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Program notes: The Vertavo String Quartet with Paul Lewis, piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrills, spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

 

Bela Bartók
String Quartet No. 6

In the film Play It Again Sam, Woody Allen nervously busies himself arranging his apartment to be just right for the arrival of his date. He is torn over the appropriate choice of background music: will it be Oscar Peterson, or a Bartók string quartet? The implication is clear: does he want to appear ‘hip’ or ‘intellectual’?

Even without the neurotic nod from Woody Allen, the Bartók string quartets have always had a reputation
for being ‘intellectual,’ and for good reason. They are tightly-argued, dense works composed in continuity with the great German tradition of motivic development and thematic transformation. They stubbornly pursue an agenda of making a work grow out of a small number of single cells of musical material – a kind of ‘sourdough’ approach to making the musical loaf, if you will.

Bartok’s motivic cells are usually made up of only a 
few notes lying within a small melodic range, normally the space of a perfect fourth – which immediately sets them apart from the octave-spanning dozen-note pitch patterns of that other 20th-century genre of intellectual music: 12-tone composition. Like the five-note spans of many a Stravinsky tune (the finale of The Firebird springs to mind), the melodic units in Bartók’s string quartets are human-scale tunes, and like those of Stravinsky as well, undoubtedly influenced in this by the composer’s in-depth exposure to the folk music of his native land.

This quartet was composed in the fall of 1939, in the
 last months that Bartók was to spend in Hungary. His mother was dying, his own health was deteriorating, and World War II had just broken out, causing him to make plans to escape with his family to the United States. Such is the context for the unusual formal structuring 
of this work, in which each movement begins mesto
 (i.e., sadly) with the same lyrical, but lonely chromatic melody. This melody wanders its lonely path, mostly by whole tones and semitones, fixating finally towards the end on a motive that will be fundamental to the work
as a whole: three notes within a perfect 4th that change direction after the second note.

This melody will gradually expand in textural weight as it introduces each successive movement. It is presented in one voice, the viola, at the start of the first movement, in two voices at the beginning of the second movement (with three instruments playing a single line), in three voices at the start of the third movement, and in all four voices in the last movement.

The first and last movements are in a kind of sonata form, with a developmental middle section. They treat their material (the three-note motive and two other ideas) in an abstract way in the tradition of European ‘absolute’ music, with much use of imitation between the instruments and structural manipulation of motives, especially by inversion.

The two inner movements are much more connected with the outside world, though they see that world through the distorting lens of irony and satire. The second movement features a grotesque march – surely a comment on the militarism that was driving him to flee his homeland – with a contrasting middle section that parodies the strumming cimbalom of Hungarian folk music. The third movement is less subtle still. It breaks out into open laughter in a clownish burlesque relieved only by a brief interval of sentimental remembrance in its middle section.

By the fourth movement, the downward pull of the mesto melody is irresistible and its influence, along with mystified quotations from the first movement lead the quartet to end in a questioning haze of emotional numbness, symbolized by the futile attempt of the viola to begin its lonely message over again in the closing bars.

 

Antonin Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonin Dvořák’s music and the pull of his traditionally crafted but ethnically flavoured compositions is equally strong among contemporary audiences today. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the aural structures of music were becoming ever more complex and fatiguing for the listener, Dvořák offered a range of esthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era – formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality devoid of the chromatic ambiguities that made Wagnerian harmony such a distorting circus-mirror for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s enduring love of exoticism and nationalist sentiment with his gracious, soulfully folk-music-tinged melodies, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies, and with his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are
 to be found in his magnificent Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which, along with Schumann’s E-flat Quintet, Op. 44 and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet Op. 34, 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 dips by the end into the shadows
 of the minor mode before yielding to a restless,
 more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This abrupt contrast between thematically derived passages is a particularly Brahmsian touch
(the F Minor Quintet begins with the same contrast) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody will be presented before a second subject, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola, soon enveloped by yet another utterly scrumptious piano figuration. Dvořák’s textural inventiveness is limitless.

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 to merge imperceptibly into the recapitulation. The movement is crowned by an extended coda that drives relentlessly to its conclusion with all the propulsive energy of a Rossini overture.

The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought’, and the lonely, pensive 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 more 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, pleading, 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 second 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 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.

This movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a viable replacement for prescription antidepressants.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

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