27th November 2014: Canorum Trio

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART  1756-1791

Trio in E flat major for piano, clarinet and viola, K498 Kegelstatt

  • Andante  2. Menuetto  3. Rondeaux (Allegretto)

 

Firstly let us dispose of this work’s nickname. Kegelstatt, meaning skittle alley. Mozart’s love of skittles (the equivalent of modern tenpin bowling) was particularly strong in Vienna in the summer of 1786, but playing couldn’t stop him composing; he would scuttle off to jot down the ideas which even ‘a game with the lads’ would not staunch. As he had written to his father years before: ‘You know that music is – so to speak – my element, that I think about it all day long, that I like to speculate, cogitate.’ The manuscript of the Horn Duos K487 is inscribed ‘27th July 1786 while playing skittles’, and the story came about that today’s work was likewise composed in like fashion. There is no documentary evidence for this, and the character of the music would argue against it, but who knows?

    However, we do have real and reliable evidence about this masterpiece, underpinning the feeling of ease, warmth and intimacy with which the work is so replete – the ‘music of friends’ indeed. The work was composed expressly for performance by Anton Stadler (1753-1812), the clarinettist in the Vienna Court Orchestra and for whom Mozart went on to write the Clarinet Quintet K622 (1789) and the Clarinet Concerto K622 (1791); for Franciska von Jacquin (1769-1850), one of his favourite piano pupils (… I’ve never had a piano pupil as hard-working or keen as she is’); and for himself, an expert viola player. Franciska’s father was Nikolaus von Jacquin, one of the great botanists of the day, and the composer was particularly friendly with his son, Gottfried. The family held ‘at home’ musical evenings on Wednesdays, and the first performance of our trio almost certainly took place on 9th August 1786 – having been completed the previous Saturday, 5th August.

    The work requires little in the way of analysis, but the unusual combination of instruments is crucial to its whole character. Unlike the normal violin – cello – piano trio, Mozart here gives us two melody instruments, commanding very wide registers (soprano, alto and tenor) as well as highly distinctive timbres (severely upset in the commercially motivated version with violin instead of clarinet); the piano binds all. In a sense the work has a resemblance to the baroque trio sonata. Also unusual is that it work starts with a slow movement, and the fact that the two thematic strands of this Andante are so similar blurs the usual contrasts we expect in a sonata structure. Everything proceeds on a conversational level – the ‘ease, warmth and intimacy’ I have noted.

    The minuet and trio is the only such movement in Mozart’s mature keyboard chamber music. Listening to the minuet, we must realise that Franciska Jacquin’s fortepiano would have provided a much lighter touch than the modern grand. The G minor (but hardly dark) trio is unusually long – over 100 bars – and is notable for the scurrying triplet motion started by the viola, but caught – like an itch! – by the piano. The repeat of the minuet is not literal – there are still a few itches, and the trio motif appears openly at the end.

    The genial interplay, the conversation, between the instruments, reaches a new height in the Rondo. Here everyone is allowed the floor to have an entertaining solo or two, and we can imagine fellow-performers nodding approval, and the audience at the Jacquins’ soirée delightedly applauding. Small wonder for those who love Mozart this is a very special work indeed, one which somehow brings his world very close to us.                     ©David Mulraney

    

 

Alfred UHL  1909-1992

Kleines Konzert (Little Concerto) for clarinet, viola and piano

  • Allegro con brio 2. Grave 3. Vivo

I am claiming no familiarity with this work, but I am told it is an enjoyable 18 minutes. It was composed in 1937. Uhl was a major figure in Austrian music, a musician in the widest sense, playing many instruments (but specialising in the viola), conducting and (especially) teaching. As a composer his span is broad, from opera and film music to volumes of exercises for students (e.g. his 48 Studies for the clarinet).

 

 

Vytautas GERMANAVIČIUS  1969-

Crumbling Words

Again, your scribe can offer no wisdom about this ten-minute piece by one of Lithuania’s most important and widely-played young composers. But our violist, Ugne Tiskute, says that it entails ‘a very interesting way of composing, but audiences love it!’

 

 

 

 

Savitri and Francis Grier: 20th November 2014

 

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART  1756-1791

Sonata for piano and violin in B flat major, K454

  • Largo – Allegro  2. Andante  3. Allegretto

 

One of Mozart’s generally less well-known masterpieces – unless you are a violinist! Dating it in his personal catalogue 21st April 1784, he added the comment that it was for ‘the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua here [i.e. Vienna] present’. Regina Strinasacchi (1764-1839) was one of the first violin virtuosos to rise from the embers of the baroque period, noted for its fabulous violinist-composers (Corelli, Biber, Vivaldi, Tartini…). Interestingly and importantly she was also one of the first to use a Stradivarius, and if she had her instrument (maybe one later owned by Louis Spohr) by 1784, Mozart might well have composed the work not only because (to quote a later letter from his father Leopold), Her whole heart and soul is in the melody she plays; and her tone is just as beautiful, and strong too, but also to celebrate the particularly rich sound perfected by the master-maker of Cremona, who had died around a half-century earlier. Listening to the resplendent stream of sound we encounter this seems more than likely. The idea of writing a work for the temperament of a particular professional performer was not unheard of, but in an age dominated by the amateur market hardly common. This sonata is a big concert work, attuned to the highest level of violin and keyboard skill then available: most who bought the published score, available from July 1784, would have been pretty disgruntled – especially the hapless violinists (usually a male in the new middle-class family). It’s worth noting that Mozart was a little premature in dating his work, for at the first public performance (29th April 1784) it was apparent he had not yet written down the piano part, and his starry violinist only received her part the evening before.  A shambles? – not a bit of it. Emperor Joseph II was there, the noble Hapsburg jaw cracked approvingly, and it was a great success.

 

A word or two more about Regina Strinasacchi.  Information is pretty sparse, and her compositions (for she also wrote music) have disappeared. She married a cellist named Schlick and settled at Gotha, bringing forth two musical children. It is a pity that her place in violin lore and her advocacy of the Stradivarius has been smothered – with the assistance of generations of male music historians – by the bulky fame of Giovanni Battista Viotti; and with the ‘devilish’ Niccolò Paganini soon in action, without Mozart history would have snuffed her out. Papa Mozart, to give him his due, was (possibly) ahead of any prejudice: in the letter already quoted, he added: I believe, as a rule, that a woman of genius plays with more expression than a man.

 

The music opens with a powerful slow introduction. It tells us two things: this is going to be a work of substance: A monumental achievement… a depth that’s unequalled, says one of its great living interpreters, Anne-Sophie Mutter; and that the violin and piano are going to have absolute equality. In the history of the violin sonata this is quite a moment! The main Allegro takes no prisoners. The first subject has the two instruments urging each other on in a surge of energy rarely heard in 1780s musical salons and drawing rooms; there is something operatic about the delightfully contrasting second subject. The short development picks up the cadence ending the exposition, and breaks into a series of extraordinary modulations. The recapitulation launches in effect further development. A wonder of richness and compression!

The Andante (originally to be an Adagio) takes some sublime material for a gentle journey through some arresting harmonic landscapes. To quote Mutter again, The violin and piano are so intertwined you simply don’t notice when the words are taken out of your mouth and put back in again. The final Allegretto is an elaborate rondo, which again shows Mozart at full stretch, unrolling a melodic and harmonic richness – and a little playfulness too – fit to crown a truly magnificent work.

 

Maurice RAVEL  1875-1937

Sonata for violin and piano in G major

  • Allegretto  2. Blues: Moderato  3. Perpetuum mobile: Allegretto

 

Ravel volunteered as a truck driver in the 1914-18 War, and never really recovered from the experience. His health was damaged, and composition became increasingly fraught for him – it is difficult to realise how much mental pain, stress and procrastination was involved in the writing of such a generally witty, joyous work as this sonata. It started life as a gift for one of his dearest friends, the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1892-1961), and sketches were probably in existence by the end of 1923. But by the spring of 1924 it had been shelved, not only for the ongoing work on the marvellous one-act Colette opera L’enfant les sortilèges, but also because he now wanted to write a virtuoso gypsy pastiche for another successor of Regina Strinasacchi, Jelly d’Arányi (1893-1966), a great-niece of Brahms’s violinist Joachim, a collaborator with Bartók as well as Ravel, and one of the most fabulous players of her day. This piece was Tzigane. Again Ravel struggled and d’Arányi had but two days to prepare for the premiere (London, 26th April 1924), one day more than Mozart gave Strinassachi. He was bowled over by d’Arányi’s technical wizardry (If I had known I would have made it more difficult). As part of composing Tzigane he had also asked Jourdan-Morhange for a private run-through of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. This turned out to be more grist to the sonata mill. Touring, performing, conducting, hiding – this all contributed to delay. Another piece – with another set of problems – gathered more dust for the sonata: the Chansons madécasses. Otherwise L’enfant, with composition and production, consumed his diminishing energies. However, at some point in 1926 we learn that Ravel had destroyed the finale of the sonata, with the indication that the other two movements were at last complete: It was not the right sort of finale for the first and second movements. So I have destroyed it and composed another finale, which is not so good, but it is a good finale. [See Ravel Remembered, ed. Roger Nichols, London 1987, testimony of Manuel Rosenthal.] Had he really composed the new finale, or was he still procrastinating? Durand, his publisher, no doubt hacked off, finally forced his hand by arranging the premier as part of a concert of ‘his’ composers in the Salle Érard in Paris, 30th May 1927. Yet again, the sonata almost missed the boat – the new violinist, the great Georges Enesco (1881-1955), saw the completed autograph only on the afternoon before the concert, but – Enesco being Enesco – consigned it to his memory after one play-through. His wizardry ensured the work’s success. Was Héléne Jourdan-Morhange in the audience? In the intervening years arthritis had destroyed her public career and had deprived her of playing her work.

 

If you are going to use my attempt at a guide, please note that this is not a long piece, although much happens: the movements have approximate lengths of 8/9, 5/6 and 4/5 minutes respectively. The sonata opens with an elegant theme on the piano (first subject), immediately echoed by the violin – in turn immediately interrupted by an insistent rhythmic motif on the piano (conjuring for me pecking farmyard hens!), probably derived from ragtime – a craze among the younger French composers after their new guru Erik Satie had wickedly parodied Irving Berlin in Parade (1917), that seminal work of modernism with laughter, jocoserious, as James Joyce would have it. The instruments seem to be increasingly disconnected, but the violin harnesses the sparsest accompaniment for a magnificent lyrical flight (second subject), concluding this bizarre exposition with a note of mystery, of languor, of sensual ecstasy even. The first theme again appears, shadowlike, on the piano, the violin pecking out the rhythmic ostinato. In cohort the two instruments build up a powerful climax with the second subject, collapsing with violin tremolos. From this point the violin renews its enraptured musings, but the piano goes its own way with the first subject and ostinato, recalling a phenomenon familiar to anyone who sits in on violin/piano rehearsals when the musicians are playing different passages simultaneously: except here it’s the recapitulation of a sonata movement! Union is gently restored for the dreamiest of codas, as if of earth and sky, with the piano musing on the first subject, placidly restoring order, and the violin vertiginously stratospheric.

Blues/jazz took about ten years to reach Europe after it achieved commercial popularity in America with WC Handy (St Louis Blues, Basin Street Blues). Darius Milhaud in his 1923 ballet La Création du monde created the first major ‘art music’ piece to show the influence of black music in general – he discovered jazz in London in 1920 (Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band) and later combed the clubs of Harlem. As we know from the Chansons madécasses, Ravel was a composer with a social conscience, and the edge of anger in this movement rescues it from being in any way indulgent pastiche: the strain of lamentation haunting the true blues is powerfully caught. The pizzicato violin imitates a banjo, and the ambiguous harmonies, the snapping syncopations and the sleek sensuality of the glissandi are all there, entertaining but also disturbing in their implacability. He might even have been trying to conjure up the ‘blues voice’ in the reaches of the violin. The movement may have drawn its direct inspiration from Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp – elements of quotation have been detected. You will also hear I Got Rhythm, but before Gershwin wrote it!   

A few chords open the finale, and then the violin starts spinning its web of two hundred non-stop bars of semiquavers, demonstrating the kind of dizzy writing Ravel had learnt from composing Tzigane, with an almighty dose of Paganini Caprices virtuosity to boot. The piano, again in a different world, loses itself in weaving allusive fragments of what we have heard, including I Got Rhythm. Part of the whole task of the piece has been to slyly question of the compatibility of these two familiar instruments.

 

 

Franz SCHUBERT  1797-1828

Fantasie for violin and piano in C major, D934, op posth. 159

Andantino – Allegretto – Andantino – Tempo primo – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto

 

This considerable work of Schubert has been rather marginalised in the violin/piano repertory because of its great difficulty, and for the public it doesn’t have enough of what the composer’s dramatist friend Eduard van Bauernfeld called a black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy and agonizing beauty which we so value in late Schubert.  Yet there is deeply emotional music in this work too, but also a joyful Schubert, and an entertainer as well. This was a piece devised for the domestic hearth or the concert hall for a virtuoso violinist from Bohemia, Josef Slavjk (or Slavik, 1806-1833), for whom he had already written a Grand Rondeau. Slavjk was compared by Chopin to Paganini, and so we have music which reflects this – right from the violin’s first entry. But the piano writing – as you will be reminded again and again – likewise demands no ordinary skill. The piece was composed rapidly in December 1827, and actually publicly performed in Schubert’s presence with the composer’s faithful pianist, Carl Maria von Bockler, on 20th January 1828. It had to wait until 1850 for publication. At 25/6 minutes, it is the longest of the surprisingly small number of violin and piano works by Schubert.

 

The perhaps awkward Schubertian Fantasy form is a succession of linked sections, as seen under the heading above. The four-movement sonata structure is implicit. The opening of the Fantaisie is extraordinary – Schubert at his most ‘fantastic’, with the so-imaginative cimbalom-like piano writing, and the violin singing and soaring after it seems to have been born like some elemental. There is a mini-cadenza for both instruments (with the violin almost out of sight) linking this slow and recurring music to the vigorous Hungarian-inflected Allegretto, flashy and earthy. Arpeggios from the piano lead to a set of increasingly florid variations on Schubert’s own song Sei mir gegrüst / I greet you. The wonderful first variation hits a deep emotional vein: after all, in the song the one who is greeted is dead. But this does not persist, as Schubert turns to giving us teasingly spirited pleasure. Another mini-cadenza, then the opening music again returns, leading to an exciting showpiece finale, a hint of Sei mir grüst and a jubilant presto conclusion.              Notes ©David Mulraney

 

 

 

RUISI Quartet: 6th November 2014

 

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART  1756-1791

String Quartet no 14 in G major, K387

  • Allegro vivace assai  2. Menuetto: Allegro  3. Andante catabile  4. Molto allegro

(Sometimes known as the Spring Quartet. Why?)

 

This is the first of the six great quartets Mozart wrote in Vienna between December 1783 and January 1785, his reawakened interest in the increasingly popular medium having been aroused by Haydn’s in a special and completely new manner Opus 33 quartets, published in 1782. At some point Mozart decided to dedicate his own new quartets to the older master, and they duly appeared in September 1785 with a touching dedication… Here then, great man and my dearest friend, are my six children… the fruit of a long and difficult labour. Haydn wrote two years later …of the inimitable art of Mozart, its depth, the greatness of its emotion, and its unique musical conception. He also wrote to Mozart’s father, Leopold: Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name…Three points are worth underlining from the above. Mozart’s thirteen earlier quartets are really quite insignificant.: Haydn’s Opus 33 brought about an utter transformation. Labour was indeed long and difficult; the autograph scores (in the British library) having many revisions, even major alterations (see the next paragraph). And the musical, as well as the personal relationship, of Haydn and Mozart is deeply significant for the history of western music. As far as the quartet is concerned, in their hands it became a jewel of Enlightenment idealism, representing the exchange of civilised conversation among friends, possessed of both sense and sensibility. The centrality of the symphony in western music is also down to them: everything Haydn’s pupil Beethoven did as a young composer was to prepare himself for writing such a work of such status, and the rest is history.

 

The manuscript of today’s quartet bears the date 31st December 1782. A particular passage, the development of the finale, gave Mozart huge trouble: after at least four discarded attempts, in June1782 he pasted half a sheet of paper over his ‘December’ solution with what we hear today*. This work, contemporary with the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail  and the Haffner Symphony, was the longest and most richly developed quartet written up to that time, and a major tour de force by any reckoning – as we shall hear.

 

The opening theme is essentially chromatic in character, and the music immediately seems to roam freely, growing, expanding. The jauntily angular opening of the second subject establishes strong contrast, especially when repeated with some force, underpinning the dynamic tensions in the movement – indeed, a characteristic of the whole work. A little extension, happy in its giddy descent, moves us on our way to the end of the exposition, marked by a curious staccato pattern, which, on its face value, seems insignificant. The development begins almost gloweringly with the first subject, moving on to tense dramatic scales before finding its way, surprisingly, to an expansion of the ‘insignificant’ staccato – heralding the recapitulation of the exposition. The fires are dampened, or summarily dismissed, at the very end with that staccato with its little trill: the maverick player in this fantastic, keep-us-guessing, movement. —— The Menuetto here comes second, and it’s substantial. Mozart (possibly thinking of Haydn) has fun with the triple metre of the minuet, as well as playing it ‘straight’; the chromatic writing can make the music lurch and balloon: there is a real twinkle in the eye. We can safely call this a scherzo: it would certainly be a good wig-shaker of a dance. But the minor-key trio is ambivalent: it opens on such a stern note we might be bewildered: isn’t this meant to be comedy? Gentler music pleads, and this dialogue continues without resolution – it could go on for eternity! Is this intended as more in the way of humour, or something darker? And maybe it was flashing away in Beethoven’s head when he composed the slow movement of the G major Piano Concerto? —— It might be felt that in the Andante cantabile (in C major, the sub-dominant key of G major) Mozart is in the process of revealing his innermost self, even though such subjectivity was not yet meant to be in anyone’s musical vocabulary. This is rapt music, a song of blessings and burdens, with an almost mystical stillness at its heart.  With the first violin and cello generating most of the material this is a movement where harmony and texture create music of exquisite and enriching beauty. —— Next there is a musical miracle of another kind, a finale which in its contrapuntal mastery anticipates the equivalent movement of the Jupiter Symphony by six years. Mozart makes it seem as easy as falling off a log, but we now know it was hardly so. The second violin announces the rising four-note motif which is the subject of the first section of the movement, that and its scurrying counter-subject. Quasi-fugal music quickly subsides for a lightning interlude, then the cello digs in with dotted syncopation, and a double fugato structure is piled up with breath-taking aplomb. Then – with nothing of the fugue about it – soaring like a lark is a blithe tune which personifies delight itself. There is a repeat of what we have just heard – Ah, this is a sonata movement – of a kind! But the development, based restlessly on the first theme, is very short. This is the passage that gave Mozart such difficulty – but its originality speaks for itself, he was out on a musical limb, and we cannot be surprised. The recapitulation is significantly changed, and there is a coda again concerned with the opening four-note theme. Beware of the false ending – Mozart ends this masterpiece improbably: another wave to Haydn.

 

*The other half-sheet contains the extraordinary ending of the D minor Quartet K421. We know of the June dating because it is documented   Mozart’s wife Constanze gave birth to a son while he was composing the minuet in the small hours of 17th June!

 

 

Joseph HAYDN  1732-1809

String Quartet in G major, opus 76 no 1

  • Allegro con spirito  2. Adagio sostenuto  3. Menuetto: Presto  4. Finale: Allegro ma non troppo

 

Mozart wrote of Haydn: There is no one who can do it all – to joke and to terrify, to evoke laughter and profound sentiment – and all equally well, except Joseph Haydn. And there can be no more suitable companion to the Mozart we have just heard than Haydn’s own G major Quartet, the first of his last set of six quartets published as Opus 76 in 1799, although completed by 1797. They were commissioned by a scion of an extensive Hungarian aristocratic clan, Count Joseph Erdödy, and are thus known as the Erdödy Quartets. Haydn wrote these quartets alongside work on his great oratorio, Die Schöpfung / The Creation. When played in London, where Haydn was very popular due to his two extended visits earlier in the decade, they were heard by Charles Burney, the great musical gossip of the time. He reports that the quartets were full of invention, fire, good taste and new effects, and seem the product, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well already, but one of highly-cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before. Which says it all, apart from a brief guide to today’s work.

 

There was nothing new in the three chords to silence the chatter, but expectations were that the whole quartet would launch the main theme. But here we have a solitary cello, moreover playing a tune which could easily belong to some dubious ditty sung in a country pub. Such an earthy launching of what will soon dazzle as the apogee of musical sophistication is unique to Haydn, the son of a village wheelwright. The other instruments quickly join in, the viola leading. Other thematic fragments follow, but all is part of the energy of the one protean theme. This is very much a hallmark of the composer’s later style. All that really which cuts through this monothematic dominance is the charmingly chirpy bucolic dance near the end of the exposition. In the abundantly inventive development Haydn’s creates an almost baroque feeling as he definitively completes the silk purse. The sow’s ear is almost unrecognisable as the recapitulation is meshed with further energetic development. The cheery little dance tune has the last word. —— The slow movement is a kind of rondo, a dialogue seemingly of two worlds. The first music we hear is a chorale of great gravity, solemn and meditative, transformed throughout the movement. This is contrasted with music which plangently rises with the cello and first violin, and, on the off-beat, against the trudge of the other instruments, releases the violin to weave tracery patterns up to vertiginous heights. The more one listens to this movement the greater the blurring of these ‘two worlds’ becomes. —— Another Haydn joke was to call this movement a ‘Menuet’. This is a scherzo in everything but name, and we know he looked at his pupil Beethoven’s Opus 1 Trios; he obviously felt he was ready to take another little revolutionary step. But unlike Mozart in his ‘scherzo’ in K375, Haydn preserved the traditional modest dimensions. Thus – hold your breath – we have a truly presto ‘minuet’, with a veritable blizzard of staccato markings (and a heap of legs-akimbo dancers on the parquet). The trio is another reminder of the composer’s humble origins: a country waltz, a ländler, accompanied by strummed pizzicatos. —— Haydn’s last movement is a master-class in compositional gusto and comic timing. Finales were meant to open in the major key, but here we have a muscular theme in G minor, with trilling biceps. More of Haydn’s monothematic predilection is in evidence; what seems to be the second subject is clearly a more elegant variant of the first. In the jaw-dropping development Haydn travels across the musical universe by omnipotently moving from key to key (F minor, A flat major, A flat minor, D flat minor, A major…). Schubert, born the year this was composed, seems to smile from the notes. And for the recapitulation – another surprise! The texture changes with the strenuous theme transformed into the simplest G major by the first violin with sustained accompaniment. All goes into overdrive again, but in the coda G major scores a quiet victory by dancing the polka. The village lad again!  

 

Haydn completed two more quartets and two movements of a third. But he also managed three full-scale settings of the Mass and the oratorio Die Jahreszeiten / The Seasons before he died within hearing of Napoleon’s bombardment of Vienna.

Notes © David Mulraney

 

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART  1756-1791

Sonata for piano and violin in B flat major, K454

  • Largo – Allegro  2. Andante  3. Allegretto

 

One of Mozart’s generally less well-known masterpieces – unless you are a violinist! Dating it in his personal catalogue 21st April 1784, he added the comment that it was for ‘the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua here [i.e. Vienna] present’. Regina Strinasacchi (1764-1839) was one of the first violin virtuosos to rise from the embers of the baroque period, noted for its fabulous violinist-composers (Corelli, Biber, Vivaldi, Tartini…). Interestingly and importantly she was also one of the first to use a Stradivarius, and if she had her instrument (maybe one later owned by Louis Spohr) by 1784, Mozart might well have composed the work not only because (to quote a later letter from his father Leopold), Her whole heart and soul is in the melody she plays; and her tone is just as beautiful, and strong too, but also to celebrate the particularly rich sound perfected by the master-maker of Cremona, who had died around a half-century earlier. Listening to the resplendent stream of sound we encounter this seems more than likely. The idea of writing a work for the temperament of a particular professional performer was not unheard of, but in an age dominated by the amateur market hardly common. This sonata is a big concert work, attuned to the highest level of violin and keyboard skill then available: most who bought the published score, available from July 1784, would have been pretty disgruntled – especially the hapless violinists (usually a male in the new middle-class family). It’s worth noting that Mozart was a little premature in dating his work, for at the first public performance (29th April 1784) it was apparent he had not yet written down the piano part, and his starry violinist only received her part the evening before.  A shambles? – not a bit of it. Emperor Joseph II was there, the noble Hapsburg jaw cracked approvingly, and it was a great success.

 

A word or two more about Regina Strinasacchi.  Information is pretty sparse, and her compositions (for she also wrote music) have disappeared. She married a cellist named Schlick and settled at Gotha, bringing forth two musical children. It is a pity that her place in violin lore and her advocacy of the Stradivarius has been smothered – with the assistance of generations of male music historians – by the bulky fame of Giovanni Battista Viotti; and with the ‘devilish’ Niccolò Paganini soon in action, without Mozart history would have snuffed her out. Papa Mozart, to give him his due, was (possibly) ahead of any prejudice: in the letter already quoted, he added: I believe, as a rule, that a woman of genius plays with more expression than a man.

 

The music opens with a powerful slow introduction. It tells us two things: this is going to be a work of substance: A monumental achievement… a depth that’s unequalled, says one of its great living interpreters, Anne-Sophie Mutter; and that the violin and piano are going to have absolute equality. In the history of the violin sonata this is quite a moment! The main Allegro takes no prisoners. The first subject has the two instruments urging each other on in a surge of energy rarely heard in 1780s musical salons and drawing rooms; there is something operatic about the delightfully contrasting second subject. The short development picks up the cadence ending the exposition, and breaks into a series of extraordinary modulations. The recapitulation launches in effect further development. A wonder of richness and compression!

The Andante (originally to be an Adagio) takes some sublime material for a gentle journey through some arresting harmonic landscapes. To quote Mutter again, The violin and piano are so intertwined you simply don’t notice when the words are taken out of your mouth and put back in again. The final Allegretto is an elaborate rondo, which again shows Mozart at full stretch, unrolling a melodic and harmonic richness – and a little playfulness too – fit to crown a truly magnificent work.

 

Maurice RAVEL  1875-1937

Sonata for violin and piano in G major

  • Allegretto  2. Blues: Moderato  3. Perpetuum mobile: Allegretto

 

Ravel volunteered as a truck driver in the 1914-18 War, and never really recovered from the experience. His health was damaged, and composition became increasingly fraught for him – it is difficult to realise how much mental pain, stress and procrastination was involved in the writing of such a generally witty, joyous work as this sonata. It started life as a gift for one of his dearest friends, the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1892-1961), and sketches were probably in existence by the end of 1923. But by the spring of 1924 it had been shelved, not only for the ongoing work on the marvellous one-act Colette opera L’enfant les sortilèges, but also because he now wanted to write a virtuoso gypsy pastiche for another successor of Regina Strinasacchi, Jelly d’Arányi (1893-1966), a great-niece of Brahms’s violinist Joachim, a collaborator with Bartók as well as Ravel, and one of the most fabulous players of her day. This piece was Tzigane. Again Ravel struggled and d’Arányi had but two days to prepare for the premiere (London, 26th April 1924), one day more than Mozart gave Strinassachi. He was bowled over by d’Arányi’s technical wizardry (If I had known I would have made it more difficult). As part of composing Tzigane he had also asked Jourdan-Morhange for a private run-through of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. This turned out to be more grist to the sonata mill. Touring, performing, conducting, hiding – this all contributed to delay. Another piece – with another set of problems – gathered more dust for the sonata: the Chansons madécasses. Otherwise L’enfant, with composition and production, consumed his diminishing energies. However, at some point in 1926 we learn that Ravel had destroyed the finale of the sonata, with the indication that the other two movements were at last complete: It was not the right sort of finale for the first and second movements. So I have destroyed it and composed another finale, which is not so good, but it is a good finale. [See Ravel Remembered, ed. Roger Nichols, London 1987, testimony of Manuel Rosenthal.] Had he really composed the new finale, or was he still procrastinating? Durand, his publisher, no doubt hacked off, finally forced his hand by arranging the premier as part of a concert of ‘his’ composers in the Salle Érard in Paris, 30th May 1927. Yet again, the sonata almost missed the boat – the new violinist, the great Georges Enesco (1881-1955), saw the completed autograph only on the afternoon before the concert, but – Enesco being Enesco – consigned it to his memory after one play-through. His wizardry ensured the work’s success. Was Héléne Jourdan-Morhange in the audience? In the intervening years arthritis had destroyed her public career and had deprived her of playing her work.

 

If you are going to use my attempt at a guide, please note that this is not a long piece, although much happens: the movements have approximate lengths of 8/9, 5/6 and 4/5 minutes respectively. The sonata opens with an elegant theme on the piano (first subject), immediately echoed by the violin – in turn immediately interrupted by an insistent rhythmic motif on the piano (conjuring for me pecking farmyard hens!), probably derived from ragtime – a craze among the younger French composers after their new guru Erik Satie had wickedly parodied Irving Berlin in Parade (1917), that seminal work of modernism with laughter, jocoserious, as James Joyce would have it. The instruments seem to be increasingly disconnected, but the violin harnesses the sparsest accompaniment for a magnificent lyrical flight (second subject), concluding this bizarre exposition with a note of mystery, of languor, of sensual ecstasy even. The first theme again appears, shadowlike, on the piano, the violin pecking out the rhythmic ostinato. In cohort the two instruments build up a powerful climax with the second subject, collapsing with violin tremolos. From this point the violin renews its enraptured musings, but the piano goes its own way with the first subject and ostinato, recalling a phenomenon familiar to anyone who sits in on violin/piano rehearsals when the musicians are playing different passages simultaneously: except here it’s the recapitulation of a sonata movement! Union is gently restored for the dreamiest of codas, as if of earth and sky, with the piano musing on the first subject, placidly restoring order, and the violin vertiginously stratospheric.

Blues/jazz took about ten years to reach Europe after it achieved commercial popularity in America with WC Handy (St Louis Blues, Basin Street Blues). Darius Milhaud in his 1923 ballet La Création du monde created the first major ‘art music’ piece to show the influence of black music in general – he discovered jazz in London in 1920 (Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band) and later combed the clubs of Harlem. As we know from the Chansons madécasses, Ravel was a composer with a social conscience, and the edge of anger in this movement rescues it from being in any way indulgent pastiche: the strain of lamentation haunting the true blues is powerfully caught. The pizzicato violin imitates a banjo, and the ambiguous harmonies, the snapping syncopations and the sleek sensuality of the glissandi are all there, entertaining but also disturbing in their implacability. He might even have been trying to conjure up the ‘blues voice’ in the reaches of the violin. The movement may have drawn its direct inspiration from Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp – elements of quotation have been detected. You will also hear I Got Rhythm, but before Gershwin wrote it!   

A few chords open the finale, and then the violin starts spinning its web of two hundred non-stop bars of semiquavers, demonstrating the kind of dizzy writing Ravel had learnt from composing Tzigane, with an almighty dose of Paganini Caprices virtuosity to boot. The piano, again in a different world, loses itself in weaving allusive fragments of what we have heard, including I Got Rhythm. Part of the whole task of the piece has been to slyly question of the compatibility of these two familiar instruments.

 

 

 

Franz SCHUBERT  1797-1828

Fantasie for violin and piano in C major, D934, op posth. 159

Andantino – Allegretto – Andantino – Tempo primo – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto

 

This considerable work of Schubert has been rather marginalised in the violin/piano repertory because of its great difficulty, and for the public it doesn’t have enough of what the composer’s dramatist friend Eduard van Bauernfeld called a black winged demon of sorrow and melancholy and agonizing beauty which we so value in late Schubert.  Yet there is deeply emotional music in this work too, but also a joyful Schubert, and an entertainer as well. This was a piece devised for the domestic hearth or the concert hall for a virtuoso violinist from Bohemia, Josef Slavjk (or Slavik, 1806-1833), for whom he had already written a Grand Rondeau. Slavjk was compared by Chopin to Paganini, and so we have music which reflects this – right from the violin’s first entry. But the piano writing – as you will be reminded again and again – likewise demands no ordinary skill. The piece was composed rapidly in December 1827, and actually publicly performed in Schubert’s presence with the composer’s faithful pianist, Carl Maria von Bockler, on 20th January 1828. It had to wait until 1850 for publication. At 25/6 minutes, it is the longest of the surprisingly small number of violin and piano works by Schubert.

 

The perhaps awkward Schubertian Fantasy form is a succession of linked sections, as seen under the heading above. The four-movement sonata structure is implicit. The opening of the Fantaisie is extraordinary – Schubert at his most ‘fantastic’, with the so-imaginative cimbalom-like piano writing, and the violin singing and soaring after it seems to have been born like some elemental. There is a mini-cadenza for both instruments (with the violin almost out of sight) linking this slow and recurring music to the vigorous Hungarian-inflected Allegretto, flashy and earthy. Arpeggios from the piano lead to a set of increasingly florid variations on Schubert’s own song Sei mir gegrüst / I greet you. The wonderful first variation hits a deep emotional vein: after all, in the song the one who is greeted is dead. But this does not persist, as Schubert turns to giving us teasingly spirited pleasure. Another mini-cadenza, then the opening music again returns, leading to an exciting showpiece finale, a hint of Sei mir grüst and a jubilant presto conclusion.              Notes ©David Mulraney

 

 

27th November 2014: Canorum Trio

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART  1756-1791

Trio in E flat major for piano, clarinet and viola, K498 Kegelstatt

  • Andante  2. Menuetto  3. Rondeaux (Allegretto)

 

Firstly let us dispose of this work’s nickname. Kegelstatt, meaning skittle alley. Mozart’s love of skittles (the equivalent of modern tenpin bowling) was particularly strong in Vienna in the summer of 1786, but playing couldn’t stop him composing; he would scuttle off to jot down the ideas which even ‘a game with the lads’ would not staunch. As he had written to his father years before: ‘You know that music is – so to speak – my element, that I think about it all day long, that I like to speculate, cogitate.’ The manuscript of the Horn Duos K487 is inscribed ‘27th July 1786 while playing skittles’, and the story came about that today’s work was likewise composed in like fashion. There is no documentary evidence for this, and the character of the music would argue against it, but who knows?

    However, we do have real and reliable evidence about this masterpiece, underpinning the feeling of ease, warmth and intimacy with which the work is so replete – the ‘music of friends’ indeed. The work was composed expressly for performance by Anton Stadler (1753-1812), the clarinettist in the Vienna Court Orchestra and for whom Mozart went on to write the Clarinet Quintet K622 (1789) and the Clarinet Concerto K622 (1791); for Franciska von Jacquin (1769-1850), one of his favourite piano pupils (… I’ve never had a piano pupil as hard-working or keen as she is’); and for himself, an expert viola player. Franciska’s father was Nikolaus von Jacquin, one of the great botanists of the day, and the composer was particularly friendly with his son, Gottfried. The family held ‘at home’ musical evenings on Wednesdays, and the first performance of our trio almost certainly took place on 9th August 1786 – having been completed the previous Saturday, 5th August.

    The work requires little in the way of analysis, but the unusual combination of instruments is crucial to its whole character. Unlike the normal violin – cello – piano trio, Mozart here gives us two melody instruments, commanding very wide registers (soprano, alto and tenor) as well as highly distinctive timbres (severely upset in the commercially motivated version with violin instead of clarinet); the piano binds all. In a sense the work has a resemblance to the baroque trio sonata. Also unusual is that it work starts with a slow movement, and the fact that the two thematic strands of this Andante are so similar blurs the usual contrasts we expect in a sonata structure. Everything proceeds on a conversational level – the ‘ease, warmth and intimacy’ I have noted.

    The minuet and trio is the only such movement in Mozart’s mature keyboard chamber music. Listening to the minuet, we must realise that Franciska Jacquin’s fortepiano would have provided a much lighter touch than the modern grand. The G minor (but hardly dark) trio is unusually long – over 100 bars – and is notable for the scurrying triplet motion started by the viola, but caught – like an itch! – by the piano. The repeat of the minuet is not literal – there are still a few itches, and the trio motif appears openly at the end.

    The genial interplay, the conversation, between the instruments, reaches a new height in the Rondo. Here everyone is allowed the floor to have an entertaining solo or two, and we can imagine fellow-performers nodding approval, and the audience at the Jacquins’ soirée delightedly applauding. Small wonder for those who love Mozart this is a very special work indeed, one which somehow brings his world very close to us.                     ©David Mulraney

    

 

Alfred UHL  1909-1992

Kleines Konzert (Little Concerto) for clarinet, viola and piano

  • Allegro con brio 2. Grave 3. Vivo

I am claiming no familiarity with this work, but I am told it is an enjoyable 18 minutes. It was composed in 1937. Uhl was a major figure in Austrian music, a musician in the widest sense, playing many instruments (but specialising in the viola), conducting and (especially) teaching. As a composer his span is broad, from opera and film music to volumes of exercises for students (e.g. his 48 Studies for the clarinet).

 

 

Vytautas GERMANAVIČIUS  1969-

Crumbling Words

Again, your scribe can offer no wisdom about this ten-minute piece by one of Lithuania’s most important and widely-played young composers. But our violist, Ugne Tiskute, says that it entails ‘a very interesting way of composing, but audiences love it!’

 

 

Igor STRAVINSKY  1882-1971

The Soldier’s Tale: Suite for clarinet, violin and piano

  • The Soldier’s March 2. The Soldier’s Violin 3. The Little Concert

4. Tango – Valse – Rag 5. The Devil’s Dance

 

    Space demands that the history of L’histoire du soldat be quickly told. The Great War found Stravinsky in Switzerland, with a sick wife, four children and generally on his uppers – not helped by the eventual confiscation of all his Russian assets by the Bolsheviks. He worked on his piquant ‘barnyard fable’ Renard in 1915, and on what was really his last Russian work, The Wedding (which resisted completion until 1924), and, finally, along with the Swiss novelist CF Ramuz (starved of royalties), hatching the idea of a kind of ‘piece-on-a cart’ which could be toured around Swiss towns and villages, offering a hopefully approachable mixture of cabaret and street theatre. In March 1918, hunkered down at Morges, Stravinsky and Ramuz brought L’histoire into being. Conductor Ernest Ansermet  and painter René Auberjonois were on the sidelines, and a Winterthur tea-importer and arts Maecenas, Werner Reinhart, was to put up the money. Stravinsky had already collaborated with Ramuz on the wonderful aforementioned Renard, which, with its bizarre little orchestra and mock-folksy text derived from the Russian Brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasyev, is nothing less than the Soldier’s foxy crony. So – the Tale is Faustian parable of a soldier who sells his soul (symbolised by the ‘scraping’ [Stravinsky’s word] violin) to the Devil (who owns the percussion in the original), and despite many adventures and attempts to outwit his fate finally proves to be no match for his fiendish opponent.

    As conceived, the small stage would be occupied on one side by the Narrator, and on the other by an orchestra consisting of – wait for it! – violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and extensive percussion. The action would be played out by an actor (The Soldier), an actor/dancer (The Devil), and a dancer (the Princess, whose life is saved by the violin). The tale is told through brief tableaux with linking and accompanying music. The music itself is among the most original Stravinsky composed, and in its use of parody exudes a razor-sharp comic flavour, mixed with a harsh wit oozing rust and acid. And there is ragtime – here jazz begins to be used in ‘art’ music, adding a vivid contemporary flavour; the Princess is a very modern miss indeed! And Stravinsky wanted this: he was happy with contemporary dress and reference.

   As it turned out the théâtre ambulant idea had to be abandoned because of the Europe-wide outbreak of Spanish influenza, but there was a fully staged performance in Lausanne on 28th September 1918, with Ansermet conducting and costumes by Auberjonois. Stravinsky quickly arranged two suites from the work: what he called his Grande Suite, eight numbers in the original instrumentation [would you like this at St Mary’s, if possible?], and the transcription we are hearing today.

    This trio version was made in the autumn of 1919, and premiered at Lausanne on 19th November. It is dedicated, and was probably intended to flatter, the Maecenas Werner Reinhart, an amateur clarinettist. The prominent violin part, as I have said, represents the Soldier’s soul, and plays away even when in devilish possession at the end. The clarinet and the piano (the latter often taking on the role of the Devil’s percussion) have to perform wonders, and the piece stretches the virtuosity – to our excitement – of all three. The first two movements are the Soldier’s catchy march which opens the piece, and then he ‘scrapes’ his fiddle as the Devil listens. The Little Concert is played just before the Soldier cures the Princess of her illness with his violin; she then dances the Tango, Waltz and Ragtime. The Princess, married to the Soldier, unwittingly brings about his fate. Old Nick, the fiddle (re)captured, does his triumphant dance.    

 

Gerald FINZI  1901-156

Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, op 23

1.Prelude: Allegro deciso 2. Romance: Andante tranquillo 3. Carol: Andante tranquillo 4. Forlana: Allegretto grazioso 5. Fughetta: Allegro vivace

 

    Finzi, although of Italian Jewish descent, was the most English of composers. Mentored to a degree by the ever-generous Vaughan Williams, he belonged to the ‘pastoral’ group of composers, defining the term for us in the lovely Romance from these Bagatelles. Although a pacifist, from 1941he worked in the Ministry of War Transport, and these five pieces came together at that time mainly through the offices of his publisher, Leslie Boosey. Three were ’20 year old bits and pieces’, two were composed afresh. When published in July 1945 the Five Bagatelles, were a major success, even though ‘they are only trifles’, as Finzi said ruefully; his ‘big’ works have still never had such popularity. The truth is he was really a miniaturist, the Hardy songs being particularly valuable.

    The opening Prelude shows his love of Bach, the wistful quality of the central section being due to a Finzi thumbprint, the falling minor seventh. The Romance, particularly beautiful, is related to the songs. The Carol is a reworking of a carol he had composed for the daughter of his composer friend Herbert Howells, on a poem by Ivor Gurney (see our concert on 30th April). The lilting Forlana (originally a vigorous Venetian dance) was almost a Berceuse (lullaby); the problem was discussed with another composer friend, Edmund Rubbra. The exuberance of the Fughetta brings Bach to the village green.

 

Béla BARTÓK  1881-1945

Contrasts, for clarinet, violin and piano, SzIII, BBII6

  • Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance): Moderato, ben ritmato 2. Pihenö (Rest): Lento 3. Sebes (Fast Dance)

 

    This work was commissioned in 1938 by the ‘King of Swing’, Benny Goodman, through the agency of Joseph Szigeti, very much Bartók’s own violinist, who sent the composer, still – nervously – in Hungary, some of the great jazz clarinettist’s own recordings. Goodman had in mind something simpler than he received, thinking of one 12” 78 rpm record (about 10 minutes), accommodating two movements. Bartók held firm, and by 1940 had himself arrived in the States, and played in the premier of the whole work with Goodman and Szigeti in Boston on 4th February 1941. It had already been recorded, on two 78s!

    Bartók’s contrasts consist of not only playing with the sonorities of the instruments, but with the contrasting moods developed from very Hungarian-inspired raw material. The first movement is a Verbunkos (a structure which could be very elaborate in Magyar folk music), originally danced by recruiting officers for the army.  Like all three movements, it has basically an ABA structure. The opening is a jaunty march with clarinet and violin sharing domination; but the second section proceeds slowly, with fantastical cries as if into the night; and then a return of the opening, but in a distinctly fragmentary state, gathering energy for a clarinet cadenza as short as it’s hair-raising.     The second movement is an example of the composer’s night music, of which the slow section of the Verbunkos seems like a parody. Here the piano comes into its own as a solo instrument, some of the writing inspired by Javanese gamelan music.    For the first thirty bars of the opening of the final Fast Dance the violin is mistuned (scordatura) – the G string raised and the E string dropped a semitone; and the clarinettist changes from an instrument in A to one in B flat. Just for the calmer central section the clarinet resumes his former instrument. The music speeds to a violin cadenza to match that for the clarinet in the Verbunkos, in turn leading into an exhilarating closing section, topped with a grotesquely distorted coda.  

 

Claude DEBUSSY  1862-1918

Sonata for violin and piano

  • Allegro vivo  2. Intermède. Fantasque et léger  3. Finale. Très animé

 

    This was Debussy’s final work – and it was a grim and desperate struggle for him even though there is only around fourteen minutes of it. Like hundreds and thousands of other civilians he was miserably debilitated by the Great War. And like hundreds and thousands he was jingoistic enough at first, but soon added darkening sobriety to his patriotism. ‘I’m nothing more than a wretched atom hurled along by this wretched cataclysm,’ he wrote.  This world disaster came in harness with a sense of personal impotence and collapse; his marriage was troubled, creatively he was sterile, and – overriding all else – a deeply humiliating and painful condition had been diagnosed – after dreadful delay – as colonic cancer. However, in the summer of 1915 the composer and his family rented a villa at Pourville on the Normandy coast and creativity began to stir. He felt ‘it would be a form of cowardice to think only of the horrors being committed without trying to react by creating, to the best of my ability, a little of that beauty against which the enemy rages.’

    Thus, announcing himself as Claude Debussy, musiçien français, he had the idea of writing a set of six sonatas for different instrumental combinations as a ‘proof, however slight, that, were there thirty millions of Boches, French thought cannot be destroyed’. He continued: ‘I think of the youth of France… the music I write will be a homage to them’. In planning the works he decided to look backwards to ‘the ancient, flexible mould, with none of the grandiloquence of modern [i.e. Teutonic, directly or by influence] sonatas’. Indeed, in their unpredictability, wit, clarity and vitality, we are inevitably reminded of the great French baroque works of Couperin and Rameau. The first of these intentionally concise sonatas was for cello and piano, brimful of invention and energy; the second for flute, viola and harp, elegant, but tinged with sadness, like a Watteau painting. And then the composition of the ground-breaking piano Études, his most extreme parting with the evocative/pictorial music of the past – and then illness, colostomy, depression: ‘I’m suffering the tortures of the damned’. Debussy took up the Violin Sonata when he could, the composition of the Finale almost defeating him (but, listening, who would begin to suspect any of this?) – but it was completed early in 1917. He played it with Gaston Poulet (some sources say the great George Enescu) on 5 May 1917, and again in September at what was his final public appearance. As far as I know, nothing whatsoever was put on paper of the three remaining sonatas, which were apparently intended for oboe, horn and harpsichord; trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano; and ‘the sonorities I’ve employed in the others, including double-bass’. Debussy died in Paris 25 March 1918.

    There is a certain irony in the fact that in the Violin Sonata (and this applies to the other two in varying ways) Debussy was returning to a ‘classical’ genre with more inherent formal structure, yet this work is as elusive as any by him, pure musical quicksilver; throughout the three movements interlinked micro-structures grow in ever-changing light. Sonata form is certainly there in the first movement (there has been investigative analysis!), but it is unpredictable, with a main theme which has nestling curves of melancholy, nostalgia and languor which smother metre and tonality: the home key is nominally G major. The elements, pushed and pulled by violin and piano in turn, slowly crystallise together as the music proceeds, unexpectedly and firmly ending in G minor. Listen for the portamento sighs just before the development section, echoed, seductively, felinely, in the other two movements.    In the second movement they occur in what might seem a droll silent-film scenario, both agilely comic and sensual, and introducing – it would seem – a gypsy fiddler. However, there is a twilight melancholy fade touching on something deeper. Whatever Debussy’s intentions this movement is indisputably whimsical and light!    The troublesome Finale opens with a reference back to the first movement’s main theme, then – propelled by joyous flourishes – the gypsy violin leaps away as if from all cares. The second movement is visited, the ‘sighs’ now ‘smiles’, for the glissandos curve upwards. The violin gathers energy again, there are two half-closes, and then, as Debussy said, ‘the material is subjected to the most curious deformations and ultimately leaves the impression of an idea turning back on itself, like a snake biting its own tail’. Indeed there is a veritable torrent of triplet semiquavers, the work ending in G major with the kind of conventional tonal bull’s eye which at one time Debussy’s wouldn’t have put on paper to save his life.

So what about French music? Where are our old harpsichordists, who produced real music in abundance? They held the secret of that graceful profundity, that emotion without epilepsy which we shy away from like ungrateful children. – Debussy

 

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN  1770-1827

String Quartet in A major, op 18 no 5

  • Allegro  2. Menuetto and Trio  3. Andante cantabile  4. Allegro

 

    Even before Beethoven, in 1799 firmly domiciled in Vienna, had received the commission for six string quartets from his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, he had begun developing ideas for such works in his sketchbooks the previous year, and some thoughts for the finale of today’s quartet were jotted down as early as 1794/5. Simultaneously Lobkowitz also asked Haydn, the virtual creator of the genre, for six new works, but he only managed to compete two of them, published as Opus 77 and known as the Lobkowitz Quartets. Haydn had been the nominal teacher of Ludwig van, and found his arrogance undoubtedly intimidating: he called him ‘The Great Mogul’. With the younger man at his ageing heels he must have felt he had said everything he could about the string quartet; he composed mass settings and his two great oratorios (The Creation and The Seasons) in the years left to him. However, the third movement of our work owes much to the famous variations in the Emperor Quartet, just published as the third of Haydn’s Opus 76. Moreover, the quartet’s structure, amongst other things, comes from his study of Mozart’s A major Quartet K464 (dedicated to Haydn).  Thus in the Opus 18 Quartets, published in1801, Beethoven sought to demonstrate he had not only consolidated the influences of Haydn and Mozart, but at the same time was striking out in new directions.

    The first movement is massively driven by 6/8 energy, and there are times when we sense that ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – the finale of the Seventh Symphony – is on its way. The first violin gets very excited in the first subject, and almost becomes airborne. The second theme begins in weightier unison, but the music still dances. With a third jolly candidate for the mix, it all becomes vigorously contrapuntal. We move swiftly through the development (with its touch of the minor) and then seamlessly into the recapitulation.    The dreamy Menuetto, first stated on the first violin and then the viola, is quite elaborate, and has an unexpected little dark crescendo which ends with a pause. The Trio is a Ländler, the bumpkin version of the waltz, before the Danube turned blue; this has hiccups on the third beat to prove it. Haydn would have laughed his wig off.   The third movement, marked Pastorale in some sketches, is a simple theme with five variations. In the 1st variation we hear a treatment of the theme in canon, the cello being kept busy, while the second has loop looping on the first violin. In the 3rd variation the viola and cello dominate against an accompaniment which can shimmer, but in the intimate, chromatic 4th all instruments quietly converse. The final 5th variation comes like an invasion: again a joke Haydn would have appreciated. Second violin and viola play with a cello accompaniment – a real upstart, this fellow – and there are dramatic trills. The music quietens until the theme is played very simply, almost whispered.    In Mozart’s A major Quartet the second movement is the minuet, the third a set of variations – but it is in the finale’s contrast of an irrepressible first subject and a rather melancholy second where the Mozartian template is most evident. But, make no mistake – this is Beethoven, even though be borrows Mozart’s poetic fade to the end.         

 

Antonín DVOŘÁK  1841-1904

String Quartet no 12 in F major, op 96, American

  • Allegro ma non troppo  2. Lento  3. Molto vivace  4. Finale: Vivace ma non troppo

 

    In 1892 the great Bohemian composer Dvořák was invited to New York by a perceptive Jeanette Thurber, the wife of a millionaire grocery wholesaler, to head the National Conservatory of Music – at a salary 25 times his earnings at the Prague Conservatory. Mrs Thurber wanted to create a national American musical style, using the indigenous music of the poor white and black students she enrolled. Unfortunately her plan was brought to grief by her husband’s bankruptcy, and the composer returned to Prague two years later.

    Dvořák agreed with his employer that America should look to its own musical resources and not to Europe. The extent to which he himself used American idioms in the music he wrote there is a matter of debate; the truth is that to the very marrow of his bones he was a Bohemian composer, both in the New World Symphony and in the American Quartet (not so-called by its composer; some of you will remember the original nickname – times have changed). Immediately after completing the New World, in the summer of 1893, Dvořák escaped the New York heat by staying in the small town of Spillville in Iowa. Here there was a colony of fellow-Bohemians, and to add to his happiness his wife and children came from Prague to join him. In this congenial atmosphere, staying in a farming settlement after the bustle of a vast modern city, he composed the quartet and the String Quintet op 97, another source of deep pleasure. Both works were composed with astonishing rapidity – the quartet was sketched between the 8th and 10th of June, and was completed on the 23rd. ‘Thanks be to God! I am content. It went quickly.’     

    This is the shortest and intellectually the least ambitious of Dvořák’s string quartets, and by far the most popular – alas, at the expense of other wonderful works. It needs nothing in the way of cold analysis – you don’t succeed in describing the beauty of woodland by merely listing the trees.   The first movement’s material is deeply memorable – over a rustling tremolo the first theme is herd on the viola, then the violin; there is a bridging theme – and then – quietly – the exquisite second subject, in its pentatonic character certainly rather ‘new world’. The Lento is ‘simply’ a development of what is a musical jewel, even by the standards of one of music’s supreme melodists. The very Bohemian third movement is a scherzo and trio, anything but going thought motions twice. Fantastic! And the vigorous finale is one of the most delightful of rondos. Dvořák said that he ‘wanted to write something melodious and simple’ – and he produced a masterpiece.

Notes: David M

 

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN  1770-1827

Trio no 7 in B flat major, for piano, violin and cello, op 97: Archduke

  • Allegro moderato 2. Scherzo: Allegro – Trio 3. Andante cantabile –

4. Allegro moderato – Presto

 

    So who was this Archduke? – Rudolph (1788-1831) was the youngest of the twelve offspring of Emperor Leopold II of Austria, but was orphaned at four; his eldest brother succeeded the Hapsburg throne as Franz I. An epileptic, Rudolph was spared a military life and was left to indulge his major interest – music. He was by all accounts very talented, and became a Beethoven pupil probably in 1804, and remained so for years. It was a lifelong bond, the two becoming very close despite the social chasm between them. Rudolph was instrumental in keeping Beethoven in funds, and was the dedicatee of fifteen compositions, including – as well as this trio – the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Piano Sonatas opp 106 and 111, and the Grosse Fuga op 133. Not due to any piety, but purely because heredity, Rudolph was ordained Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820, prompting the composition of the tardily-delivered Missa Solemnis. But back in 1809 apparently Rudolf had been somewhat miffed that Beethoven had not dedicated his op 70 Piano Trios to him, so here we find handsome amends indeed.

    This is the last and most expansive of Beethoven’s Piano Trios, giving the genre physical and emotional dimensions barely hinted at in Mozart, and certainly not in Haydn. In his two great contributions it was Schubert who further cemented its importance, picked up by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. Composed in 1810/11 (there is controversial evidence from a manuscript that most work was undertaken 3rd - 26th March 1811), but revised in 1814 for the first public performance on 11th April at Vienna’s Hotel Zum Romischen Kaiser. Ignaz Schuppanzigh and Joseph Linke played violin and cello respectively – they are familiar figures in the history of early Beethoven performance – with the deaf composer himself at the piano; a last fight against all the odds stacked by his deafness, for he did not play in public again.

    The opening theme, first heard on the piano, has a breadth and lofty nobility which establishes the mood of the whole movement – indeed ‘archducal’, if one has a certain view of archdukes. The four distinct phrases of the theme form the basis of the entire development section, one of exceptional richness even for Beethoven; as we approach the recapitulation, for example, we hear a fantastic and delightful dialogue between the piano and pizzicato strings. The second subject group, again first heard on the piano, is in a surprising G major and consists of three interlinked themes to balance the weight of the first theme group. Development of the music spills into the recapitulation and the coda, which is announced by a fortissimo statement of the opening.

    The Scherzo launches itself with the violin and cello relishing a particularly jaunty theme twice over; the rest of this part consists of a series of carefree variations on the theme and its inversion. The Trio pulls a pall over this playfulness; we have a severe intrusion, at first a fugato, in B flat minor, three times in all, but just as depression is gnawing the funeral hats are thrown in the air and the music becomes a waltz in D flat. Classic Ludwig van humour. The Scherzo returns – then in performance we either have the trio and the scherzo repeated, or we jump to the coda, where the dark side meekly evaporates as the Scherzo seems to wink at us.

    The slow movement looks forward in its exalted sublimity to the quartets and piano sonatas of Beethoven’s last years. The rapt, expansive D major theme is shared by piano alone and the trio together (it was appropriated for a hymn with words by Goethe). There follow five variations, the rhythmic character of the first four determined by ever-quickening note values – triplet quavers in the first variation, semiquavers in the second, triplet semiquavers for the third and demisemiquavers for the fourth. This fourth, slower variation, is especially beautiful in the richness of its textures. In the final variation the instruments seem to lose themselves in meditation, before finding a forceful statement of the theme, which opens up the long dying fall of the coda.    This decrease in tension is caught by what turns into the theme of the finale Rondo. This is a movement of sparkling wit, sustained through two episodes, with the jolly theme transformed by  key change (to A major) and tempo into a presto – then molto presto – coda, before being suddenly changed back to B fat for the last joyous bars. 

 

Sergei RACHMANINOV  1873-1942

Trio élégiaque no 1 in G minor

 

    Rachmaninov wrote this one-movement piece (around thirteen minutes) while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. It received its first performance there at the end of January 1892; the composer was, unsurprisingly, at the piano, with David Kreyn, leader of the Boshoi Ballet Orchestra, and Anatoly Brandukov, for whom he was to write his great Cello Sonata ten years later.  Over throbbing strings, the piano announces the expansive, folk-like first theme, Lento lugubre, taken up by the cello and then the violin, joining in an emotional duet. After a piano transition, the violin and cello also ardently take up the second theme, più vivo, and with the piano in full flight bring the exposition (for this is a sonata movement) to a surging climax. The development bends and twists the main theme into almost another one, but the cello restores it for the recapitulation. This comes to another huge climax, the music then collapsing into a gloomy coda, Alla marcia funebre, with the main theme lamenting in the depths.   We do not know why the 19-year-old composer would write such n emotional piece, but it was the death of Tchaikovsky, which prompted the 45 minute Trio élégiaque no 2, begun the day of that master’s death, 6th November 1893. Tchaikovsky’s own Piano Trio was in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, Shostakovich’s for Ivan Sollertinsky – a kind of tradition.

 

 

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH  1906-1975

Trio for piano, violin and cello [no 2] in E minor, op 67

  • Andante – Moderato – Poco più mosso  2. Allegro con brio  3, Largo – 4. Allegretto

 

    Four facts helped to shape the outer and inner worlds of this devastating music. Devastating not least because it echoes the devastation of war – for the first fact is that this was a wartime work. Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa on 22nd June 1941. The Trio was started at least by December 1943, the first movement being finished four days after the death of Ivan Sollertinsky at Novosibirsk on 11th February 1944 (more on him and the impact of his death later) – and resumed – after a break – in the summer and completed on 13th August 1944. The last three movements were composed at the so-called House of Rest and Creativity at Ivanovo, one of several such ‘communes’ for those creative artists smiled upon by Stalin. (But you also had to be frightened when he smiled – it meant he was looking at you; that said, at that time he had other things on his mind and for once seemed to trust artists to do the patriotic thing – Shostakovich composed his Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony – but that is a double-edged Soviet epic if ever there was one). He worked, apparently at astonishing speed, in an old poultry barn. Composition of the Trio meshed with that of the Second String Quartet (finished 20th September), and these two masterpieces form a kind of diptych; for obvious practical reasons they are seldom encountered together in the concert hall, but recordings easily make this enriching, indeed shattering, experience possible.

    Although Shostakovich, who was Russian to the core, did all he could practically for the Great Patriotic War (mundanely, he was a very myopic firewatcher during the Leningrad siege before being evacuated), for him the Great Terror, initiated by Stalin, with its arbitrary arrests, murders and executions, its gulags, neighbours spying on neighbours, betrayals and stifling culture of fear was from the same baleful antimatter as Nazism: in his music, when Hitler is in his sights so also is the broad-breasted boss from the Caucasus [Mandelstam, see later], as in the aforementioned Leningrad Symphony. The language of music can do this; wordsmiths and visual artists are in a far more dicey position in a totalitarian society. To his admirers Shostakovich’s transmutation of what he felt and experienced created a musical language of an emotional strength which is both direct and profoundly and courageously human. There is also that confederacy of irony and cipher and laugh-aloud humour – baffling to some – which has to be patiently unwrapped with heart and mind.

      

    Although anti-Semitism was not official Soviet policy until 1948, Shostakovich, as always, read the runes. My second fact is the composer’s empathy with the plight of the Jewish people. During the ‘break’ mentioned above – between the composition of the first movement and the rest of the Trio – Shostakovich spent some time completing a one-act opera by his former pupil Vaniamin Fleischmann, a Jew who had perished at some point during the Siege of Stalingrad three years earlier: Rothschild’s Violin, based on the story of a pathetic Jew by Chekhov. [There is a fine recording of this opera, paired with Shostakovich’s own unfinished Gogol opera The Gamblers, Avie AV2121.] Fleischmann’s use of haunting  Jewish melodies, with their ability to ‘smile through tears’, had a salutary effect on the older composer; we find such elements in the First Violin Concerto (1948), the Fourth String Quartet (1949) and particularly in his 1948 settings From Jewish Folk Poetry, all of which he had to withdraw from performance until after Stalin’s death. He openly threw down the gauntlet in 1960 when he set Yevtushenko’s poem about the Jewish massacre at Babi Yar as the first movement of his Thirteenth Symphony. He would also have been aware of Jewish music through the now increasingly appreciated composer Moishei Weinberg/Vainberg [his opera The Passenger has even found its way to the ENO], with whom he was friendly from 1943 – the Tenth Quartet is dedicated to him. It seems I comprehended what distinguishes the Jewish melos. A cheerful melody is built here on sad intonations… Why does he sing a cheerful song? Because he is sad at heart. Irony unveiling a Dostoevsky-like sense of the tragedy of the human condition is at the core of this Trio and so much else that he wrote. There is something in it which reminds me of the murdered poet Osip Mandelstam’s ‘home sickness for world culture’. (In his only openly political poem he had written of the mountain man of the Kremlin. His thick fingers are like worms, / His words ring as heavy as weights. / His cockroach moustache laughs, / And the tops of his boots shine [Moscow Notebooks 2.20].) Words, make no mistake, are dicey.

 

    The penultimate fact I wish to pick up is one which directly affected Shostakovich on the most personal level; the death of one who had been his friend and confidante (they both notoriously loved to down a bottle of vodka together!) from 1927 – Ivan Sollertinsky, already mentioned. He was one of the most respected Russian intellectuals of his time, a true polymath, unbelievably erudite in all the humanities and in Romance and Hispanic languages. After some unsurprising dithering he settled on musicology as his specialist field, becoming professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic; his lectures were the stuff of legend. Four years older than the composer, Sollertinsky’s vast knowledge of music and literature helped to mould his mind in those formative years (I owe all my education to him, the composer wrote to his widow): he certainly encouraged Shostakovich’s crucial appreciation of Mahler and cheered on the composition of the terrific satirical opera The Nose (after Gogol) and the multi-layered, multi-styled Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (after Leskov) – the work which gave such displeasure to the mountain man of the Kremlin, and as one of the century’s great operas contributing to the end of any semblance of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union, and earning for the musicologist the derisory (and threatening) title of ‘troubadour of formalism’ (Pravda, 1936). Sollertinsky, moreover, was someone who could be trusted in the darkest days, when a careless word could have meant the Gulag or worse: artistic politics made even fellow-composers treacherous. He was the composer’s ‘ideal companion’, ‘mentor’ and ‘alter ego’, and, as he wrote to Sollertinsky’s widow, To live without him will be unbearably difficult.

    So: when Shostakovich heard of his friend’s death (tuberculosis beat Uncle Joe to it) he determined that the Trio – the first movement of which had been seen by Sollertinsky – should not only be dedicated to him, but must form a kind of homage to their friendship and the deceased’s generous and visionary character.

 

    The very opening of the work is like nothing else in my experience, and daunting for the players; a cold spectral light from the very darkest place – solo, muted cello balancing on a vertiginously stratospheric ropeway, using for footing a four note motif which is quickly and mercifully underpinned by the muted violin and then finding a safety net in the nether regions of the piano. This four note motif is opened up in canon with cello and the violin, both playing in harmonics, the three instruments moving in a stricken huddle in the most barren of landscapes. Led by the piano at last asserting itself against a repeated-note accompaniment in the now terrestrial strings the music gathers a strength, and with the accompanying motif switched to the piano the violin sings a blithe new theme. But this is a movement of two halves: after a disconcerting climax, the music acquires yet another theme imbued with animal energy, rough and jolly folksiness following in its wake – a little musical carnival which seems to somehow hover between threat and malevolence. Led by the wolf-whistling violin, it all fades to inconsequentiality.

    The ‘scherzo’, in F sharp major, with a breathless G major waltz as a ‘trio’, is a torrent of energy, spiky, slithery, excited, crazy. That is his temper, his polemics, his manner of speech, his habit of returning to one and the same thought and developing it, wrote Sollertinsky’s sister.   In the Largo Shostakovich mourns, but not just for his friend. The material is very simple; the piano plays an equal length series of eight block chords which becomes the bass of a passacaglia, with six variations on a most beautiful but stricken theme – a threnody woven by violin and cello.

 

    The final movement follows without a break. I can now disclose the last of my facts. By January 1944 the 900 day Siege of Leningrad was lifted. As the Germans retreated on the eastern front the Soviet forces began to ‘liberate’ the concentration camps. The trigger for this movement might well have been newspaper accounts concerning the camp at Majdanek (near Lublin), opened up on 23rd July 1944: the composer read that the SS guards made Jewish prisoners dance around their own graves, which they had been just forced to dig. His reaction must have been instantaneous, for the work was finished less than a month later. (Stalin soon banned any mention of the camps in the press: perhaps he was busy studying the architects’ drawings.) Here, in this kind of dance rondo, the main theme is introduced pizzicato, and the movement is musically constructed around the transformation of this theme – it will not retain the innocence of our first hearing. It is a Jewish theme, and the composer makes open use of Jewish melody and rhythm throughout the movement. A contrastingly vigorous tune comes in its wake. The climax is unexpected: the piano plays as arpeggios of demisemiquavers the eight chords which form the basis of the Largo. There is a collage of easily recognizable fragments from earlier in the work, a last burst of the danse macabre with the ‘vigorous’ theme, hints of the passacaglia and the spectral opening, but now with the main Jewish theme – and the music comes to rest in a quiet E major.

 

 

 

 

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