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Program Notes: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute  Op. 66

Beethoven’s set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute features twelve sharply chiselled operatic duets between piano and cello, widely differentiated in character like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the simple complaint of Tamino’s hapless sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno, that he is much in need of female company. Not that he is fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.

Mozart captures the endearing simplicity of Papageno’s rustic character in a theme harmonized virtually entirely with tonic and dominant chords. Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations, communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone, without the learned trappings of imitative counterpoint.

The first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its nifty division of the melody into little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear.

The work proceeds in the following variations with a distinctly different rhythm or figuration pattern defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale, both in the minor mode. The double-dotted rhythms of the first (Variation 10) lend an air of grim fatalism to the proceedings, much in the style of the Commendatore’s stern address to Don Giovanni. The second (Variation 11) is chillingly still, with the cello plodding eerily in the bass accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano—a perfect set-up for the finale.

The time signature changes to 3/4 in the final variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the cello belting out the tune and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends cutely, and almost unexpectedly, with a sweet little diminuendo.

 

Witold Lutosławski
Grave (1981): Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano

The abstract patterning of much 20th-century music presents a significant challenge to modern audiences. Tunes suitable for humming in the shower, you see, are typically quite thin on the ground in modern scores and the old-fashioned aesthetic of simple tunefulness is often replaced by a compositional obsession with pitch organization—a process which inevitably involves encoding abstract formal principles within a work that have scant truck with the scales and keys that small children learn about in their first music lessons.

Witness Lutosławski’s Grave, composed in 1981, which bears the subtitle Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano. This work stands astride the divide between tunefulness and abstraction in its choice of melodic materials and the processes it applies to them.

The work opens with a forthright statement in the solo cello of the famous ‘forest motive’ (the pitches D-A-G-A) announced in the opening bars of Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande. This is the subject of the work, in two senses. It pays tribute to the composer’s close friend, the Polish musicologist and Debussy specialist Stefan Jarociński (1912-1980), to whose memory the work is dedicated. And it presents the intervals of a perfect 5th (D-A) and a major 2nd (A-G-A) motivating the transformations in the melodic line (the metamorphoses) that will ensue as the piece proceeds.

Two further ‘processes’ are worth noting: the piece climbs ever higher in register as it works its way to a climax, and at the same time it experiences a written-out accelerando, with its transformations heard first in half notes, then in quarters, then 8ths, then triplet 8ths, and finally in 16ths. The work comes full circle when the forthright opening notes D-A-G-A are offered up once again in the cello, but this time drifting up to the highest register, surrounded by a sonic haze of widely spaced soft glitter in the piano.

 

Samuel Barber
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor Op. 6

The music of American composer Samuel Barber is most widely known from the use of his Adagio for Strings in the 1986 anti-war film Platoon. His songs and instrumental works, however, are equally popular in the programs of the world’s leading concert artists and ensembles. Barber’s Piano Sonata, for example, was performed more than once in the piano semifinals of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow earlier this year. But the enduring popularity of Barber’s music should be no surprise, given its vocally-inspired lyricism and its sympathy with the Romantic-era aesthetic that still lies at the heart of the modern concert repertoire.

Barber’s Cello Sonata was written in 1932 when the composer was still studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and Brahms in particular looms large as an influence on its compositional style. Among its Brahmsian features are its high-serious tone and emotional intensity, its employment of cross-rhythms, and its luxuriant use of the rich low range of the keyboard. Among its modern features, however, are its frequent changes in meter and the angularity of many of its melodies.

The first movement opens with a series of melodic leaps in both the piano and cello, much in the manner of the surging opening of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major Op. 99. A smooth songful melody soon appears in the cello as a second theme, and is then taken up by the piano, but the development section of this sonata-form movement is largely preoccupied with the melodic leaps that opened the work. Indeed, the interval of a minor 6th is a recurring motive throughout the entire movement.

Instead of writing a slow movement and a scherzo, Barber imbeds a fast-paced scherzo within his slow movement. The contrast could not be greater. The opening Adagio is slow and purposefully lyrical, with the resolution of each appoggiatura and harmonic dissonance a notable event. The Presto is a classic scherzo: fleet and lightly textured, bristling with rhythmic tricks and coy interplay between the instruments.

The finale displays Barber the neo-Romantic at full sail, plying successive waves of emotion. It opens with a passionate piano solo churning restlessly in the bass in support of a yearning right-hand melody in the mid-range. The cello when it enters is equally incandescent and the emotional range of the movement as a whole is wide in the extreme. In contrast to the often thrashing assertiveness of the keyboard texture, it also features sections of dreamy remembrance of previous movements, as well as playful episodes—all within the formal constraints of a sonata-form structure.

A major challenge for the performers is the coordination of the thorny cross-rhythms and lightning-fast changes in tempo that qualify this movement, like the others, as both willfully Romantic and unabashedly modern.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19

Rachmaninoff’s piano music is renowned both for its lushness of scoring and for the technical challenges it presents to any pianist with a hand smaller than an oven mitt. The role given to the ‘accompanying’ instrument in his Cello Sonata in G minor is no exception. The keyboard writing in this chamber work is just as opulent, its technical demands every bit as challenging as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge in baritone territory from the cello.  Most of the themes in the work are introduced by the piano and one could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.

Written in 1901, around the same time as Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is remarkable for its expressive range and the orchestral heft of its textures. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the punchy, rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that was to become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!

The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrisome patter of triplet 8th notes reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism.

The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.

The Allegro mosso finale in a triumphal G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts. It features a upbeat “sleigh ride” of an opening theme built up out of short motives, doggedly repeated, like the opening themes of the 2nd & 3rd piano concerto finales. The stand-out melody of this movement is its heartbreaking second theme announced in the cello, a wistful anthem of tribute to every underdog who has ever struggled against overwhelming odds. From time to time, however, these themes yield to the type of fervent military march that so often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Raphaël Sévère & Paul Montag

Alexander Borodin
Sonata for Cello and Piano in B Minor
(adapted for clarinet & piano by Raphaël Sévère)

The role of the noisy neighbour in music history is an unjustly neglected theme for research but well worth considering in the case of Alexander Borodin’s Sonata for Cello & Piano in B minor (c.1860). Deeply imprinted on this work, from its first bars to its last, are the memorable strains of the fugue subject from Bach’s Sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin BWV 1001, which Borodin kept hearing coming through the walls of his apartment during an extended stay in Heidelberg.

Adapting Baroque thematic materials to the needs of 19th-century sonata form can be a tricky business, so after a bare-bones literal statement of Bach’s punchy, door- knocking theme, Borodin wastes no time in massaging its motivic play-dough into something more closely resembling a lyrical Russian folksong for his second theme.

Here, in the wistfully falling phrases and exotic harmonies of the Russian folk idiom is where Borodin finds the beating heart of his first movement, and he stays in touch with its lyrical pulse throughout in a constant flow of singable melodies and lush carpets of rolling harmonic underlay.

The Pastorale second movement strikes an even more intimate tone with a tender melody of the utmost innocence and simplicity, temporarily darkened by more troubling thoughts in a middle section that features a solo cadenza.

The finale opens with a ponderously solemn statement of Bach’s original fugue subject, but after a rhythmic makeover and a change of pace, it takes off as a sprightly drawing- room dance tune in the style of Mendelssohn. Cutting in, from time to time, is an achingly sentimental tune simply surging with a breast-heaving need to share. Bach’s fugue subject looks in again about halfway through to see how everyone is getting on, and after getting dragged into the party, finally gets the last word.

 

Witold Lutosławski
Dance Preludes

Witold Lutosławski’s engaging collection of dancelike pieces is written in the modernist idiom of Bartók and Stravinsky, using folk melodies popular in the north of Poland. Thinly scored and sparse in texture, this collection features frequent changes of time signature that evoke the improvised quality of village dance music. The suite is arranged in an alternating pattern of fast and slow movements.

The opening Allegro molto seems inordinately proud of the arpeggiated E-flat chord that it trumpets at the outset, but then oscillates continually between major and minor, chasing its own tail in a staccato game of “What’s my key?” The same ambiguity is present in the pensive Andantino but here a long-legged melody creates a sustained mood of elegy and reflection.

The Allegro giocoso returns to the village playground with a skipping beat that straddles the divide between exhilaration and humour, unlike the following Andante, in which the clarinet mopes in the low range of the instrument while the piano marks time in even quarter notes. The concluding Allegro molto moves upbeat again, adding a note of merry taunting with its obsessive repetitions in the clarinet that seem to say to the piano: “I’m in E flat and you’re not!”

 

Claude Debussy
Première Rhapsodie

In 1909 Paris Conservatoire director Gabriel Fauré asked Debussy to write a clarinet piece for the next year’s student performance exams. The result was the First Rhapsody, a vigorous test of the clarinetist’s ability to project a lyrical singing tone and demonstrate command of technical challenges ranging from quicksilver chromatic runs to chains of trills and rapid changes of articulation, all the while scrupulously following Debussy’s sometimes-fluid, sometimes-florid rhythmic patterning—without the aid of unseemly foot-tapping, of course.

This work is far more than a simple étude, however. Its balanced sectional contrasts and ingenious construction around the opening motif announced by the clarinet, developed thorough a panoply of moods from dreamy reverie to scherzando friskiness, reveal how Debussy’s burgeoning interest in structure was replacing the pictorialism of his earlier works.

 

Alban Berg
Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5

The so-called Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg (the First School being that of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven) formed at the beginning of the 20th century in reaction to the diminishing aesthetic returns being pocketed from the smouldering remains of Late Romanticism, with its chronic chromaticism and

severely weakened sense of tonality. At base atonal, and eventually coalescing around the abstract compositional procedures of the 12-tone system, its proponents existed on a continuum of extremes, from the grandiose, hair-pulling, dental-procedure expressionism of Schoenberg to the almost-Canadian-level politeness of musical gesture in the silk-spun miniatures of Anton Webern. Of the three, Alban Berg was the composer who ranged most freely among the options presented by the new movement, even venturing back, at times, into a 19th-century sense of tonality.

In his early Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1913, we catch him opting for a Schoenbergian atonal vocabulary and embrace of extreme dynamics (from fff down to pppp) but with a Webernian concision and clear sense of dramatic shaping.

This is music for close listening, especially the endings, which recede into a sonic horizon too distant for words. What these pieces lack in shower-humming tunefulness they amply make up for in atmosphere, and an almost indefinable Viennese charm.

 

Leonard Bernstein
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

The prodigious musical gifts of pianist, conductor, composer, and music educator Leonard Bernstein can already be heard in this, his first published work, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, written between 1941 and 1942 while he was still a young twenty- something student attending the Tanglewood summer music school where Paul Hindemith taught.

Hinting at the astonishing diversity of musical styles that Bernstein would later adopt as his own, this sonata moves confidently between the rarefied language of mid-20th- century “serious” composition and the more direct appeal of the musical vernacular. It has been described as

a haunting work whose sonorities remind one alternately of religious incantation, the opening theme of Stravinsky’s Firebird and smoke-filled jazz clubs.

The first movement opens with a wandering clarinet tune chaperoned by modernist counterpoint in the piano part, reminiscent of Hindemith. As the pace picks up, the piano’s chugging rhythmic ostinato give us the first clues that West Side Story is only a decade away. While the movement’s formal outlines are quite loose, and development kept to a minimum, this movement’s melodic lines evoke a kind of cool yearning that presages the composer’s urbane Broadway creations of the 1950s.

An austere lyricism marks the opening of the second movement Andantino, which achieves intimacy by means of its slow tempo, steady pace, and sparse, almost spooky scoring.

The nimble pulse of Latino-inflected jazz (Vivace e leggiero) soon makes its appearance, however, and these two modes of musical appeal—the soulful and the syncopated—play alternately for the listener’s attention until both the clarinet and the piano get into it in a big way, trading riffs and taking their increasingly exuberant dialogue up to the high register for an exclamation-point ending.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

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