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Program Notes: Benjamin Beilman, violin with Yekwon Sunwoo, piano

Franz Schubert

Sonata in A major D574

The adolescent Schubert was a busy young man indeed. Fresh from single-handedly inventing the 19th-century German art song (the Lied) at the tender age of 17, he subsequently developed a teenage crush on the violin which in the space of 18 months moved him to compose no less than 4 sonatas for the instrument, as well as a set of violin duets and two works for violin and orchestra.

These youthful exploits on both the vocal and instrumental fronts are not unconnected. Schubert’s Sonata in A major (1817) takes every opportunity to turn this stringed instrument into a salon vocalist in textures that highlight the violin’s capacity to sing, while not neglecting its other persona as a fleet-footed scampering elf.

The Sonata’s Allegro moderato first movement opens in a relaxed vein with a gently loping piano figure over which the violin breathes out a genial, long-limbed melody that seems never to want to end. A reasonable facsimile of a Beethovenian development section diverts our attention to a bit of knitting that needs doing on the ravelled sleeve of care, but Schubert’s heart really isn’t into confrontation so he returns as soon as possible to the lyric impulse of the opening in a recapitulation that floats blissfully back to the world of song.

Where Schubert more successfully channels Beethoven is in the Presto second movement scherzo, full of irregular phrase lengths, dynamic contrasts and harmonic surprizes, with a jumpy violin part leaping in every which direction. The middle-section trio is, by contrast, coyly chromatic, all eyebrows in its pursuit of melodic nuance.

Schubert surprises us with a moderately paced Andantino third movement instead of the traditional deeply lyrical adagio. Lyrical melody is indeed the initial starting point, but this movement has more on its mind than simple songfulness and plays out much in the way of a dramatic scene between violin and piano.

The Allegro vivace finale returns to the spirit of the scherzo with upward darting piano figures and a restless urge to acrobatics in the violin, all of these high jinks alternating with less frenzied moments of tuneful gaiety.

Leoš Janáček

Sonata for Violin & Piano

The music of Janáček has many wondrously strange qualities. Intimate and yet oddly exotic, it sits stylistically on the border between Eastern and Western Europe. One hears the thrum of the Moravian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) but filtered through a misty veil of French impressionism. This is music of great terseness and concentration, its emotional intensity deriving from its use of short motives, often repeated, and swift changes of tempo. A frequent device is the three-note “hook-motive” consisting of three notes connected by a short interval followed by a long interval.

Just such a motive provides the principal melodic material for the first movement of this sonata. Presented both in long lyrical quarter notes and brief, aphoristic 32nds, it is woven densely through the fabric of the entire movement in constantly varied form. Notable in the piano part is the vibrating hum of the dulcimer, conveyed in tremolos and gestures reminiscent of that hammered instrument.

The same compositional process of continually varying a short repeated melodic motive is used in the second movement, as well, but to more lyrical ends. In this movement two theme threads of repeated motives are varied in turn, but at a more leisurely pace than in the previous movement. Harp-like piano arpeggios of the utmost delicacy give the central episode an admirable simplicity and charm.

The Allegretto third movement is structured in the A-B-A form of a traditional scherzo, with lively rambunctious music in the A section and a B section of a more sustained lyrical quality. Notable is how the piano still thinks it’s a dulcimer, buzzing away at the opening with a sonority-building left-hand trill and later hammering out its modal melody with a blunt force of attack.

The sonata ends with an Adagio final movement based on the implications of yearning contained in the piano’s opening 4-note phrase. At first reluctant to join in the reverie, the violin lets the piano take the lead, but then gets drawn into the lyrical up-draught and takes over the 4-note phrase as its own to make it soar over an outpouring of throbbing tremolos in the piano. Its fever spent, the movement’s emotional intensity drains away to an enigmatically quiet end.

Béla Bartók

Sonata No. 2 Sz 76

While Bartók’s ethnomusicological research into Hungarian folk music left an identifiable mark on his own music, he was not writing directly in the folk idiom, but rather in a highly stylized version of that idiom. His melodies are much more complex, and certainly more chromatic than Hungarian folk melodies, and his harmonic structures equally so. This is quite evident in his technically challenging Violin Sonata No. 2, written in 1922.

The gypsy improvisational style of playing provides one of the most obvious connections between the music of the rural countryside and his artistic transformation of it in this sonata. There is a willfulness to this music, an amalgam of high seriousness and emotional volatility, conveyed by the many changes in tempo marked in the score, that makes it especially compelling to listen to.

The first movement opens with a single low note on the piano answered by pulsing repetitions on a single note much higher up in the violin that then lead to a series of improvisatory musings. The two performing instruments seem to be staking out separate sound domains for themselves. And indeed the violin in this sonata largely moves in long phrases of wide-ranging melody, with many searingly intense high held notes, while the piano moves in austerely structured chord patterns or percussive attacks. There is really very little musical material that the two instruments share between them although they do appear to be in dialogue, or at least motivated by the same waves of emotional intensity as they travel along.

The second movement, which follows immediately, is on a more regular rhythmic footing. The pulse of the dance animates much this movement, as well as a distinctly acrobatic urge on the part of both instruments as moments of madcap frenzy alternate with pauses for lyrical reflection. After many an exhilarating climax is reached the opening improvisatory musings in the violin return to wind down the momentum of the movement to a point of stillness. In the final bars the instruments retreat to the high and low extremes of the sound spectrum where they began at the sonata’s opening.

Franz Schubert

Rondo in B minor D 895

The name ‘Schubert’ is not one you would normally associate with virtuoso violin music but his Rondo in B minor, published in 1827 under the title Rondo brillant, makes a fair case for the connection. This work was a display vehicle written especially for the young Czech superstar violinist Josef Slavík (1806-1833), whom Chopin called “a second Paganini.”

Structured in two large parts, it features an introductory Andante followed immediately by an Allegro in sonata-rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), a hybrid of the simple rondo toggling between a fixed refrain and contrasting sections and the sonata, with its play of key relationships and central development section.

The Introduction begins imposingly with the double-dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture in the piano, answered by a pair of dazzling runs rocketing up to the high register – just to let you know who the star of the show is going to be. With the piano playing the role of orchestral straight man to the violin’s moody poet, more tuneful song-lines emerge to showcase the young fiddler’s finer sensibilities, although they are constantly being interrupted by stern double-dotted warnings from the fatherly piano.

The tension built up from this family drama is relieved when the Allegro gives both instruments common cause in propelling more uniformly rhythmic impulses to the fore. Although titularly in B minor, the main refrain theme of this rondo self-identifies as trans-tonal (the work actually ends in B major), but all such distinctions are rendered moot by the free and easy hand that Schubert uses when applying his modulatory magic.

The peppy dancelike air of the movement takes a military turn in the B theme and even the relatively more relaxed and lyrical C section can’t get a persistent dotted rhythm out of its head. A coda to rival that of any Rossini overture threatens the structural integrity of the roof, bringing the house down in a mad dash to the finish.

Program Notes: Caroline Goulding & Wenwen Du

Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in A major, BWV 1015

Before taking up his post as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728). The young Prince was of the Calvinist persuasion, and thus had little need for church music, but he was also an avid music-lover and a competent viola da gamba player who spent lavishly on a musical establishment, his Kapelle, that Bach directed from 1717 to 1723. And so it was that during his tenure there Bach composed the majority of his works for violin, including a good half-dozen sonatas for violin and keyboard.

The four movements of the Sonata in A major are laid out in the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the ‘church’ sonata (sonata da chiesa), so named for its generally abstract style, considered more suitable for performance in a solemn setting than the dance-dominated ‘chamber’ sonata (sonata da camera). In this work Bach writes in the prevailing style of the trio sonata—normally featuring a lead solo instrument accompanied by clearly subordinate harmonic in-fill on the keyboard and bass reinforcement by some low-sounding instrument—but he enriches the genre by creating three independent melodic lines on two instruments: the violin and the two hands of the keyboard player.

This is evident in the warmly gracious first movement (without tempo indication) which opens with a luxuriantly long-limbed melody, deliciously ambivalent in its rhythmic pulse (is it 6/8 or 3/4?), answered immediately in the keyboard’s right hand, and then again in the left. The deliberately varied mixture of note lengths and beat patterns encourages you to forget the passage of time while gracious details such as simultaneous chains of trills in both instruments add a decorative element of Roccoco refinement to the texture.

The Allegro assai second movement is much more strongly rhythmic and features the propulsive motoric rhythms of the concerto grosso, with the keyboard often taking the lead in a constant chatter of 16ths while the violin trots blithely along commenting in a uniform pattern of 8ths. The violin’s breathless volley of rapid-fire arpeggios in the middle section is reminiscent of a Brandenburg Concerto cadenza.

Gentle pathos and lyrical introspection mark the Andante un poco third movement in the minor mode. Plaintively vocal in style, this movement is nevertheless structured with astonishing rigour. Listen for the strict two-voice canon between the violin and keyboard’s right hand.

The final Presto is in two-part form (with repeats) like a dance movement, but elaborated in a free three-voice fugue texture in each half. In this concluding movement Bach manages to gift his pleasure-loving prince with a finale that combines regal dignity and courtly decorum with the toe-tapping cheerfulness of a folk tune suitable for whistling.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2

In this sonata we catch Beethoven at the top of his game in a work of remarkable coherence, despite its wide variety of moods and wildly divergent styles of expression. Its outer movements, in particular, are chock-full of emotional mood swings while its inner movements simply wade ever deeper and deeper into the emotional tone they establish at their outset.

The piano is more than a full partner in the proceedings and its tone dominates the sonata as a whole. All four movements open with solo statements from the piano, and while the violin participates fully in the presentation and development of themes, it merely adds to, but never overshadows, the piano’s potential to create sonic theatre on its own terms. The piano purrs and growls in this work. It skips, it hops. By turns it whistles a merry tune and then tenderly pleads for understanding. The work of giving a place to the keyboard in the violin sonata, begun by Bach, is complete in this C minor sonata.

Of course, the key signature of C minor in Beethoven is tantamount to an in-flight announcement to fasten your seat-belt and expect turbulence. And Ludwig van B. does not disappoint. The work opens in a mood of mystery and quiet urgency with a furtive chordal motive in the piano that turns into a menacing murmur surging up from the bass at the entry of the violin. Strident, sabre-slashing chords mark the transition to the second theme that (anticlimactically) turns out to be a pert little military march, reminiscent of Non più andrai, the bass aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro evoking Cherubino’s future life in the army. The opera parallel continues as this theme then moves to the bass to rumble around in classic opera buffa style. Throughout the movement high drama plays out next to good-natured buffoonery, interspersed with passages of sheer rhythmic exhilaration. Beethoven clearly loves his material here and won’t let it go, plunging into an almost developmental coda of some length before the final chords of this movement.

The Adagio cantabile that follows paints a noble portrait of deep-seated emotion lacquered over, and held in check, by aristocratic restraint, its opening gesture of pleading repeated notes suggesting far more than the elegant, balanced phrases of its melody can express. Violin and piano become ever more texturally entwined as the movement progresses, with the piano eventually contributing a rich carpet of sweeping and swirling figurations beneath the cantilena of the violin above.

The Scherzo simply oozes with personality of a goofy, knuckle-headed sort that wins you over immediately. Its chirpy high spirits and galumphing rhythm, with phrases neatly cut up into bite-size pieces, bespeaks the country yokel but its playful toying with the metrical accent gives a hint of a winking intelligence lurking behind this pose, especially when the trio turns out to be in canon.

The sonata-rondo finale returns to the arena of high-tension theatre, beginning with its very first bars: a bass rumble that crescendos to explode into an exclamation point in the higher register, followed by hushed chords tiptoeing through the mid-range. It is hard not to think that in the many contrasting sections of this rondo, in its quicksilver alternations of major and minor mode, its deadpan changes of mood between high drama and skippy-dippy cheerfulness, Beethoven might well be having a laugh at the expense of sonata form itself.

 

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. 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 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.

It has been suggested that the title ‘sonata’ is equivalent here to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting. It simply refers to an absence of acknowledged subject matter, meaning that there was no ‘picture’ in mind when writing it. Others see Debussy as returning to the time of Rameau, when the term ‘sonata’ was used to mean simply a purely instrumental piece, something played rather than sung, but not necessarily a work following a prescribed formal plan.

Whatever the significance of the label, we find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this work, 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.

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. This melodic rocking motion—in 3rds, in 4ths and then in 5ths— repeats often in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone.

The second movement 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 finale, Très animé, opens with a display of piano bravura, answered in the violin with the opening melody of the first movement. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Béla Bartók
Rhapsody No.
1 Sz. 87

Bartók was not only a gifted composer and an accomplished pianist but also a dedicated ethnomusicologist who travelled deep into the rural outback of his native Hungary and surrounding regions to make recordings of villagers singing and playing the traditional music of their local areas. The authentic, raw-edged musical culture of turn-of-the-century peasant life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is captured in these recordings, but it is also heard in the many works that Bartók composed based on the melodies and rhythms collected on these ethnomusicological field trips.

His first Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, composed in 1928, is one of these. Structured in two movements in the slow-fast (lassú-friss) pattern of Hungarian folk music, this work seeks to meld the disparate worlds of Eastern European village fiddling and Western European concert life. The style of violin playing is heavily influenced by the capricious improvisatory showmanship of Gypsy fiddle-playing while the piano, resonant with dense tone clusters, jangles with the metallic timbre of a rag-tag village band.

The first movement Lassú presents a strutting rising-scale melody in the Lydian mode (think: C major scale with F# instead of F) over a plodding piano part rife with drone tones, often more a sonic drum-beat than a melodic line. A middle section offers lyric contrast with a plangent lament derived from a Transylvanian folk tune, full of rhythmic ‘snaps’ in a quick short-long pattern.

The Friss is a series of dance tunes with no overall formal structure other than that of continually building up excitement, accelerando, till the end. The violin in this movement is pushed to ever greater exertions of virtuosic showmanship in pursuit of its rhapsodic goals. (Is it just me, or is the first tune not a dead ringer for the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”?)

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program notes: Doric String Quartet

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2

Those of us wondering in our spare moments what a happy retirement consists of might do well to consider the case of one Franz Joseph Haydn, whose life in the years 1796-97, when his collection of six string quartets Op. 76 was written, offers a model of retired bliss. The period of the 1790s saw Haydn’s official career as an active court composer for the Esterhazy family drawing to a close and his status as an international musical celebrity take flight in earnest. After two tours of England (1791-92 and 1794-95), he returned to Vienna a wealthy man, free to compose whatever he wished, whenever he wished, and his writing for string quartet bears the marks of this newfound personal liberty.

The six quartets of Op. 76 are widely regarded as the supreme accomplishment of Haydn’s career as a string quartet composer. They fulfill Goethe’s wish that a string quartet be a “civilized conversation between four independent personalities.” And yet they are more than that.

The personal stamp that Haydn put on these works prefigures tendencies which would later characterize the work of his young student, Beethoven. The first
 of these was a new level of seriousness in musical expression. No longer was Haydn’s audience presented with music of such courtesy and deference that it could easily be thrust into the background of the social setting which it graced. This was music that demanded the full concentrated attention of its listeners. Emblematic of this new seriousness was an increased use of the minor mode, a denser fabric of motives in the musical texture, and a general shifting of the centre of gravity in sonata- form movements towards the development section, where the ‘churn’ of motivic interplay dominated the proceedings.

All of these tendencies are on full display in the second of the Op. 76 quartets, nicknamed the ‘Fifths’ quartet in recognition of the intensity with which its falling fifth motive echoes throughout the first movement (occurring more than 100 times, by a rough count). Indeed, the degree to which it keeps occurring throughout the entire exposition, like a gravy boat continually passed around a table of dinner guests, has caused scholars to disagree on just where the ‘second subject’ begins, if there is one at all. And the development section only increases the density of motivic reference by adding inversions and strettos into the mix. With falling fifths ricocheting off every wall, the need to ‘re-introduce the theme’ to the listener is reduced and so the recapitulation is short, but a coda of renewed developmental vigour (also to become a Beethovenian characteristic) keeps tension high till the final emphatic chords.

A relaxed and gracious second movement, a theme 
and variations, offers an opportunity to lower the 
blood pressure somewhat. Yet within the diminutive confines of this simple theme, Haydn finds a wealth of possibilities for variety and tonal interest, dipping now and then into the minor mode and providing many a florid vamp at the top of the texture for the first violin. Attentive listeners will also notice a few sly references to the first movement’s falling fifths.

The third movement Minuetto returns to the minor mode, which along with Haydn’s use of severe contrapuntal procedure (its outer sections being in strict two-voice canon), has earned this movement
its own nickname: the Witch’s Canon. Who knew that witches were so learned? The austerely elegant minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 provides an interesting precedent for such an intensely contrapuntal, minor-mode take on this courtly dance. But then again, it might well be that Haydn is simply sending up the genre rather than offering a demonic variant of it.

The trio provides much needed relief in the major mode, but brings playful surprises of its own in the form of
a clock-like tick-tocking, as rhythmically rigid as the framing opening and closing sections are melodically severe, and an almost gypsy-like alternation between the major and minor mode.

All pretense of gravitas is abandoned in the last movement, however, which unfolds in a rollicking sonata-form movement with many a coy pause along the way. Even the minor mode has lost its tragic edge here in favour of a Mendelssohnian-style merry scamper that finally comes out of the closet to end the work in a bright and buoyant D major.

 

THOMAS ADÈS
The Four Quarters Op. 28

The multi-award-winning British composer, pianist
 and conductor Thomas Adès is a towering figure in contemporary music. A major factor in his success is that despite the modernity of his musical language, he writes from inside, and from well inside, the classical tradition, always anchoring his listener’s attention in some element of the aurally familiar. One finds within his works clearly defined melodies walking abreast with lively contrapuntal side-chatter. Musical connoisseurs will raise an eyebrow of discerning interest to discover canons and ostinati pulsing within his most embroiled textures, even while their toes prove unable to resist tapping in the face of repeated rhythmic invitations to the dance.

And he writes in the traditional genres of the classical canon. His list of works includes operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, pieces for solo piano,
and choral anthems. His sonorities, moreover, are full and resonant but, like those of Stravinsky, elegantly transparent and easy to ‘parse’ in the ear.

One never has the suspicion, when listening to his music, that he is trying to evoke the sound of an SUV driven, in tragic error, through the plate glass window of a Tim Horton’s, or to broadcast the unfiltered sonic output of radio waves received from deep space by the Hubble telescope. These things Mr. Adès does not attempt. And a grateful world thanks him for his restraint.

The crowning virtue of his compositional creed is that he composes entirely for natural instruments, without resorting to the sort of electronic gadgetry and digital trickery that have become such a blight upon the aural landscape of our time. He seeks to ‘update’ (to use his term) traditional music-making, not destroy it, nor supplant it with technology. When in need of new orchestral sounds, for example, he prefers to have his musicians scrub a washboard, rattle a bag of metal knives and forks, or lower a vibrating gong into a bowl of water rather than have them twiddle a dial, tap an electric foot-pedal, or slouch over a laptop as if absorbed in a computer game.

The Four Quarters was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and was premiered there by the Emerson Quartet in March 2011. The work takes as its subject the passage of time during a 24-hour period, with each of its four movements, or ‘quarters’, evoking a distinct time of day.

We start our journey in the late evening with a movement entitled Nightfalls, a curious plural of mysterious import. The sound of the strings, played at the opening without vibrato, is as raw as the night is dark. While the mood is meditative to begin with, the sudden dramatic contrasts of loud and soft that follow hint at the unsettling presence of things that go bump in the night.

The second movement Serenade: Morning Dew suggests in its opening pizzicato section the arrival of water droplets on the fronds and leafy limbs of outdoor plant life, and hints in its bowed sections at the glints of sunlight arriving with the dawn of a new day.

Days, another curious title in the plural, brings us to noon and beyond. Largely structured around a syncopated ostinato rife with repeated notes in the second violin, it builds to a climax in which all instruments play in unison before trailing off as they head their separate ways.

The Twenty-Fifth Hour is an impossible time of day, a fact given whimsical acknowledgement in its almost- impossible time signature: 25/16, which is divided up into repeating sections of 2/4 + 3/16 and 2/4 + 6/16. The simple dance-like quality with which it begins belies the treacherous difficulty of the alternating harmonics and stopped notes that generate its ‘yodeling’ timbral charm. The movement churns to its conclusion in the second half over throbbing sustained double-stops in the cello that nudge the increasingly acquiescent and peaceable musings of its non-knee-held colleagues ebbing towards a soft but nonetheless shocking (for contemporary music) conclusion: a major chord.

 

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130

Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, written in 1825, is a massive work comprising six movements and lasting
a good three quarters of an hour. It is also considered one of the most head-scratching, enigmatic works in the classical canon, one that has baffled musicologists and music theorists to this day.

The aspect of the work most responsible for uniting fingernail to hair follicle in a scratching motion is the last movement, the so-called ‘Great Fugue,’ a work of such formal extravagance that it moved Beethoven’s publisher to tactfully suggest that the composer might wish to replace it with something a tad more … digestible. Which he did, in fact, writing a traditional finale for the first publication of the quartet in 1826 and leaving the original Grosse Fuge to be published separately as his Op. 133.

This evening, however, the work is being performed according to its original conception and there is much to recommend this decision. For all its small-scale difficulties (the bizarre dynamic markings, changes in metre and abrupt changes in tone and mood) the large- scale shape of this work, as originally conceived, is clear. While it may be a hard nut to crack, the nut is clearly divided into an intellectually engaging outer ‘shell’ (the first and last movements) and a meaty inner ‘core’ of rewarding musical ‘nuggets’ (the four movements in between).

The two outer movements are really musical hybrids, ‘fantasies’ masquerading as more serious musical forms: the first movement is in ‘sonata drag’ while the last is
a fugue at a masked ball, changing masks faster than a flirt changes dance partners. These outer movements are colourfully ‘contrasty’ (to use Joseph Kerman’s term) while the four inner movements are remarkably uniform, each picking a single mood and sticking with
it. The outer movements flash with the dazzling charm of the fast card trick while the inner movements grab the heart in an ever-closer embrace of simple nourishing emotion.

It’s quite a ride, this quartet. So here is your dance card.

The first movement begins with a question of musical etiquette. The slow introduction to a sonata-form first movement as used, for example, in Haydn’s Symphonies 101 and 104, or Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 7, is meant to ease you gently and solemnly into the sound world of the piece you are about to hear, which normally takes off like a scalded cat once this introductory function is fulfilled. It’s like an usher who shows you ceremonially to your seat and then leaves you to enjoy your evening’s entertainment, never to be heard from again. Said usher is not expected to sit down beside you and interrupt every time a stray thought enters his head.

And yet, that is just what the slow introduction to this movement does. No sooner have you left behind the tender musings that open the work, and you start to follow the spiffy tumbling 16th-note figures of the movement’s first subject, than the slow introduction pops up again after a few bars to say ‘You know, I was just thinking …’ and then promptly disappears again. Very odd. Anyone who has sat beside a talkative stranger of questionable marble-count on public transit will know just how awkward these situations can quickly become.

But no matter, the exposition finally gets underway in earnest with a vigorously pursued agenda of constantly chattering 16ths which finally give way to a slower, more vocally-inspired second subject in longer note values. At the traditional repeat of the exposition, however, up pops your slow-introduction usher again to show you to your seat (the one you are already occupying) as if the two of you had never met. Within the frame
of expectations of the sonata-consuming public, it all seems like some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, an impression reinforced when the slow introduction returns to seat you yet a third time for the development section.

By now, however, this is the least of your problems. The development section that follows is one of Beethoven’s strangest. A ‘development’ is normally the place where all the musical washing is done as the preceding thematic material is sudsed up right proper and put through the contrapuntal wringer. But this development section is the least active segment of the whole movement, seeming more like an eerie moonwalk of trance-like calm, numbly self-absorbed in its own obsessive rocking rhythm.

And yet a perfectly normal recapitulation sets you back on familiar ground. But just as things are
drawing to a close, here once again comes the slow introduction interrupting every effort to keep the music moving forward, until finally cooler heads prevail and the musical conversation comes to a rousing conclusion.

All this might seem the height of musical impudence, but Beethoven has done this before, in one of his earliest works. His Pathétique Sonata in C minor,
Op. 13, features a slow introduction that occurs, and interrupts, in exactly the same three places within 
the first movement. A new twist on an old trick? It is quite possible that Beethoven, in melding the sectional surprises of the ‘fantasy’ genre onto the staid moorings and weight-bearing architecture of the traditional sonata, is having just a wee bit of fun here, playing peek-a-boo from behind the pillars of this musical structure, as it were, in the style of his teacher Haydn, the pranksterish inventor of the ‘false recapitulation’.

The much more straightforward inner movements begin with a furtively whispered Presto that gives every indication of wanting to be a full-on scherzo in ternary form, but its ‘trio’ middle section provides little by way of contrast. Despite its minor-mode seriousness and breathless heartbeat rhythm, the mood is more determined than grim, yet even that may be just a pose. Its quick, double-hairpin dynamic markings add a humorous ‘leering’ quality to the phrasing that the written-out glissandos in the 1st violin almost push to an open giggle of glee.

The charm offensive begins in earnest in the 3rd movement Andante, where we find ourselves more than halfway to the Viennese whipped cream that Brahms serves up in his most sumptuous slow movements. The wonderfully unbuttoned easy-breathing melody that begins in the viola and then
is taken up by the 1st violin evokes a pleasant walk in the park, the walking pace reinforced by a constant metronomic tick-tock in the accompaniment. The occasional jarring note squealed out by the 1st violin, as if someone had just pinched his bottom, reveals, perhaps, the meaning of the indication Poco scherzoso at the beginning of the movement.

The 4th movement Alla tedesca takes lilting to a whole new level in its ever more sophisticated textural treatments and melodic variations of a nostalgically simple tune, reminiscent of a waltz. Its charm is such that if there is one tune you will be found humming
in the shower tomorrow, it’s this one. A little game of ‘Who’s got the theme?’ arrives at the end, with each instrument taking a single bar of the tune (and not even in the right order) to round out the movement on a note of wit and whimsy.

We arrive at the warm beating heart of this quartet in its 5th movement, the operatically named Cavatina, and what a wellspring of operatic emotion it is. You can easily visualize the scene, with a single pensive character inhabiting a pool of light in the middle of
the stage. Beethoven confessed that he could never think of this movement without weeping, and the score bears every mark of the emotion he felt: the low tessitura of the two violins, the sigh motives on first beats of the bar, the reluctance to cadence, and, above all, the unrestrained pathos of the section marked Beklemmt, in which the 1st violin breaks away to sob openly in front of its companions.

This Cavatina was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on the Golden Record placed on the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977, meant to convey the heights of human achievement to whatever intelligent life form might find them.

The Grosse Fuge last movement, by contrast, has seemed to many to have charted the opposite path, arriving to us on earth from somewhere deep in outer space. Indeed, musical analysts with cranial cavities considerably larger than that of the present writer have spent many an hour that could more profitably have been spent sorting laundry in an attempt to understand what are referred to as the ‘problems of continuity’ in this movement, as if its overall form constituted some sort of compositional speech impediment that needed to be excused or explained.

Perhaps it is the sheer scale of this movement, in all dimensions, that so baffles the musical pundits. Was the great composer responding to an inner voice asking: “Would you like to supersize that fugue?” The movement occupies fully one third of the quartet’s entire length, and its range of expression is nothing if not extreme, with dramatically large leaps peppering the melodic outline of its fugue subject, and dynamic indications such as ff, f and sf profusely scattered throughout the score, sometimes on every beat for pages on end.

Worse still, the question of musical etiquette posed
in the first movement seems to have progressed into
a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder,
given the way the piece opens. There was, after all, no tradition of starting a fugue with a slow introduction, or an introduction of any kind whatsoever. And yet
as the finale opens (under the grandiose name of Overtura) we are served up a series of short thematic statements, each abandoned immediately after a single phrase, like someone changing TV channels with the remote every 5 or 6 seconds. Each short phrase is in a different rhythm, and has a different character.

First comes (a) a bold, strident declaration in half notes comprising an odd mix of gaping intervals and stepwise motion, ending in a trill, then (b) an almost flippant, skippy-dippy version of the same melodic intervals, but in a triplet rhythm, then (c) a more soothing placid variant of these, then (d) the same melodic intervals again, chopped up and separated by rests, before the arrival of (e) a jagged-edged, wildly leaping fugue theme, using the ‘chopped up’ theme as its countersubject.

Has Beethoven gone barking mad? Crazy like a fox, I would say. When starting out on a movement of such breathtaking length, what better way to prepare the listener for the arduous road ahead than to provide a ‘table of contents’ indicating the various transforms of the theme to be encountered along the way?

In writing this ‘fugal fantasy’ Beethoven not only treats his material according to standard fugal procedures (stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc.), he combines these with the processes of sonata development, as well, creating as wildly different versions of his melodic material as he can devise, and announcing the major variants at the outset. Then, just as he did in the Fifth Symphony, he proceeds in the course of the movement to delete notes from his theme to make it splinter into shorter and shorter fragments, until finally the texture is reduced to a series of duelling trills, like two dogs snarling at each other in a dispute over a bone.

The result is an uninhibited virtuosic display of compositional mastery, an 1812 Overture of intellectual fireworks unique in the literature of Western music.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF

Eugène Ysaÿe


Sonata for solo violin in G minor, Op. 27, No. 1

Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe stands as
a bridge figure between the late Romantic era of virtuoso violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski (he studied with both of them), and twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, whom he championed.
Much loved by violinists and composers alike, he pushed the technique of the violin to new heights, while at the same time promoting a style of playing that was perfectly idiomatic for his instrument. He was, in short, the violinist’s violinist.

Ysaÿe is said to have been inspired to write his Six Sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27, after hearing a concert
by the violinist Josef Szigeti, in 1923. Each sonata in the series was written in honour of the style of contemporary violinists whom he knew. The Sonata No. 1 in G minor was dedicated to Szigeti himself, a scholarly, intellectual kind of player, well known for his performances of unaccompanied Bach. And, in fact, the movement structure of this first sonata of the Op. 27 series bears much in common with that of Bach’s own solo violin sonatas.

The opening of the first movement, despite its modernist harmonic vocabulary, is texturally very reminiscent of the triple- and quadruple-stop chordal texture that Bach used in his slow movements (e.g., the opening movement of the C major sonata that follows), with imitative melodies nestled inside the chordal architecture. This Bachian imitative texture alternates in the course of the movement withmore rhapsodic passages, rife with hair-raising technical difficulties. Noteworthy at the end of the movement are the tremolo double stops played sul ponticello.

Most Bachian of all in this sonata is the Fugato second movement, which features two-voice fugal-type entries in regular alternation with episodes in contrasting textures. Straining at the outer limits of violin technique are the six- (yes, you read that right, six) note chords on the final page.

The Allegretto poco scherzoso, marked amabile, is certainly likeable, to be sure. Its predictable, almost whistle-able tune, featuring a coy triplet figure imitated between the top and bottom layers of the texture, might even set your foot a-tapping. Its contrasting sections are indeed just that: one of them in parallel fourths and fifths is strongly reminiscent of Debussy.

If a Baroque model were to be proposed for the brashly rhythmic Allegro fermo last movement, it would have
to be the equally strutting Gavotte from Bach’s French Suite No. 5. Operating under the premise that one note should never be used when three would do, Ysaÿe ends his sonata with a burst of blunt rhythmic energy that pays homage to the hemiola patterns of Baroque rhythm, while fully engaging the aspirations of the modern virtuoso violinist.

 

J. S. Bach


Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005

If polyphonic music was not meant to be played on the violin, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t get the e-mail. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006, completed sometime before 1720, reveal clearly the scope of his ambition in this regard. The six works in the collection are admired today not just for their ingenious exploitationof the multi-voice capabilities of the instrument, but also for their skillful control of melodic lines and impressive large- scale musical architecture.

Strangely enough, these pieces, which form the bedrock of the modern violin repertoire, were virtually unknown until violinist Joseph Joachim began playing them towards the end of the nineteenth century. The recordings he made
of some of them in 1903, available on You Tube, make for fascinating listening.

The Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, stands apart from the set by its sheer scale. Written in the four- movement pattern of the sonata da chiesa (slow-fast-slow- fast), its first two movements are paired as a prelude and fugue while its last two present the violin in the roles of lyric singer and virtuoso performer.

The Adagio that opens the work features a pervasive dotted rhythm. This droning uniformity of this rhythmic pulse, while giving the movement an air of solemnity, also serves to throw into relief the non-rhythmic elements at play in this movement (e.g., how the amount of sound issuing from the instrument expands dramatically within a few bars from a single note to a full quadruple-stop chordal texture). With rhythmic variety largely factored out of the listening experience, the ear is all the more drawn, as well, to how the harmonic patterns of tension and release propel musical interest forward. The well-known Prelude in C major from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier features just this type of rhythmic uniformity, used in the same way.

The mighty jaw-dropping fugue that follows is where unwary listeners of a certain age are advised to keep a close grip on their dentures. At 354 measures, this surely must count as one of the longest fugues ever written. Its fugue subject is taken from the opening phrase of the chorale, Komm, heiliger Geist, and its countersubject is a series of evenly descending chromatic half notes – at least that’s how it starts out. About halfway through, Bach ups the intellectual ante in a passage marked al reverso, in which the fugue subject and its countersubject look
in the mirror and suddenly become the inverse of what they started out to be: the countersubject now climbs by chromatic half notes, and every note of the subject is the mirror opposite of what it was before. A literal repeat of the opening fugal exposition rounds off the work, providing structural balance to its musical architecture.

Lyric relief comes in the Largo, a simple aria sung out in a two-voice texture with balanced phrases and with a clear harmonic underpinning. The last movement, Allegro assai, is a tour de force of implied part-writing, spinning its two- and three-voice textures at dazzling speed out of a single running line.

 

György Kurtág


From Signs, Games and Messages

Signs, Games and Messages is a cycle of musical aphorisms which Hungarian composer György Kurtág 
has been amassing for decades, a collection which he
is constantly revising and adding to. These brief musical thoughts have been compared to short “diary entries” but their intensity is anything but casual. As a fervent admirer of both J. S. Bach and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Kurtág uses the very brevity of these emotionally raw, often playful pieces to hint at a more timeless dimension of existence.

In the words of the American composer Stephen Eddins: “Each movement takes a striking, attention-grabbing idea,plays with it very briefly and then moves on before it wears out its welcome.”

 

Bela Bartók


Sonata for unaccompanied violin

This work was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin (1916- 1999) and premiered by him in 1944 at a concert inCarnegie Hall, attended by the composer. A “fiendishly difficult work” is how the conductor Antal Dorati described it. Menuhin himself confessed that he blanched when he first saw the score: “it seemed to me almost unplayable,” he wrote in his memoirs.

The chief difficulties of the piece result not just from the thickness of its multiple-stop texture and unconventional harmonic vocabulary, but also from the densely contrapuntal writing that characterizes much of the score. As the writer of one doctoral dissertation on the work’s thorny technical challenges dryly observed: “It is not very common for violin players to practice dissonant double- stops such as major and minor seconds, tritones and ninths, in their daily practice routine”.

Given the fiercely contrapuntal nature of the texture, it should not be surprising that the shadow of Bach hovers majestically over the work as a whole. Its overall design
in four movements – with a fugal second movement, a lyrical third movement, and a fleet-paced fourth – parallels that of works such as Bach’s Sonata in C major, BWV1005. Moreover, the stately rhythm of its opening Tempo di ciaccona pays tribute to the famous chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV 1004.

The first movement is not a chaconne, however. The term merely refers to the pace of the movement, not its formal design. It is, in fact, in sonata form, with a descending melodic pattern as its second theme and a development section much obsessed with the double-dotted rhythmic figure of the opening.

The second movement has been described as a “fugal fantasy” rather than a strict fugue. Characterized by Menuhin as “the most aggressive, even brutal music,that I play,” this movement gives the measure of how radically different Bartók’s take on fugal procedure is from the Baroque view of the genre as an ingenious Times crossword puzzle in music.

The third movement, Melodia, is a lyrical modernist aria
in A-B-A form that never rises above the dynamic level
of mezzo piano. The opening section is monophonic,
its melody haunted by eerie echoes in harmonics. The contrasting B section is largely written in double stops with a near-constant flutter of tremolos.

The last movement is a rondo which alternates a moto perpetuo in sixteenth-note motion with sections of a more varied rhythmic and textural character. Given the acerbic harshness of the harmonic vocabulary in this work, the question has been asked: is the pure G major chord that ends this movement ironic?

 

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

 

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PINCHAS ZUKERMAN & YEFIM BRONFMAN


Franz Schubert

Sonatina for violin & piano in A minor  D. 385

It humbles me to think, paraphrasing Tom Lehrer, that when Schubert was my age, he had already been dead for several decades.  Lest I forget, there are his first three sonatas for violin and piano, which he composed in a sprint of creative friskiness during the spring of 1816, at the tender age of 19.  Youthful as these works may be, their naïve charm shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the models left by Mozart, and something of the path being charted by Beethoven, whose work he much admired.

But why, enquiring minds will want to know, are these works known as sonatinas when they have every claim to the more dignified title of sonata?  The answer lies in their publication history.  In the bohemian margins of Viennese life in which young Franz lived, not every work issuing from his pen found a place in print, at least not during his lifetime.  In fact most didn´t.  The manuscripts were gradually fed to publishers after his death and it was they, the publishers, who christened them with names suitable to the market of the time. So the works which Schubert himself referred to as his violin sonatas, when published by Anton Diabelli in 1836 as the composer’s Op. 137, were marketed as “Sonatinas” in order to plump up sales in the expanding market for amateur music-making.

The choice of A minor as the key of the second in this set is a nod toward Beethovenian drama.  Even more so is the opening texture of half notes against a throbbing left-hand chordal accompaniment, immediately recognizable from the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1.  Also dramatically Beethovenian are the widely spaced intervals of the piano´s melodic line, followed by wider, even more daring leaps in the violin.  It is not long, however, before Schubert’s characteristic songfulness surfaces in the tuneful second theme, following which a fair bit of fan-fluttering in the piano texture completes the musical material treated in this sonata-form movement. The development section is short and uneventful, the recapitulation without surprizes.

The second movement Andante opens with a melody of great dignity and poise.  Constructed out of simple note values and expressively ending its phrases with feminine endings, this melody gives the violin ample scope to charm the ear with its singing tone.  A contrasting section with more varied harmonic colouring and smaller note values alternates with the opening theme to create a formal structure of balanced repose.

The Menuetto is diminutive in form and emotional range. While formally in a frowning D minor it constantly wants to lean over and smell the roses in F major.

The last movement is the most compositionally intense of the work.  Although it opens in the manner of the other movements with a simple singable melody, it soon works itself into a froth of thematic development that lets us know who studied counterpoint, and who didn´t.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata for violin & piano in C minor  Op. 30 No. 2

You are always in for a good ride when Beethoven writes in C minor.  There is something about this key that brings out his ‘classic’ persona as the composer capable of developing fragmentary, enigmatic utterances into explosions of fist-shaking defiance. And more often than not, he also surprizes us with his grandeur of spirit by offering remarkable displays of lyrical eloquence, and even playful humour, in the same work.

On this score, the Sonata in C minor Op. 30, No. 2 will not disappoint.  Its tense and brooding outer movements enclose two much more unbuttoned inner movements that provide repose and distraction from the overarching mood of psychological turmoil. Composed in the spring of 1802 under the composer’s recognition of his increasing deafness, the three sonatas of Op. 30 were published the following year as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.”

This decades-old naming practice points back to a time when free-standing piano sonatas were published with an optional, and relatively easy violin part patched over top to provide increased opportunities for participation in a home-entertainment setting.  Beethoven’s violin part, however, is anything but optional or amateur in nature.  It dialogues fully and freely with the piano throughout, and the number of double and triple stops in the score indicates clearly that it was composed for the professional violinist. That said, the wide-ranging piano part would have to count as the major contributor to the rich carpet of sound characterizing the work as a whole.

The first movement shows Beethoven playing with his thematic material like a cat playing with a mouse.  It opens with a menacing motive that ends with a throw-away gesture. Pauses add to the suspense until the violin takes up this material, with the piano rumbling below.  Contrast comes with the second theme, a simple little march of Mozartean stamp that adds a dotted rhythm to the movement’s thematic mix.  The exposition is not repeated but, as if by compensation, the recapitulation has an extended coda, an innovation that was to become a hallmark of Beethoven’s expansion of sonata form.

The second movement in ternary form is a study in calm, tranquil lyricism, its middle section exploring slightly more dark, minor-mode territory than its dignified opening theme.  Remarkable in this movement is the variety of decorative patterns that Beethoven finds to give a richly textured background to his melodies.

The third movement is an emotionally healthy scherzo in the untroubled key of C major, full of musical wit and compositional surprizes. The grace notes of the opening theme contribute to a skipping, tripping momentum that is quickly subverted by accents on unexpected beats of the bar.  The Trio plays humorous havoc with the squareness of its canonic melody by confusing the beat count with off-beat accents in the lead-up to the cadence.

Drama returns in a big way in the sonata-rondo finale.  It opens with a rumble and a harmonic hand grenade—an augmented 6th chord—tossed into the air, requiring immediate resolution to the dominant.  The intervening refrains are generally less confrontational, rarely rising above the threat-level of wicked merriment, but a furious coda reminds us never to underestimate the enormous reserves of emotional energy this composer has to draw on.

 

Johannes Brahms

Sonata for viola & piano in F minor  Op. 120, No. 1

We owe this sonata to the interest that Brahms had in the clarinet near the end of his life as a result of hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinet of the Meiningen court orchestra.  The two sonatas for clarinet or viola that he published in 1895 as his Op. 120 are among the very last works published during his lifetime, revealing his last thoughts on the form of the classical sonata.

The Sonata in F minor is a darkly lyrical work that exploits the low range of the viola. In the course of its four movements it moves from a mood of passionate yearning into steadily brighter emotional territory to end, exceptionally for a minor-key Brahms sonata, with a finale in the major mode.

We see the economy of Brahms’ musical thought at the very beginning of the first movement.  While the wide-ranging melody presented by the viola in bar 5 is the apparent main theme of the movement, it is the opening motive, the first four notes of the short piano introduction of bars 1-4, that dominates musical discussion from start to finish. This simple motive is still echoing in the ear at the end of the coda, marked Sostenuto ed espressivo.

The mood of calm reflection continues into the second movement, Andante un poco adagio.  Apart from the opening poco forte there are only two more bars of forte in the entire movement, which is dominated by the markings piano, dolce, espressivo and pianissimo.  Remarkable in this movement is the thinly textured piano part, a scoring that allows the viola to sing out melodically throughout. This is especially important when the opening melody is repeated later on in the lowest range of the instrument.

The Allegretto grazioso third movement sees Brahms at his most grandfatherly in an affectionate intermezzo that can’t help but tip occasionally into a lilting Austrian Ländler.  Even the darkish implications of its minor-mode middle section are lightened by the syncopated ‘rain-drop’ texture in the piano.

The bright mood so far established is given a firmer rhythmic base in the fourth movement, a rondo in the eye-brow-raising key of F major (for a sonata that began so seriously in F minor).  The three bell-like repeated notes announced at its opening pop up everywhere in this exuberant finale, which is flecked by quicksilver changes of harmonic colour and joyously chummy exchanges between the two instruments.

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D. 

Program Notes: Vilde Frang

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F major

Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto is such an established pillar of the standard repertory that it comes as a surprise to learn that this composer also wrote three sonatas for the instrument, although these are as obscure as the concerto is popular. The first, in F major, dates from 1820 when the composer was still a lad of eleven; the second, in F minor, was written five years later and published as Op. 4; and the third is a work of Mendelssohn’s maturity, written in 1838, but not published during the composer’s lifetime. This sonata was discovered only in 1953 by Yehudi Menuhin, who also introduced audiences to Mendelssohn’s early Violin Concerto in D minor. Of the sonata, Menuhin wrote that it “has the chivalrous romantic quality of the age that produced Schumann, the elegance and lightness of touch of the age inherited from Mozart, and in addition the perfect formal presentation which Mendelssohn himself drew from Bach.”

The sonata opens with a bold, striding subject, almost Schumannesque in its vigor, first for the piano alone, then for the violin accompanied by a torrent of arpeggios in the piano. The tightly-knit structure of this sonata soon becomes apparent as the first theme dissolves into the second, whose character is different (suavely lyrical) but whose rhythmic profile is based on that of the opening subject. The slow movement features music of ravishing sweetness, and the last scampers along with characteristic Mendelssohnian fleetness and lightness of touch.

 

Gabriel Fauré: Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, Op. 13

Gabriel Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms: piano pieces, chamber music, works for small chorus, and songs. In the larger forms he left a famous Requiem and two rarely-heard operas, Prométhée and Pénélope. The sonata we hear this afternoon, composed in 1876 and lasting nearly half an hour, is actually one of his largest pieces.

Fauré himself said that his music exemplified “the eminently French qualities of taste, clarity and sense of proportion.” He hoped to express “the taste for clear thought, purity of form and sobriety.” To these qualities we might add meticulous workmanship, elegance and refinement, for in all these respects his Violin Sonata Op. 13 certainly conforms.

“Schumannesque” is often used to describe the opening movement, not only for the music’s impassioned urgency, but for its sophisticated rhythmic layering, pervasive use of syncopation, and intricate mingling of the voices. The second movement, a barcarolle in D minor, offers some much needed relief. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name: stylish, witty, brittle, epigrammatic, and crackling with electricity are just a few of the descriptions that have been applied to this undeniably appealing music. The finale is another sonata-form movement with an unorthodox sequence of keys (again the Schumann influence).

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in A major, K. 305 (K. 293d)

Aside from the symphony, Mozart wrote more violin sonatas than any other type of music. More than forty sonatas survive, and they were written in every period of Mozart’s life, starting at age of six. Nearly half of the early sonatas are essentially keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, in which the violin merely doubles the melodic lines and adds incidental imitation and dispensable figuration. But beginning with the so-called “Palatinate” (or “Palatine”) Sonatas (K. 296 and K. 301-306), written in Paris during the first half of 1778, Mozart gave the violin a significantly greater role to play, drawing the two instruments closer to the equal partnership found in the late sonatas. The designation Palatinate refers to the dedicatee, Maria Elisabeth, wife of Carl Theodor, Elector of the Palatinate (a region in western Germany adjoining France).

Brilliance, energy and much unison writing mark the first movement, whose exuberance is relieved only during the gentle second theme. It is in standard sonata form, with a short but harmonically adventurous development section. The second movement is a theme and variations set. The theme is, as violinist Abram Loft puts it, “all melting lyricism and grace.” The first of the six variations is for piano alone, the second involves many ornamental touches from the violin, the third consists of flowing triplets traded back and forth between the two instruments, the fourth has the violin playing a simple melodic line while the piano provides a luxuriant underlay, the fifth is in the minor mode, and the sixth brings the sonata to a joyous conclusion.

 

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata no. 2 in D major, Op. 94a

September 1942 found Prokofiev in the far-off, exotic Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, where he was working with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Ivan the Terrible. Having a fair bit of free time on his hands, Prokofiev decided to use it to write something quite different from the film score he was preparing. With memories of the great French flutist Georges Barrère in his mind from his Paris years (1922-1932), Prokofiev sketched out a sonata for flute and piano, on which he put the finishing touches upon returning to Moscow the following year. The first performance was given in December by the flutist Nikolai Charkovsky and accompanied by Sviatoslav Richter. But scarcely anyone else seemed interested in the work, so when David Oistrakh suggested that Prokofiev turn it into a violin sonata, the composer eagerly agreed. In this form, the work bears opus number 94a (or 94bis). The first performance of the Violin Sonata took place on June 17, 1944, played by Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. (Prokofiev’s other violin sonata, No. 1, was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1946, well after the “second” sonata.

Prokofiev said he “wanted to write the sonata in a gentle, flowing classical style.” These qualities are immediately evident in the first movement, both of the principal themes are lyrical and eloquent. The Scherzo, in A minor, bubbles over with witty, energetic writing in the form of flying leaps, rapid register changes and strongly marked rhythms, while the brief, expressive slow movement possesses, in critic Alan Rich’s words, “the tenderness of a Mozartian andante.” The Finale goes through several changes of mood and tempo and, in the concluding pages, it hurtles along with a white-heat intensity to a thrilling close.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

PROGRAM NOTES: SITKOVETSKY TRIO

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor, Op. 101

This is the last work Brahms wrote for the piano trio. It is a magnificent work in every respect, from the sharply etched melodies to the concision and masterly manner in which they are handled. It is also one of Brahms’s most compact scores, tightly and concisely argued using a minimum of melodic substance developed with maximum efficiency. Brahms seemed to reserve C minor for some of his weightiest, most dramatic and gravely serious works – the First Symphony, the First String Quartet and the Third Piano Quartet come to mind. The first performances – in Hofstetten and Budapest that year – were private ones. The Trio’s official public premiere took place on February 26, 1887 in Vienna with members of the Heckmann Quartet and Brahms at the piano.

The very opening is sufficient to arrest the listener’s attention and hold it for the duration of the movement: a bold, even fierce gesture that biographer Malcolm MacDonald refers to as “explosive wrath.” This first subject consists of several elements, including a tautly rhythmic figure for the three instruments in unison. The second theme, though warmly lyrical, brings no relaxation of the tension and momentum.

The second movement, also in C minor, is mysterious, almost wraithlike, yet also of great delicacy. MacDonald calls it “a profoundly uneasy movement of grey half-lights, rapid stealthy motion, and suppressed sadness.” The central episode changes to block chords for the piano and pizzicato for the strings, but the mood remains subdued. The dynamic level rarely rises above piano.

The third movement’s main features are a relaxed mood of tenderness and natural simplicity with an antiphonal treatment of piano and strings and an irregular metre of 7/4. The key is now C major rather than C minor. For the central section the music moves into another rare metre, 15/8 (five equal groups of triplets).

The sonata-form finale returns to C minor and to the spirit of grim determination that dominated the first. As in the monumental First Symphony, drama and fury give way to radiant warmth, and C minor yields to C major in the final pages.

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, Op. 66

Six years after writing his first piano trio (1839), Mendelssohn produced a second. It was first performed on December 20, 1845 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn was serving as conductor of its famous orchestra. The musicians were the orchestra’s concertmaster Ferdinand David, cellist Franz Karl Witmann and the composer as pianist.

The first movement, in perfectly constructed sonata-form, opens with a restless, flowing subject for the piano, soon joined by the strings. The second subject is a glorious, life-affirming theme in E flat major. The exposition is not repeated, perhaps since the development section is so extensive and does such a thorough job of working out both themes with great inventiveness.

The slow movement offers a good measure of consolation after the relentless pace and intensity of the first. It is a three-part structure, with the outer ones gently songlike and set to the pervasive rhythmic pattern of short-long, short-long. The central section has a more flowing quality and is sustained by the piano’s continuous triplet figures.

The Scherzo flies by in a blizzard of notes. It is further characterized by much imitative writing and by a vaguely Hungarian gypsy flavor.

In its powerful sonorities, massive piano chords, extremes of range, seriousness of purpose and overall intensity, the finale seems to speak more of Brahms than of Mendelssohn. Another feature of this movement is the incorporation of a chorale-like theme that has had scholars searching intently for its German-Lutheran origin – in vain. The Trio concludes with an extensive, exuberant coda in C major that is nearly symphonic is scope.

 

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929)

If the public today holds a slight preference for the first of Schubert’s two piano trios, the one in B flat major, this is countered by Schubert’s own preference for the other, in E flat. Both reflect the composer’s study of similar works by Mozart and Beethoven in their refined compositional technique and equal partnership of three instruments. The first performance was given on the day after Christmas, 1827 at the Musikverein in Vienna. Exactly three months later, in the same hall, Schubert performed the piano part at the only public concert he ever gave. The concert was an artistic and financial success, but the event was never repeated.

Lasting about forty minutes in performance, the E flat Trio is longer than any Schubert symphony except the Great C major. Although it does not contain as many beguiling themes as does the B flat Trio, it has even fuller, almost symphonic textures with greater brilliance and more breadth to the development sections.

The first movement is constructed from four thematic ideas. The first of these, memorable as it is, and boldly stated in the opening bars, turns out to be the one Schubert employs the least, while the last of them is the one he exploits to the fullest. The melancholy cast of the slow movement derives from a Swedish ballad Schubert presumably borrowed after hearing a tenor sing it. The Scherzo is a canon, with close imitation between piano and strings, while its central Trio section takes on the quality of a waltz. The finale breathes an air of carefree charm and lightness, at least initially. The second theme offers marked contrast of mood, metre and key. The movement develops into one of the longest Schubert ever wrote, over a thousand measures in the original version, but even in reduced form, as commonly played today, it runs to nearly fifteen minutes. Schumann’s description of Schubert’s final symphony as being “of heavenly length” can again be invoked for the finale of the E flat trio.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Ning Feng

Program Notes: Ning Feng

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more sonatas appeared by early 1803, and one more in 1812. Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the harpsichord or fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was the case with most eighteenth-century works of this type, but hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. Graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance. Yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation. This sonata-form movement combines a number of musical ideas in an atmosphere of brilliance and strength. The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set in A major. Four variations, including one (the third) in the minor mode with extremes of dynamic contrast, are built from the sweetly tender theme. The finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and it incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.

Edward Elgar: Violin sonata in E minor, Op. 82
Elgar’s father, in addition to owning a music shop, tuned pianos and played the organ at church, so it was almost inevitable that young Edward would learn these instruments. But the violin was the instrument he truly loved. He played it in many amateur orchestras, and for a time planned on a solo career. Hence, it is not surprising to find a rather large number of works for violin from his early years as a composer. His first published piece was a Romance for violin and orchestra. Opus numbers 3, 4, 9, 12, 15, 17, 22 and 24 are also for violin with either piano or orchestral accompaniment. His Violin concerto (Op. 61) is one of the most significant of the twentieth century. Yet, unaccountably, the Violin sonata is neglected in almost inverse proportion to the fame of the concerto. This sonata, Elgar’s last work for violin, written in 1918, is a 25-minute masterpiece imbued with the spontaneous lyricism of Schubert and the passionate warmth of Brahms.

Elgar himself left this concise description of his sonata: “The first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in the expressive way … the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the Second Symphony.”

Manuel de Falla: Suite Populaires Espagnole
Manuel de Falla regarded the promotion of Spanish music as his mission in life, and his Siete canciónes populaires españoles (Seven Spanish Folkongs) are just one of the many manifestations of this purpose. The texts are anonymous, but the tunes have been traced to actual popular songs from all over Spain. Written in 1914-1915 for voice and piano, the songs were first heard in Madrid sung by Luisa Vela with the composer at the piano on January 14, 1915. They were later orchestrated by the composer’s friend Ernesto Halffter in 1938-1945 and by Luciano Berio in 1978. Additionally there exist arrangements for violin (by the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski in 1924), for viola, and for cello, in each case with the string instrument replacing voice. In this form, the songs are sometimes known as the Suite populaire espagnole (minus the second song, “Seguidilla murciana”).

“El paño moruno” (The Moorish cloth) is set to a pulsating Moorish rhythm from the southeastern province of Murcia. The words to the song deplore the stain on the lovely cloth that will cause its selling price to plummet.

In “Asturiana” a weeping woman seeks consolation under a pine tree, which itself breaks into tears out of compassion. The melody comes from Asturias, in Spain’s far north.

From Aragon, another northern province, comes a “Jota” in rapid triple meter, about two lovers in a clandestine relationship.

“Nana” is a lullaby from the southernmost province of Andalusia, whose songs have a decidedly oriental cast.

“Canción” (song) is another love song, this one about eyes with traitorous qualities.

“Polo” is a wailing lament from Andalusia over the heartache of unrequited love. The fiery flamenco idiom will be familiar to those who know de Falla’s famous ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat.

Igor Stravinsky: Duo Concertante for violin and piano
The Duo Concertant is Stravinsky’s only original work for violin and piano, composed in 1931 and 1932 as one component of a program for the composer and the violinist Samuel Dushkin to play on European concert tours. The first performance was given in Berlin on October 28, 1932. (A 1933 performance with these artists can be heard on YouTube.) George Balanchine choreographed it in 1972.

The titles of the five movements suggest inspiration from the pastoral poets of antiquity, and Stravinsky himself claimed that “the spirit and form” of the Duo Concertant were determined by his love of this poetry. However, as ever with this composer’s comments, one must be wary of taking them too literally. In fact, with the exception of the “Gigue,” there is little to connect the titles with the character of the music. Abram Loft, first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet for many years, suggests that “the Duo Concertante will show to best effect as an oasis of coolness and reserve, surrounded in concert …by works of more outspokenly ‘Romantic’ quality.”

Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasie
Ever since the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen in 1875, composers from A to Z have been creating fantasies, variations, paraphrases and transcriptions based on this opera, probably the most popular ever written. Among the best known works of this type for violin and orchestra (or piano) is the Carmen Fantasie by Franz Waxman, a composer best remembered for his 144 Hollywood film scores (Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, Peyton Place, etc.). Waxman wrote his Carmen Fantasie for Jascha Heifetz in 1946. He also used this music as part of his film score for Humoresque.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

 

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

Robert Schumann: Violin sonata no. 1 in A minor, Op. 105
Schumann wrote both of his completed sonatas for violin and piano in 1851. His wife Clara played the piano parts at their public premieres with violinists Ferdinand David (No. 1 in 1852) and Joseph Joachim (No. 2 in 1853). Though frequently recorded, these sonatas are only occasionally heard in the concert hall. The violin part tends to remain in the lower range where it merges, rather than contrasts, with the piano’s sonority; the upper range of the violin is seldom exploited; thematic ideas within the sonata-form movements are not always clearly differentiated; and not every movement is free from mechanical repetitiveness. But counterbalancing these qualities are Schumann’s often passionate themes, poetic ideas, rich textures and rhythmic urgency that contribute many inspired moments to the music.

The A minor sonata exemplifies many of these assets well in its opening bars. Instructed to play “with passionate expression”, the violinist plunges headlong into a sweeping theme full of romantic yearning and grand gestures. The second movement opens with a capricious but sunny principal theme that alternates with two short episodes, the first soulful, the second bustling. The turbulent, agitated mood returns in the finale. Violin and piano chase each other through a skittish first theme, whose rhythmic pattern pervades the entire movement. The second theme brings with it a measure of lyrical respite, but we are never far from the almost overbearing presence of the staccato rhythmic pattern.

Toru Takemitsu: From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog
When Toru Takemitsu died seventeen years ago, the world lost one of its greatest composers of the late twentieth century. The enormous list of prestigious commissions, honours, awards and prizes he received (including the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize in Ottawa in 1996) attest to his stature as one of the preeminent musical figures of our time. Takemitsu’s great achievement was to synthesize with a high degree of success aspects of both Western and Oriental esthetics and techniques. A preoccupation with timbres, textures, colours and evanescent sonorities is the hallmark of Takemitsu’s style, while freely evolving musical material, contemplative moods and a sensation of quasi-spatial experience inform most of his music. In addition, there is a sense of profound reserve and self-control in this music, which is often dreamy, sensuous, delicate and imbued with a huge palette of delicate pastels. The title From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog (1983) comes from a stanza of a poem entitled “In the Shadow” by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka. Takemitsu exploits the idea of “shadow” in the music by using what he calls six “dominant” pitches and six “shadow” pitches.

Maurice Ravel: Tzigane
It was through the Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi that Ravel became acquainted with gypsy music; he found it so fascinating that he determined to write a piece in this style for her. Two years later, he produced the Tzigane (French for gypsy, and related to the German Zigeuner), modeled after the freely structured Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano by Liszt. D’Aranyi and Ravel gave the first performance in London on April 26, 1924. The violin part was phenomenally difficult, and d’Aranyi had only a few days to learn it, but such was her mastery that Ravel remarked: “If I had known, I would have made the music still more difficult.” That July he transcribed the piano part for full orchestra.
The work opens with a long, unaccompanied presentation of the melodic material by the solo violin. In the course of a freely rhapsodic succession of ideas employing the so-called gypsy scale, the instrument indulges in all manner of virtuosic effects, including harmonics, double, triple and even quadruple stops.

Leoš Janáček:Violin sonata
Janáček’s music is steeped in the folk music idioms and speech patterns of his Moravian homeland, located in the north central region of what was formerly Czechoslovakia. “The whole life of man is in folk music,” he proclaimed. Hence, it comes as no surprise to find that this composer’s melodic material, both vocal and instrumental, follows closely the inflections, cadences and rhythms of the Czech language, and that he developed a uniquely expressive style.

Janáček left just one violin sonata, which he wrote in his sixties. (His two student works in the genre are lost.) “I wrote it at the beginning of the War when we were expecting the Russians in Moravia,” he declared. This was meant in a positive sense, for Janáček was counting on the Russians to liberate his country from the yoke of the Hapsburgs. Some listeners hear the sound of gunfire evoked in the final movement. Evocations of Russia can also be detected in the first and third movements, where the tone and melodic shapes resemble certain passages in Janáček’s opera Katya Kabanova, whose story comes from a Russian drama (The Storm by Ostrovsky). The sonata went through several transformations before arriving at its final form in 1922. The premiere was given that year in Brno by František Kudlaček and Jaroslav Kvapil.

André Previn: Tango, Song and Dance
André Previn unquestionably ranks among the most talented, versatile and best known musicians of our time. Now approaching his 82nd birthday, he sits comfortably at the pinnacle of numerous professions: as orchestrator (a service he was already providing MGM Studios back in high school), arranger, jazz pianist (as such he began recording in the days of 78s), classical pianist, conductor, television host, composer of film scores, author (of his memoir No Minor Chords) and composer of classical music.

Previn composed Tango, Song and Dance in 1997 as a set of lighthearted virtuoso pieces for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. She and the composer gave the first performance on August 26, 2001 in Lucerne. Previn writes that in the first movement “the clustered harmonies are not terribly far removed from the sound the traditional accordion makes.” In the Song, “the violin predominates throughout, and the accompaniment is simple and direct.” Of the Dance, Previn notes that “I doubt whether dancers would be happy keeping time to this, but of course for two instrumentalists it becomes a good deal easier.”

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Three Violins and the Talented Trio

 

Imagine my delight when I received an email from Jonathan Chan in London, where he is studying at the Guildhall, telling me that he had been awarded the 1715 Dominicus Montagnana violin on loan from the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank.  Canada’s finest young talents compete for the opportunity to use these instruments for a period of time. The competition is tough.

“I ended up leaving with the absolutely gorgeous Montangna that I had been eyeing since they (the Canada Council Instrument Bank) sent me the list of violins available.  It’s easy to play on and also easily the smoothest instrument I have played on”.

Jonathan is a tremendously gifted young violinist from Vancouver whom the Vancouver Recital Society has been mentoring for the past several years.  He has played twice for the VRS – once at the Kay Meek Centre, and he also gave a stunning performance of the Ysaye Unaccompanied Sonatas for Violin as our first ever surprise concert artist. Interestingly, there was someone from South Africa in the audience (alright, I’ll confess, my cello teacher from my university days in Capetown) and she was so taken with Jon’s performance that she arranged a concert tour of South Africa for him a couple of years later. And, imagine… on that tour he played both piano AND violin!

Then, next day I received a phone call from another young protégé of ours, Aaron Timothy Chooi. He’s a young violinist from Victoria who is entering his first year at Curtis in Philadelphia.  He could hardly speak, he was so excited. “Leila, I got a Guarneri. It’s worth a fortune. My mom says I have to lock my room every time I go out.  I get to keep the violin for three years. I’ve never had a violin for that long.”

He is the recipient of the Canada Council’s 1729 Guarneri del Gesu.  Timmy (as he is known) has also played for the VRS; once in our “Budding Brilliance Concert” at the Chan Centre a few years back; as the “opening act” to the recital at the Orpheum by pianist Yuja Wang, celebrating the 30th Anniversary Season of the VRS; and finally, he played our surprise concert in the spring and gave a splendid concert and talk for local school children.

His older brother (just by a little), Nikki Chooi, has just received his second violin from the Instrument Bank, having had to return his first. He now is playing the 1700 Taft Stradivari.  Nikki graduated from the Curtis Institute last Spring and I had the pleasure of attending his wonderful grad recital, sitting between his teacher and his mother.  Nikki played a recital for the VRS at the Kay Meek Centre a couple of years back.

It is indeed thrilling to be involved with young musicians like these… at the beginning of what we hope will be illustrious careers.  Naturally, they are all smart as well as gifted, and they are well aware of the challenges ahead.

May the violins take them to great heights!

Leila Getz

PS read about our talented trio and other winners on the Instrument Bank website.

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