Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Programme Notes

Piano Quartet in E flat, K493 –– W. A. Mozart (1756 – 1792)

Allegro, Larghetto, Rondo (allegretto).

Mozart practically created a new species of chamber music with his two piano quartets, written in 1785 (K478) and 1786 (K493). At that time in Vienna the trio sonata was the commonest chamber form, with the keyboard in an accompanying role. JC Bach in London had written quartets that were essentially mini concertos for the fortepiano, with the strings playing an accompanying or antiphonal role, showcasing the keyboard. Mozart however, in these two quartets, successfully integrated the fortepiano and strings, approaching the perfect balance already (and more naturally) achieved in the string quartet. However, he gave the piano a taxing and virtuosic part that intimidated the amateur performer, and Hoffmeister (who had commissioned 3 quartets) took fright and cancelled the commission. Mozart wrote no more for this combination after the quartet we hear tonight, turning instead to piano trios.

The opening allegro has a virtuosic keyboard part with somewhat concertante character, i.e. with piano and strings alternating and imitating. It has a profusion of lyrical themes, which modulate daringly in the development section. The Larghetto, in full sonata form, drops a fifth to A flat major and achieves an intense dramatic quality. It best displays Mozart's successful integration of piano and string elements; the tender intimate melody is written mostly for the strings, while the piano surrounds this with expressive arabesques. The lively Allegretto finale returns to the concertante character, with piano and strings alternating and imitating; the rondo theme is announced by the violin and taken up by the piano in slightly varied form. spacer

 

Piano Quartet in D minor –– William Walton (1902 – 1983)

Allegramente, Allegro scherzando, Andante tranquillo, Allegro molto

Walton's early musical promise caused his father to send him from his childhood home in Oldham to the choir school at Christ Church, Oxford, where he received lessons in composition. Christ Church College accepted him as an undergraduate at the age of 16, and it was in his first year that he composed his piano quartet (1918 – 1919). This is one of the composer's few early works that he did not destroy; perhaps because he lost the manuscript for two years. Upon its recovery in 1921 Walton revised the score extensively, but still had difficulty in getting it recognized, and it was not published until 1924, after his string quartet had already made a reputation for him. It was not performed in public till 1929.

The exuberance of the opening two movements mask just how difficult a feat it is to balance the instrumentation in a piano quartet. The third movement features muted strings led by the viola, and is a quiet reverie reminiscent of FaurŽ or Ravel. The finale returns to the vitality of the beginning. A raucous first theme places an angular melody in the strings over pounding chords on the piano which dominates the polyphonic and restless movement.

 

Piano Quartet in E flat, Op. 47 –– Robert Schumann (1810 — 1856)

Sostenuto-Allegro, Scherzo (Trio 1, Trio 2), Andante, Vivace

In September of 1840, Robert Schumann married the love of his life, Clara Wieck, a gifted pianist and composer in her own right, and already a well known recitalist, though 9 years his junior. During the first year of their marriage, Robert Schumann embarked on a year of prodigious creativity. However, there was friction, for Clara wished to continue her own career. The young couple only had one piano and when Robert was composing she could not practice. Early in 1842 Clara went off on a concert tour to Denmark leaving Robert, angry and jealous, with their 6 month old child. While Clara was away, Robert studied the string quartets of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart and, when she returned, he started a great flurry of composition, completing (in what is called his "Chamber music Year") not only tonight's piano quartet, but his three string quartets (Op 41), and the piano quintet dedicated to Clara (Op.44).

In the work we hear tonight, the influence of Mozart is obvious. It is the first substantial work for piano quartet since Mozart's K. 493, and it is in the same key (though here the middle movements are up a fifth, in B flat). And Schumann pays close attention to the 'classical' concepts of form and unity. By 1842 Chamber music was making the transition from drawing room to concert platform. Furthermore, the piano had gained greatly in sonority and power compared with Mozart's fortepiano of 1780, with its hammers of wood and leather. Nevertheless, the problem of integrating the piano with the strings still required attention.

The slow sostenuto material introduced at the beginning punctuates the different sections and key-changes of the distinctly agitated first movement. The scherzo (in B flat) clearly shows the influence of Schumann's friend and neighbour, Mendelssohn, in its light, sparkling, undulating, quaver passages. The slower trio sections meld seamlessly with the quicker material, the second trio recalling the sostenuto material of the first movement. The Andante (also in B flat) is a poignant tender melody exchanged between the different instruments. The delicate coda brings this warm, noble movement to a close. The final three chords anticipate and provide material for the final Vivace (E flat), in which this simple pattern is subjected to a vigorous "working out" in fugal style. That material is contrasted with a smoother second theme. This movement, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates the unrestrained emotional drive that we associate with Schumann.

(Programme notes were compiled with the help of the Programme Note Bank of the National Federation of Music Societies" and other sources.)

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Polonaise in C# minor, Op. 26/1         ––––          FrŽdŽric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

The polonaise is a slow dance of Polish origin, in 3/4 time (tum-ti-ti tum-tum tum-tum). Stately, aristocratic, processional, formal, it was characteristically the opening dance of a ball, and has nothing of the sensuousness of the waltz. Its use as a virtuosic salon piece for the piano was well established in Poland and Chopin's first two Polonaises were written in 1817 (when he was only 7). Opus 26/1 was written in 1835. A bold opening figure keeps returning in a piece that is mainly lyric in character.

 

Five mazurkas, (Opera: 6/11, 56/11, 17/4, 24/11 & 68/11) –– FrŽdŽric Chopin

The mazurka is a folk dance from the plains of Mazovia around Warsaw. Also in triple time, but with a distinct dotted rhythm (tee-ti tum tum), and a sad/brave/defiant mood. Many Polish folksongs, and their related dances including the mazurka, are in the Lydian mode with its sharpened 4th; known as the "Polish mode". Chopin composed 58 mazurkas.

 

Scherzo No.1 in B minor (Opus 20)   ––––          FrŽdŽric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

In September 1831, after initial successes and an heroic struggle, the Polish November uprising was finally crushed by superior Russian power. Chopin vented his anger, frustration and despair in the 'Revolutionary prelude' and this 'Scherzo'. This work departs dramatically from the tradition of the scherzo as a light, playful interlude. However, as with a traditional scherzo, there is a contrasting 'trio' section sandwiched between the hurried and angry outer sections. Two sharp chords introduce the dominating flurry of the first section (in B minor) punctuated with some sombre adagio bars. This remorselessly minor section ends and the mood lightens to a calm, almost Schubertian, melody in B major which apparently refers to a Polish folk carol "Sleep, Little Jesus, Sleep". The trio's unearthly serenity ends with the two initial chords, which sound this time like rifle shots, and the hectic flurry of the first section returns, with its mood of obsessive intensity. The work ends with an angry climax, release and finality.

 

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Ballade op.46                         ––––                           Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981)

Barber's best known work, the 'Adagio for Strings' was written in 1936 when the composer was 26; the 'Ballade' opus 46 dates from 1977, and was almost his last work. The integrity of Barber's character and musical inspiration shows in their similarities. The Adagio is a solemn work for a budding celebrity, while the carefully formal Ballade scarcely seems the work of a man who had passed through a prolonged period of loneliness, depression, and alcohol-dependence following the breakdown of his long relationship with Menotti; it is beautifully crafted and resigned, but not morbid or unhappy. The title suggests a conscious modelling on Chopin, and the Barber piece survives the comparison. Two contrasting moods alternate like refrain and verse.

 

"Three-quarter blues"                  –––––                  George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

"Three-quarter blues" appeared first as "Irish Waltz" in the "Gershwin Melody Collection", a posthumous compilation by Ira Gershwin and Kay Swift from miscellaneous Gershwin tune-books and manuscripts. The current title may refer to the time signature. The traditional 'blue' notes of the jazz scale are the flattened 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Note however that the flattened 5th is none other than the sharpened 4th of the 'Polish mode' (see above).

 

"Embraceable you"               –––––                  George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

When asked which came first in his brother's creative process, the words or the melody, Ira Gershwin replied "The contract". He might almost have said "The dance". Gershwin's "Embraceable you", dating from 1928-1929 and described as a 'foxtrot ballad', has inspired much extemporary re-interpretation by jazz musicians.

 

"Rhapsody in blue"               –––––                  George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

If you expect the electrifying clarinet 'wail' so familiar at the opening of the orchestral version of the Rhapsody in Blue you will be disappointed; this is piano only. And indeed single piano, for the piece was written for two pianos (under the title "American Rhapsody"), orchestrated by GrofŽ and premiered at an afternoon concert that had the serious intention of bringing music to the masses by mixing jazz with concert music. The glissando was a happy invention of the clarinettist at rehearsal but strongly approved by Gershwin, who himself played the piano solo at the premiere. We know from rolls and phonograph recordings of Gershwin's snappy, aggressive, lively, and above all rhythmic style. It has been remarked (by Leonard Bernstein) that: "The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It is a string of separate paragraphs stuck together.ÉI find that the themes are terrificÉ. inspired, God-givenÉ..But you cannot just put four tunes together and call them a composition." Maybe not, but you can listen to them with pleasure and indeed some excitement at the originality of the endeavour.

(Programme notes by Ian West)

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PrŽlude, Marine et Chansons –––––– Guy Ropartz (1864-1955)

Guy Ropartz, a Breton, studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Dubois, Massenet, and Franck. He was Director of the Conservatoire at Nancy and subsequently at Strasbourg and at the same time a prolific composer (3 masses, 4 opera, 5 symphonies, 6 quartets, etc.). He was in effect the major figure in French late romanticism. Much of his work was influenced by the landscape and folk music of his native Brittany. The present work for flute, harp and string trio was written in 1928 for his colleagues in the 'Quintette Instrumental de Paris'. The Prelude is a compact movement in sonata form with the main subject introduced on the viola. The Marine (which we might translate as 'Seascape') is an appealing, song-like movement with rocking figurations for the harp. Chansons ('Songs') is a sprightly movement with three main ideas comprising a lively opening followed by an actual 'thme populaire breton'.

 

Flute Quartet in D, K.285 –––––– W. A. Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Allegro, Adagio, Rondo.

At the age of 21, having unsuccessfully requested permission of the Archbishop to travel again with his father, Wolfgang offered to resign his post in Saltzburg and was curtly dismissed. In October 1777 he set off with his mother on his last great European tour in search (ostensibly) of a court appointment, traveling first to Mannheim where the Elector had the finest orchestra in Europe. Here the court flautist, Johann Baptist Wendling, became a good friend and a valuable contact, obtaining for Mozart a commission from a wealthy Dutch doctor to write concertos and quartets featuring the flute. Two concertos and three quartets eventually appeared but the commission was not completed. Mozart famously wrote to his father "you know I become bored and dull if I have to write always for one instrument (which I cannot bear)." This disrespect for the flute did not affect Mozart's high regard for Wendling, and the works in question remain among the gems of the flute repertoire. The Flute Quartet in D is dated on the manuscript 'Christmas Day 1777'. It is the first fruit of the commission and perhaps the best. The glorious melody of the slow movement (in B minor), accompanied by pizzicato strings, is a stroke of genius and the bustling Rondo which follows it seems to look forward to his later operas.

 

Suite for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello, Harp, Op 34 Marcel Tournier (1879-1951)

Soir, Danse, Lied, Fete

This quintet, like the Ropartz, was written for the Quintette Instrumental de Paris and in the same year (1928). Tournier, son of a luthier, was himself a celebrated harpist and taught at the Paris Conservatoire, as did his wife. He wrote some 50 pieces for the harp, alone and in combination, which form an important part of the contemporary harp repertoire. His impressionistic style draws, unsurprisingly, on Poulenc, Debussy and Ravel, who were the primary French innovators in 20th century chamber music.

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Andante and theme with variations –––– Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868)

Rossini's Andante e tema con variazioni per arpa e violino (1820) was written at the height of his powers for the married daughter of a Neapolitan impresario. Between 1815 and 1823 Rossini produced twenty operas including Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and Otello. Almost uniquely among Rossini's chamber music the theme in question, "Di tanti palpiti", was taken from one of his own operas (Tancredi, 1813).

 

Sonata for flute, viola and harp –––– Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Pastorale,    Interlude, Finale

Claude Debussy was at the forefront of the French Impressionist School of composition. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of twelve and was influenced briefly by Wagner and Mussorgsky. At 22, he won the coveted Prix de Rome. He was a prolific composer, including in his work piano music, opera, orchestral and chamber music. The Sonata for flute, viola and harp was published in 1916 and dates from the last years of Debussy's life. The work was supposed to be one of a series of six chamber sonatas, but only three were completed before Debussy's death. A number of musical ideas appear in each of the movements, but they dissolve into one another, giving an improvisatory feeling. There is a kind of desolate sensuousness that persists throughout the varying tempos and moods of the opening Pastorale, and which recurs intermittently even in the minuet-like Interlude and the rather frenetic Finale.

 

Quintet No. 2 (1989)     –––––– Jean Francaix (1912 – 1997)

Allegrissimo, Scherzo, Notturno, Rondo

Francaix studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His music has its roots in the neoclassical style used by Stravinsky and Poulenc, but it also shows his wit and a particular simplicity and elegance. Like so many composers of talent, he started young, publishing a Suite for Piano when he was just nine years old and he went on to produce works in many other genres including ballet and film scores. This is his second quintet for this combination of instruments, the first having been written significantly earlier in his life, and is full of his usual wit and quirkiness. (Programme notes based on material from Sally Pryce Ensemble and elsewhere)

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Prelude & Oriental Dance (Op. 2) ––––– Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)

With two exceptions, all of Rachmaninov's chamber music was composed before he was 21. Rachmaninov was born in Novgorod the son of an heiress and a dissolute army officer who exhausted the considerable family fortune and was thrown out when Sergei was only 9. The boy showed great ability at the piano and had composed an opera and a piano concerto by the age of 16. He was enrolled at the St. Petersburg conservatoire, but developed discipline problems and was sent instead to the Moscow conservatoire to live with his piano tutor, Zverev. The present work was written when Rachmaninov was 18 and premiered by him (and the gifted cellist Anatoly Brandukov) during his final year at the conservatoire in January 1892. The Prelude (in F major) opens with the theme on the cello, repeated with embellishments. This is followed by a faster section before a barely recognizable recapitulation and quiet ending. The oriental dance, in A minor, is more fluid in structure, but returns to A minor for a quiet pizzicato ending.

 

Cello Sonata Opus 6 ––––––––––––– Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)

i. Allegro ma non troppo, ii. Aadagio, iii. Allegro appassionato

Bartholomew LaFollette writes: "Samuel Barber wrote his cello sonata at the age of 22 and dedicated it to his composition teacher, Rosario Scalero, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although his rich use of triadic harmony is prevalent throughout the piece, it is very much rooted in C minor. The second movement is in ternary form, beginning with a soulful tune from the cello, accompanied by chords in the piano. This gives way to a short fast scherzo, in which Barber employs rhythmic tricks such as hemiolas to build tension and excitement before returning to an elaborated version of the opening theme. The last movement opens with a stormy turbulent theme from the piano in C minor before the cello takes over in the key of F# minor.  The cello and piano swap roles from primary to secondary voices and back again, interrupted by sudden improvisatory outbursts from the piano. The end coda is very firmly in C minor; dramatic and dark to the very end."

 

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Suite Italienne for 'Cello and Piano –––– Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

i. Introduzione, ii. Serenata, iii. Aria, iv. Tarantella, v. Minuetto, vi. Finale

Stravinsky's Suite Italienne for cello and piano is an arrangement of several movements from his ballet Pulcinella. In Pulcinella, composed in 1920, Stravinsky took works by the early eighteenth-century Italian composer Pergolesi and effectively rewrote them, cutting, altering, and transforming the music into his own style. Pulcinella was, in other words, Stravinsky's first work in which style itself was the composer's primary contribution. However, Stravinsky regarded it as the key to all his subsequent work. This was not Stravinsky's first attempt to transform some of the numbers from the ballet, for in 1925 he published a "Suite for violin and piano, after themes, fragments, and pieces by Giambattista Pergolesi". In 1932, Stravinsky enlisted the aid of

cellist Gregor Piatigorsky to rework the earlier Suite into the "Suite Italienne (from Pulcinella) for cello and piano". The charm of Pergolesi's melodies and the piquant flavour of Stravinsky's rewriting makes his Suite Italienne one of his most enjoyable works.

 

Cello Sonata in A major, Opus 69 –––––––––– Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

i. Allegro (ma non tanto), ii, Scherzo (allegro molto), iii, Adagio cantabile – Allegro vivace

The sonata in A major Op. 69 is the third and most post popular of Beethoven's 5 sonatas for cello and piano, written when Beethoven, already profoundly deaf, was in full flight as a composer (symphonies 5 & 6 were composed in the same year). It was dedicated to a close friend and amateur cellist (Baron von Gleichenstein) with the words " Inter lacrymas et luctus " (Amid tears and sorrows). It is the first of the sonatas in which the two instruments are equal partners. An expansive opening theme on unaccompanied cello, returns to haunt the last movement. The Scherzo, in A minor, but with a trio section in A major, is rhythmically typical of Beethoven scherzos, with its off-beat rhythms. An adagio section in the dominant (E major) introduces the final rondo-like movement which is dominated by its supremely lyrical tune.

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Partita in E minor No. 6 (BWV 830) ––––––––– J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

i. Toccata, ii. Allemanda, iii. Corrente, iv. Air, v. Sarabande, vi. Tempo di Gavotta, vii. Gigue

A partita (by the late 17th century) was essentially a suite of instrumental pieces in dance tempi. The 6 partitas forming Bach's KlavierŸbung book I were the first of his works to be published, but the last of his keyboard suites to be written. The partita in E minor (BWV 830) published in 1730, is the last of the 6 and is one of the longest, but it is based on earlier material contained in the 1725 version of Anna Magdalena Bach's Notebook. These suites, published under the general heading of 'Keyboard Exercises', are clearly offered as teaching pieces, concerning which Bach had considerable experience, and decided views. The way repeating phrases progress stepwise down the keyboard is occasionally reminiscent of a touch-typing course-book, but that does not prevent these pieces being profoundly satisfying music, exploring the gamut of human emotions. While most of the movements explore the capacity of different dance rhythms as vehicles of 'pure' music the extended Toccata is a prelude/fugue/prelude sandwich, and the Air is a lyric interlude.

 

Sonata in C minor, 'Pathetique' (Op. 13) –– L. van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

i. Grave—Allegro, ii. Adagio cantabile, iii. Rondo (Allegro)

The PathŽtique sonata, so named by its publisher but with Beethoven's approval, is one of Beethoven's best loved works. It was written in 1798 when the composer was 28 years old (and published the following year). Beethoven was by then established in Vienna as a piano virtuoso.

So it is an early work, showing traces of Haydn, and Mozart; and in particular Mozart's K457 keyboard sonata, which was written 15 years earlier, has the same key (C minor), has the same 3 movements, the same sombre opening chord, similar tempi and themes. However, Beethoven uses more advanced key modulations, and introduces a thematic unity between movements that is not found in Haydn or Mozart.

 

Preludes opus.11; Nos.1, 2, 5, 6, 8 & 9 ––– Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915)

Scriabin, one year older than Rachmaninov, shared the same piano tutor (Zverev) and was Rachmaninov's contemporary at the Moscow Conservatoire. In 1894 he made his debut as a concert pianist in Moscow and started to compose commercially for the publisher Belyayev. He also married. These preludes are from a set of 24 published in 1896 during what is called Scriabin's 'early period' when he was deeply influenced by Chopin; they are arranged like Chopin's in ascending order of sharps (C major, A minor, G major etc., unlike Bach's chromatic sequence). They are tuneful, open, pieces with a mere sprinkling of 9ths, 7ths and tritones which give a pleasing sharpness to the harmony; and there are few traces of atonality (e.g. in prelude 9 with the left hand in C# minor while the right is in E major).

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Etudes op.65 Nos. 1, 2 & 3 –––––––– Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915)

i. Allegro fantastico; ii. Allegretto; iii. Molto vivace

In 1903, 5 years into a professorship at the Conservatoire, Scriabin ran off to western Europe with a young admirer Tatyana Schloezer, leaving his wife and 4 children, and entered his (transitional) 'middle period' In 1905 he encountered the mystical philosophy of Madame Blavatsky and entered his frankly mystical 'late period'. Supported by donations, Scriabin continued to explore his music with bold originality. Conventional tonality evolved into a highly dissonant and rather rootless structure which seems to rely on theories uniting colours, scents and the meaning of the universe. Scriabin once wrote in his secret notebook "I am God", though what he meant is not clear. (Perhaps we see the ill-effects of excessive admiration on a mind inclined towards solipsism.)

Vers La Flamme op.72 –––––––– Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915)

It has been said of Scriabin that, "No composer has had more scorn heaped nor greater love bestowed..." While some may doubt Scriabin's sanity, no one has doubted the originality or sincerity of his musical genius. Scriabin died at the age of 43 of septicaemia, whereupon Rachmaninov set out to tour Russia giving all-Scriabin recitals. 'Vers La Flamme' (Towards the flame) was apparently intended to become Sonata 11. It is technically difficult, especially for hands as small as Scriabin's own; but it certainly aspires, and to some extent carries us, towards something transcendent.

Sonata in G minor op.22 ––––––––––– Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

i. Prestissimo, ii. Andantino, iii. Scherzo, iv. Rondo (presto-prestissimo)

Schumann's second piano sonata (Op22) was composed at much the same time as Carnaval and ƒtudes symphoniques (1834), but before FantasiestŸcke (1837), Kreisleriana (1838), and Kinderszenen (1838); and before his acquaintance with Clara Wieck had ripened into love (1836). It is another minor-key work. The second movement is headed 'Getragen' (= solemn); the Scherzo 'Sehr rasch und markirt' (= very fast and marked). Schumann in manic mode.

 

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Quartet in D major (Op. 50/6 the "Frog") –– Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809)

1. Allegro, 2. Poco adagio, 3. Menuetto (Allegretto), 4. Finale (Allegro con spirito).

Haydn's set of six string quartets Op 50 were composed in 1786 and dedicated to the amateur cellist Frederick William II of Prussia. They follow by a few years the Opus 33 quartets, said by Haydn himself to be composed "in an entirely new manner", which meant (amongst other things) spreading the thematic material more evenly between the four voices, and developing a snappy scherzo-like minuet movement. In the meantime Mozart had written his "Haydn" quartets and the present Opus 50 set reflect the mutual respect shown by these two Viennese masters. About this time, Haydn became interested in the possibilities of a movement evolved from a single theme; the first movement here is an example. The nickname "Frog" refers to the device at the opening of the last movement where the first violin alternates rapidly between stopped and open strings playing the same note (technically termed "bariolage").

Quartet in F major –––––––––––––––– Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)

1. Allegro moderato, 2. Assez vif, 3 Trs lent, 4. Vif et agitŽ

Innovative and exploratory rather than revolutionary, Ravel's quartet nevertheless proved too unorthodox for the old guard at the Paris Conservatoire, and led to yet another of his repeated failures to win the 'Pris de Rome'. It is clearly influenced by Debussy's earlier Quartet, and like that work adopts CŽsar Franck's 'cyclic form', in which each movement is a fresh transformation of a germinal theme. Its first movement is in traditional sonata-form, except in terms of tonality, for, instead of developing from F major towards C major (the dominant), Ravel favours the more distantly related keys of D minor and A minor. He extends this idea in the second and fourth movements where the note A acts as a pivot between the major and minor modes. The second movement achieves its effect by flying pizzicato figures and a strong rhythmic conflict between 6/8 and 3/4 metres. In the slow third movement the key sequence is even more advanced as A shifts to A sharp, then enharmonically to B flat, to G flat minor, and to G flat major (as remote from F as you can get). The rhythmically complex finale (largely 5/8 time) returns to A, before eventually descending to F major for its exhilarating conclusion. spacerspacerspacer

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Quartet in D minor (D810), 'Death & the maiden' – Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

1. Allegro, 2. Andante con moto, 3. Scherzo, 4. Presto

In 1824 Schubert planned a series of three Quartets of which this is the second, and one of the best loved in the entire quartet repertoire. Yet it had to wait until 1831 (three years after Schubert's death) for publication. Nor is there any evidence of a public performance in the composer's lifetime, though we know from Lachner that it was played in Lachner's rooms, where the elderly 1st violinist declared it "no good". Schubert had just completed his octet, Die schšne MŸllerin , numerous other songs and a piano sonata, but he had also experienced the failure of yet another opera (Rosemunde) and had learnt that his illness would prove terminal. The D minor quartet, though not named thus on the autograph, is universally known as "Death and the Maiden" since the theme of the slow movement is the opening theme of Schubert's 1817 song "Der Tod und das MŠdchen", in which stern but reposeful Death offers peace to the reluctant maiden. Though all three movements are in minor keys (itself most unusual), and the music is deeply felt, it is by no means depressing, for we feel Schubert's spirits rise with his awareness of the incredible beauty of his own music.

That beauty lies, as always in Schubert's mature work, in a plethora of ravishing melodies, subtle but 'safe' harmonies, wonderful modulations, and fascinating counterpoint (with three or even four themes playing simultaneously in the various voices). The allegro opens with a stark, rhythmic, and sombre, call to attention, but this is soon lightened into a beguilingly tuneful and skipity variant. Then a fresh theme, gentle and summery, with the violins in thirds. Then another. Then the teasing apart and interweaving, punctuated with single sombre chords, and brief reminders of the stark opening rhythm. The second movement (Andante con moto), dropping to G minor, is a theme and set of five variations, in which the simple, rather hollow theme is treated as the vehicle for whimsical decoration and ever-unfolding melodic elaboration so that it never appears repetitive. The scherzo is full of fierce dotted rhythms, contrasted with which the graceful trio in D major comes as a shock, like the alternating verses in Der Erlkonig. The final presto has been described as a 'sonata-rondo'. It has a frenzied, tarantella-like, energy which, though interrupted by echoes of previous movements, always returns and accelerates to a prestissimo climax.

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Sonata in C major (K. 521) –– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

1. Allegro, 2. Andante, 3. Allegretto.

The Sonata in C is Mozart's last composition in a form he had made very much made his own. (His earliest known duet sonata, also in C, dates from 1765 when Mozart was 9, and is probably one of several composed for him and his sister Nannerl to play during the European tours they made with their father Leopold.) Our sonata dates from 1787, during which year Mozart composed Don Giovanni for the Prague Opera House, as well as a couple of string quintets, some songs, piano works and the Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade. It is entered by Mozart in his thematic catalogue on 29th May, the very day he heard of his father's death. Also on that same day Mozart sent a copy of the duet to his young friend Freiherr Gottfried von Jacquin with a covering letter requesting that he should pass the score to his 18 year old sister Franziska (Mozart's most gifted pupil, for whom he had composed the piano part of the Kegelstatt Trio the previous year) "with my compliments and tell her to tackle it at once, for it is rather difficult." As with its immediate duet predecessor, the F major Sonata (K. 497) both parts are equally demanding. All movements contain passages of considerable brilliance; the gentle andante, in the key of F, contains an agitated middle section. The last movement is a rondo on a trite little tune interleaved with sections of bravura playing and some interesting harmonic shifts.

 

Rondo in A major (D. 951), ––––––––––– Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Schubert wrote a great deal for piano duet. Though shy about his appearance, Schubert loved company, and the piano duet seemed to epitomize for him friendship and domesticity. It has been suggested that some of the 4-hand compositions may have taken that form for lack of an orchestra. It is also perhaps relevant that it was only in his last year that Schubert possessed his own piano, and before that he would have to visit friends if he wanted to try the sound of his compositions. However, Schumann commented of this particular Rondo that it spoke to him almost as autobiography, remarking "As others have diaries to which they entrust their fleeting feelings, so Schubert has manuscript paper". This Rondo seems intended for intimate domestic enjoyment though it comes from the last intense year of Schubert's pathetically short life (as does its immediate duet predecessor, the altogether greater Fantasie in F minor, dedicated to the younger of the two Esterhazy sisters, by then a young woman of 17). Here the rondo theme is of such ravishing beauty that its return is greeted with unqualified joy.

 

Andante and Allegro assai vivace (Op. 92) –– Felix Mendelssohn  (1809-1847) 

Mendelssohn published very little for piano duet. Opus 92, composed in 1841, after the 'Italian' but before the 'Scottish' symphonies, and when Mendelssohn was already established as conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra at Leipzig, is an altogether more extrovert piece than either the Mozart or the Schubert and was presumably composed for the concert platform. It contains the genial mixture of melody, feeling, variety and easy brilliance that one associates with Mendelssohn.

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'Upon entering a painting' –––––– John McCabe (1939 — )

'Upon entering a painting' was commissioned by Piano 4 Hands to whom it is dedicated, and was written in 2008/09 with funding from the Britten-Pears Foundation and the RVW Trust. The composer writes:

"The inspiration of the piece was the kind of painting which, as you gaze at it, seems to draw the onlooker into the frame, indeed into the very paint itself. The specific trigger for the idea of the piece was the Rothko Exhibition at Tate Modern in 2008 – Rothko has long been a favourite painter of mine, even though his creative world is very different from my own. However, there were one or two paintings in the exhibition in which I felt strongly this sense of being drawn into the inner life of the painting, especially when I was able to incur the wrath of the curators and step close to the paintings and examine the surface in detail. The opening and closing sections of the piece, with their gradual thickening of the harmonies and (at the end) equally gradual thinning, reflect this sense of stepping forward into and backward out of the works. The inner life of the faster sections, while apparently very un-Rothko-like, reflects the extraordinary, teeming inner life of the brush-strokes."

Rapsodie Espagnole –––––––––––––––– Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)

I. Prelude a la nuit, II. Malaguena, III. Habanera, IV. Feria

'Habanera for two pianos' was composed at the end of the 19th ©, but some 10 years later it became the third movement of Ravel's first significant work, his 'Rapsodie Espagnole'. Though later orchestrated, the Rapsodie was originally written for two pianos 4-hands during the summer of 1907. (Iberian influences show in many of Ravel's works, and it will be remembered that his mother was Basque.) The 'Prelude a la nuit' (trs modŽrŽ) is obsessively concerned with a disturbingly non-diatonic 4-note motif. The second part refers to a folk dance from M‡laga, while the 'Habanera' hints at the slow, insinuating, Cuban rhythm famously encountered in Bizet's 'Carmen'. 'Feria' describes a Spanish fair, and contains a number of musically colourful elements: a merry-go-round, some dancing, a cacophony of noises; but threading through it is the disturbing 4-note motif of the Prelude.

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Cavatina and Moravian dance –––––––– Roxanna Panufnik (1968)

Roxanna Panufnik (b.1968) studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Since graduating she has written a wide range of pieces including opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, chamber music and music for film and television. The two pieces we hear today were commissioned by the 'Cavatina Chamber Music Trust' which has the specific aim of developing young audiences for Chamber Music, and they were premiered at a Trust concert by the Wihan Quartet in June 2007. 'Cavatina' usually refers to a short song or tuneful piece of simple open character, the most famous example being the 5th movement of Beethoven's Quartet opus 130, where it is an adagio movement sometimes played without vibrato. Our cavatina refers to the Beethoven in pitch, mood, and timbre, and was designed to be the theme tune for the Trust and therefore to speak directly to a young audience. It is based round an oft repeated 4-note figure. The Moravian Dance, acknowledging the Wihan's Czech roots, starts as a direct transcription of a folk dance with 1st violin 'partnering' cello and 2nd violin 'partnering' viola. However, the development explores and enhances the theme's inherent quirkiness of rhythm and melody.

 

 

String Quartet in D minor (Op. 34) –––– Anton'n Dvoř‡k (1841 - 1904)

i. Allegro, ii. Alla Polka (Allegretto scherzando), iii. Adagio, iv. Finale (Poco Allegro)

Dvoř‡k's Quartet No.9 in D minor, Opus 34, was completed in late 1877, after the death of his first 3 children and the consequential composition of his Stabat Mater. It was revised in 1879 and first performed, in Trieste, 14 December 1881. Dvoř‡k's days as an orchestral viola player were behind him and successful chamber works like Quartet Nos. 3 & 6 and the Serenade for Strings were attracting the attention of Brahms, who helped him materially by recommending him to Simrock, the publisher. The work, dedicated to Brahms, shows complete technical assurance, but its first movement is tinged with a slightly limp melancholy, and its thematic material and the treatment of that material hints rather at Schubert than at Brahms. The second movement, Alla polka, already Dvorak's characteristic alternative to Schubert's scherzo and Haydn's minuet, is essentially a folk-dance with a contrasting trio section. This leads to a meditative, somewhat brooding slow movement that starts out with a faintly hymnal texture but grows gradually livelier, and concludes with reminiscences of the first movement. The last movement, in sonata-form, starts with an energetic rhythmic figure that gives rise to rapid figuration in accompaniment and development. (Notes based on Naxosdirect.com)

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String Quartet No.15 in G major, D. 887 ––– Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

i. Allegro molto moderato; ii. Andante un poco moto; iii. Scherzo (Allegro vivace) with trio (Allegretto);

iv. Allegro assai

Schubert's G major string quartet (D.887) is his last; or rather we should say his 15th and in many ways his greatest achievement in that genre, for it was written in 1826, carries no hint of valediction, and looks forward to a new style of composition. When its first movement was first performed in March 1828 it might well have been played by musicians who had premiered Beethoven's Rasumovskys. Commentators suggest that Schubert was deliberately exploring the same harmonic territory as late Beethoven; which is not quite the same quest as that for sheer musical beauty shown in the preceding "Death and the Maiden" quartet. The G major is, perhaps for that reason, less often played than No. 14 in D minor. In the first movement the jerky energy and short themes are typically Beethovian. The slow movement offers extreme dynamic contrasts (p<ff<fz), daring harmonies, and shifting keys. The scherzo moves to B minor but is playful rather than mournful and contains some virtuosic contrapuntal intertwining of melodic lines (as in the string quintet). The finale develops the neo-Schubertian (Beethovian) harmonic audacity; modulations, instead of coming at section breaks as in 'standard' Schubert, come inside the melodic lines. A quartet to study as well as simply to enjoy.

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"Souvenir de Florence" Opus 70 ––––––– Peter Tchaikovsky (1841 - 1893)

i. Allegro con spirito, ii. Adagio cantabile e con moto, iii. Allegretto moderato, iv. Allegro con brio e vivace

The sextet was written towards the end of Tchaikovsky's life, after the Queen of Spades opera, but before The Nutcracker ballet and his 6th and last symphony (Symphonie PathŽtique); and only 3 years before his somewhat mysterious death at the age of 53. Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer (of any note) to write a string quartet. He was offered (in consequence) honorary membership of the Chamber Music Society of St. Petersburg, and in response promised to write for them the present chamber work, a sextet, or a quartet, if you like, with an extra viola and extra cello. It is not clear why he chose this form. Apart from Boccherini more than 120 years earlier, the only previous string sextets were by Spohr, Brahms (x2) and Dvorak. Tchaikovsky confessed to several intimate friends that at first it gave him considerable trouble, finding work for "six independent yet homogeneous voices". He admitted that, rather than writing for six voices, he conceived at least part of the original version as for an orchestra and then reduced it to the sextet form. The title 'Memory of Florence' is explained in that the theme of the second movement (prefigured in the first) came to Tchaikovsky while composing the piano score of The Queen of Spades in Florence at the beginning of 1890. There seems little of Tuscany in the last two movements.

The first movement (in D minor and 3/4 time) opens abruptly with a vigorous (almost angry) tune; you feel pitched straight into the middle of things. A section in A major, marked dolce espressivo e cantabile, contains a gently rising figure in duple time against an accompaniment in triple time. In development each element is skilfully interwoven. The movement ends prestissimo and fortissimo. The second movement (also in triple time, but in D major) features the expansive melody conceived in Florence over a pulsing pizzicato accompaniment. A middle section sinks back to the minor for some dramatic rustling surges, played at the tip of the bow, from an almost silent ppp up to p then back to ppp, and ends in silence after a diminuendo to pppp, resembling in this respect the dramatic end, or rather the disappearance, of the Symphonie PathŽtique. Indeed, this movement shares something of the resigned pathos of the latter work. The last two movements seem distinctly Slavic, and the (related) tunes are reminiscent of Dvorak, with their repetition of short rhythmic phrases. The Allegretto moderato (A minor/major/minor) depends as much on rhythm as melody. The last movement takes the development further, at one stage into a fugue (c.f. last movement of Mendelssohn's octet) in three parts (2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos) but where the 1st and 2nd components start to diverge almost immediately, growing increasingly dissonant. It ends at a gallop, and ffff. Altogether an engaging and satisfying work which should be more often heard.

 

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Octet for strings (Opus 20) –––––––– Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

i. Allegro mato1 e vivace, ii. Andante, iii. Scherzo (Allegro leggierissimo), iv. Molto allegro e vivace (1 The manuscript is faded and my facsimile faint; did the composer mean 'moderato'?)

This is one of the master works of chamber music, and to the end of his life Mendelssohn said it was his favourite composition. It is doubly amazing when we note that it was written by a boy of 16. It is true that by 1825 young Mendelssohn had already written 13 symphonies, 4 operas and number of concertos and chamber works. And he had an advantage no other composer enjoyed, for his parents were sufficiently wealthy to hire an orchestra each alternate Sunday morning which the boy conducted. These might partly explain the octet's fluency, and flawless structure, but not its originality, for it had no predecessor apart from a double quartet by Spohr written in 1823.

Right from the soaring violin tune of the first 8 bars the listener feels that the composer is "on a roll", and that the level of inspiration will be sustained to the last bar. The gentle Andante, in a slow 6/8 time, allows us to savour the extended first movement. The last two movements (as in the Tchaikovsky sextet) are in duple time and are linked in mood and motif. The famous scherzo was suggested (according to sister Fanny) by the "Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania" as seen in a dream by Goethe's Faust; "new", "enchanting", "utterly persuasive", "light as a feather", and ultimately "blown away". The finale retains some of the lightness but is more robust, structured and developed, and includes a brief fugal passage (c.f. the Tchaikovsky).

 

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Sonata 26 in E♭, Op. 81a (Les Adieux) – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

i. Adagio – Allegro, ii. Andante espressivo, iii. Vivacissimamente

Beethoven named this sonata "Lebewohl" and wrote "4th May 1809" on the title page. The date is significant for on that day Archduke Rudolf (the emperor's youngest brother), was forced by Napoleon's advancing army to leave Vienna, and did not return till the following year. The 21 year old Archduke was a competent pianist and a pupil and friend of Beethoven. Furthermore, he had in March of that year contracted with 2 other nobles to provide Beethoven a lifelong annuity of 4000 florins. To Beethoven's annoyance, his publisher rendered the German "Lebewohl" (Farewell) into the more fashionable French "Les Adieux", and dedicated the sonata with the words "On the departure of his Imperial Highness, the respected Archduke Rudolf". Not only did Les Adieux seem to Beethoven less personal than Lebewohl, but it completely missed the point that the first three chords of the Adagio fit the word "Le-be-wohl". (It is questionable as to who named the three movements respectively "Farewell", "Absence", and "Return", but the last movement is dated January1810.) The year 1809 saw the composition of two other piano sonatas and Beethoven's 5th, last, and greatest piano concerto — the so-called "Emperor Concerto"; the first however which, due to encroaching deafness, he did not himself premier.         

This Op. 81a sonata has been called the first of the mature sonatas. It opens with a 2/4 Adagio section containing the le-be-wohl motif. This flows into a rippling Allegro 2/2 (alla breve) where however the adagio motif and hints of minor keys keeps recurring, alternating with allegro hints of anger, and some unexpected harmonies. The Andante (sometimes played rather slowly) alternates a troubled mood in a dotted rhythm and complex key shifts, with a serene mood having an open singing melody in a major key. It flows without a break into the last movement. The sonata-form finale (written the following year) is in 6/8 time. Beethoven's instruction means "in the most lively manner possible", not necessarily the fastest. It starts joyfully in the dominant with a flurry of notes. There follows a gentler melody and a striking linking passage, a repeat; and finally a return of everything in the tonic, with much triumphant octave doubling.

 

Piano sonata No.1 in F♯ minor (1910) –––––––– Arnold Bax (1883 – 1953)

Bax, born into a wealthy London family of Dutch decent, showed a precocious talent at the piano, particularly at sight-reading. At the age of 16 he went to the Hampstead Conservatoire and, the next year, to the Royal Academy. Throughout his life Bax appears to have been a peculiarly sensitive, responsive, emotional character, falling in love successively or simultaneously with Ireland, Russia, Norway, poetry, music and women. In 1910 the 27-year-old Bax pursued a Ukrainian girl to St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Ukraine and it was during that period that he wrote what is known as Piano Sonata No.1 (actually his 3rd). The work was extensively revised towards the end of the first World War from which Bax was exempted by ill health. In its single sonata-form movement the influences of Liszt, Wagner, Sibelius and Scriabin are detectable, as well as Russian themes. Perhaps also visible is the emotional turmoil from which Bax never fully recovered, for Natalia Skarginska turned him down and he returned to England and promptly married a childhood friend. The sonata is tuneful, varied, rhythmically interesting, pianistic, and more carefully structured than it seems. It stands comparison with Liszt.

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AnnŽes De Plerinage book 2 (Italy) –––––––– Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

The second book of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage contains a collection of pieces, 6 short and 1 moderately long, mostly written in the period 1835 – 1839 while Liszt was travelling in Italy with the beautiful, intelligent, and newly divorced Countess Marie d'Agoult (and begetting the future Mrs. Wagner). The sonnets were originally written as songs, but revised (1844) and their words removed long after the affair had ended (and another begun), collected and published in 1856.

1. Marriage (of the Virgin: a painting by Raphael)

2. The Thinker (a statue by Michelangelo)

3. Canzonetta of Salvator Rosa (Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), Neapolitan painter, poet, and songwriter; one of the world's first romantics.)

4. Petrarch's Sonnet 47 ("Blest be the year, the month, the hour, the day")

5. Petrarch's Sonnet 104 ("I find no peace, nor reason to make war")

6. Petrarch's Sonnet 123 ("On earth reveal'd the beauties of the skies")

7. After Reading Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata (portrays regions of Dante's Inferno "in a whirlwind of confusion and violence" [Brian Johnston, 2009], with moments of transcendental beauty, and bombastic hyperbole.)

 

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