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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: Z.E.N. Trio

Franz Schubert
Notturno in E-flat major  Op. 148

Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments.

Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. With the resolute character of a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.

The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.

Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.

What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944).  Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

 

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published  it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so, the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.

There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.

It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting and the reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.

The Intermède tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes. The opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.

The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic lines in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, with an arts establishment beholden to the official ideology of socialist realism, the spiky modernisms that we associate with this nerdy, thickly bespectacled composer were not his bread and butter. What paid the bills was his work for the Soviet Union’s mammoth film industry, about three dozen film scores in all, selections of which he entrusted to his friend Lev Atovmian (1901-1973) to arrange for concert performance in order to supplement his income in those periods when he was officially in disfavour.

5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano is simple popular music meant for entertainment. The opening Prelude, with its searingly lyrical violin lines in parallel 6ths and 10ths, inflected from time to time with flecks of Neapolitan (flat-II) harmony, suggests the warmth and sentimentality of Brahms’ Vienna.

The square phrasing and gently persistent pulse of the Gavotte evokes a feeling of simple but relaxed jollity. Elegy returns to the warmth of the Viennese café, unfolding in a series of sighs, with even a little dialogue between the violins.

The sad little Waltz in G minor is a restless affair that rises to surprising heights of passion in its short duration. The concluding Polka is a rollicking village romp full of breathless phrases and stomping cadences that would be perfect music for a carnival ride.

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

Marc-André Hamelin is a brilliant throwback to the 19th century, the age of the virtuoso pianist-composer. As a pianist he is known for his performances of the often devilishly-difficult keyboard works of now-neglected composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji and Samuil Feinberg (whose Sonata No. 4 in E flat minor he performed at the Chan Centre for the VRS in 2018). As a composer his own additions to the keyboard repertoire have included his set of piano etudes in all the minor keys, and his Toccata on ‘L’Homme armé’, which was the required test piece, played by all 30 competitors, at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His Reverie for Two Violins and Piano comes fresh from his pen this summer and he sends us these notes about this new piece:

“This short work owes its existence to a dream which its dedicatee Leila Getz, the soul behind the Vancouver Recital Society, had one night. She emailed me one day saying she’d experienced a vision in which Angela Cheng and the Chooi brothers were performing a piece I’d written. I’d be giving a lot away if I described her dream in any more detail, since the way the resulting piece unfolds is, let’s say, not quite traditional…

The work is simply an attempt at a direct translation of Leila’s dream, trying to imagine what the performing situation Leila described would yield musically. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to try to imagine what Leila heard in her sleep!”

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

You may not know the music of Cécile Chaminade but Queen Victoria did, and invited her to Windsor Castle in 1892 to hear more of it. Chaminade had a successful career as a performing pianist both in Europe and in the United States. Sheet music of her smaller works sold extremely well on both continents, and even spawned the creation of numerous Chaminade Musical Clubs in the US. In 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French nation.

So why isn’t she better remembered?

Her career difficulties were, in the academic jargon of gender studies, intersectional. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, she was French in a music world dominated by Germans, and she was a composer of salon music in an era dominated by musical revolutionaries.

“Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace,” bleated one critic after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1908, “but it is amazingly superficial … While women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.”

To look down one’s nose at salon music—as her critics did—was to look down one’s nose at the middle-class—which her critics also did. But snobbishness aside, there is no mistaking her gifts as a melodist and as a composer for the keyboard.

Her Thème varié Op. 89, first published in 1898, is not a formal set of variations but rather a continuous retelling of two attractively harmonized melodic ideas set in increasingly more involved keyboard textures, culminating in a kind of ‘three-handed effect’ with a trilled pedal point sounding out in the mid-range between the two hands, a texture famously used by Beethoven in the finales of his Waldstein and Op. 111 sonatas, and by Tchaikovsky in the first movement cadenza of his B-flat minor concerto.

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels. (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program notes: Andrew Tyson

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key – from which they would depart, and to which they would return – and that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed from a root, a third and a fifth, at a minimum. The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric, as is evident in his Sonata Op. 1, published in 1910.

This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. Its principal melodic motives however, presented in its opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the successive intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, spanning a minor 7th in a dotted rhythm, announced in the opening bar, and (b) a falling sequence of thirds, in the next bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.

And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.

What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.

Francis Poulenc
Napoli Suite FP 40

The aesthetic attribute most prized by the French is that utterly indefinable quality known as ‘charm’. Among its leading proponents among 20th-century composers is Francis Poulenc, whose picture-postcard piano suite Napoli whimsically evokes the seaside pleasures, the serene beauty and urban bustle of Italian life as seen through the lens of an urbane French tourist in Naples.

The opening Barcarolle imitates the rocking of a small boat lapped by the choppy waves of the sea. Its left-hand triplets of widely-spaced sonorities are pedalled into blurry billows of watery wetness while cross-rhythms in the right add an extra element of wobble to its cheery melodic flow.

The middle-movement Nocturne is all stillness and moonlight, with open sonorities sounding out across a wide swathe of the keyboard over a stabilizing pedal tone in the bass, interrupted only by melancholy musings of a sharper harmonic colouring in its central section.

The Caprice italien that ends the suite is a virtuoso tour de force modelled, according to the composer, after Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Poulenc’s capricious finale, like its model, alternates chatty, slightly manic sections of moto perpetuo animation with more lyrical moments of reflection. The lyrical section at the centre of this movement is almost melancholy, its sudden outpouring of sentiment after so much cheekiness balancing precariously on the knife-edge of parody. Given that Poulenc’s night haunts included music halls and gay bars, might we not be hearing here the teasingly intimate stage confessions of a drag-queen Marlene Dietrich on a stool in net stockings with a cigar?

Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2
Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52   

Chopin was of mixed Polish and French parentage. He spent the first half of his life, up to the age of 20, in Poland. The last half of his life, until his death at 39, was spent in France. It should be no surprise, then, that his musical style is a similar cross-breeding of French elegance and Slavic soulfulness. His nocturnes, with their intimate songful melodies, breathe the perfumed air of the Parisian salon. The exotic scales and displaced accents of his mazurkas, by contrast, convey more the flavour of his native soil.

Fundamental to an appreciation of Chopin’s music is the recognition that he was a composer of small pieces to be performed in small spaces. While Liszt filled concert halls with his Freddy-Mercury-sized ego, Chopin wrote exquisite miniatures directed towards a select audience of aristocratic patrons playing or listening to his music in the comfort of their more-than-comfortable homes. In his entire career he gave no more than 70 public performances, and even at these the complaint was frequent heard that his playing was too soft to fill the hall. His is music of refined sentiment and nuance, to be heard close-up.

*                      *                      *

The opening section of his Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 in the sugary key of F-sharp major features a melody with the languidly falling sighs and ecstatic leaps up to the high register of an opera diva singing Bellini. A major challenge for the pianist in this section is how to incorporate Chopin’s delicate dribbling ornamentation into the melodic line without disrupting the poised unfolding of the melody itself. The middle section in doppio movimento (double movement) introduces an element of drama, with its insistently repeated dotted figures atop a rippling accompaniment of quintuplets, symbolizing the quickening heartbeat of an anxious soul. The return of the innocent opening material then seems to ask: was it all a dream?

There is an Eastern, Oriental flavour in the tonal realm occupied by the brief, melancholy Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2. The wincing bite of its opening melodic interval, a dissonant minor 9th, is further elaborated in the bittersweet chromatic wanderings of a plaintive melody constantly hovering between major and minor.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3 is haunted by wistful remembrance, symbolized at its opening by pedal tones in the mid-range held over several bars while dancelike harmonies echo eerily around on either side. These memories of the dance become more forceful and assertive in the mazurka’s middle section before the opening mood of pensive reflection returns.

*                      *                      *

Chopin’s Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of story-telling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842-43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems to reign unperturbed but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones heard in the opening carry real pathos, and are made more plangent and urgent when repeated with a countermelody in the alto.

The 2nd theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the 1st theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then … magic! The bell tones of introduction return and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.

But the 1st theme’s lament intrudes on the daydream, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The 2nd theme follows, but it, too, finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until … magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.

Five angelic chords descend from Heaven but cannot stem for long the coda’s hellbent fury, a fury that drives the work to its apocalyptic conclusion with bitter and tragic resolve.

Franz Liszt
Les Cloches de Genève

The three collections of piano pieces entitled Années de Pélerinage represent Liszt’s poetic response to the cultural landmarks and picturesque natural settings of the places he lived in or visited in his travels throughout Europe. The idea of ‘pilgrimage’ (pélerinage) in the title is a literary reference to Goethe’s famous Wilhelm Meister novels in which a young protagonist embarks on a spiritual quest to ‘find himself’ through his wanderings. That Liszt should present his life experience as ‘literature’ should be no surprise, given that he presented his concerts as ‘poetry’ – having invented the term ‘recital’ for his solo public appearances.

The first book of Années de Pélerinage is devoted to Switzerland, where Liszt lived in the mid-1830s with his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The last piece in the collection, Les Cloches de Genève (The Bells of Geneva) is dedicated to his daughter Blandine, born to the Countess in Geneva in 1835. The work is a classic piece of Lisztian musical pictorialism.

Subtitled Nocturne, it opens in the stillness of the evening with a distant carillon of bells that then gently transforms into the rocking accompaniment of a tender lullaby in honour of the newborn baby girl.

The work progresses in a series of ingenious keyboard textures imitative of first the chiming, then the sonorous ringing, and finally the hefty swaying of bell-towers and churches throughout the city. It ends poetically with a return to the innocent bell sounds with which it began, their sonic resonance fading softly into the distance.

Maurice Ravel
Miroirs

Ravel was a member of an avant-garde coterie of musicians, writers and visual artists who jocularly called themselves Les Apaches, Parisian argot for “ruffians” or “hooligans”. Between 1904 and 1905 he composed Miroirs, a suite of five pieces, each describing “in a mirror,” as it were, a fellow member of the club. While the connection with individual personalities is unclear (and may even have been fanciful), these pieces remain among the most pictorially vivid—and technically challenging—in the piano repertoire.

Ravel vividly depicts the irregular flight of night moths in the first piece of the set, Noctuelles, which opens with a busy blur of chromatic flutter extending over vast swathes of the keyboard but centring on the upper range. The unpredictability of the moths’ flight is depicted in phrases of uneven length that rev up out of the blue in rapid-onset crescendos, with brief silences punctuating the succession of sweeping phrase gestures. The moths seem to settle on some object of mothy interest in the slower-paced central section, but soon lose interest and flit back to life in the closing section.

Ravel described Oiseaux tristes as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” As the piece opens we hear one solitary bird, singing alone, but soon joined by others. Fauré describes the texture as follows: “Fundamentally Ravel set store by the player bringing out two levels: the birdcalls with their rapid arabesques on a higher, slightly strident level and the suffocating, sombre atmosphere of the forest on a lower level which is rather heavy and veiled in pedal without much movement.”

Une Barque sur l’océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.

Alborada del gracioso is a satirical portrait of a character from Spanish theatre, the crude and clownish gracioso, the equivalent of Beaumarchais’ Figaro but a touch more malevolent and mischievous. He is pictured singing an alborado, or morning serenade. The strumming of the guitar and distinctive punchy rhythms of Spanish folk music permeate this work. This is the most ‘pianistic’ piece in the set. Among the technical challenges keeping pianists practising after midnight are extended passages in rapid-fire repeated notes and double glissandi in 3rds and 4ths played by the right hand alone.

The suite ends with La Vallée des cloches, a multi-layered sonic depiction of the lingering overtones of bell tones hovering in the air. Sonorities based on 4ths and 5ths evoke the muffled metallic resonance that drifts in every direction as bell-clappers in towers near and far strike their target.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

Program Notes: Jonathan Roozeman

Luigi Boccherini
Sonata in A major G 4

Luigi Boccherini was perhaps the greatest cellist of the 18th century, and like his compatriot of a previous generation, Domenico Scarlatti, he spent the most active portion of his professional life at the court of Spain. His royal patron, the Spanish Infante Don Luis Antonio, younger brother of King Carlos III, was a music-loving prince with his own string quartet. The addition of Boccherini to this ensemble was likely the creative prompt for the more than 100 string quintets – in the unusual configuration of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos – for which he is principally known.

A cellist of extraordinary technical skill, Boccherini, like Paganini after him, wrote for his own hand and acquired a reputation as a virtuoso performer through performances of his own works. One feature of his playing that astonished his contemporaries was his predilection for playing the violin repertoire, at pitch, on the cello, and indeed passages in which the cello plays in the high register are a recurring feature of his own scores.

His musical style stands at the intersection of two eras: floridly ornamental in the late Baroque manner, but early Classical in its slow harmonic rhythm and clear periodic phrasing, with direct repetition of short phrases a prominent characteristic.

The opening Adagio of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major displays well the style of ornamentation for which he was well known. Its gracious but relatively unadventurous melodic lines are set within an elaborate filigree of appoggiaturas, trills and flamboyant scalar flourishes. An ascending arpeggio in the penultimate bar nearly sends the cellist off the fingerboard to reach a high E above the treble staff.

The following Allegro demonstrates Boccherini’s ability to create an entire movement out of the repetition of small phrases and fragmentary motives. His habit of slurring phrases from a weak beat to a strong gives his music a gentle gracefulness that has even been called “effeminate,” a quality noticeable, as well, in the insistent sigh motives of the concluding Affettuoso. It is no wonder, then, that the good-natured charm of his works led to his being called “Haydn’s wife.”

Claude Debussy
Nocturne and Scherzo

Debussy made his first public appearance as a composer in 1882 in a performance of his Nocturne et Scherzo, a work originally scored for violin and piano but later that year revised for cello. This work of his student years was performed only once and then vanished from the public record until the manuscript was rediscovered in the early 1970s and Mstislav Rostropovich gave it a ‘second debut’.

It is comprised of two sections, arranged in a rounded three-part A-B-A form. Despite the titling, the scherzo is actually the first section, imprinted throughout with the 2nd-beat emphasis and drone tones of a mazurka. The second section is the dreamy nocturne, that in its lilting rhythms seems to evoke the nostalgia of a gentle waltz more than the stillness of the night.

Claude Debussy
Sonata in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme, tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by—or superimposed with—long strands of lyrical melody.

Jean Sibelius
Romance Op. 78 No. 2
Malinconia Op. 20

Sibelius, though best known today for his symphonies and Violin Concerto, could not live off these large-scale works alone. And so it was that during The Great War (1914-1918) he composed a set of four pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78, expressly directly at the domestic market. These were simple tuneful pieces intended for amateur performance in the home.

The second of this set, simply entitled Romance, soon became one of his most popular compositions, and this work has remained a staple of both the violin and cello repertoires. The wistful carefree character of its eminently hummable melody encapsulates the period’s nostalgia for an age of parlour music that would soon slip away into memory.

*                      *                      *

In February of 1900 the typhus epidemic that was sweeping through Finland claimed the life of Sibelius’ 15-month-old daughter Kirsti. From the pain of this event came a work shortly thereafter for cello and piano entitled Malinconia (Melancholy), a work in which the composer allowed himself to grieve.

The cello recitative with which it opens struggles upward, step by weary step, to arrive at an anguished cry of grief. In response, the piano rips up and down the keyboard as if to paint the flailing of pleading arms in the wind.

Each instrument is given extended solo cadenzas that exploit the extremes of their range. When playing together, they often play apart: the piano in syncopated pulses of bewilderment deep in the bass against the cello’s wailing melody in the mid-range. Or they quiver at each other in turn, in passages of sustained tremolo. French composer Eric Tanguy has deemed this work “utterly unique in the entire literature of music for cello and piano.”

Franz Schubert
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D 821

Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871, long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.

The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.

The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.

The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: FILIPPO GORINI

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

Béla Bartók
Sonata Sz. 80

In 1926 Bartók’s musical style took a ‘Bachian’ turn towards more clearly polyphonic textures. His Sonata from that year presents us with three movements in two distinct character profiles. The opening and closing movements are bold, direct and massively self-confident, characterized by driving energy and a machine-like sense of rhythm. The slow middle movement, by contrast, is unremittingly bleak, filled with dull, aching dissonances that audience members who have experienced dental surgery may find triggering.

The first movement opens with a motive comprised of a short skip and a series of hammered repeated notes, reminiscent of the striding pulse of the last of Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka. Stravinskian, as well, is the sonic resonance ringing out clearly from the well-spaced chords that accompany this stomping, hammering pulse throughout the movement. Bartók doesn’t really present us with ‘themes’ as such, but rather short motivic cells that are continually varied, and frequently subject to hemiola effects as they shift in alignment, rhythmically, with respect to the bar line. This is a very athletic movement, with many sudden changes of register, including passages in which the right hand leaps across the left in order to punch out notes deep in the bass.

If repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity, then the opening 6 bars of Bartók’s 2nd movement—featuring an A-flat-E-flat-F chord in the left hand, repeatedly set against a jarring E natural in the right—are clear cause for concern. This movement is bafflingly dissonant. Textured in uncompromisingly gritty 3-voice counterpoint that plods foreword at a relentless quarter-note pace, it offers little to orient the ear in its tangled texture of semitones and minor 9ths: only occasional reminders of the opening harmonic sound-salad and a fixation on rising scale figures. Even the abruptness of its final cadence, normally a place of emotional resolution and rhetorical disarmament, comes as a shock to the nervous system.

The monothematic final movement is by comparison a pleasant jog in the park. Its principal concern is a jaunty little folk tune of a pentatonic stamp announced at the outset. The melodic outline of this ditty—a gapped space of five tones down, then back up—gives it the air of a sea shanty, but the more it gets varied with repetition the more it starts to sound like “Good King Wenceslas”. Despite its constant changes in time signature between 3/8, 2/4 and a very Stravinskian 1/4, this movement manages nonetheless to come off as a real toe-tapper.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Klavierstück IX

The 20th century witnessed the development of new approaches to thinking about the sounds that make up what we call ‘music’. The 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg spawned the serialist movement, dominated by a search to create new formal structures for music organized around ‘series’ (i.e. fixed patterns) of pitch, dynamics, timbre and other properties of sound. And then, beginning in the 1950s, sounds never heard before by human ears, artificial sounds created electronically, were admitted into the composer’s toolkit.

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the centre of all these developments, producing works based on the newly developed structural principles, and utilizing the new sound palettes that had been discovered. Through this work he quickly became the public face of avant-garde contemporary music—so famous, in fact, that he is featured in the crowd of faces on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (fifth from the left, in the back row).

The 19 works that Stockhausen composed with the title Klavierstücke (keyboard pieces) between 1954 and 2003 embody some of his most important ideas about how music can be internally organized, and the sound gestures that can form part of it. The ninth piece in this series, Klavierstücke IX completed in 1961, is one of his best-known piano works.

This work presents many challenges to the uninitiated, as the parameters of music that we are used to identifying—harmony, melody and rhythm—are not hierarchically deployed in the way that we take for granted in ‘traditional’ music. But a listener coming to this music for the first time should not be overly concerned with its ‘geometric’ dimensions—for example, with how the rhythmic proportions throughout the piece are organized by the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (etc.) in which each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Nor try to count how many times the dissonant four-note chord that opens the work is played in the first (shall we say) ‘phrase’, and how many times in the second. (It’s 139 and 87, for those who like to keep track).

Analytically-oriented listeners might attempt to follow the two main ideas in the piece that alternate in dialogue: the opening four-note chord repeated at varying speeds and dynamic levels, and a slowly rising chromatic scale. But committed admirers of impressionism will want to just set their minds free, close their eyes, and imaginatively listen to the sounds emanating from the stage as if they were the soundtrack to a movie, asking themselves as they listen: what kind of movie is this?

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly struggle and spiritual transcendence—framed in terms of the raw elemental building blocks of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness, a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity. Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The 2nd subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration accompanying the variation theme. The 3rd variation arrives at degree of elation that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.

It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until is transmuted, finally, into the essence of the divine.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV

Richard Wagner
Isolde’s Liebestod arr. Franz Liszt

The 19th century in Europe was an age in which psychological states went mainstream in the arts, becoming a particularly powerful stimulus for musical expression. A new genre, the nocturne, for example, captured that eerie feeling of being alone with one’s lyrical thoughts at a still point in the night. Other constellations of feelings and moods were captured in the era’s invention of new “character pieces” such as impromptus, rhapsodies and moments musicaux.

No 19th-century composer went further in marshalling the resources of musical expression into direct and compelling proxies for emotional experience than Richard Wagner. And none of his operas exhibit a more focused concentration on one single emotion, romantic love, than Tristan and Isolde (1859).

Wagner’s opera tells the tale of Isolde, an Irish princess promised in marriage to the King of Cornwall who, on her way over to be married, falls in love with his nephew Tristan after they drink a love potion together. Tristan’s death in consequence of this betrayal sets up the final scene of the opera, the Liebestod (“love-death”) scene, in which Isolde, standing over Tristan’s dead body, commemorates him rapturously by imagining their passion and his death as a single indissoluble unity.

Wagner vividly brings to life the insistent quality of the emotion of love through his use of the same phrases, repeated over and over again in a continuous chain of chromatic harmonies which seem to open up new vistas of experience with each occurrence. The feeling of yearning and love-longing is so tellingly conveyed by the use of suspensions and delayed resolutions that it is hard not to feel like an adolescent again while listening.

Liszt lavishly layered his transcription with tremolos to evoke the fine gradations of orchestral colour in Wagner’s score, and thickened the keyboard texture with a machine-gun spray of repeated chords to convey the massive impact of a full orchestral tutti. These techniques inevitably raise questions of musical taste, and it is the performing pianist’s challenge – as it always is when playing Liszt – to avoid suggesting the kitschy excesses of staged melodrama or silent-film music.

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor

“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.

The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.

Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.

The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.

The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.

In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.

Sergei Prokofiev
10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op. 75

Prokofiev completed his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and by all accounts this was not a good year to be a Soviet musician. It wasn’t the low pay or difficult working conditions that were top-of-mind for most, but rather the risk of being dragged from their homes and executed by firing squad. Comrade Stalin, you see, was getting grumpy and his Great Purge (1936-1938) had begun.

Plans to produce the ballet had to be cancelled, due to its association with a theatre director who had been purged. So in 1937, as friends and neighbours were randomly disappearing from the apartment block where he lived, Prokofiev moved to salvage his ballet by fashioning a number of suites from the score, including one for piano entitled 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, which he performed in public that year and published as his Op. 75. His strategy worked. Performances of the suites, both for orchestra and for piano solo, sparked interest in mounting productions of the complete ballet, which began in 1938, and Romeo and Juliet went on to become one of the composer’s most successful works.

In creating a version for piano, Prokofiev was coming full circle, as the original score had been composed for piano first, and then orchestrated. These pieces, then, are not mere orchestral reductions, but pianistically conceived scene paintings with the hands of the virtuoso pianist in mind. In keeping with its role as music for dance performance, the tonal language is relatively simple, in parts reminiscent of the clear textures of his ‘Classical’ Symphony in D (1917). Also present in abundance are Prokofiev’s trademark quirks: quicksilver diversions to remote keys, melody notes that land one note off from where you expect them to go, and his classic “off-road” harmonic wanderings within phrases that always somehow manage to find their way back home just in time for the final cadence.

The suite begins with two dance movements in a popular vein that introduce us to the moods and manners of the common folk of fair Verona, where the composer sets his scene. The carefree opening Folk Dance gets its ‘folkiness’ from its simple two-voice texture and the drone-like elements in its bass line. The following Scene: The Street Awakens is simpler still, its chipper mood guaranteed by the steady pulse of its prancing accompaniment.

We then go indoors for the arrival of guests to the Capulet ball. The opening Minuet theme is ceremonially repeated as new guests arrive, alternating with more flowing passages as each new arrival wanders in to inspect the room.

Juliet as a Young Girl sees our 14-year-old heroine playfully scampering around her room as she gets dressed, incessantly fussed over by her Nurse. Moments of tenderness intervene when she catches sight of her own beautiful self in the mirror.

The heavy pulse, eccentric tone clusters, and fractured harmonies of Masks alerts us to the fact that Romeo and his best mate Mercutio are crashing the party. The widely-spaced arpeggiated chords in the left hand of this piece are a major test of the pianist’s agility and endurance.

Romeo and Juliet meet and dance together for the first time in the most famous and recognizable piece from this ballet, the dance of the Montagues and Capulets. Ominous, elegant, seductive and sinister, this music sums up the entire dramatic conflict of the ballet’s storyline.

This is followed by the calm and soothing reassurances of Friar Laurence, whose quiet dignity and seriousness of purpose is conveyed in the steady deliberate pace of his music portrait.

Mercutio, by contrast, is portrayed as whimsical, brash and self-confident, almost to the point of recklessness. The amount of wide-ranging keyboard scamper in this piece tells us that here is a guy who runs with scissors.

The Dance of Girls with Lilies shows us Juliet’s girlfriends, who have come to wake her up on the day she is to be married to Paris, the husband her family has chosen for her. The recurring minor harmonies in this piece hint that there is something wrong, something unstated but slightly creepy, about her situation.

The finale is an affectionate look back at Romeo and Juliet before Parting after they have spent the night together. Their drowsiness as they are awoken by the rising sun is conveyed by the static harmonies and chiming pedal tone of the opening. A mood of blissful nostalgia hovers over this piece to bring the suite to a close on a note of romantic reverie.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: ZOLTÁN FEJÉRVÁRI

Robert Schumann
Waldszenen Op. 82

It is not by chance that Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the founding work of German musical Romanticism, is set in a forest. Nor is it a coincidence that German Romantic poets from Ludwig Tieck to Joseph von Eichendorff and Heinrich Heine extolled the deep spiritual joys of Waldeinsamkeit: ‘alone time’ in a forest.

The Germans, you see, have a thing for forests. In the Teutonic imagination, a forest is a place of primordial re-connection with the restful, wondrous, and sometimes thrillingly spooky elements of Nature, all of which Robert Schumann sets before us in the nine character pieces of his Forest Scenes Op. 82, composed in 1849.

Unfolding as a series of intimate scenes, the set begins with our entry (Eintritt) into a cool and shadow-dappled tree world of murmuring forest sounds, out of which emerges a simple tune suitable for humming, its asymmetrical phrasing evoking the moment-by-moment wandering gaze of the forest stroller.

This idyllic daydream is interrupted by the urgent horn calls and intermittent rifle-fire of Jäger auf der Lauer (hunters lying in wait) who break out into the open to pursue their prey, with echoes of the furious triplets from Schubert’s Erlkönig conveying the excitement of the chase.

The two ‘flower’ pieces that follow are starkly contrasting. The naively simple Einsame Blumen (lonely flowers) proceeds in a gentle, continuous flow of 8th-note melody with a phrase structure as teasingly irregular as that of the opening Eintritt. The eerie double-dotted rhythms of Verrufene Stelle (haunted places) convey the macabre scene described in a poem by Friedrich Hebbel that stands at the head of this piece, describing a dark red flower that draws its colour from earth that has drunk human blood. The Schumann’s wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, refused to play this piece in public, describing it as “haunted music.”

A mood of unfettered delight returns in the rippling triplets and evenly balanced 4-bar phrases of Freundliche Landschaft (friendly landscape) while the comforts of a warm fire and comfy chair are evoked in Herberge (the inn). There is a forthright, almost ‘churchy’ self-confidence in this hymn to hostelry that makes it a perfect representation of Biedermeier coziness.

The most famous piece in the cycle is Vogel als Prophet (bird as prophet), a brilliant piece of sound painting that imitates the flitting of wings as a bird darts from tree to tree. In its chorale-like middle section it sanctifies the mystical powers of aviary prophecy.

There is a triumphal quality to the following Jagdlied (hunting song) that is reminiscent of the finale of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op. 13. The hunters in question are obviously in an upbeat mood, returning home with full sacks of game and anticipating the feast to come.

In his song-like farewell (Abschied) to the forest’s flora and fauna Schumann returns to the reflective mood with which the cycle began, enriched, however by numerous references to the melodies and keyboard textures featured in previous scenes.

Leoš Janáček
In the Mists

Janacek’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music, as is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism à la Debussy, but an impressionism filtered through Czech ears.

The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetition of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato. A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of the melancholy opening material.

The varied repetition of a 4-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.

The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure. It ends, however, exactly as it began.

The 4th movement, Presto, with its many changes of metre, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.

Béla Bartók
Out of Doors

In Bartók’s Out of Doors suite of 1926, the sound world of Hungarian village life is projected through a thick lens of aesthetic primitivism in which rhythm and melody alone engage the ear. Traditional harmony, dependent on chord spacing that parallels the layout of the overtone series, has no place in keyboard textures so richly encrusted with tone clusters and bristling with dissonances.

Radical simplification is the modus operandi of these textures. Rhythm is often reduced to a steady beat or ostinato, providing a background pulse to an irregular overlay of melodic fragments of small range and short duration. Notes repeated on the same pitch are a major constituent element in both background and foreground layers of sound. This is chunky, ‘Lego’ music built up from simple rough-hewn elements, but assembled in patterns of considerable sophistication.

The opening With Drums and Pipes divides the piano into two distinct registers. In the deep bass, a loud stuttering volley of sounds, both muffled and clearly-pitched, represents an echoing pair of drums while the mid-range offers up the pipes (i.e., low wind instruments) in a similar imitative interplay of overlapping short motives.

The Barcarolla features the same continuous 8th-note motion, but in a constantly wandering two-voice texture that imitates the rocking motion of a Venetian gondola, over which a plaintive gondolier’s melody struggles to be heard.

The creak and skirl of village bagpipes is portrayed with astonishing accuracy in Musettes, with quicksilver trill figures representing the typical ornamentation patterns of traditional pipe-playing. The questionable tuning of these instruments is conveyed through pungently dissonant drone patterns in the bass.

A heightened awareness of stillness in the night is the principal characteristic of The Night’s Music, with its tightly-packed tone clusters imitative of the eerie nocturnal musings of crickets, cicadas and frogs.

The suite closes with The Chase, a toccata-like romp over hill and dale with a furiously churning ostinato in the left hand that surely must count among the most extreme technical challenges of Bartók’s entire piano output.

Robert Schumann
Fantasie in C major Op. 17

Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasie Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenaged daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wieck. The Fantasie’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in its mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).

That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a ‘grand sonata’ in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”

The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.

The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.

Schumann’s three-movement ‘sonata’ was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: SIR SIMON KEENLYSIDE

Johannes Brahms
Songs from Opp. 6, 72, 86 & 96

It may be surprising to learn that while Brahms is universally revered as a giant of 19th-century instrumental music, he is often listed as one of the lesser composers of 19th-century art song. This may be because the texts he chose to set were for the most part not those of the great German poets. It may also be because he was loathe to indulge in the type of word-painting that Schubert had established so effectively as a major dramatic feature of the Lied (art song) genre.

But Brahms was strongly of the view that truly great poetry had no need of music, and so he chose lesser works that his musical ideas could more easily illuminate. His musical ideal in vocal music remained the simple German folk song with one general mood, subtly varied in response to the meaning of the text. A major role in creating that mood was the piano accompaniment, as illustrated in the songs chosen by Sir Simon.

In Nachtigallen schwingen (Nightingales beat their wings) the twitter and rustling of birds is picturesquely sounded out in the piano’s chattering triplets that create an animated aural backdrop to the singer’s identification with them as he walks through the forest.

Even more vivid is the piano’s depiction of the ebb and flow of waves breaking and foaming on the shore in Verzagen (Despair).

The piano conveys the tramp-tramp-tramping of footsteps over heathery terrain in Über die Heide (Over the heather) while its gentle drowsy pulse and saturated harmonies evoke the mood of Brahms’ famous lullaby in O kühler Wald (O cool forest).

An unusual and slightly eerie alternation between major and minor captures the ear immediately in the piano introduction to Nachtwandler (Sleepwalker). It almost sounds like a mistake, but conveys brilliantly the floating psychological state of the somnambulist.

A more playful interaction between piano and singer characterizes the last song in the set, Es schauen die Blumen (The flowers gaze), in which the piano plays the role of supportive sidekick, often echoing the vocal line back to the singer, as if to say: “Hear, hear. Well said.”

Francis Poulenc
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire

Francis Poulenc was absolutely besotted with the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), originator of the terms cubism and surrealism. Apollinaire’s manner of constructing the fantastical ‘word salads’ of his poems finds its musical equivalent in the way that Poulenc composed these four settings of Apollinaire poems in 1931. Poulenc would compose isolated phrases individually, and then assemble them together as a kind of cubist collage.

The result is a kaleidoscopically colourful mix of sometimes comical non-sequiturs depicting with twinkling irony and dreamy nostalgia the somewhat louche demi-monde of society in which the composer thrived, and into which he threw himself with gay (in all senses) abandon. A pose of restrained elegance, however, keeps the aesthetic pose well this side of ‘camp’.

L’Aiguille (The eel) is a valse-musette that, in the composer’s words, “evokes the atmosphere of a shady hotel, with a rhythm inspired by little steps in felt shoes, and should be touching.

Carte postale is dedicated to Madame Cole Porter and strikes a tone of amorous mockery.

The last two works in the collection, Avant le cinema and 1904, are patter songs that rely on the straight face of the singer for their wit to come across at just the right voltage.

Francis Poulenc
Suite Française for piano

In 1935 Poulenc was commissioned to write incidental music for Edouard Bourdet’s play La Reine Margot about Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), wife of Henri de Navarre (1553-1601), later crowned Henri IV of France. To get the right period feel for his music, Poulenc plundered the Livre de danceries of 16th-century French composer Claude Gervaise, whose dances he rewrote in a modern neo-classical style for chamber orchestra, much as Stravinsky had done with the music of Pergolesi for the ballet Pulcinella. A piano version of this incidental music to La Reine Margot came out in the same year under the title Suite Française.

Like Stravinsky, Poulenc mostly kept the four-square phrasing, simple repetitive rhythms and modal harmonies of the original scores, creating variety by setting various sections for different choirs of instruments within the orchestra – a feature mimicked in the piano version. The modern sound of Poulenc’s score comes from his austerely sonorous, widely-spaced chord figurations, replete with 7ths and 9ths, as well as many acerbic ‘wrong-note’ harmonies.

The dances vary in mood, with the lively bransles, fanfare-like Petite marche militaire and celebratory Carillon alternating with the more serene and wistful Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne.



Francis Poulenc
Le travail du peintre


Poulenc was a keen and enthusiastic observer of visual art. In the journal he kept on a visit to the United States he wrote enthusiastically about the paintings that captured his attention at the museums he visited. The idea of writing a song cycle about 20th-century painters that he admired first came to him after the publication in 1948 of Voir, an anthology of his friend Paul Eluard’s poems about the painters in his life. Eluard was also an art lover and an avid collector, who owned works by all the painters included in the song cycle that Poulenc eventually composed almost a decade later as settings of Eluard’s poems. Le Travail du peintre (The work of the painter) was commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty, who gave the first performances of the song cycle in 1957 in Paris with the composer at the piano.

Poulenc’s settings are more a reaction to Eluard’s poems than a direct appreciation of the painters they set out musically to describe. Pablo Picasso is iron-willed, filled with invincible energy. The playful fantasy and dreamlike mischief of Marc Chagall is captured in what Poulenc called a “rambling scherzo.” Georges Braque is fondly remembered for his aquatints and etchings of birds in flight, imitated with the zesty chirping of bird sounds in the piano. The carefully composed cubist constructions of Juan Gris find their correlative in the balanced phrases of the song composed in his honour. Paul Klee receives short shrift in a quick song having little, it seems, with the painter’s actual work but inserted because of a need for contrast in the cycle as a whole.

The song devoted to Juan Miró seems fixated on that painter’s treatment of the sky. And finally, Jacques Villon, pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp (brother of the more famous Marcel) is memorialized in a litany of phrases that Poulenc sets with an even, regular pacing as a timeless contemplation of eternal human values.

Franz Schubert
Selected Lieder

Schubert is credited with single-handedly transforming the German Lied from its status as a form of home entertainment mostly cultivated by amateurs, and largely ignored by serious composers, into a worthy vehicle for artistic expression at the highest level. Not a bad item on your resumé if you were a mere teenager, as Schubert was when in 1815 at the age of 17 he composed his first epoch-making lieder, Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade.

What distinguished Schubert’s contributions to the genre was the way in which he brought the full range of musical resources – harmony, texture and declamatory style – to bear on the expression of the poetic text, as the selections on Mr. Keenlyside’s program amply demonstrate.

Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem Liebesbotschaft (Message of Love) asks the burbling brook, ably represented by the cheerfully flowing figuration of the piano, to take his message of love downstream where his beloved lies daydreaming at the river’s edge.

Alinde is another song combing water imagery and the theme of love’s yearning. Its gently rocking barcarolle rhythm in 6/8 time represents both the lapping of waves at the water’s edge and the lover’s impatience as he waits for his beloved to arrive. An endearing, almost cutesy touch is provided by the small run-up ornaments in the piano.

Standchen (Serenade) is a song drawn from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. In the scene in which it appears none-too-bright Cloten has crept into the bedroom of Imogen, who lies sleeping, to sing her this artless song with the hope that she will awake, arise, and make him happy in the way that only a young woman in nightclothes can. Cloten’s doltish overestimation of his chances in this regard is underlined by harmonies based on pedal tones and a naively upbeat rhythmic pattern in the piano.

Pity the budding epic poet in An die Leier (To the Lyre) whose musical sidekick, his lyre, has a mind of its own and will only let him sing love songs. Anxious calls to war are conveyed in clangorous dotted rhythms of diminished 7th chords out of which sweet dominant 7ths always seem to emerge to send the music in a more amorous direction.

In Nachtstück (Night Piece) an old man slowly walks into the forest at the close of day to commune with nature and consider his own approaching death. The opening introduction depicts his slow measured gait but more consoling music intervenes when he considers the rest that death will bring.

Similar thoughts on the impermanence of human life motivate An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (To the Moon on an Autumn Night), a quasi-operatic solo aria, complete with recitative, bound together by a recurring ritornello in the piano. The constant presence of the moon shining down on the singer is evoked by the piano’s frequent echoing of the vocal line.

Herbstlied (Autumn Song) is Schubert’s tip of the hat to the lads and lasses who bring in the harvest. Folksong-like in the simplicity of its melody and its structuring in balanced phrases, it has an almost Handelian sense of quiet dignity and restful lyricism.

The last song in Sir Simon’s selection of Schubert songs is Abschied (Farewell) from the Schwanengesang song collection. This parting song is remarkable for its complete absence of melancholy. The singer is obviously leaving on his own terms and happy to do so. We can just see him, trotting away from town on horseback, the prancing hoof-steps of his mount picturesquely painted in the staccato articulations of the piano accompaniment.

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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