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Program Notes: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K. 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the Mannheim rocket while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 1 in F minor  Op. 2 No. 1

The first of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas was an audacious debut for the young composer in 1795. Markedly Mozartean in its external forms, and unmistakably Haydnesque in its procedures of motivic development, it is even more boldly Beethovenian in the way it uses both form and procedure to express a new spirit of individualism that will dominate serious musical culture in the coming Romantic era.

The high seriousness of Beethoven’s approach to the sonata is apparent everywhere. At a time when piano sonatas were normally written in three movements, Beethoven writes four, adding an extra minuet movement normally reserved for the more serious forms of symphony and string quartet. And at a time when sonatas were mostly aimed at amateur musicians looking for cheerful entertainment, Beethoven thumbs his nose at the popular market by writing a moody, angst-ridden sonata, above-average in difficulty, in an eccentric hard-to-read minor key with four flats. Topping it all off, there is an aggressive, slightly anti-social edge to the outer movements, both set in “punchy” cut time, with two beats to the bar.

The core motivic material on which the Molto allegro first movement is based is given in the first 8 bars. And in typical Beethoven style this first “theme” is not really a melody but rather a series of related small phrases accelerating in intensity to a mini-climax, followed by a pause for theatrical effect. Two important motives are hammered into the ear by dint of frequent repetition, both popularized by the music of the Mannheim Orchestra earlier in the century, and much used by Mozart, among other composers.

First there is an ascending arpeggio figure, or Mannheim rocket (featured in Mozart’s C minor Sonata K. 457, and in his Symphonies No. 25 and 40, both in G minor) which is then crowned by a short twiddle in triplet 16ths, an example of the famous Mannheim bird-call. These two motives will dominate the entire movement, with the rocket figure, in inverted form, even structuring the movement’s 2nd theme. This use of the same musical material in both first and second themes must have brought a smile to the face of Beethoven’s teacher, the monothematically-inclined Haydn, to whom the three sonatas of Op. 2 were dedicated, and who was sitting in the room when Beethoven first performed these works in public in 1796.

The development section does little to calm things down after this dramatic exposition and drums up as much excitement through its constantly thrumming tremolo accompaniments as from its obsession with the minor-mode colouring of the movement’s second theme. After an economically short recapitulation the movement ends with a machine gun rat-a-tat of angry chords, a kind of “So there!” gesture so rudely abrupt, it’s as if Beethoven had thrown down his cards in anger, pounded his fists on the card table and stomped out of the room.

Ludwig is on his best behaviour, however, in the very Mozartean Adagio with its simple serene melodies lavishly ornamented with opera-style decorative embellishments. Structured in a truncated sonata form (without a development section) this movement offers the listener the only overtly “pretty” music in the whole sonata and its dramatic action centres around the many decorative ways in which its melodic material can be tastefully dressed up.

Moody moves and shady goings-on return in the following Allegretto that features a minuet tune in the minor mode pieced together, like the opening of the first movement, from repeated melodic fragments of a slightly anxious character. The convulsive momentum generated by these short repeated ‘hiccup’ motives is disturbing in a dance movement, an effect that the smooth two-part counterpoint of the major-mode Trio section does its best to counteract.

The last movement of a classical sonata was expected to be the lightest, a kind of musical “dessert” after all the emotional heavy lifting of previous movements was over and done with. Not so with Beethoven, whose tendency to create end-weighted multi-movement works would only increase as his career advanced.

Beethoven’s finale in this sonata is what András Schiff calls a “riding movement, similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig.” It opens with a heavy, fierce and almost pitch-less knock-on-the-door motive in the right hand over a roiling accompaniment of furiously bubbling arpeggiated chords in the left hand. This is full-contact piano music, played with the arms as much as the fingers. It requires a radically different approach to the keyboard, one far removed from the sedate posture and finger-focused performing style used in playing Mozart.

The mood is not all Sturm und Drang, however. Perhaps to compensate for all the dyspeptic turmoil of the exposition, Beethoven provides emotional contrast – and breaks with tradition – by introducing a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section, a pleasantly poised theme of a relaxed character, the sort of thing you could easily find yourself humming in the shower. But you just know it can’t last and the impetuous knock-knock motive gradually insinuates itself back into the proceedings and takes over, driving with unstoppable momentum to the recapitulation, which ends even more abruptly than the first movement.

This is a sonata that must have left its first listeners breathless, some in admiration, others in exasperation. The so-called classical style, developed in Vienna between the years 1770 and 1800, may well have had Mozart as its architect, and Haydn to install the furniture, but as this sonata shows, Beethoven was its poltergeist, moving objects around the room without permission.

 

Sofia Gubaidulina
Chaconne

Sofia Gubaidulina (pronounced “goo-buy-DOO-lee-nah”) is a composer of deep spiritual commitments who believes that religion and music are simply two different dialects of the same fundamental human language. At the heart of her compositional practice is her admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose grounding in religious faith she shares and whose musical procedures she often incorporates into her own compositions.

Her music is intensely contrapuntal and highly chromatic, with diatonic harmonies appearing like oases of spiritual comfort in a tonal world riven with conflict. Dissonance is ever-present, but sonorities are so widely spaced out on the keyboard that rhythmic patterning and the interplay of melodic lines more easily capture the ear’s attention than the clash of pitches.

Her Chaconne of 1962 is structured as a series of variations on an 8-bar theme presented in the crashing chords of the work’s dramatic opening. From a distance of five octaves apart, these bold handfuls move slowly and majestically toward the centre of the keyboard, spilling as they go the motivic material on which the following variations will be based.

Framed within a chromatic idiom, typical Baroque procedures abound, including chattering toccata textures, fugal imitation, theme augmentation, inversion and stretto, as well as pedal tones and ostinato figures. Rhythmic acceleration propels the work forward, reaching a climax of intensity that leads to a massively monumental return of the opening theme. Its final point made, the work ends by fading into a soft blurry tonal sunset deep in the bass register of the keyboard.

 

Eleanor Alberga
Cwicseolfor

Eleanor Alberga OBE is a British composer of Jamaican origin, known for her work with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and for commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera at Covent Garden. She writes clearly structured works that often feature repeated rhythmic patterns which lend her textures a powerful rhythmic drive.

Her one-movement Cwicseolfor for piano was commissioned by the Barbican Centre London and the European Concert Hall Organisation in collaboration with B:Music and was written especially for Isata Kanneh-Mason.

The composer tells us the following about her new composition:

Cwicseolfor is the ancient spelling of quicksilver; itself the word for the element mercury. This word in its old English spelling is to be found in reference to the alchemy of those times.

As a child, I remember being fascinated with watching mercury in a container; how it didn’t adhere to anything and moved and changed direction rapidly. There was also an almost unbelievable brilliance on the surface of this stuff. Anyone who has seen this will know exactly what I mean. (Little wonder that in so many cultures and over many centuries mercury has been seen as having transformative qualities.)

Cwicseolfor is about that experience and the piece mimics the qualities of unrealistic shine, non-adherence and rapid changes of pace and direction. For the player it is virtuosic – always changing in mood, tempo and variation of material.

I suppose the alchemy lies in transforming my childhood experience into a piece of music.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff 
Excerpts from Études-Tableaux  Op. 39

Rachmaninoff wrote two sets of Études-Tableaux, a new genre of his own invention that combines programmatic ‘pictorial’ elements with the study of a particular technical problem. The Op. 39 set are much darker in tone than the earlier set of Op. 33, with eight of the nine études being in a minor key. Written in 1917, they are the last works written by Rachmaninoff before he fled Russia with his family to escape the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament.  The challenge that these Études-Tableaux present to the performing pianist is to bring out an overarching melodic line set amid thickly padded harmonic textures and a dazzling haze of ornamental filigree.

No. 1 in C minor surges up and down the keyboard in dark swirls of right-hand triplet 16ths, vaulting from one state of harmonic crisis to the next, accompanied by the ominous urgings of syncopated octaves in the left hand’s bass line.

The ‘tableau’ of No. 2 in A minor, we are told by Rachmaninoff himself, is that of seagulls and the sea.  The lapping of waves is evoked by gently swaying triplets in the left hand while the free soaring of seagulls in the open air is imagined in the open fifths of the duple-rhythm melody hovering above it. A hint of eternal sadness radiates out from the left-hand accompaniment, which time and again echoes the opening notes of the plainchant tune Dies irae (Day of wrath) from the Roman-rite mass for the dead.

No. 4 in B minor is a dancelike toccata of unstoppable forward momentum with many changes of metre and a general air of rhythmic willfulness. This is travelling music and its recurring patterns of peppery repeated notes suggests the bright merry tinkling of sleigh bells on an exhilarating ride over fields of snow.

The sombre and stormy No. 5 in E flat minor is cast in the darkest of tonal colours, heavily weighted to the bottom half of the keyboard. Heroic in scale, it tests the power of the pianist’s right-hand pinky finger to belt out its sombre melody against a rumbling onslaught of tonal resonance from below.

No. 6 in A minor, according to Rachmaninoff, paints a picture of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” and it’s not hard to sort out who is who in the vividly contrasting textures of this piece. It begins with several menacing snarls deep in the bass, each concluding with the jaw-snap of sharp teeth, followed immediately in the upper register by the fretful chatter of a frightened flight from danger. This is an unrelenting chase scene, nightmarish in its intensity.  Did Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf? Listen for the ending to find out.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade in F major  Op. 38

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

The Ballade in F major Op. 38 contains some of sweetest and some of the most violent music that Chopin ever composed. It is a work of extreme contrasts, between moods, between key centres, and between major and minor tonalities.

This Ballade is both a daydream and a nightmare. It opens with a daydream, a soft sleepy-time tune of the utmost innocence, almost drowsy-making with its many chiming repetitions of single notes and short phrases, its drone passages with an unchanging bass note, and its constant iambic pulse of short-long rhythms. The tonal colouring is diatonic but not monotone, and a faint hint of A-minor sadness drifts through the reverie’s central section. But it soon gets wished away and the mood returns to that of rustic bliss, made sweetly musical in the ‘pastoral’ key of F major.

That ‘A-minor sadness,’ though was a foreboding of things to come. For just as the eyelids begin to droop lower and lower there comes a terrifying jump-scare when splintering shards of sonic glass come crashing down like an exploding stained-glass window from the high treble, to be met with bold, angry gestures of defiance mounting up from the bass, all of it in a nightmarish…A minor.

In what follows these two themes – the lilting diatonic F major lullaby and the lurching, chromatic-inflected A minor outburst – begin to interact, each taking on features of the other as the outburst theme adopts the lullaby’s iambic rhythms and the lullaby muses to itself in ever more chromatic directions.

In the end, though, the incendiary coda, with its demonic but almost celebratory glinting of chromatic glee, makes clear just who came out on top from these encounters.  The final bars are filled with a wrenching pathos as the lilting pastoral lullaby theme is heard softly lamenting its downcast fate…in A minor.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Juho Pohjonen

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantasy in C minor  K 475

The year 1785 was a good one for Mozart. In the words of musicologist John Irving, he had become something of a ‘hot property’ in Vienna, enjoying considerable success both as a published composer and as a performing musician. But Mozart had also acquired a reputation as a gifted improviser, if we are to believe the swooning testimony of Johann Friedrich Schink in his Literarische Fragmente of 1785:

And his improvisations, what a wealth of ideas! What variety! What contrasts in passionate sounds! One swims away with him unresistingly on the stream of his emotions.

One notable occasion at which the ecstatic Schink might have needed his swim trunks and inner tube was a benefit concert which took place on 15 December 1785 at one of Vienna’s Masonic lodges. Mozart had become a Mason the previous year and for this concert contributed a cantata as well as a piano concerto, and for the grand finale of the evening held forth with his own ‘fantasias,’ i.e., improvisations.

Was it by coincidence that, just the week before, an advertisement had appeared in the Wiener Zeitung announcing the publication by Viennese publishing house Artaria of Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor (K. 475) paired with a keyboard sonata in the same key (K. 457), or was it merely clever marketing?

This original pairing of fantasy and sonata in the same publication has led many pianists to perform the two works together as a single unit, the fantasy serving as an elaborate ‘slow introduction’ to the sonata. The young Beethoven may have thought the pairing aesthetically effective when he composed his Sonata in C minor Op. 13 in 1798. Apart from the shared key, the Pathétique shares many characteristics with the fantasy-sonata publication, its fp opening followed by a sigh motive being only the most obvious.

Then again, the original joint publication might simply have been for commercial convenience, since the two works were composed a good half-year apart, and Mozart is known to have performed the fantasy as an independent work. Indeed, the Fantasy seems to have had an unusually high profile in the decade after its publication, spawning pirate editions in Mannheim and Berlin, and even making a cameo appearance in contemporary literature when performed by a character in Wilhelm Heinse’s experimental novel Hildegard von Hohenthal (1795).

*                      *                      *

Mozart’s Fantasy is comprised of six sections of contrasting character, alternating between deeply expressive, modulating passages and more harmonically stable sections of melody and accompaniment that would be perfectly at home in any sonata movement. Remarkable in this work is the unusual vehemence of expression in the two central modulating sections. The first of these, with its jangling tremolos of alarm in the treble, would not be out of place accompanying a silent movie in which a young girl is being tied to the railroad tracks. The emotional intensity of the ‘escape operas’ of the 1790s was evidently already on the horizon. Remarkable as well is how Mozart exploits the full range of the keyboard in the cadenza-like sections, especially the deep bass register. Indeed, passages occur in which both hands play below middle C.

Despite its harmonic wanderings to remote key centres, the final section of this work is in a solid C minor, providing a degree of symmetry to balance the wild turbulence that characterizes its emotional trajectory.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C minor  K 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Scholars are divided as to whether or not this was Mozart’s intention. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

*                      *                      *

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect, associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany, called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 is the first of the three “War Sonatas” (Nos. 6, 7, and 8) written between 1939 and 1944 while the Soviet Union was at war with Nazi Germany. The Sixth Sonata was completed in 1940 and demonstrates well the obsessive rhythmic drive, percussive attack, and dissonance-encrusted harmonies that characterize Prokofiev’s style of piano-writing. The work comprises four movements which, given the extreme modernity of their musical language, are laid out in a surprisingly traditional pattern: sonata-form first movement, second movement scherzo, slow third movement, and rondo finale.

The sonata opens with an arresting ‘motto’ that descends three scale steps, first as a major 3rd and then a minor 3rd, changing C natural to C#.  This creates a brilliantly colourful bitonal effect that, even if it weren’t stutteringly repeated almost 40 times in the course of the exposition, would be memorable. A more tranquil second subject offers a contrasting vision of where things are going, but both are put through the wringer in a development section peppered with repeated notes before the opening motto returns in a recapitulation of brutal directness enacted over a keyboard range of more than six octaves.

The Allegretto second movement has been called a “quick march” and with a dependable four staccato beats to the bar its metrical regularity comes as a welcome relief after the chaotic events of the first movement. Its espressivo middle section adds a more expansive note of mystery and wonder to the proceedings. This movement ends almost humorously as its colourful harmonic pulses veer into port just at the last moment, in the very last bar.

The slow waltz Tempo di valzer lentissimo, while lacking any real Viennese sense of lilt, has a wonderful vulnerability about it that is quite touching despite, or perhaps because of, the searching quality of its constantly shifting inner voices, even in the more turbulent middle section.

The work closes, like the other two War Sonatas, with a toccata of breathless drive that scampers playfully between tonal centres like it owned them all. It becomes increasingly haunted, however, by the thematic ghosts of the first movement and ends firmly in the grip of the opening motto.

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Schumann Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

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