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Program Notes: Z.E.N. Trio

Franz Schubert
Notturno in E-flat major  Op. 148

Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments.

Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. With the resolute character of a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.

The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.

Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.

What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944).  Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

 

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published  it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ZHANG ZUO

Ludwig van Beethoven
32 Variations in C minor WoO 80

The theme that Beethoven chose for his 32 Variations in C minor (1806) has a Baroque feel to it, with its chaconne-like harmonic pattern in the left hand and sarabande-like second-beat emphasis in the right. This theme, however, is far from the characterless blank canvas that Baroque composers were wont to lay down as the foundation for their compositional e orts. Within its 8 bars lurks a mini-drama of a distinctly Beethovenian stamp, a drama of struggle, crisis, and resolution that is reproduced in each of the 32 variations that follow.

The left-hand harmonic pattern is built upon a bass line that descends by semitones, one chord to the bar, severe and implacable, like the decrees of Fate. Opposed to this is a courageously heroic right hand that reacts to these alarming developments and by dint of amboyant run-ups struggles to escape in the opposite direction, falling back each time, but inching up a semitone higher with every attempt. Finally, a crisis is reached when both hands land together, sforzando, on a massive F-minor chord (4 notes in each hand), the climactic effect of this is magnified by a stunned silence in the empty first beat of the next bar. Interrupting this silence, both hands then join together

in unison to effect a whimpering cadence, their tails between their legs, chastened for their e orts.

The first 31 variations each t tightly within the 8-bar pattern of the original theme, structuring their transformations on the general harmonic pattern, the melodic outline, the rhythmic o set of the right-hand entry in the original. Successive variations are often grouped together by the use of similar elements in each: arpeggios in Var. 1 to 3, swirling accompaniment figures in Var. 10 & 11, a switch to C major in Variations 12 to 16, low dynamic range in Var. 23 to 25, pervasive double thirds in Var. 26 & 27.

Variation 31 marks a literal return to the falling intervals and run-up scales
of the original theme’s right-hand statements, against a swirl of left-
hand figuration that the final variation takes up in both hands to usher in Beethoven’s final emphatic thoughts on this theme in an extended peroration that even includes the original theme’s humble ending.

 

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D 958

Beethoven cast a long shadow over Schubert. Of the three last sonatas that Schubert wrote in September 1828, just a few months before his death, it is the Sonata in C minor which most reveals his ‘Beethovenian’ side. Among
the Beethovenian traits of this sonata are its choice of key, synonymous
with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, and the many hints that Schubert drops throughout the work to indicate just how familiar he was with Beethoven’s instrumental style.

The opening of the rst movement Allegro is the most evident of these, modeled clearly after the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor in its meter, rhythm, harmonic pattern, and thematic outline. Schubert manages to evade the tragic implications of his punchy C minor theme, however, by nonchalantly slipping into the major mode in the transition to his angelic 2nd theme in E at, with its bell-like upper-voice pedal notes ringing sweetly in the ear. But serious drama does inhabit the development section, especially its latter half built upon a mysterious neighbour-note motion in the bass gnawing away at the nerves while chromatic scales heedlessly trickle down from above until the aggressive one-two punches of the opening theme gradually surface to announce the recapitulation.

The Adagio second movement owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 in its solemn pace
(a rarity in Schubert slow movements), the halting expressive demeanour
of its opening, and its style of melodic decoration. The influence of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 can also be felt in
a number of its accompaniment patterns. The movement is structured in 5 alternating sections of lyrical repose and emotional turmoil, the latter sections marked by the prominent use of octaves, either anxiously pulsing in triplets or strutting about in a fractious display of contrapuntal discord.

The restless Menuetto & trio that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. It appears strangely conflicted, in fact, as to whether it actually wants to be a dance at all. Sustained lyrical merriment seems impossible as each successive idea seems undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in its highly irregular phrase lengths and occasional deviations into the minor mode, while its mysterious pauses imply a flow of emotion cut o in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale, a stylistic sibling to the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3. Here the spirit of the dance
is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling – but strangely ominous – rondo with the developmental features of a sonata-form movement. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback (of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig) and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short motives are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Enrique Granados
Goyescas No. 1 ‘Los Requiebros’

The immensely gifted Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados expressed his admiration for the starkly emotional canvasses and etchings
of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) in a suite of evocative piano pieces that he called Goyescas (1911). The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates an intention to depict the amorous adventures of the lower classes of Spanish society, the courting rituals and social interactions of the swains (majos) and the maids (majas) inhabiting the working class neighbourhoods of Madrid in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The first piece in the set, Requiebros ( irtatious compliments), begins with the tale of a pick-up line and its reception. A guitar-like ourish opens the piece with the 8-syllable rhythm of the jota, a form of Spanish popular music danced and sung to the accompaniment of castanets. These latter are picturesquely represented in the score by means of twinkling mordents, snappy triplet figures, and scurrying inner voices, the throw-away character of which figures among the major technical challenges of this piece. Tempo changes of a stop-and-start character mark the various stages of the negotiation, but the sumptuous tonal banquet offered on the last page of the score leaves listeners in no doubt whatsoever as to how rapturously the flattering initiatives referred to in the title were welcomed.

Franz Liszt
Vallée d’Obermann from Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse
)

Étienne Pivert de Sénancour’s novel Oberman (with one ‘n’) was not well received at its publication in 1804. So forcefully, however, did it resonate with the emerging æsthetic preoccupations of the age that three decades later it was a ‘must-read’ in Parisian literary circles, its eponymous central character virtually a watchword for the Romantic sensibility in art. Set in a picturesque valley in Switzerland, it tells the story of a young man enthralled, but at the same time overwhelmed and confused, by his encounters with Nature and the feelings of longing that they engender in him. Helpless to relieve this eternal yearning, he settles on a life of utter simplicity in an attempt to escape the inner struggle and torment of his emotional life.

Liszt’s own travels through Switzerland in the late 1830s inspired his Vallée d’Obermann (with two n’s), first published in 1842 and later included,
in a revised version, in the first of his piano suites entitled Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse) published in 1855. Overtly literary in conception, Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann pays tribute to its famous forbear in a type of musical construction that sees its principal theme, a descending scale figure, suffer harmonic and chromatic transformations that parallel the emotional turmoil experienced by Sénancour’s sensitive young hero. This descending scale figure, announced in the left hand as the work opens, permeates every page of the score.

In the first of the work’s three parts it evokes in its chromatic wanderings the listlessness and ennui that the hero’s emotional exhaustion has produced in him. A more developmental middle section begins in an angelic vein to recall how naively and simply his travails began. Here the chromatic inflections of the theme are interpreted a affectionately, in a spirit of songful contentment, but trouble appears on the horizon as the mood is interrupted by a tumultuous passage in tremolo recitative, with octaves flying hither and yon like the mad fury of a caged animal.

The most miraculous transformation of all comes in the final section, when Liszt’s descending scale motive emerges harmonized as a melody of comforting warmth and welcome consolation that builds, strengthened by the courage of its convictions, to an exalting climax.

Throughout the work, however, dense, gritty dissonances, weakly resolved, bear witness to the intensity of the emotional struggle being portrayed and the work ends, almost bitterly, on one of these.

Franz Liszt
Rhapsodie Espagnole S 254

Inspired by a trip to Spain in the winter of 1844-1845, Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole embodies his unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures and demonstrates the kinds of musical gestures that made his stage presence so compelling to audiences.

The work opens in high drama, with deep rumblings in the bass issuing into sweeping arpeggios up to the high register where the angelic strumming of celestial harps prepares us for a musical feast of divine inspiration. Liszt begins with the traditional Folies d’Espagne tune, which Rachmaninoff also used in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, like an old man mumbling to himself on a country road, the tune gradually gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its elaboration extends over the entire range of the keyboard.

But then, at the peak of all this exuberance, Liszt interrupts the proceedings with a ‘music-box’ effect in the high register, chiming out a playful and childlike jota aragonesa, the popular character of which is reinforced by drone tones in the mid-range. Succeeding variations continue to dazzle and astonish until a tender recitative provides a sentimental pause for lyrical reflection.

His nostrils now flaring widely, Liszt cracks his knuckles to unleash a muscular apotheosis of his two main themes in a concentrated display of bravura that may have you reaching for your opera glasses to verify just how many arms the pianist is using, and how many fingers are attached to each.

Protective headgear is recommended, as chips of ceiling stucco may begin to fall before this piece’s final chords thunder through the hall.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

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