in the fourth movement, is more indebted to Brahms in its seriousness of tone, Spartan texture and rhythmic heft. The heavy-footed plodding of its simple folk-like theme is occasionally relieved by mysterious strands of minuet-like melody that stand out against the murmuring whispers of running lines in the inner voices.

The concluding rondo finale begins with considerable swagger as punchy phrases, rocking back and forth with off-beat accents, echo through the texture. A new theme of small range is then announced by the viola over a bouncing-bow accompaniment and put up for discussion between all instruments. As the alternation between opening refrain and intervening episodes proceeds, a moto perpetuo dynamic takes over, turning the last half of the movement into an accelerando of steadily increasing momentum. Small fragments of melody pop up from time to time to plead their case against the onslaught of 16th-note patter, but to no avail. This movement drives relentlessly to its conclusion with an energy that even Rossini would envy.

 

Antonín Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major  Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonín Dvořák’s ethnically flavoured but artfully crafted music. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the language of music was rapidly changing, Dvořák offered a range of aesthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era: formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality, devoid of the chromatic ambiguities and slip-sliding harmonic drift that made Wagner’s music so disorienting for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s love of the exotic with his soulful melodies tinged with the tang and bite of village life, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies. And performers loved him, too, for his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings that made every piece ‘speak’ well in the concert hall.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are to be found in his Piano Quintet in A major, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which along with Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.

The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in a sunny A major, it soon dips into the minor mode before yielding to a restless, more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This urge to develop themes straight out of the gate is a particularly Brahmsian touch (the F Minor Quintet begins with such contrasts) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody are presented before a second theme, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola. This second theme is then folded into yet another utterly scrumptious blend of piano and string sonority. Dvořák’s inventiveness is limitless, his textures like cookie dough for the ears.

The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability that impels it into a glorious recapitulation of the opening theme, led by the piano. The movement is crowned by an extended coda with its own propulsive energy that drives headlong to its conclusion.

In place of a slow movement, Dvořák gives us a ‘thoughtful’ one. The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought,’ and the pensive, lonely little opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A-C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488, also in F♯ minor.

In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.

Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a spiffy opening refrain theme and a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.

Given its demonstrated mood-brightening effect on concert audiences, this movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a replacement for prescription antidepressants.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Fugue No. 16 in G minor BWV 861 (arr. Förster)

If you have ever happened to see one of those cooking shows in which a chef is challenged to create an entire meal—appetizer, entrée and dessert—out of a minimum of ingredients (an ox-tail, say, and a banana) then you are well on your way to understanding the recipe for cooking up a Baroque fugue.

The aim of a fugue is to create an entire polyphonic composition out of only two melodies, either stated in their entirety or broken up into bits and pieces. These two melodies—the fugue’s subject and countersubject—are presented first in staggered entries, in the manner of a round. The subject enters first alone before being accompanied in subsequent entries by the countersubject. And then it’s off to the races in an alternating pattern of entries (where the subject is stated whole) and episodes (in which the bits and pieces are chewed over), roaming around in different keys. Somewhere near the end there is usually a stretto section, in which the conversation gets so lively that one voice can hardly get started before another voice interrupts to say the same thing, much in the manner of lively Italian dinner conversation.

Cleverness and ingenuity are built into the DNA of fugue-writing and Bach certainly did not stint on either in the construction of his Fugue in G minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). Witness the manner in which Bach constructs his fugue subject in two contrasting parts: a first part with semitone steps on either side of a downward-leaping minor 6th, then a second part comprised of a few notes running up and down in smooth stepwise motion. The countersubject (here is the cunning bit) is the same, but in reverse order and inverted: a few notes running down and up followed by a variant of an upward-leaping minor 6th motive. Bach’s subject generates its own countersubject—in the mirror!

The odd thing about this four-voice fugue is that the texture only rarely features all four voices playing at once—likely in order to make the dramatic leap of a minor 6th stand out more easily in a work written for keyboard. German composer Alban Förster (1849-1916), who arranged this fugue for string quartet, might have other ideas, however, about leaving one member of a quartet filing his nails while the others do all the heavy lifting.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

Mendelssohn was not your typical Romantic-era composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for imitative counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.

As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed in kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.

The String Quartet in A minor Op. 13 was composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin—admittedly, not a crowded field. Its frequent use of fugal textures attests to the young composer’s admiration for Bach while numerous formal features, especially its cyclical design and recall of themes from earlier movements, point to the influence of Beethoven—the late string quartets and Ninth Symphony in particular.

The first movement opens with an endearing Adagio full of short coy phrases which lead to a repeated three-note motive (C# B D) derived from one of Mendelssohn’s own songs (Frage Op. 9 No. 1). This motive will recur throughout the entire quartet, either in its dotted rhythm or in its melodic contour stretching over a minor 3rd. Lyrical repose, however, is in short supply in the remainder of the first movement. The Allegro vivace that follows the introductory Adagio is a restless affair that offers up two anxious little themes, both set in a minor key.

But “anxiety” is a relative term. In Beethoven it summons up the panicky feeling that you’re swimming just slightly ahead of a shark—that’s gaining on you. Mendelssohnian anxiety, by contrast, is more like not knowing where you put the car keys.

Imitative counterpoint is pervasive in this movement, not just as a “spot technique” to add intensity to the development section à la Mozart and Haydn, but even in the initial presentation of the movement’s themes.

Fireside coziness arrives in the Adagio non lento with its serene and elegiac melody in the 1st violin,  drenched in tearful sigh motives. These sigh motives, chromatically inflected, then become the basis for the full-on fugue that follows—an obvious hommage to a similar fugue in the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 95. Clever lad that he is, young Felix even inverts his fugue subject before returning to the poised serenity of the opening.

In place of a scherzo, Mendelssohn gives us a relaxed and unbuttoned intermezzo. The tune that begins the movement is of the utmost simplicity, one that uses the same catchy rhythm four times in a row, without somehow becoming tiresome. In the middle section trio, however, Mendelssohn returns to type with a fleet and light-footed romp of detached 16ths lightly peppered with repeated notes. And who could resist combining these two contrasting sections in the movement’s final bars? Certainly not Mendelssohn.

High drama marks the opening to the Presto finale, with a flamboyant and wide-ranging recitative in the 1st violin holding forth over melodramatic tremolos below. The reference to the finale of the Ninth Symphony is obvious but this opening is even more closely patterned on the last movement of Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op. 132 (next on the program). The troubled theme that emerges is similar in mood, as well, to the rocking main theme of Beethoven’s Op. 132 finale. Pacing back and forth in tonal space over a harmonically restless cello line it eventually issues into a cross-country horse-gallop before “remembering” the fugue subject from the second movement in a series of flashbacks. The work closes with the same lyrical Adagio with which it opened, framing the quartet’s inner drama as a gently fading memory.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132

Beethoven’s late string quartets are at one and the same time backward-looking, progressive, and even visionary works. The fascination he entertained in his last years for densely contrapuntal textures and the arcane procedures of canon and fugue harkened back to the Baroque era. His expansion of the number of movements in a serious work, along with innovations in the formal design of each movement, moved well beyond the norm of Classical-era practice. And his use of increasingly numerous, increasingly precise performance markings, along with his abrupt dynamic and tempo changes, bespoke a type of music that moved at the pace of human thought, in response to the impulses of an individual personality, offering a foretaste of the Romantic movement to come.

All these traits are on display in his Quartet in A minor Op. 132, composed in 1825.

The quartet unfolds in five movements instead of the usual four, arranged symmetrically around a central slow movement. The work opens with a slow introduction fixated on the overlapping entries of a four-note fugue-like subject in long notes that does more than simply set up the off-to-the-races arrival of the movement’s first theme, announced by the cello high in the soprano register. Pay attention to these opening bars: the long notes of this theme, and the intervals out of which it is constructed (especially the descending semitone), will haunt the entire first movement with the magisterial authority of a Baroque fugue subject in augmentation hovering over melodic motion in smaller note values.

Audience members enjoying a double espresso at the intermission will undoubtedly notice the similarity between the theme of this slow introduction and the subject of the Bach fugue which began the program: both are structured around the leap of a minor 6th with semitone motion on either side. Those opting instead for a Red Bull will in addition notice the similarity between the principal motive of Beethoven’s first theme—stepwise motion up and down over a minor 3rd—and the Bach fugue’s countersubject. Devilishly clever programming on the part of these Danish lads, what?

Despite the frequently grave demeanour of its contrapuntal rhetoric, this movement is anything but down-in-the-mouth. On the whole it is bursting with self-confidence—of a somewhat volatile sort—and offers up a good measure of animated instrumental dialogue. Its lyrical second theme, for example, arriving in the 2nd violin over a somewhat loopy accompaniment in undulating triplets, is eminently hummable.

The second movement is not a standard scherzo, but rather an eccentrically mincing minuet and trio. It’s a minuet that thinks it’s a scherzo, though, in the way it tosses short phrases and small motivic fragments back and forth, cleverly manipulated to create a fair bit of metrical “wobble” in the ear. The middle-section Trio is part musette, with a drone in the bass supporting wispy musings in the high treble, and part oom-pah-thumping village dance.

Beethoven reveals the inspiration for his slow movement in its titling: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy song of a convalescent to the Deity, in the lydian mode). The ‘convalescence’ referred to is the composer’s welcome deliverance in 1825 from a painful intestinal condition that had plagued him for some time. This extraordinarily long movement is structured in alternating sections of pious prayer and joyful deliverance as the composer moves from Heaven-directed thoughts of gratitude to buoyant feelings of corporeal invigoration.

The movement opens solemnly, in the manner of a hymn, with overlapping entries in strict imitation. The antiquarian religious feel of this opening is enhanced by its being written in one of the old church modes. (The lydian mode is simply the F major scale with B natural instead of B flat.)  This is followed by a section entitled Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling new strength) and what a change in mood this is! Leaping octaves and sprightly trills sonically attest to the composer’s bright new outlook on life until thoughts of his indebtedness to the Almighty return. Each subsequent appearance of these alternating sections is a more florid variation of the previous until the movement ends in the celestial regions of each instrument’s highest register.

The 4th movement brings us back down to earth with a short rollicking little march, even more metrically ambiguous than the previous minuet. But then, as if an opera character had just rushed on stage with dramatic news, the 1st violin erupts into a declamatory recitative (like that in the finale of the Ninth Symphony) over a fretting bed of tremolo strings below.

The theme that emerges out of all this theatrical drama to begin the quartet’s last movement is surprisingly subdued. Wistful but restless, serene but strangely urgent, its gently rippling texture reminds us of Brahms. A rip-roaring development section follows, with plenty of contrapuntal interplay, but then, as in many a Beethoven final movement, minor turns to major, trouble turns to triumph, and the same musical motives that caused all that brow-knitting at the beginning of the movement become, in the end, a cause for joyous celebration.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: Chiaroscuro Quartet and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor  (“Death & the Maiden”)

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is a sombre work, with all four of its movements set in a minor key. It takes its name from the composer’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) that provides the theme for the quartet’s slow movement, a set of variations. The poem’s depiction of Death coming to claim a young life may well have had personal resonance for the 27-year-old Schubert since in 1824, when this quartet was written, symptoms of the disease that would kill him four years later had already begun to appear.

Despite the despairing back-story, or perhaps because of it, the first movement of this quartet is unusually muscular in its scoring, thick with double-stop accompaniment patterns and punchy triple- and quadruple-stop chords at important cadences. This orchestral quality is evident from the startling salvo of string sound that opens the work, comparable in its dramatic abruptness to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fanfare-like call to attention announces the serious tone of the movement while at the same time introducing the descending triplet figure that will be the principal motive of its first theme, presented immediately following. The other important motive dominating the movement arrives in the work’s second theme: a small grouping of notes ending in a lilting dotted rhythm, lovingly offered up in thirds, Viennese-style.

Schubert’s treatment of these two motives in this movement displays his more ‘relaxed’ notion of the structural principles underlying classical sonata form. While composers in the era of Mozart and Haydn considered their key choices and modulation patterns to be the harmonic pillars and load-bearing walls of a sonata-form movement’s musical architecture, Schubert, by contrast, was more interested in interior decorating than structural engineering. Rejecting sonata form’s traditional concentration on just two tonal centres – the home key presented at the outset and its alternate, presented in the second theme – he preferred to spin his tonal colour wheel more freely so as to choose just the right tonal accent for this little motive here, and the right tonal shade to paint that broad thematic space there.

While not ignoring the form’s three-part division into exposition, development and recapitulation, Schubert lets this pattern out at the seams to create a more vibrant palette of harmonic possibilities. The tonal drama that interests him happens at a moment-by-moment pace, riding forward on waves of harmonic colour. The triplets that appear so portentous as the movement opens, when cast in different tonal colours, becomes a daisy-sniffing walk-in-the-park hummable tune. And the lilting dotted-rhythm motive, so gracious at its first appearance, becomes worrisome when constantly repeated in the minor mode.

Schubert’s treatment of his musical material in the following slow movement is much more regular and formally proportioned. The theme for this movement’s set of variations is in two parts, each repeated. The first is a direct quotation of the piano introduction to the Death and the Maiden lied, with its plodding funeral-march rhythm and mournful repetition of melody notes evoking the sorrow that death brings. The second part maintains the processional rhythm but is more hopeful, ending in the major mode to reflect the lied text’s depiction of death as the Great Comforter. Most of the variations decorate the theme with an elegant application of melodic embroidery in the first violin. But the third variation breaks this pattern with its frightening acceleration of the theme’s processional rhythm, a pacing that some have compared to the galloping of Death’s horse.  

The Allegro molto scherzo is of a rough Beethovenian stamp, predicated on the play of small repeated motives, frequent syncopations, and sudden contrasts between piano and forte. Its Trio middle section is a gently swaying Ländler that counts as one of the few moments of sustained lyrical repose in this quartet.

The rondo finale, marked Presto, is a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory emotional states. Alternating between the driving vehemence of its tarantella refrain in the minor mode and the almost celebratory spirit of its major-mode episodes, this movement is bound together by its boundless energy alone, an energy that seems to transcend major-minor distinctions. Witness its whirlwind coda, that clearly signals an intention to end the work in the major mode only to switch back to the minor for its last hurrah, yet with no loss of breathless exuberance.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restlessness mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major  K 414

Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a fortepiano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.

The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.  

Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show.  Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement but more importantly, as in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.

Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch.  Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.

The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it presents—four in the orchestral exposition alone.  The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall.  The development section, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra.  Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.

The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), youngest son of J. S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J. C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute.  And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.

The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure.  The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repetitive motive of three notes descending by step.  When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra! Filled with thrills and spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: DANISH STRING QUARTET

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4

In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of home entertainment in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.

And so at the end of the 1790s, when Beethoven decided to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.

The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from that of its siblings. The ‘brat’ of the pack is No. 4, the String Quartet in C minor, an eccentric work, by turns moody, mocking, musing and manic.

Its pulse stays at the upper range of the human heartbeat, with nothing slower than a stately Andante in its four characterful movements. There is no slow movement at all, no moment of lyrical repose amid the onrush of musical ideas. More eccentric still, there is both a scherzo and a minuet (normally the former replaces the latter), and even these seem to be cross-dressing, conflicted as they are over their ‘genre identity’.

Beethoven writing in the key of C minor is always a wild ride and the opening movement of this quartet does not disappoint. Just like the first-movement Allegro of the Pathétique piano sonata (also in C minor), it begins in a state of anxiety, with a pulsating pedal tone in the bass lending melodramatic urgency to a series of rising musical gestures above. All this breathless urgency seems justified when these opening phrases issue into a series of brutally direct triple-stop chords, like a SWAT team knocking down a door. The second theme is more sociable, borrowing the wide melodic leaps of the first theme and serving them up as “happy hops” in a sociable duet format with lots of countermelody interest. But the downward emotional pull of the movement as a whole drags even this happier theme into a minor-mode vortex of alarm and anxiety in the development section.

The inner movements, a scherzo and a minuet, seem confused as to which one is which. The scherzo proceeds at the dainty, mincing pace of a minuet while the minuet has the serious driving energy of a scherzo, complete with its trademark rhythmic quirks such as syncopation, hemiola, and off-beat accents. But there is more than a whiff of Beethoven’s teacher Haydn in the scherzo, especially in its mechanical-clock regularity of rhythm. So perhaps the ‘joke’ is the compositional overkill of having such a light movement begin with an academically impeccable triad-and-scale-based fugato. Indeed, this movement may well have been written more for the delight of its performers rather than for its listeners, since such a learned texture would provide ample excuse for collegial ‘eyebrow theatre’ and an amused exchange of knowing glances between the players.

The Minuetto, by contrast, is a fast-paced brooding affair, about as dance-like as a roller derby, and with many of the same elbow-spikes built into its rhythmic texture. It does, however, take a tea break in its Trio to toss a simple triadic figure back and forth between the instruments.

The last movement rondo begins at a frenetic pace, its Hungarian-tinged refrain theme terminating, like the rondo theme of the Pathétique Sonata, in a series of shoulder-poking repeated notes. Providing the rondo ‘filling’ between its appearances are a broad, stately theme in longer note values and a mischievous series of scurrying triplet figures. Despite the intense race-to-the-finish mood of the coda, it is these whimsical little triplet figures that are loudly proclaimed in the work’s last bars. Beethoven’s parting witticism is that since all four instruments play this motive together in unison, we have no idea whether the movement ends on a major or minor chord!

MUSIC FROM THE NORDIC COUNTRIES

Folk music is the music of all the small places. It is the local music, but as such it is also the music of everywhere and everyone. Like rivers, the melodies and dances have flowed from region to region: Whenever a fiddler stumbled on a melody, he would play it and make it his own before passing it on. You don’t own a folk tune, you simply borrow it for a while.

In 2013 we borrowed and arranged a bunch of Nordic folk tunes on a recording that we called Wood Works. This album created quite some stir and has been featured on concert stages all over the world, on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, and even as the soundtrack in Starbucks coffee shops. Now we have decided to embark on yet another journey through the rich world of Nordic folk melodies, and have recorded and released ‘Last Leaf’ – another album of traditional music from the Nordic countries, the Faroe and Shetland Islands.

The Danish String Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 74 No. 10 (“Harp”)

Beethoven’s buoyant and good-natured “Harp” quartet of 1809 gets its name from the unusually prominent use of pizzicato in its first movement. Structured in the standard four-movement pattern, it features a sonata-form first movement with slow introduction, a songful slow movement, and a whirlwind scherzo connected without a break to a theme-and-variations finale.

The slow introduction that opens the work generates a sense of mystery and suspense by inching forward in a searching series of tentative, short phrases, the quizzical nature of which is answered from time to time by more resolute chordal exclamations. In the Allegro that follows, the movement’s first theme is announced with a broken triad, a motive destined to be much bandied about in the pizzicato sections to come. The easy-breathing lyrical melody that follows sets the tone for the movement’s carefree mood. The first pizzicato episode leads us to the exuberant second theme, full of scurrying runs and busy-work figurations. As the movement proceeds, it gathers ever more momentum, becoming almost festive by the end of the exposition, and the development section does nothing to spoil the party atmosphere. Rather than a stern cross-examination of these themes, it prefers to celebrate them, in whole and in part, with very little modulatory drama or fretting in the minor mode. It ends with one of the movement’s most unusual instrumental effects, a gradual written-out accelerando that begins in pizzicato and switches to arco just before plunging into the recapitulation. An even more compelling special effect is the rapid-fire cross-string figuration of the first violin, that breaks away from the pack in the coda to imagine itself a concerto soloist, until it is escorted gently back down to earth by the other instruments.

The second movement Adagio ma non troppo is a lyrical rondo with an expansive cantabile refrain melody in the major mode that recurs in ever more embellished form after diversions into minor-mode territory. Almost Mendelssohnian in its fireside warmth and coziness, this is some of Beethoven’s tenderest music.

The scherzo Presto that follows is a jittery jaunt through motivic territory that combines daredevil leaps and stepwise cross-chatter. The repeated notes in its opening section are a twitchy caffeine-soaked version of the ‘knocking door’ motive in the Fifth Symphony’s third-movement scherzo. Fast-paced as this Presto opening section is, its trio section, marked Più presto quasi prestissimo, is even faster. And like the Fifth Symphony, as well, instead of letting his scherzo off-leash to drive to its headlong conclusion, Beethoven tapers it down at the end, ever softer, to graft it into his finale.

This final movement offers up a polite and well-behaved theme, divided up into cutesy bite-sized phrase groupings, each straddling the bar-line in the style of a gavotte. The theme is then followed by six variations, mostly chummy ensemble tributes to the theme’s underlying harmonies, but the second and fifth showcase the viola and first violin, respectively, in solo roles. A whirlwind coda rushes towards a triumphant finish but at the last moment Beethoven pulls it up short to simply blow out the candles on this quartet with two light puffs of chordal harmony.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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: CASTALIAN STRING QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5

Having recently returned from his hugely successful visits to England and been liberated from financial woes, Haydn composed a set of six String Quartets, Op. 76 which were commissioned by Hungarian Count, Joseph Erdödy in 1797. Deviating from more traditional forms and establishing a new treatment of thematic material, these innovative features secured their place amongst his most ambitious chamber works. While employed under the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy II, his relatively light duties allowed him to compose multiple works, including the ever-popular Creation oratorio, published in 1799. Not only was this an intensification of his prior achievements, the added weight, character, and instant successes also ensured the resulting “Erdödy” quartets were considered a triumph.

The opening Allegretto, an elegant and dignified dance in triple time, is a typically Haydnian movement flourishing entirely out of a single melody. Serenity is soon lost, however, as a fiery outburst in D minor using rapidly furious scalar runs creates a desire for the unknown with a delightfully energetic coda in faster tempo that ends the movement. The tenderness of the largo in the remote key of F Sharp minor ensues with a particularly prominent singing and mournful nature. The lack of open strings results in an ethereal sound with both the cello and viola taking prominent melancholic solo roles before the opening theme returns. The minuet and trio is perhaps more mysterious and insecure, with duplet figures constantly disrupting the expected triple time. The cello opens the trio with grumbling scale material aplenty concealing deep secrets before an opening of light occurs as all parts join in homophony. Followed by the unbounded joy of a turbulent folk scene, the finale has the character of bagpipe music as the open fifths in the accompaniment allow each part takes their turn to gallop into the limelight. Its rapid pace and jagged phrasing makes it particularly challenging to pull off; however, its outright declamatory nature ensures the quartet ends on a high.

Gabriel Fauré
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

The sole string quartet of Gabriel Fauré, completed shortly before his death, was composed in the summer of 1923. Keeping the work under wraps, wary of his declining health and uninvited comparisons to great composers of the past, Fauré wrote to his wife from Annecy-le-Vieux, Savoy admitting “I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!” Trained in the formal tradition of counterpoint since the age of 9, it is perhaps unsurprising that the work owes much to the weight of tradition while also incorporating youthful creativity that he perhaps so craved as he neared the end of his life.

The viola’s rising opening phrase answered by the first violin sets the tone for the Allegro with lamenting and contouring lines interacting in a form of ebb and flow ending in exhaustion. Although the tonality often feels murky, the defined sonata form provides structure as the development section proposes a more concise and contrapuntal construction with the viola once again having a particularly eloquent role. The central Andante (the most extensive movement) is contemplative, comprised of rising chromatic scales that simultaneously radiate youthful curiosity but also a sense of nostalgia. The owing melody is accompanied by pulsating quavers that eventually lead to individual parts emerging before sinking back into the reweaving of previous material. With the Allegro, the combined function of scherzo, as well as finale, is clear. The angular theme is introduced in the cello over a pizzicato accompaniment flitting between duple and triple beat divisions as a serenade and dance. Eventually reaching a jubilant E major conclusion, the work casts a distinct view of life and love regarded as a true representative of the composer himself as he seeks a quiet but profound farewell to life.

Robert Schumann
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1

Dedicated to his dear friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn, the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1 was composed in the space of a few weeks during the summer of 1842. A man of habit during his most productive periods, Schumann’s intense focus on a single genre at a time notably led to the composition of over 150 songs in 1840, which were succeeded by several large-orchestral works merely a year later. In that so-called chamber-music year of 1842, alongside the three quartets of Op. 41, he also wrote a piano quintet, a piano quartet and a set of Fantasy Pieces for Piano Trio inspired by the works of the masters before him: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. While Schumann’s string quartets are less frequently programmed, they have often been cited as the ‘missing links’ between the quartets of Mendelssohn and Brahms, a testament to his unique gifts as a composer.

As one of the finest contributions to the genre, the first quartet of Op. 41 begins in A minor, using falling motifs engaged in imitative counterpoint at every turn, wrought in anguish and sorrow. The curling lines are eventually unravelled breaking into a sunny Allegro in 6/8 and the submediant key of F major. A sense of rhythmic simplicity and classical restraint is finely nuanced before the galloping scherzo follows, vividly contrasting in character. Szforzando accents are abundant, immediately suggesting Mendelssohn- inspired sprightliness combined with fiery passion. The trio is in the major mode providing some lyrical contrast in a more genteel character. The divine theme of the Adagio follows, bringing together notions of idealised romance and lust particularly as the cello acquires the melody accompanied by pizzicato violins. However, the elegant sentiment is soon lost as the Presto plunges into forceful abandon, surging towards the unexpected interlude in A major. Quickly cast aside, the deluge of mighty textural celebration returns drawing the work to a finale of legendary proportions.

Program notes © Jessica Bryden

 

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