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Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay.  Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin.  It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies.  These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C.  The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than he began with.

 

Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana  Op. 16

Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented for Robert Schumann the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fictional writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.

Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work is comprised of contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.

Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.

Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.

Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the 5th movement and fugato in the 7th, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.

But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.

 

Franz Liszt
Berceuse in D-flat major  S.174 (2nd version)

Liszt wrote the first version of his Berceuse in 1854 and a revised second version, the one most often played, in 1863. His modelling was quite evidently Chopin’s own Berceuse Op. 57. Both works are written in D-flat major, and consist of ever-more-complex variations on a simple four-bar theme unfolding over a repeated tonic pedal note in the bass.

But the differences between the two works are as striking as their similarities. Chopin’s Berceuse is impersonally atmospheric, the glimmer of its ornamental filigree and colourful dissonances always subordinate to the music-box monotony of its dominant-over-tonic-pedal harmony. Liszt’s harmonies, while still maintaining the tonic pedal, are more wide-ranging, and his manner of expression more individualistic and personal, with frequent fermatas interrupting the musical flow, recitatives giving voice to spontaneous dramatic asides, and cadenzas drawing attention to the poetic soul and virtuoso credentials of the performing musician.

In a work that whispers along at a dynamic level of mostly pp and ppp, a work replete with ‘shushing’ warnings to play dolcissimo, smorzando and perdendo, the principal challenge for the pianist is finding the right scale of dynamics at which to project Liszt’s drama-filled sleepy-time musings with real conviction.

 

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor  S.178

“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.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Schumann Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis

Gabriel Fauré
Dolly Suite  Op. 56

In the 1890s Gabriel Fauré would often compose or revise small pieces for the infant daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac (1862-1934). These affectionate pieces celebrated a birthday, a pet, or a special person in the life of the young Regina-Hélène, known in the family as “Dolly,” and six of them from the years 1893 to 1896 form the suite for piano duet named after her.

In keeping with their pose of childlike naïveté, the texture of these pieces is music-box light, with little exploration of the lower reaches of the keyboard, but Fauré’s classic qualities are in evidence on every page of the score: refinement of musical gesture, a watery transparency of harmony, and that indefinable French attribute known as charm.

Berceuse marks Dolly’s first birthday in 1893 with a dreamy lullaby. A cozy mood of slumbering repose is created by drone tones in the bass and a cradle-rocking accompaniment.

Dolly’s brother Raoul is commemorated in Mi-a-ou, an approximation of how the young girl pronounced Messieu Aoul. A rambunctious melody with constantly shifting accents describes the restless energy of the young boy.

Le Jardin de Dolly evokes the calm of the perfect garden as a young girl might imagine it, her childlike delight in what she sees symbolized by frequent modulations.

Kitty-valse paints the playful character of the household dog, whose tail-wagging ramblings through the house are gently parodied as a ‘waltz’ of canine choreography.

Tendresse explores the concept of “tenderness” through a very personal lens of introspection, using the lyrical but highly chromatic language used in Fauré’s Nocturnes and other ‘adult’ pieces.

The suite ends with Le Pas espagnol, a tribute to the castanet-clicking sounds and heel-stomping dance rhythms of Spain.

 

Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Piano Duet

The young Francis Poulenc was a naughty boy, a very naughty boy indeed, who dared to inject the musical styles of jazz, cabaret and other popular music genres into ‘serious’ composition. As the gay son of a wealthy family, he roamed freely among the more louche enclaves of Parisian nightlife, picking up a taste for the type of devilish wit and stylish parody that we would probably associate with drag shows today.

Poulenc was still in his late teens when he composed his three-movement Sonata for Piano Duet, a work both serious and anything but. Its modest dimensions and simple presentation of musical ideas qualify it as a miniature sonata at best, so the ‘sonata’ label is likely applied tongue-in-cheek. It does, however, engage seriously with the new trend of musical primitivism introduced by Stravinsky, who in fact was something of a mentor to the young Poulenc and used his influence to get him a publisher for this work.

Stravinsky’s influence is amply apparent in the barbarous repetitive rhythms that open the first movement Prélude, and the lyrical (or at least whistleable) melodies inhabiting the middle section of this movement could have come straight out of Shrovetide Fair.

Most Stravinskian of all is Poulenc’s use of small melodic phrases, usually five notes in range or less, both as the repeating units of an ostinato pattern, or in creating the larger phrase structure of a foreground melody.

The second movement, entitled Rustique, is especially interesting from this point of view. Its simultaneous use of similar melodic material in both 8th-note and 16th-note figuration patterns is reminiscent of the fractal-type layered textures of Balinese gamelan music.

The Final, while still rhythmically propelled, is not quite so static in its use of ‘wallpaper’ patterns of rhythm and melody.  It employs a wider variety of rhythms, and in a nod to (or dig at) Classical tradition, recalls themes from previous movements and seems set to build up momentum for a bang-up finish. But in a gesture of cabaret cheekiness, Poulenc turns on a dime and closes out the movement with a smokey jazz chord as if to say: “Gotcha!”

 

Claude Debussy
Six Épigraphes antiques

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to generate enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality, he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—poems that featured lines such as: I undressed to climb a tree, my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897. Debussy also wrote incidental music for a dramatic reading of the poems that took place in 1901, reusing much of this material in 1914 when composing his similarly themed Six Épigraphes antiques for piano duet.

In each of the six pieces in this set Debussy meditates on a wish, a prayer or a dedication such as those found in the epigraphs on the walls of ancient buildings or tombs.

He begins with a description of pastoral life in the ancient world by invoking Pan, god of the summer wind, who is heard playing his pan pipes as the piece opens. Used throughout is the pentatonic scale, neither major nor minor, symbolizing the call of the natural world.

A quizzical whole-tone scale, however, is used to summon up the mystery surrounding a Tomb without a name, its anonymous occupant mourned by the chromatic descent of distant voices.

A wish That the night may be propitious paints the silence of the night, and the various creatures moving about within it, in a richly layered texture of ostinato patterns and animal calls.

A Dancer with cymbals then appears on the scene, her dainty steps and waving gestures imitated in graceful triplets while exuberant ornamentation conveys the sound of her instrument.

She is followed by the Egyptian woman, as dark and mysterious as the drone tones quietly drumming in the bass register. Sensuous, snaking lines of an oriental flavour, rich in augmented 2nds, accompany her lascivious movements.

The final epigraph expresses a wish To thank the morning rain. It features a delicate imitation of raindrops in a constant patter of 16th notes that only ceases when the the pan pipe melody that opened the work is recalled, marking the return of the sun.

 

Igor Stravinsky
Trois Pièces faciles

The neo-classical style that Stravinsky was to adopt after the Great War can already be seen taking shape in such works as his Three Easy Pieces for piano duet of 1914-1915.  In their stripped down, bare-bones textures and identification with established genres of European music—march, waltz and polka—they foreshadow the treatment that Stravinsky would soon apply to the music of Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella.  The March, in fact, seems to be a prototype of this procedure, based as it is on the old Irish folk melody The Blacksmith and his Son.

What Stravinsky does in these pieces, however, is closer to parody than to hommage, and closely resembles what the Cubist painters did in visual art by presenting conflicting ‘planes of perception’ simultaneously.

The genre of each piece is easily recognizable by its characteristic pulse and rhythmic style: the steady walking beat of the march, the lilt of the waltz, the hop-hop-hop of the polka. Layered on top of that, however, are melodies full of ‘wrong notes,’ melodies that often seem to be in another key.

Stravinsky had already used this polytonal effect before when he combined two key centres a tritone apart (F# major and C major) to create the famous Petrushka chord in his 1911 ballet of the same name. In these pieces, however, this picturesque ‘spot’ effect is transformed into a basic operating procedure.

The result is an exhilarating aural experience as prismatic shimmerings of tonal colour in the primo part are splashed over a mechanical and boringly repetitive accompaniment pattern in the secondo.

 

Maurice Ravel
Mother Goose Suite

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Doric String Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin

Jean Sibelius
Quartet in D minor  Op. 56  Voces Intimae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Antonín Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major  Op. 81

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Faust Queyras Melnikov Trio

Ludwig van Beethoven
Kakadu Variations in G major Op. 121a

Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations comprise an introduction and 10 variations on a popular theme from the Viennese stage. It has a compositional history that extends over more than two decades, with a first version of the work likely dating from around 1803. By 1816 Beethoven had had another look at it and enlarged the slow introduction considerably. Then finally, just before its publication in 1824, he added a spiffy fugal section to balance out the architecture by giving more weight to the final variation. Stylistically, then, this work is something of a three-layered musical cake, with contributions from his early, middle(ish) and late style periods.

The slow introduction is a dramatic set-up for the entrance of the variation theme, but at almost a third of the duration of the entire work, it certainly takes its time getting there. Filled with dynamic surprises, pregnant pauses, and echo effects, it projects a mood of mystery and expectation—one that is totally undercut, mind you, when the ditsy little main theme makes its anticlimactic arrival.

Ich bin der Schneider Wetz und Wetz (I am the tailor, whet and whet) was the hit tune from The Sisters from Prague, a popular stage work that debuted in Vienna in 1794. Its simplistic harmony and catchy melody—remarkably similar to that of Papageno’s aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s Magic Flute—made it instantly popular. Indeed, this aviary association may well account for its popular title Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (meaning cockatoo). Or perhaps it was just that in Viennese dialect Wetz und Wetz (imitating the repetitive actions of blade sharpening) had sexual connotations that made the phrase a bit too racy to perform in front of children.

The variations that follow this chipper melody are remarkable for the number of trio members going AWOL. Variation 1 is for piano alone. Variation 2 is performed by violin with piano accompaniment while the cellist files his nails, and Variation 3 is scored for cello and piano, allowing the violinist time to check her cell phone for e-mails. Variation 7 has no piano part at all: it is merely a string duo between violin and cello. Other variations, however, make up for this absenteeism with an abundance of lively three-part contrapuntal discussion. Variation 9 combines the customary minore variation with the traditional Adagio, harkening back in tone to the work’s slow introduction, but with a more sustained sense of Neapolitan-style pathos and lament.

All the more jolting, therefore, is the galumphing ‘Farmer John’ jollity that opens the last variation, a jollity that soon transforms, with little notice, into a full-on fugal exposition in the minor mode. Simplicity reigns in the end, however, as the strings and piano play cat-and-mouse with each other, trading scraps of the theme back and forth until it comes time to wrap things up with a rousing swirl of figuration in all instruments.

During the long gestation of this work, Beethoven remained true to the funhouse mood of the melody he was treating, but he could have had no idea of the extra chuckles he was unwittingly preparing for future listeners. An irregular distribution of smirks throughout the hall will identify audience members of a certain age who recognize at the end of Variation 4 an anticipatory reference to Monty Python’s I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No. 2

The first performance of Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No. 2 took place in Vienna at the home of Countess Marie Erdödy in December of 1808. The intimate setting of the work’s premiere and its dedication to the Countess herself may account for the gentle tone that characterizes its four movements. Notable in its formal layout is the lack of a deeply emotional slow movement, the inner core of the work being comprised instead of two allegrettos.

With its square symmetrical phrasing and decorative piano textures, the compositional style of this trio is distinctly ‘retro’, looking back to the period of Mozart and Haydn, with the formal procedures of Haydn, in particular, being an important point of reference.

The work opens with a slow introduction—a Haydn trademark—that demurely introduces each of the three instruments in turn. The triplet pulse of the following Allegro gives the two principal themes of the movement a mildly dancelike character, the first full of skips and hops but coyly inflected with little sigh motives, the second more flowing but with a waltz-like lilt that only gets more pronounced in the development section. A Haydnesque surprise awaits in the recapitulation when the piano’s sparkling forays into the keyboard’s highest register are interrupted by a sudden reprise of the slow introduction, setting the tone for the movement’s quiet close.

The Allegretto second movement is a set of double variations, a formal pattern much used by Haydn, in which variations of two contrasting themes alternate throughout the movement. Beethoven’s two themes are in contrasting tone colours, the first being in a primly demure C major, the second in a peasant-stomping C minor. Both, however, are united in their desire to hop away quickly from the downbeat, either with the ‘Scotch snap’ figure that opens the movement or with any number of variations of it that occur throughout.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the third movement Allegretto ma non troppo was by Schubert, not Beethoven. Its concentration on simple, singable melody, devoid of contrapuntal distraction, is what one would expect from a Schubert impromptu. But here, once again, Beethoven is looking back, not forward, with a melody taken from the Largo of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88.  A middle section featuring stark antiphonal responses between piano and strings prevents this honeyed melody from becoming cloying in the ear.

Beethoven ends his trio with an extroverted and chattery finale in sonata form, brimming with busy-bee scale motifs and a constant patter of bustling chuffa-chuffa accompaniment patterns. There is an almost Brahmsian weight to this movement that derives from the extraordinarily wide range of tone coming from the piano, which both plumps up the ensemble’s sonority with rich cushions of sound from the deepest reaches of the keyboard and sugar-coats it with ear-tickling sparkle in the highest register.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in B-flat major Op. 97  “Archduke”

Beethoven’s last piano trio, completed in 1811, is a monumental work dedicated to his longtime friend, patron, and only composition student, the Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), youngest son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Laid out in the conventional pattern of sonata-form first movement, scherzo and trio, lyrical slow movement and rondo finale, its extraordinary length allowed Beethoven to think musically at a symphonic scale in the traditionally more compact genre of chamber music.  It also permitted him the scope to engage in a sumptuous play of instrumental sonorities, writing the violin part unusually low, the cello line uncharacteristically high, and allowing the piano unfettered access to the sparkling upper reaches of the keyboard.

The work opens with a serene and relaxed piano melody based structurally around the B-flat major chord, a melody both noble and tender. This melody’s further elaboration by all three instruments reveals distinctively Beethovenian touches of dissonance in the harmony that add a countercurrent of ‘grittiness’ to the placid surface emotion being evoked. In contrast to the triadic first theme, the second theme is a prancing little pattern of repeated notes that soon mellows into a liquid flow of scale figures traded between instruments and the exposition ends with a flourish of fanfares and cadencing trills.

The development section, where drama and conflict is expected, is remarkably calm and lyrical, meditating at length over the opening motive of the movement before becoming obsessed with the second theme’s scale figures in an ear-catching texture of piano trills and pizzicato strings. The recapitulation arrives unobtrusively out of a soft blur of pianissimo trills. Indeed, understatement appears to motivate the entire movement and it is only at the end of the coda that all instruments join forces to glorify the opening theme with a triumphant burst of jubilation.

By contrast, Beethoven is not about to let the following scherzo pass by unnoticed and digs deep into his bag of mischief in structuring this more-than-quirky movement. Its scherzo theme is a rhythmicized scale rising up over the space of an octave, answered by a similar scale descending the same distance. What could be simpler? But then, like a cat that has caught a mouse and lets it go a short distance before catching it again, Beethoven toys with this scale, letting it venture out in small steps but always pulling it back home.

His dark humour is let off the leash, however, in the trio section, which begins with a slow fugato creeping up the chromatic scale like a swamp creature crawling out of a lagoon to scare the local population. Good thing the swamp creature brought his dancing shoes, though, for the rollicking Austrian ländler tune that soon breaks out on shore. It’s quite a musical menagerie, this scherzo, but by means of convincing transitions and juxtapositions Beethoven manages to make all three musical motives seem like neighbours celebrating together in the same village square.

Ingenious as the scherzo is, the real gem of this trio is the Andante cantabile variations movement that follows. Its elegiac hymn-like theme is humbly offered up by the piano, richly harmonized in the low register before being received into the warm embrace of the strings. The magic begins right away in the first variation with an evocation of  star-gazing wonder on a clear summer’s night as the piano paints twinkling points of light over a wide range of the keyboard. Each variation that follows becomes more animated until finally the theme is recalled in its original setting and lovingly remembered in a rhapsodic duo between violin and cello over gently pulsing triplets in the piano.

The rondo finale, that immediately follows without a break, sends us home with a spring in our step. This movement’s upbeat refrain theme, with its bouncy and buoyant stride bass accompaniment, has a cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness about it that almost suggests French café culture, but the muscular punchy episodes that sandwich its recurring appearances remind us that we are here firmly on German soil. In the end, the movement’s lighthearted devil-may-care mood turns to sheer giddiness with a tarantella-like race to the finish line.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Lucas & Arthur Jussen

Johann Sebastian Bach
Three Chorale Preludes  (arr. György Kurtág)

The chorale, a hymn setting of pious verse in simple note values, was a central element in Lutheran liturgical practice, whether sung in unison by the congregation, in four-part harmony by the choir in a cantata, or artfully arranged into a web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude. In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint derived from the same melody—but in smaller note values. Bach was a master of the genre and produced dozens of such works.

This fractal layering of the same melody at different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical trick but a theological statement in music. It gave voice to the belief that God was immanent in all things, moving in and about the world to animate every object and being in it. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God while the chattering counterpoint that accompanied it represented that divine presence reflected in the activities of secular life.

This symbolic dimension sometimes extended down to small pictorial details in the melodies themselves. For example, the chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From deep affliction, I cry out to Thee) begins with the pitches B-E-B-C. The word ‘deep’ (tiefer) is depicted by a plunging 5th (B to E, then back to B). The word ‘affliction’ (Not) is then painfully represented by the most emotional interval of the scale, the semitone (B to C). Bach’s chorale prelude on this hymn tune starts with the melody imitated in small note values before it majestically enters in long notes buried in the middle register, in keeping with its dark message.

By contrast, the upbeat message of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), a traditional hymn for the first Sunday in Advent, begins in long notes right away, sounding in the uppermost voice, where its clarion call can be most easily heard.

The last in this trio of transcriptions is not really a chorale setting, but it is a prelude. It is the gentle and peaceful introduction to Bach’s Actus tragicus (funeral cantata) entitled Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time of all). Its subject being the Christian view of death, its mood is one of consolation, with soothing harmony chords in the lower register supporting the plaintive but resigned sighs of two imitative voices above.

Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s reverent transcriptions make available to the concert hall works previously performed only in church. Arranging these works for piano duet ensures that the full pitch range of the original is available to the ear in a concert setting. But the inability of the piano to sustain tone in the way that an organ can presents unique challenges to performers wishing to retain the same textural balance as the original setting provided.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Andante & Allegro Brillante in A major, Op. 92

The time: spring 1841. The place: Leipzig, Germany. Young pianist Clara Wieck, a former child prodigy who had toured Europe at the age of twelve, is in need of help to further her professional career but is estranged from her strict and controlling music-teacher father after defying him to marry one of his students. That student – a certain Robert Alexander Schumann, nine years her senior – also needs help with the same problem. Unable to perform in public because of a hand injury, he has gained a modest reputation as a composer of piano music, but needs to break out of that niche to gain a wider public with his recently composed First Symphony. Who will help this young married couple advance their careers?

Enter Felix Mendelssohn, conductor of the city’s acclaimed Gewandhaus Orchestra and a friend of the Schumann newlyweds. Mendelssohn organizes a fundraising concert for the orchestra’s pension fund at which Robert’s symphony will be performed, and to create a spot for Clara to play as well, quickly composes an Andante and Allegro Brillante for piano duet which he and Clara will perform together. Historians would record this concert as the first time that Robert and Clara Schumann appeared in public together on the same program.

Mendelssohn’s two-part piano duet, composed in a matter of days, is light, easy-on-the-ears salon music, but graced with the polished elegance and craftsmanship that is the composer’s trademark. The Andante is comfort food for the soul, with a yearning melody of sighing phrases covered in a chocolate sauce of warm, deeply satisfying harmonies.

The Allegro brillante, by contrast, is a nimble and scampering scherzo with the type of quick, darting figurations that Mendelssohn made famous in his Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo, composed when he was only 17 years old.

While this score is wonderfully balanced in tone and texture, what is remarkable in it is how Mendelssohn gives ample space for solo playing by each pianist—presumably to allow Clara Schumann her place in the sun along with the composer.

At the opening of the Andante, for example, and in the lyrical second theme of the Allegro, the performers take turns playing alternate phases of the melody and its accompaniment—alone. One performer will take the antecedent phrase of a musical period which is then completed in the consequent phrase by the other performer, both playing solo. At other places the left hand of the primo (upper) pianist must insert itself cunningly in between the two hands of the secondo (lower) player without causing a three-hand pile-up of digits in and around middle C. A major technical challenge for the performers in this work, then, is just getting out of each other’s way.

Considering the degree of physical intimacy this work demands of its performers, full marks to Mrs. Mendelssohn for allowing her husband to play it, in public, with another man’s wife.

 

Franz Schubert
Fantasie in F minor,  D. 940

Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, composed in 1828, is similar in structure to the composer’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy of 1822. Both are laid out in one continuous movement of four sonata-like sections played without interruption, comprising an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale containing a fugue. And both embrace the cyclical principle of reprising the first movement’s themes in their final movement.

But while the Wanderer stands out for its emphatic musical rhetoric and unabashedly muscular keyboard writing, the F Minor Fantasie entices its listeners with an inverse appeal in long passages at dynamic levels of pp, or even ppp, and a more reflective tone overall.

Nowhere is this reflective tone more strikingly evident than in the first movement Allegro molto moderato, in which a timidly pleading, almost whimpering first theme, obsessing over a number of small melodic intervals, emerges out of a hushed murmur of harmonic support. Juxtaposed with this delicate flower of a melody is a stern, implacable second theme that soon arrives to challenge it, advancing gravely and ponderously in great granitic blocks of sound. As is so typical of Schubert, the two themes in this section are presented in ‘stereo’, so as to speak – in both their major- and minor-mode variants.

The Largo second movement presents a similar juxtaposition of opposing musical personalities. Beginning with a jarring series of trills, this movement alternates between the defiant gestures of a double-dotted, French-overture-like first theme and a ‘tra-la-la’ second theme of a distinctly Italianate melodic stamp that roams blissfully carefree over an oom-pah-pah accompaniment.

The scherzo Allegro vivace provides much needed relief from all this drama with its dancelike verve and general spirit of bonhomie as the two players coyly echo each other phrases. Schubert’s quicksilver changes of mode, often alternating between major and minor in successive phrases, give this movement an intriguing tonal sparkle that is maddeningly hard to define.

The Allegro molto moderato finale brings us back full circle to the poetic opening bars of the work. But at the entrance of the imposing second theme, a brow-knitting fugal argument breaks out leading to a sustained bout of contrapuntal navel-gazing which only the opening theme, returning yet again, can quell. The uncompromisingly bleak tone of the closing bars is exceptional in the works of Schubert.

 

Leo Smit
Divertimento

Leo Smit was an immensely gifted Dutch composer whose career spanned the interwar years of the 20th century and who died a victim of the Holocaust. Raised in Amsterdam, he graduated with high honours from the Amsterdam Conservatory but in his mid-twenties moved to Paris, where for nine years (1927-1936) he absorbed at close range the music and stylistic legacy of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Les Six, especially Milhaud, Honegger & Poulenc. The personal musical style he brought back to his native Holland was thus inflected with a host of typically French traits, including a preference for light textures, formal clarity and the vivid use of harmonic colour. The jazz idiom, as filtered through French ears, was an especially marked characteristic of his music.

Smit’s Divertimento for piano duet (1942) illustrates well his neo-classical leanings. Its first movement begins with a series of imitative entries, like the opening bars of a fugue, but with the carefree jaunty air of a boulevardier strolling down a fashionable street in Paris, twirling his cane. The tender and wistful second theme that follows, however, would easily be at home in any North American jazz lounge. The musical flow in this movement is easy on the ear because of Smit’s tendency to repeat the same small melodic motives over and over when building up his phrase structure.

The Lento second movement is more atmospheric than conventionally lyrical, offered up as a slow-jazz meditation on a few short motives, hypnotically repeated, rather than structured around the presentation and development of a single strand of melody.

The finale is a punchy and self-confident moto perpetuo, full of jazzy syncopations, with the motoric drive of the Precipitato finale of Prokofieff’s Seventh Sonata and the festive mood of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

 

Maurice Ravel
Ma Mère l’Oye, cinq pièces enfantines

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

“Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’ ”

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.

 

Fazil Say
Night

Turkish musician Fazil Say is a cultural phenomenon, and a triple-threat actor on the world stage. As a pianist he plays almost 100 concerts a year and has recorded more than 40 albums featuring an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire, from Bach and Haydn to Stravinsky and Gershwin—as well as his own compositions. As a composer, his list of compositions includes works for solo piano, for chamber ensembles and for orchestra. But it is his political activism for which he is best known in his native Turkey. In 2012 he was charged with blasphemy for insulting Islam in a series of tweets in a case that was later withdrawn. He is a self-declared atheist and vehemently opposes the cultural and social policies of the Erdogan government.

These three strands of his life and career come together in Night, a piano duet written in 2017 for Lucas & Arthur Jussen and premiered by them at the Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam in April 2018. According to the composer, the work describes “a traumatic night in Turkey” – perhaps an oblique reference to the failed coup of 2016 in that country.

Beginning with the restless rumbling of a rhythmic ostinato in the lower register it spins out jagged, slightly menacing fragments of phrase with an almost ‘hip’ jazzy feel. One special effect used is the hand-muting of strings for selected notes played from the keyboard to produce a strangely dull, plucked sound reminiscent of the timbre of Turkish national folk instruments.  Structured in alternating passages of toccata-like frenetic energy and mysterious wet-pedalled goings-on, the work builds to an impressive climax that simply falls off a cliff in its closing bar.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: George and Andrew Li

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in D major K. 381 for Piano Duet 

In the 1760s, when Wolfgang & his sister Nannerl were touring Europe as child prodigies, the keyboard duet was a popular novelty item on their programs, one that offered a fuller range of sound from a single instrument while still allowing each performer the opportunity for individual display.

When the Mozart children were touring, though, they would most likely have been playing the harpsichord, since the hammered fortepiano (progenitor of the modern pianoforte) did not replace in popularity its string-plucking keyboard cousin until the following decade. While the Sonata in D major K. 381 was composed in 1772, the lack of dynamic markings in the manuscript probably indicates that it was still written for harpsichord, not the fortepiano.

In harpsichord writing loud and soft are created by manipulating the texture, ‘loud’ being produced by means of full chordal harmony with a strong bass presence, ‘soft’ by writing single lines thinly accompanied. These qualities are particularly evident in the outer movements of this sonata, which feature strong textural contrasts between consecutive phrases, a pattern that resembles the interplay between various sections of an orchestra. And indeed, this entire sonata has been described as a three-movement Italian symphony composed on the keyboard.

This orchestral style of writing can be heard clearly in the way the first movement opens, with four distinct textures presented in close succession: a full-throated ‘tutti’ chord, a strutting fanfare of unisons, then a demure little skipping melody with panting accompaniment, and finally more fanfare drama in unisons—all in the space of a mere 12 bars. The development section is even more contrasty, with an arresting ‘damsel-on-the-railway-tracks’ tremolo passage as its melodramatic highlight.

Simple songfulness pervades the Andante second movement but here again the play of textures adds an extra dimension to the proceedings, especially in the rich use of low bass tones. There is even an unusual passage in which the top melodic voice is doubled in the tenor range, as if a string or flute melody were being doubled by the bassoons and cellos.

The Allegro molto finale has the character of a scene from comic opera in which separate characters engage in punchline-oriented repartee. It features short question-and-answer phrases in which bright bold chords are answered by frivolous fluttering triplets, and blithe solo melodies by blaring military trumpet calls. Scotch snaps and chirpy grace notes anticipate the comical musical effects that Rossini would use decades later.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Fantaisie Tableaux  Op. 5

Rachmaninoff’s first suite for two pianos, entitled Fantaisie Tableaux, is an early work composed in 1893, just a year after the composer’s graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. Conceived as “a series of musical pictures”, its warmly expressive tone and vivid harmonic colouring reveal the influence of Tchaikovsky, to whom the work is dedicated.

Each of its four movements depicts a scene from nature or from personal life: the lapping of waves against the side of a gondola, bird calls in the wild, tears dropping, the clangorous ringing of church bells. Typical Rachmaninoff stylistic traits such as the use of ostinati and repeated sequences that build to a climax are present throughout.

Barcarolle opens with the delicious quiet rippling of water, soon joined by a simple, mildly obsessive tune that always seeks to return to the same note. The filigree patterns surrounding this foreground melody gradually grow in elaboration to become a lush carpet of harmonic colouring covering a full five octaves of the keyboard as the opening ripples are transformed into great surging waves of piano sonority.

Even more pictorially vivid is the stuttering high-pitched birdcalls of L’amour, la nuit (The night, the love). This movement opens with the repeated motive of a major 3rd representing the warbling of the nightingale, soon paired with a downward sliding chromatic melody embodying the feelings of romantic love. Ecstatic flights of fancy in the high register express the ecstatic emotions of the scene.

Les larmes (Tears) depicts the falling of teardrops with a repetitive four-note motive that opens the movement and pervades it throughout, at times rhythmically displaced from the main beat to suggest the convulsive spasms of sobbing.

The suite ends with Pâques, an evocation of the clamorous joy of a Russian Orthodox Easter morning. In this virtually melody-less movement, open 5ths in the bass convey the weighty resonance of massive swaying church bells while a hammering tintinnabulation of repeated motives in the high register imitates the chiming of metallic overtones above. Almost lost in the near-cacaphony of full-spectrum ringing sounds is the solemn intonation of a Russian liturgical chant in the mid-register.

 

Franz Liszt
Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli

Liszt’s Tarantella is from the collection Venezia e Napoli (published 1861), a revised version of earlier pieces which he issued as a supplement to his Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année devoted to his musical impressions of Italy. Based on dance melodies by the Neapolitan editor and music publisher Guillaume-Louis Cottrau (1797-1847), Liszt’s bravura treatment of this material features many of his trademark tricks of the trade.

It leaves the starting blocks at presto speed, dicing and slicing the agitated tarantella melody into an impressive series of choppy and sparkling pianistic textures, often alternating duple and triple versions of the tune.

The slower middle section, featuring a sensuous and langorous canzona napoletana with Bellini-esque arabesques of vocal ornamentation, serves to interrupt the torrential onslaught of virtuosity, but it too soon erupts into iridescent cascading rainbows of tonal colour and peppery sprays of repeated notes—perhaps in reference to the favourite instrument of the Neapolitans: the mandolin.

The concluding section returns to the bravura frenzy of the opening, upping the tempo to prestissimo and heading off to the horizon like a cat with its tail on fire. The sheer volume of piano tone pulled from the instrument on the final page is eyebrow-raisingly theatrical.

 

Claude Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

The first thing to know about Debussy’s symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is that it is one of the foundational works of the Impressionist movement in French music and is based on the poem by the same name by symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). The second thing to know is that it has nothing at all to do with Bambi.

In Ancient Roman mythology a faun (not ‘fawn’) was a nature spirit with the upper torso of a young man and the bottom half of a goat. Much at home in woodland settings, fauns led an idyllic life with little to do each day but (a) play the pan pipes, (b) chat up the local nymphs, and (c) fall drowsily asleep to dream about (a) and (b).

Debussy’s orchestral score of 1894, which he transcribed for two pianos in the following year, captures the leisurely life of one such faun as he plays his pan pipes, gazes in fascination at the nymphs frolicking around him and finally slips into slumber in the heat of the afternoon. The musical scenes depicted are presented in an ambiguous new musical language that uses whole-tone scales and ‘colour chords’ that float freely in sonic space, unregulated by the established rules of chord progression in Western harmony.

The seemingly improvisatory way in which the piece moves forward, evoking the timeless world of ancient myth, belies the work’s tight organization around a series of melodic cells and motives. One of most important of these is the melody that opens the work, a languorous chromatic descent of a tritone, representing the pan pipe, which establishes no key and has no sharp rhythmic profile.

Other motives emerge with more animation, depicting the stirrings of woodland creatures in the passing scene, but all share in the aimless ‘wandering’ quality that characterizes the work as a whole.

The pianists’ challenge in this piece is to knock every sharp edge off the percussive sound of their instruments to create the hazy, delicately nuanced sound environment that suggests in the listener’s ear the imaginary world of Mallarmé’s text and Debussy’s symphonic poem.

 

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6

Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies pay tribute to the gypsy music of his native Hungary. Like an ancient insect trapped in amber, they encapsulate for posterity the dramatic, improvisatory performance style of the roving bands of Romani musicians that Liszt heard as a boy growing up in the small Hungarian village of Raiding, and whose campfires he eagerly frequented when, as Europe’s most celebrated pianist, he returned to his homeland in 1839 after an 18-year absence.

There are 19 rhapsodies in all, the first 15 composed in the period between 1846 and 1853. Fundamental to the form of each rhapsody is a two-part division into a slow, introductory lassan followed by a quick, dancelike friss. In the soulful and brooding lassan, a handful of folk melodies are repeated over and over, trancelike, in varied forms, blooming from time to time into dazzling cadenza-like flourishes of keyboard sparkle and colour. The friss is sectional, presenting a series of impish dance tunes that in an accelerating pattern of frenetic activity inevitably drive the work to a barn-storming conclusion.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 is unusual in having four sections, each based on a separate Hungarian folk melody. The first two form a kind of introduction, comprised of a great thumping march followed by a fleet-footed dance—both somewhat ‘wild’ and exotic in their use of rhythmic displacement and off-beat accents.

The standard rhapsody lassan begins in the 3rd section, and what a change in tone it brings. Its halting, almost sobbing melodic gestures set the words of a troubled Hungarian poetic text that reads: “My father is dead, my mother is dead, I have no brothers and sisters, and all the money that I have left will just buy a rope to hang myself with.” Liszt’s musical meditation on this chipper text—a classic example of over-sharing—is ruminative and spasmodically emotional by turns, in true Gypsy style.

The friss that follows brings welcome relief with its simple playful tune constantly repeated over a folk-style drone in the bass. Excitement leads to exhilaration as the pace progressively accelerates and thicker textural cladding is added. Eventually, the quarters and eighths of the tune in the right hand morph into a machine-gun-fire of repeated notes—hammered out in octaves, no less—in a severe test of the pianist’s wrist technique. Meanwhile, the left hand accompaniment commutes back and forth from the nether regions as a full-on, octave-spanning stride bass.

All in all, this Hungarian rhapsody displays 19th-century pianistic showmanship at its most extroverted.

 

Maurice Ravel
La Valse

Ravel first made plans to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz in 1906, sketching out a piece he called Wien (Vienna) as a tribute to the “waltz king” Johann Strauss II. But the project lay dormant for many years, and it was only under a commission from impresario Sergei Diaghilev (of the famous Ballets Russes) that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev rejected the work after hearing Ravel’s two-piano version of the score (to be played this afternoon), but the composer orchestrated it anyway and it went on to become a highly successful ballet, premiering in 1926 in Antwerp with the Royal Flemish Opera Ballet and later used in works by Jerome Robbins and Sir Frederick Ashton.

Ravel describes his poème chorégraphique as follows:

Swirling clouds offer glimpses of waltzing couples. As the clouds scatter little by little, an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd comes clearly into view. The scene grows steadily brighter until the chandeliers bursts forth with dazzling light at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.

Given the glittering age it celebrates, one would expect the work to be as bright in mood as the ballrooms it depicts. But this score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass before scraps of waltz rhythm begin to emerge above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between a voluptuous, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.

Being composed immediately after The Great War, Ravel’s La Valse has been heard by some as a Dance of Death, as the calamitous fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ironically played out to the tune of its own best-loved music. The aesthetic stance of the work is ambiguous, to be sure, and that is perhaps the quality that has made it endure in the repertoire since its first performance a century ago.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: 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

 

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