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PROGRAM NOTES: ANDREA LUCCHESINI

Domenico Scarlatti
Six Sonatas K 491 – K 454 – K 239 – K 466 – K 342 – K 146

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of the Iberian peninsula, where Scarlatti worked at the royal courts of Spain and Portugal.

A frequent pattern in these works is for technically challenging figurations in the right hand to be repeated in the left, so their value as teaching pieces was recognized early. They were, in fact, first published under the title Esercizi. Their survival in the modern repertoire no doubt derives from the flurries of repeated notes and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half ending in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The sounds of court life come alive in the ceremonial fanfares of trumpets and volleys of brass choirs in the Sonata in D major K 491, with its simple repeated phrases and stomping cadence patterns enhanced with big cadential trills.

A similar ceremonial atmosphere reigns in the repeated-note drum beat of the Sonata in G major K 454 – until it erupts into exuberant multi-octave runs and frothy patterns of keyboard effervescence.

The clicks of castanets are heard in the snappy rhythms of the ever-so-Spanish Sonata in F minor K 239 while the following sonata in the same key (K 466) strikes a more wistful poetic mood with its plaintive whimpering phrases of complaint and heart-breaking cadential harmonies.

The Sonata in A major K 342 chases its own tail with scurrying patterns of scale patterns that only rarely stop to catch their breath.

The final work in the set, the Sonata in G major K 146, balances elegantly trilled scraps of melody with diving arpeggio gestures that suggest the brash strokes of the flamenco guitarist.

Luciano Berio
Six Encores

The Italian composer Luciano Berio had a gift for aphorism, for saying much and suggesting more in a brief span of time. His Six Encores written between 1965 and 1990 represent well Berio’s fascination with the piano as an instrument that generates pure sound rather than harmony or polyphony. Each piece demonstrates a single process at work, the unfolding of a single formal principle. The first two pieces in the set, for example, are concerned with the resonance that lingers when a piano key is played and not released.

The delicacy of Brin (French for “wisp, strand”) can be intuited from its name. A single, colourfully chromatic chord played at the very end contains all the notes “wispily” spun out before it arrives, the “strands” out of which it is slowly being put together. The pedalling here is watery, the mood reflective and sentimental, in keeping with Berio’s dedication of this piece to a friend who died at the age of 20, commemorated in the chiming of a high B-natural, the highest note in the piece, which occurs exactly 20 times.

In Leaf the overtones of notes held down cast a haze over the fistfuls of tone clusters punched out staccato. This and the preceding Brin, in the kaleidoscopic variety of viewpoints from which they present the same small amount of tonal material, have been compared to a “sound mobile” twisting in the air, to be taken in from all sides.

The four remaining pieces view the piano as a means of evoking the qualities of the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – and are named to associate each element with the keyboard (Klavier) of the instrument.

Wasserklavier is devoted to water and has been called “a loving forgery.” It re-imagines the Brahms Intermezzo in B flat minor Op. 117 No. 2 and the Schubert Impromptu in F minor Op. 142 No. 1 by passing their motivic components through a “refracted” contemporary lens. The descending 2nds of the Brahms Intermezzo, in particular, seem to come at the ear as if from a kind of fun-house distorting mirror.

Erdenklavier evokes the solidity of the earth with ringing open intervals – 4ths and 5ths – in a single line of melody featuring notes struck at widely differing dynamic levels and pedalled so as to last different amounts of time.

Luftklavier paints the air, a medium vibrating with energy, thanks to a colourful ostinato in the mid-range against which isolated pitches play in the wind on either side. The persistent fluttering tremolos in the score are reminiscent of Debussy while the rat-tat-tat of repeated notes recall Prokofieff’s Toccata Op. 11.

The last in the series of “elemental” pieces, Feuerklavier, rivals Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme in its tremolo-crazed depiction of the unpredictable patterns of flickering flames as they lick the air.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B flat major D 960

It would be wrong to judge Schubert by the standards set by Beethoven, who represented the logical extension of an outgoing rationalist Classical age. Schubert represented the intuited beginning of a new Romantic age, an age in which formal models, previously held together by patterns of key relationships and motivic manipulation, would find coherence in a new kind of structural glue based on the psychological drama of personal experience.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Schubert’s approach to the Classical era’s pre-eminent formal structure, the sonata. Like a good tailor adjusting an old suit, he lets out the seams of strict sonata form to allow it to breathe with the new lyrical air of his age. Concision and argumentative density are replaced with timeless daydreaming and lyrical breadth. Schubert’s sonata movements often contain three major themes instead of the standard two, arrived at and departed from by way of unexpected, sometimes startling modulatory surprizes. By this means he blunted the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving large-scale tonal tensions. Rather, he directed the listener’s attention to the moment-by-moment unfolding of melodic contours and harmonic colours. And yet even these moments are frequently punctuated by thoughtful pauses. In the end, what Schubert aims to create is a balanced and satisfying collection of lyrical experiences within the formal markers of the traditional sonata: exposition, development, and recapitulation.

Given these lyrical aims, it should not be surprizing that he favoured moderate tempos such as the Molto moderato of the first movement of his Sonata in B flat D 960, a work composed just months before his death in 1828. Its opening theme features a peaceful melody, with a hint of pathos in its second strain, supported by a simple pulsing accompaniment and ending with a mysterious trill at the bottom of the keyboard. This trill will be an important structural marker in the movement, repeated (loudly) at the first ending of the exposition and just before the start of the recapitulation.

A second theme of a more serious cast and a third of hopping broken chords round out the exposition, each passing fluidly between the major and minor modes like a tonal dual citizen, mirroring the dual modes of sweet yearning and inner anxiety that characterize the composer’s ‘outsider’ persona generally in works such as Die Winterreise. Major becomes minor and minor major as well in the development, which maintains the initial pulse of the opening as it builds to a fierce climax.

The second movement Andante sostenuto is surreal in its starkly spare texture of layered sonorities, featuring a somber but halting melody in the mid-range surrounded on both sides by a rocking accompaniment figure that quietly resounds like the echo inside a stone tomb. Only Schubert could create such a melody, one that combines sad elegy with tender reminiscence and pleading prayer, relieved only by the nostalgic strains of the movement’s songful middle section.

The third movement scherzo is surprizingly smooth-flowing in a genre known for its mischievous wit, but mixes it up with twinkling echo effects in the high register and exchanges of melodic material between treble and bass. The trio is more sombre and contained, expressing its personality more through syncopations, sudden accents, and major-minor ambiguities than through wide-ranging scamper and exuberance.

One might actually think that some of the lightness of mood from the previous movement had influenced the start of the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which keeps wanting to start in the ‘wrong’ key (C minor, for a movement in B flat), but quickly sorts itself out to offer us one of Schubert’s most unbuttoned, ‘bunnies-hopping-in-a-box’ merry themes. And more still await us as a gloriously songful melody takes over, only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatically forceful new motive in a dotted rhythm that charges in, like a SWAT team breaking down the door of an evil-doer’s lair. But it was all a misunderstanding, of course, and these threatening minor-mode motives are soon dropped in favour of an almost parodistic variant of the same material in the major mode, something that kindergarten children might skip to at recess. The force of Schubert’s imagination ensures that this last movement of his last sonata is as vivid and riotous a ride through the rondo genre as that of his Erlkönig “through night and wind.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: JULIA BULLOCK & JOHN ARIDA

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Four Lieder

About the Composer

Franz Schubert established the German lied as an important art form and then set a standard of excellence that no one since has quite matched. Schubert created more than 600 songs in a prodigious outpouring that sometimes saw him composing five songs in a single day. However, it is not the sheer number that matters, but rather the songs’ extraordinary quality and enormous emotional range. At the heart of Schubert’s genius lay his unrivaled gift for melody, whether it be the perfect melody to cover all verses in a strophic song or a theme for the piano that is even more crucial to the song’s emotional color than the singer’s line.

About the Works

No less an authority than Johannes Brahms called “Suleika I” of 1821 “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The poem for this song and its companion, “Suleika II,” is often attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe since it can be found in his compilation West-östlicher Divan, inspired by Goethe’s fascination with the work of 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz (Suleika is one of Hafiz’s characters). However, it was actually written by Marianne von Willemer, an Austrian actress who had a brief but intense relationship with Goethe, who edited the poem for his collection. Written while Willemer was traveling in 1815 from Frankfurt to Heidelberg to meet Goethe, it is a song to the East wind that blows on her outbound journey. The wind is heard in the piano’s opening measures before a whirling ostinato takes over, conjuring both the carriage’s motion and Willemer’s agitated heartbeat. Near the end, the tempo eases, a new three-note motif rings softly, and the key moves from B minor to a brighter B major as the singer anticipates meeting her lover.

The Friedrich Rückert poem to which “Lachen und Weinen” (“Laughing and Weeping”) is set portrays the instability of an adolescent’s emotions, oscillating rapidly between laughing and crying. Schubert adds a tenderly sympathetic touch at the words “Bei des Abendes Scheine” as the flightiness briefly falters and the harmonies slide to minor. Setting a true Goethe poem, the wonderfully concise song “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (“Wanderer’s Nightsong II”) is an example of Schubert’s sublime simplicity in capturing a poem’s mood, which, in John Reed’s words, is a “progression from outward calm to inner peace.” Written in 1816, “Seligkeit” (“Bliss”) sets one of Schubert’s favorite poets, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty. An uncomplicated strophic song, it is a giddy little waltz that perfectly matches the mood of uncomplicated joy.

SAMUEL BARBER (1910–1981)
Hermit Songs, Op. 29

About the Composer

From an early age, Irish poems and tales fascinated Samuel Barber, who was partly of Irish descent himself. In the summer of 1952, he finally traveled to Ireland, and while visiting sites connected with William Butler Yeats during a trip to Donegal, he found Yeats’s grave to be surrounded by tombstones belonging to people with the Barber name. When Barber returned to the United States, his research turned up some texts in old Gaelic written during the early Middle Ages by anonymous Irish monks and hermits. Their pithy power and earthy expressiveness captivated him.

About the Works

In a note Barber wrote for the publication of his Hermit Songs, he described them as “written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of the manuscripts they were copying or illuminating—perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small poems, thoughts, or observations—some very short—and speak in straightforward, droll, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, animals, and to God.”

With a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Barber wrote his 10 Hermit Songs between November 1952 and February 1953. A painstaking text setter, Barber carefully selected translations; dissatisfied with the versions of two of the texts, he asked W. H. Auden to prepare fresh ones. Barber was considering various famous international singers to debut the Hermit Songs, until he heard the young Leontyne Price—then completely unknown—in her teacher’s studio. Barber and Price performed the premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, on October 30, 1953. It was the beginning of a long creative partnership between Barber and Price, culminating in Antony and Cleopatra.

A Closer Listen

From the 13th century, “At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” is a pilgrim’s tormented song as he travels to Loch Derg (Red Lake) in County Donegal, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The pianist’s left hand measures out his relentless steps while the right hand’s bell motif suggests the spiritual solace awaiting him. As with most of the songs, Barber establishes no meter, allowing the singer freedom to follow the irregular rhythms of the words.

The 12th-century “Church Bell at Night” is one of the aphoristic songs in which Barber captures the blunt speech of the monks. A shimmering bell chord irradiates the song. Attributed to Saint Ita of the eighth century, “Saint Ita’s Vision” is one of the loveliest of the Hermit Songs. A broad narrative recitative leads to a rocking lullaby as the saint experiences her mystical vision of the infant Jesus nursing at her breast. Attributed to the 10th- century’s Saint Brigid, “The Heavenly Banquet” is another joyful vision in which denizens of Heaven appear as ordinary human beings at a celestial banquet. The piano’s racing scales fuel the singer’s delight.

“The Crucifixion” comes from a 12th-century anthology, The Speckled Book. The piano’s fluting high motif mimics “the cry of the first bird.” The singer’s phrases evoke pain and grief powerfully but without exaggeration. The final twist is the shift of focus away from Christ’s suffering to the suffering of his mother, Mary. Marked “surging,” “Sea-Snatch” is a panicked cry to Heaven by sailors drowning in one of Ireland’s wild storms. Equally brief, “Promiscuity” is a bit of sly gossip told by piano and singer with the same caustic sing-song melody.

From the eighth or ninth century, “The Monk and His Cat,” translated by W. H. Auden, is the cycle’s most infectious song, as it describes the contented partnership between the scholar and his cat, whose frisking movements are heard in the piano’s two-note motif. It is also the only song with a fixed meter: a relaxed, lilting 9/8 beat. Also translated by Auden, “The Praises of God” (11th century) is a wild, dervish-like dance with eccentric rhythmic stresses and cross rhythms.

“The Desire for Hermitage” (eighth or ninth century) seems to be the personal expression of the composer, a man who indeed craved solitude all his life. The stark beginning of the song is a repeated G that first sounds in the piano, then joined by the singer; this single note represents the state of aloneness, as well as the surrounding hush. Gradually, the piano and vocal lines become more active, even ecstatic, culminating in a passionate piano interlude that seems to proclaim the joy of solitude.

GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845–1924)
Selections from La chanson d’Ève, Op. 95

About the Composer

In 1905 at age 60, Gabriel Fauré was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire, a revered establishment of French music. In a period of upheaval at the Conservatoire—culminating in the scandal of Maurice Ravel (Fauré’s student) being refused the institution’s top award, the Prix de Rome—Fauré was chosen because he was considered to be a trusted outsider able to bring reform. Not a product of the Conservatoire himself, Fauré had been trained instead at the smaller and less hidebound École Niedermeyer.

This heavy responsibility, however, did not keep Fauré from pursuing his composing career. In fact, he was about to embark on a radical transformation of his musical style from the limpid, lyrical mélodies that had characterized much of his earlier songwriting. Having already made a shift in his previous song cycle, La bonne chanson, Fauré would now develop a late style that de- emphasized melody in favor of vocal and piano music combining an almost austere simplicity with extraordinary sophistication, particularly in the harmonic realm.

About the Works

On a trip to Brussels in March 1906, Fauré became acquainted with the poetry of Belgian symbolist Charles van Lerberghe. In 1904, Lerberghe published a volume of 96 poems, La chanson d’Ève, which imagined Eve coming to life in the Garden of Eden without Adam, giving human meaning to nature’s magnificent creations, of which she is a part. Lerberghe had been inspired to create this work by a glorious garden outside Florence, and Fauré—also a lover of gardens—had matched this by beginning his composition near another sumptuous garden at Lake Maggiore. Fauré reduced the cycle to 10 songs, written off and on between 1906 and 1910 while he was simultaneously creating his opera Pénélope.

The narrator of the cycle is Eve herself, a wondrous creature who is mortal and very feminine, and at the same time a representation of all Creation. In his definitive analysis of Fauré’s songs, pianist Graham Johnson describes the implied time scale as immense: “as if Eve is born and dies at opposite ends of the same cosmic day—a day perhaps encompassing millennia.” Omitting the very long first song, “Paradis,” Ms. Bullock sings six of the 10 songs in the cycle on this evening’s program.

A Closer Listen

“Prima verba” (“First Word”) is La chanson d’Ève’s second song, in which Eve realizes her first words bring the souls of everything in nature to life. The piano and vocal lines initially seem bare and static—in Johnson’s words, “like an empty void.” But they soon flower into extraordinary harmonic complexity as nature takes on a new dimension. Eve’s identification with the rose permeates the cycle, as we hear in “Roses ardentes” (“Ardent Roses”). The pantheistic vision of poet and composer reaches an apotheosis at song’s end as the previously restricted vocal line climbs joyously toward the sun, the “supreme force.”

Far from the traditional imagery of a white-bearded old man, God shines as the young creator embodied in his world in “Comme Dieu rayonne” (“How God Radiates”). As Johnson writes, “the third verse weaves a glorious light- filled tapestry of sound,” as the piano shimmers around the increasingly ecstatic vocal line. “Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil” (“Are you watching, my scent of sun”) combines the sights, sounds, and scents of nature into one rapturous whole. “In this song, sunlight … is uncontainable: With Fauré’s help it searches out and pervades every nook and cranny of harmonic possibility” in the extraordinary piano part.

Composed in June 1906, “Crépuscule” (“Twilight”) was the first song Fauré composed, even before knowing it would spawn a cycle. Until this point in the cycle, the songs have been filled with joy and sensual pleasure. Then Eve hears a cry of pain, a sigh in the night that portends sadness. She has by now tasted the forbidden apple that gives knowledge, and she realizes that she, like all natural things, will die. The rising chords of the piano introduction are a recurring theme that represents Eden, now being disturbed. The cycle’s final song, “O mort, poussière d’étoiles” (“O death, dust of stars”) brings the presence of death. Always at one with nature, Eve does not fear it, but instead welcomes her dissolution into all of creation. Fauré’s son Philippe described this stark, uncanny song as “a sort of funeral march toward an open-armed nirvana.”

ALBERTA HUNTER, CORA “LOVIE” AUSTIN, BILLIE HOLIDAY, and NINA SIMONE
Four Women of Blues and Jazz

In the final section of this evening’s program, Ms. Bullock pays tribute to some of the leading African American musicians who shaped American jazz, blues, and popular song throughout the 20th century. First we hear the sultry blues ballad “Driftin’ Tide” from 1935, which was closely associated with renowned jazz singer Alberta Hunter. The infectious, up-tempo “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” also comes from 1935 and was frequently sung by Hunter. It was composed by Maceo Pinkard, one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a highly successful composer, lyricist, bandleader, and music publisher.

Cora “Lovie” Austin was a formidable jazz pianist and the founder and leader of her own popular band, the Blues Serenaders. Based in Chicago, she specialized in accompanying the leading blues singers of her era, including Hunter, with whom she wrote one of the greatest of all blues classics, “Downhearted Blues,” the lament of a woman who loved the wrong man. We also hear “Frog Tongue Stomp: A Lovie Austin Tribute,” a solo piano piece written by one of today’s prominent jazz pianists, Jeremy Siskind, saluting the legacy of Austin’s flamboyantly distinctive style. With the exception of “Revolution,” which Ms. Bullock will sing a cappella, Siskind arranged all of the songs in this section of the program.

This evening’s program concludes with two iconic African American singers, whose fame has never faded: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Holiday renamed herself and was also dubbed “Lady Day” by her music partner Lester Young. The tragedy of Holiday’s life added to the power of her artistry, but her serene love song “Our Love Is Different” shows her at her romantic best. Renowned as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, originally aspired to be a classical pianist. When she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music, undoubtedly for racial reasons, her career took a different trajectory. Discovering her voice as well as her keyboard skills, Simone became one of the most compelling musicians of the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Selma to Montgomery marches. Ms. Bullock has selected Simone’s famous Civil Rights anthem “Revolution,” as well as her provocative song “Four Women,” in which women of various skin tones protest the Eurocentric beauty standards imposed on black women.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2018 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

 

PROGRAM NOTES: Jerusalem Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

Richard Strauss
String Sextet from Capriccio

Capriccio (1942), Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?

The year is 1775 and the setting is the aristocratic chateau of the aesthetically refined Countess Madeleine in the French countryside. Philosophical questions do double-duty as proxies for romantic intrigue since the Countess’ two main suitors are a composer and a poet. In a flirtatious spirit of free enquiry, she sets them the task of jointly writing a work that will reveal the relative merits of their respective artistic domains—and marriage proposals. (Spoiler alert: the Countess decides, in the end, that she can’t decide.)

The opera begins with a lusciously scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama. This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.

*                      *                      *

The musical style of the sextet, in keeping with the opera’s historical setting and its philosophical message, is certainly backward-looking, at least with respect to the revolutionary musical developments of the early 20th century. The spiky neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s own look-back at the 18th century, his ballet Pulcinella, is nowhere to be heard in this score.

Richard Strauss is here writing in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality with which he began his career in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a style of writing in which even the most remote key centres are made instantly accessible by means of smooth, but highly chromatic voice-leading practices, with the aim of bringing wondrously varied harmonic colourings to the surface of the music.

The result is a radiant brightness of tone, enhanced by Strauss’ skillful disposition of his six instruments in sonic space to produce the silken sheen that is the trademark of his string writing, so different from the ‘thick chunky soup’ texture of Brahms’ string quartets.

Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the 1st violin in the opening bars, a motive remarkably similar to the ear-worm phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motives in the texture, elaborated over many endearing and nurturing points of imitation, that makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.

 

Arnold Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

On a cold moonlit night a couple walks in a barren, leafless grove of trees. She is carrying a child that is not his, she tells him. Despairing of finding true happiness, she had longed to find purpose in life through motherhood and had let down her guard with a man she didn’t love. Now, having found a man she does love, she is wracked with guilt. They walk on. Let that not be a burden to you, he replies. The special warmth we share between us will transform that child into ours, mine and yours. As they embrace, his breath and hers kiss in the night air, and they walk on, bright with a feeling of promise under the vault of heaven.

Such is the story told in the poem Verklärte Nacht (1896) by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s eponymous chamber work composed in 1899. Its premiere in 1901 caused a scandal, both for the work’s association with Dehmel—whose poetic preoccupation with sex had seen him thrice put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy—but also for what was perceived as the immoral “sensuality” of Schoenberg’s score. The German public evidently felt discomfort basking in the lyrical warmth of a work about premarital sex, especially one based on a story that so closely parallelled the Christian Nativity narrative, and used the religious language of “transfiguration” in doing so.

But Schoenberg’s chamber tone poem tells a sympathetic story of secular transformations: of a frightened pregnant young woman into a reassured mother-to-be, of a problematic unborn child into a bond uniting future spouses, and of a cold moonlit night into a warm natural setting for the nurturing of human love.

*                      *                      *

The musical language Schoenberg uses combines the most important—and even opposing—tendencies of his time. Few relationships in German music of the late 19th century were more adversarial than those between the proponents of Wagner’s free-roaming evocations of psychological states and the supporters of Brahms’ craftsmanlike control of abstract formal structures. And yet Schoenberg seems to create a delirious synthesis of both ideological positions.

The probing chromatic harmonies, long-held sighs and paroxysms of ecstasy found in Tristan und Isolde are much in evidence in Schoenberg’s score, as is Wagner’s use of rising sequences of melodic phrases to portray rising levels of emotional intensity. The texture, however, is thoroughly contrapuntal, with frequent imitative interplay between the instruments, and with melodic motives developed in the Brahmsian style of “continuous variation”.

The story is told in an extended narrative arc that begins in a sombre D minor, with long, slow notes in the bass to indicate the deliberate walking pace of the couple, and a descending scale indicating the dreary prospects for the upcoming conversation. The ensuing musical discussions are fraught with anxious emotion, hammered home by the oft-repeated motive of two descending semitones in the texture, and the first half, in which the young woman tells her story, ends in a despairing whisper.

The male figure’s reassuring reply, however, opens the second half in a softly radiant and consoling D major that only builds in tenderness and intimacy as the magical transformation of man, woman, child and natural landscape takes place before our ears. The shimmering glassy sound of harmonics at the very end is the perfect emotional correlative of the serenity that comes when human sympathy conquers all obstacles.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence Op. 70

In 1890 Tchaikovsky spent three months at the Florence villa of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, composing his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he sketched out the slow movement of what would become the four-movement sextet he completed on his return. Published under the title Souvenir de Florence, it nevertheless shows little by way of Italian musical influences, apart from the Adagio serenade. The third and fourth movements in particular are Russian to the core, brimming over with folk tunes and the vigour of village dancing.

Even more surprising is the neo-classical bent of the work, not just in the clarity of its string textures and the simplicity of its rhythmic pulse, but also in its routine application of Mozart-era symphonic counterpoint, with numerous passages of cascading imitative entries gracing the score, and even a full-on fugue in the finale.

*                      *                      *

The sonata-form first movement bursts onto the scene with the brash, bold confidence of a gypsy violinist leaping over a campfire. The first sound to hit your ear is a minor 9th chord, a tart burst of harmonic flavouring that snaps you awake like the bracing first bite into a Granny Smith apple. The movement’s first theme is a hearty thumping romp with numerous rhythmic quirks, backed up by an oscillating oom-pah-pah accompaniment that owes much to the string textures of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. The second theme, by contrast, soars serenely in long held notes over a rambunctious accompaniment. The development is entirely in the mould of contrapuntally obsessed development sections of the Classical era while the recapitulation’s race-to-the-finish coda prompts a return to the minor mode—a tonally colouring that had been virtually forgotten in all the previous merriment.

The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto begins with a richly textured slow introduction followed by a naively simple tune in the 1st violin suitable for singing under an Italian window sill. Certainly the pizzicato string accompaniment offers a ready-made substitute for a guitar or mandolin. But the serenade turns into a duet when the a solo cello joins in. Hardly less enchanting is the ‘whispering wind’ middle section, played by all instruments a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow).

The third movement is heavily inflected with the folk music idiom. It opens with a modest little tune in the dorian mode marked by bird-calls of repeated notes and plaintively inconclusive cadences. Its moderate pace and overlapping thematic entrances almost suggest a ceremonial dance ritual, but Tchaikovsky has other plans, driving the repeated-note motif into much more energetic territory, a direction confirmed by a middle section strongly reminiscent of the Trepak from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite.

The musical scent of Russian country life is even stronger in the last movement, as indicated by the drone-like accompaniment pattern that strums on alone for four bars at its opening. The theme that arrives to float on top of it is eminently folk-like in its small range and modal character. Tchaikovsky is quick off the mark to capitalize on its rhythmic potential, adding punchy off-beat accents, exhilarating runs and large leaps to its developing character until a long-limbed and wide-ranging lyrical tune brings a measure of breezy relaxation to the proceedings. The star attraction in this movement is the fugue, perhaps matched only in vigour and sheer visceral exhilaration by the Beethoven’s-Ninth-style final page where, even if Tchaikovsky didn’t write a blaring brass section into the score, you could almost swear you hear one, anyway.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

 

 

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