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Program Notes

STRINGS

PENDERECKI QUARTET
Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 8 pm

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in F minor, Op. 20 No.5 (Hob.III:35) (1772)
    Allegro moderato
   Menuetto
   Adagio
   Finale: Fuga a due soggetti
MARJAN MOZETICH (b. 1948)
Lament in the Trampled Garden (1992)
KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
Quartet No. 4 (2016)
   Andante
   Vivo
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Quartet No. 14, in A-flat, Op. 105, B. 193 (1895)
    Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro appassionato
   Molto vivace
   Lento e molto cantabile
   Allegro non tanto

JOSEPH HAYDN
Born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, March 31, 1732; died in Vienna, May 31, 1809
Quartet in F minor, Op. 20 No.5 (Hob.III:35) (1772)

When Haydn’s Op. 20 quartet collection was issued in an unsanctioned printing in Amsterdam and Berlin in 1779, its publisher (Hummel) put an emblem of a full sun or sun god atop two neo-classical pillars on the front cover – and this is why the six quartets are still occasionally called the Sun quartets. Thanks to wide distribution through both official and unofficial channels, the collection did much to popularize the medium of the string quartet during Haydn’s lifetime. Mozart admired the set. Beethoven copied them out to better understand their craft. And, at the end of the 19th century, Brahms owned the original autograph manuscripts, which he donated to the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, where they remain to this day.

Each of the Op. 20 quartets has a distinctive character. Each instrument speaks with an independent voice as an equal contributor to a seamless four-part texture. One of two quartets in the minor key, the F minor Quartet opens with a sustained, emotionally intense theme over a pulsing accompaniment. The mood is serious and purposeful; the tension is only slightly eased with the second theme. The Menuetto, too, is unusually severe, allowing just a glimpse of a folkdance in its central trio section. The slow third movement, now in a brighter major key yet still maintaining a feeling of poignancy, takes its underlying rhythmic pulse from the siciliano dance. Over it, the first violin weaves improvisation-like passages of great beauty.

Then there’s a surprise. The F minor is one of three Op. 20 quartets to have a fugal finale. While drawing inspiration from a form associated with the past (Bach was in mid-career when Haydn was born), Haydn’s F minor fugue is sprightly and forward-looking in spirit. It is based on two short, independent subjects (due soggetti), the first of which presents a melodic pattern familiar to the Baroque. Melodically, it bears a close resemblance to a choral fugue in Handel’s Messiah (‘And with His stripes’) and to the A minor Fugue in the Second Book of Bach’s 48. The double fugue proceeds in a hushed manner, marked sotto voce. Its tension and contrapuntal complexity increase steadily throughout the movement, as Haydn works his way through many contrapuntal techniques, until the music bursts out in a fortissimo canon in the crowning moment of an exceptional quartet.

MARJAN MOZETICH
Born Gorizia, Italy, January 7, 1948
Lament in the Trampled Garden(1992)

It's called the ‘driveway experience’ among radio people – the magic touch that some music has to keep a driver captive in their car long after they have arrived at their destination. And writing such music is a gift that Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich was celebrated for when people used to write letters to the station or light up the switchboard (when stations had human operators) calling in to ask ‘What was that piece?’

Times change, but Mozetich, who has taught, guided and mentored composition students at Queen’s University for almost three decades, continues to forge a singularly strong link between composer, performer and audience. His more than 70 works in many instrumental and vocal combinations, as well as for theatre, film and dance, have long been among the most played by a living classical composer in the country he has known as home from the age of four. His initial instincts were towards the avant-garde and a more intellectually driven approach to composition. Then, an about-turn in the early 1980s raised eyebrows, infuriated a few, but generally delighted audiences. His aim, he has said since, is “to write music that expresses beauty, sensuousness and emotion.”

When his Lament in the Trampled Garden was played at the 1992 Banff International String Quartet Competition, members of the audience were moved to tears. As the imposed piece, commissioned by the CBC, the music was played repeatedly by all the contestants. Yet it continued to touch a nerve and challenge its performers to a variety of interpretations.

The quartet, in a single movement, is dedicated to Mozetich’s parents. Speaking in an interview a few years before he wrote Lament in the Trampled Garden, Mozetich said: “My family was not particularly interested in music, and the little we heard was the polkas and folksongs that my parents liked. . . They never really liked my music. My father tried to understand it, but my mother is too emotional. When she heard a couple of my early works she just cried and wondered what had happened to her son!”

The powerful range of emotions in the music seems to reflect the ambivalence. At first gently nostalgic, the opening four-note theme becomes increasingly agitated. It builds to a poignant, soaring statement high on first violin, with a plucked, keening accompaniment. A central jazzy, tango-like section again grows out of the opening four notes. Mozetich writes: “There is ample room for various interpretations of a music which moves from sweet sorrow to anger and aggression, to despair, to an upbeat swing, to a sense of resignation and a longing for lost beauty.”

KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI

Born in Dębica, Poland, November 23, 1933; died in Kraków, March 29, 2020
Quartet No. 4 (2016)

Like Mozetich, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki went through a stylistic trajectory from avant-garde to a more audience-oriented approach to composition. Penderecki’s 1960s works Polymorphia, St. Luke Passion and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and others led to a reputation, in the words of Rolling Stone, as “the godfather of the modern horror movie score: His pieces have been deployed in The Shining, The Exorcist, Shutter Island and numerous David Lynch projects, including Twin Peaks: The Return, Inland Empire and Wild at Heart, each utilizing Penderecki’s spasmodic, shrieking strings to add surprise and dread to their respective scenes.” Meanwhile, while works from the peak of Penderecki’s youthful avant-garde period around 1960 gradually went mainstream, the composer himself began looking over his shoulder to the past. For two decades, he incorporated formal, sometimes tonal, elements from the Renaissance through to the Romantic in a form of ‘synthesis’. Large-scale dramatic, historically-themed and religious works continued to pour from his pen (not computer), but now alongside symphonies, concertos, chamber works and more abstract music. Looking back on this path, he said: “So many new things have been discovered in the 20th century that now, at the end of the century, we need some kind of synthesis, some musical language which will allow us just to write music.”

Penderecki’s decidedly modest catalogue of string quartets, totalling just 40 minutes of music, mirror the change in his writing. There is a 40-year gap between the exploratory, pitched and unpitched, quartet-deconstructing First Quartet (1960) or the still sonoristic, more Bartók-influenced Second (1968) and the more substantial Third (2008), where a development of ideas is more evident across its four sections. The somewhat retrospective Third, tellingly subtitled Leaves from an Unwritten Diary, was premièred on the composer’s 75th birthday. Eight years later, the two-movement Fourth Quartet (2016), six minutes in duration, opens with a viola recitative supported by its ‘continuo’ colleagues, leading to a curiously fragmentary Vivo. Here, mosaic-like ideas are presented with increasing animation towards a folk theme, which provides an enigmatic conclusion.

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK
BornBorn in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
Quartet No. 14, in A-flat, Op. 105, B. 193 (1895)

Chamber music was an important part of Dvořák’s composition, totalling more than 30 works. His Op. 1 was a string quintet, with two violas. His first string quartet followed in 1862 when he was 21. His last quartet, his fourteenth and the work to be heard today, was written 33 years later. Although the majority of his early quartets remained unpublished until long after his death, they gave him a secure grounding in the medium. As a skilled viola player, Dvořák had an insider’s understanding of the potential of the string quartet. Indeed, he was one of the few late 19th century composers to write truly idiomatic quartets that don’t endeavour to burst the seams of the medium. Two of his finest quartets, his last two, including Op. 105, were composed in less than two months. But the ease and pleasure with which he created them came after a difficult period.

Behind him was a second visit to the United States. Artistically, it had been a success and he could look back with pride at the new Cello Concerto. But Dvořák had felt cut off from his friends and relatives. He had been isolated from the Bohemian countryside and from a life that provided inspiration for his creativity. He returned to Bohemia in late April 1895. Once back in familiar surroundings, he fell back into the old routine that he had missed. He started the day with an early morning stroll in the Karlsplatz Park and resumed teaching at the Prague Conservatory. He checked up on the comings and goings of the railway trains he loved to watch. He had regular evening meetings with younger musicians and actors in Mahulik's restaurant. For the next six months, however, the ink ran dry. Then the creative block began to disappear. Before long, Dvořák was able to write: "I work so easily and everything goes ahead so well that I could not wish it better." His two late string quartets can be viewed as a summing up of all that he found good in the world. They are an affirmation of life and nature and reveal total mastery of the medium.

Dvořák had sketched the opening of the first movement of the A-flat Quartet, Op. 105 in his last week in New York, but then laid it aside. After an initial hint of foreboding, the mood is generally positive and full of well-being, though the dark clouds hovering over the opening do not altogether disappear. The scherzo is a furiant, a Bohemian folk dance, exuberantly propelled, with a trio section full of lilting, soaring melodies. The melodies draw from Dvořák’s nationalist musical language, but somehow transcend time and place in one of the composer’s most satisfying chamber music movements. Then comes a heartfelt slow movement, musing dreamily on a folksong-like melody. Its ending introduces a note of unease into an otherwise untroubled musical discourse. The finale starts cautiously and appears at first reluctant to abandon itself to unbridled joy. But Dvořák’s happiness at being home seems to win through. The music is rich in musical ideas, sometimes nostalgic, more often upbeat and, ultimately, unambiguous in expression.

— Program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


PIANO

MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN
Tuesday, April 12, 2022 at 8 pm

CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH (1714-1788)
Suite in E Minor, Wq. 62/12, H. 66 (1751)
   Allemande
   Courante
   Sarabande
   Menuet I - II - III
   Gigue
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-14)
   Tempestoso
   Allegro rubato
   Allegro precipitato
   Smanioso
   Precipitosissimo
ALEXANDER SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, ‘White Mass’ (1911)

INTERMISSION

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29, in B-flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) (1817-18)
   Allegro
   Scherzo: Assai vivace
   Adagio sostenuto
   Largo: Allegro risoluto

CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH
Born in Weimar, March 8, 1714; died in Hamburg, December 14, 1788
Suite in E Minor, Wq. 62/12, H. 66 (1751)

From the 16th century to the 19th, there were seven generations of the Bach family. Many of them made fine careers as musicians. During his lifetime, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the best known of them all, better known even than his father, Johann Sebastian. For more than a quarter of a century, J.S. Bach’s second-born son worked at the Prussian court of the flute-playing Frederick the Great, before succeeding his godfather, Telemann, to a position of prestige, as Kantor to the Hamburg Johanneum, with teaching responsibilities and directorship of the five principal churches in Hamburg. In Berlin, Bach’s position as Court Harpsichordist to a musically conservative ruler, was relatively modest. His salary, too, was decidedly modest – one sixth that of Quantz, whose easy-going music Frederick preferred. Bach’s worldly-wise character, keen intellect and genial personality, however, made him well-known among Berlin’s leading artists, poets and philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment, while his published music gave him a reputation as one of the most respected, progressive and forward-thinking composers throughout the German-speaking lands.

Like Haydn, a generation later, Bach became adept at navigating the fine line between court servant and freelance composer. In Berlin, he wrote many keyboard sonatas which, when published, generated a useful second income. Many, like those written immediately before and after tonight’s E minor Suite, were designed with the amateur in mind and are galant in style. Among the more than 300 works he wrote for keyboard we also find forward-looking fantasies, rondos, minuets and many more sonatas in which Bach ‘touches the heart’ and ‘awakens the passions.’ These were the two key ingredients of the north German Empfindsamkeit, a movement associated in all the arts with heightened feeling and emotion in reaction to the rational thought of the Enlightenment. They reveal many of the dramatic contrasts, wide melodic leaps, plunging key changes and startling harmonies that we find in Bach’s orchestral symphonies and concertos.

The Suite in E minor, on the other hand, is one of only two suites to be found in Bach’ catalogue and, at first glance, its familiar sequence of dance movements look like something we might expect from the pen of his father. By 1751, the keyboard suite was, indeed, somewhat out-dated. Bach himself, on the other hand, was on the cutting edge of where music was heading. Once into the Allemande, however, the music almost immediately lingers on a highly expressive chromatic sighing motif, all the while maintaining a characteristically Baroque style brisé texture of constantly arpeggiated notes. The sighing motif and sensitive chromatic writing is even more present in the lovely, intimate Sarabande, where the left hand echoes the right throughout, in wide melodic leaps. In the first of a string of three contrasted minuets, we get a glimpse of Bach’s teasing way with the use of silence. A playful Gigue concludes this intriguing suite, written, interesting enough, in the year following J. S. Bach’s death. As the 18th century English music historian and traveller Charles Burney put it: “Of all the musicians who have been in the service of Prussia, for more than 30 years, Carl P. E. Bach and Franz Benda have, perhaps, been the only two who dared to have a style of their own; the rest are imitators.”

SERGEI PROKOFIEV
Born in Sontsovka, Russia [now Krasnoye, Ukraine] April 15/27, 1891; died in Moscow, March 5, 1953
Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-14)

When the brothers Rubinstein founded music conservatories in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 1860s, they kick-started a tradition of virtuosity in piano performance and composition that endures to this day. Prokofiev was trained in this tradition but quickly gained a reputation as bad boy of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, notably with his First Piano Concerto, which seemingly does its best to subvert the very tradition from which he emerged. But it was this training that allowed him to develop one of the most wide-ranging keyboard and composing techniques of any musician in the first half of the 20th century.

Acknowledging Prokofiev as one of the best piano composers since Debussy, in his 1951 memoir Old Friends and New Music, composer and writer Nicolas Nabokov (first cousin to Vladimir) dissects Prokofiev’s early composing technique as a series of “little games . . . all disciplined by an organic logic of relations which Prokofiev discovers and establishes in his music.” This approach is most apparent in the short, early pieces composed when the composer-pianist was still at or had recently left the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Five of them are grouped into a suite titled Sarcasms, Op. 17, written 1912-14. “Prokofiev loves . . . to play a little game of melodic construction which could easily be discovered in any one of his [early] pieces,” Nabokov writes. “The game consists of taking a conventional rhythmic pattern so obvious as to border sometimes on triviality, and then afterwards forcing this melodic line into a harmonic frame which seems disconnected, surprisingly arbitrary, and produces the feeling that the melody has been refreshed by having been harmonically mishandled. Another little game in Prokofiev’s thematic structure is the abruptness and unexpectedness of his leaps. A melody will start in a very stereotyped manner, and then suddenly will leap to an absolutely unexpected tone over seemingly unconnected intervals. These characteristics contribute a great deal to the joking, sarcastic nature of much of his music. The intentional breaking up of conventional patterns produces a series of audible shocks which in turn create a feeling of irony.”

The first of the Sarcasms, marked Tempestoso, is a storm in a teacup, where percussively driven, angular melodic bursts urgently plunge downwards only to melt into Prokofiev’s kinder, gentler lyrical writing, then build aggressively, con gran effetto, to a climax and wither away to a whisper by the end. The Allegro rubato teases with a question/answer dialogue and forgets to add a key signature. The Allegro precipitato adds two (three sharps for the RH, five flats for the LH). Its aggressive forward drive leads to tears (“singhiozzando” – sobbing), then emotional release, only to be caught up again in the fury and ultimate exhaustion. An opening salvo in Smanioso (Maniacally) leads to high, brittle, fantastical textures playing against others, deep, dark and tense. The fifth Sarcasm starts with a prolonged Precipitosissimo demand to be noticed. It then irresolutely stumbles along, casting a glance over its shoulder at its four predecessors, through a long lament to a lugubrious, indecisive conclusion. In 1941, Prokofiev revealed its program: “Sometimes we laugh maliciously at someone or something, but when we look closer, we see how pathetic and unfortunate is the object of our laughter. Then we become uncomfortable and the laughter rings in our ears, laughing now at us.”

ALEXANDER SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, ‘White Mass’ (1911)

Scriabin’s piano sonatas are his musical autobiography. Ten in number, plus two early sonatas, they chart a path from the 19th century virtuosity of Liszt and Chopin (though Scriabin himself would acknowledge no outside influence on his music) to the probing harmonies, complex sonorities, merging of melody and harmony and thoroughly early 20th century avant-garde aesthetic of the late sonatas. Along the way there is no shortage of egoism and enough extra-musical philosophy and certainty of his own divinity to justify cautionary notices in program booklets. The last five were worked on between 1911 and 1913, often simultaneously, and they are each in one movement. In common with its companions, the Seventh has no key signature and its tonality is restless. Originally marked ‘Prophétique’ in the manuscript score (his publisher changed this to a more instructive ‘Allegro’), the sonata has no written programmatic description, only a generous lacing of descriptive images (in French) in its pages, plus the composer’s pronouncements on its spirituality and philosophy as reported by friends. The Seventh would become Scriabin’s favourite sonata. “This is no longer music but purest mysticism,” he said of a 13-minute score which is marked très pur in places. “Here is my White Mass,” he declared after playing it to friends. Its extended sonata form structure passes (borrowing Scriabin’s descriptions in the score) from mysterious sonority and sombre majesty through clouds of perfume, overflowing joy, hidden menace, with pealing bells and flashes of lightning in a voluptuous dance of ecstasy, climaxing in a rippling five-octave chord.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born in Bonn, Germany, baptised December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Piano Sonata No. 29, in B-flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) (1817-18)

There was something elemental about Beethoven’s piano playing. He broke all the rules and followed no school or style. Indeed, Beethoven was largely self-taught as a pianist. Listeners were struck by the power of his playing and its dynamism rather than its technical facility. By 1817, although Beethoven’s advancing deafness now meant that he could no longer hear himself as a pianist, he had long snapped more piano strings than any performer of his time. His short, broad fingers, barely stretching a tenth (according to the usually reliable pianist and composer Carl Czerny) had built a reputation as an exhilarating pianist who could stir the heart and excite the senses by the sheer conviction of his playing.

The Hammerklavier, completed by 1818, could have done serious damage to his piano. Epic in scale, Beethoven’s largest piano sonata is longer than any of his symphonies except for the Eroica and the Ninth. The power of its rhetoric is vast, too, as Beethoven plunges the music to extremes of keyboard register, dynamics and complex musical argument. The opening movement is propelled ever forwards with explosive fortissimo outbursts between passages of reflective calm. The tempo marking is simply Allegro, and Beethoven’s quick metronome marking indicates purposeful onward momentum over grandeur and majesty. There is a profusion of themes, all interrelated and cumulative in their energy. The underlying conflict throughout the sonata comes through the juxtaposition of the work’s home key of B-flat and its physically close yet harmonically distant namesake of B-natural – something that is visceral and easily felt as you listen, rather than explained in words.

The momentum continues in the Scherzo. Although brief – the shortest movement in a Beethoven Sonata – the Scherzo packs a punch in volatility, surprises and the economy in which the music continues to exploit the interval of a third. It seems to look back on the first movement and snarl. The great slow movement, on the other hand, opens huge new horizons, unrestrained by any conventions of sonata writing. Technically, its working out has something in common with an operatic aria. Structurally, the movement is sonata form, though on a scale that gives it a claim to be the largest single movement in the classical sonata repertoire. It reaches tragic depths before Beethoven cuts loose the anchor and enters a free recitative-like passage that is at once disorientating and prophetic of things to come. In it, as we descend from one key to another, we get a glimpse of the majestic three-part fugue that is to crown the four movements of the sonata. The music is furious, as though the full weight of the work is now being hammered out in its contrapuntal arguments. The jagged edges, plunging leaps and ferocious demands on the stamina of the pianist all contribute to the relentless energy of the music. A brief, serene ray of light punctuates the maelstrom before the arguments resume, unforgiving in their intensity, ultimately proclaiming the triumph of will over adversity.

— Program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


PIANO

BENJAMIN GROSVENOR
Tuesday, March 29, 2022 at 8 pm

CÉSAR FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, choral et fugue, M. 21 (1884)
FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in B minor, S. 178 (1852-3)

INTERMISSION

ISAAC ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Book One (1906) from Iberia: Twelve New Impressions (1905-8)
   Evocación
   El Puerto
   El Corpus en Sevilla
MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
Jeux d’eau (1901)
MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
La valse: poème chorégraphique (1919-20)

CÉSAR FRANCK
Born in Liège, Belgium, December 10, 1822; died in Paris, November 8, 1890.
Prélude, choral et fugue, M. 21 (1884)

Until he was 24, César Franck was toured around Europe by an exploitive father as a young lion of the keyboard, a child prodigy for a public whose appetite for the species was enormous. Then, for close to 40 years, from 1846 to 1884, Franck all but ignored the piano in favour of a career as an organist and teacher of composition. He broke the silence at the age of 62 with the masterly Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, the first of a series of late, mature works for piano. Now recognised as one of the cornerstones of the 19th century piano repertoire, it was written in emulation of the Preludes and Fugues of Bach. The first four accented notes of the flowing Prelude, with their B-A-C-H motif, form a direct homage to the German composer. Throughout what is essentially a large-scale single-movement composition, Franck's musical language balances restless questioning with peaceful reflection. It's a heady, romantic musical style balanced by classical restraint – a style that has been referred to as 'serene anxiety.' Franck’s themes develop out of such tiny cells as the four-note B-A-C-H motif, expanding, elaborating, transforming themselves as the music unfolds. As the piece progresses, it becomes clear that many of its themes are related. They give the score an overall logic and solid architecture through what is generally termed 'cyclic form.'

FRANZ LISZT
Born in Raiding / Doborján, Hungary (today Austria), October 22, 1811; died in Bayreuth, Germany, July 31, 1886
Sonata in B minor, S. 178 (1852-3)

Few composers could better express the varied and often conflicting sides of their personalities in music than could Liszt. And nowhere does Liszt encapsulate this better than in the great B minor Piano Sonata he completed in 1853. Alternately heroic and self-questioning, impetuous and disciplined, passionate and otherworldly, the sonata is one of the great works of 19th century romanticism. Setting aside the 1300 other piano works he composed, if Liszt had written nothing else, his genius would be recognised based on this sonata alone.

Its immediate starting point is the Wanderer Fantasy by Schubert, a work that Liszt had recently arranged for piano and orchestra. From Schubert, Liszt took the idea of a single large-scale structure, with a unifying theme that recurs in different transformations. Liszt, however, goes much further. His sonata can be broken down into the usual four movements, enclosed by a prologue and epilogue. But it also functions as a single, giant (nearly 30-minute) structure in traditional sonata-form. The first section, Allegro energico, is the exposition, itself in sonata form. In the second section, Andante sostenuto, the development begins, in ABA form. Then comes more development – a Fugato, in scherzo ABA form. And then the fourth section, Finale, the recapitulation, again in sonata form. There are other ways of analysing the sonata. But its unity and the skilful way in which Liszt binds the varying moods of a large-scale sonata within a single framework are immediately apparent when listening.

Musicians were not always of this opinion. Schumann, to whom the sonata is dedicated, never heard a note of it as he was already confined to an asylum by the time the music arrived at his residence. His wife, highly respected pianist Clara Wieck, thought it ‘too awful’ and ‘merely a blind noise.’ Brahms fell asleep when Liszt played the sonata to him. Even 30 years after it was written, the renowned Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick was overcome with ‘irresistible hilarity’ when listening to the piece. It took Horowitz to bring the work to the attention of the concert-going public, back in the 1930s. Nowadays, most virtuoso pianists include it in their repertoire and few piano competitions take place without at least a handful of performances of the Liszt Sonata.

ISAAC ALBÉNIZ
Born in Camprodón, Gerona, Spain, May 29, 1860; died in Cambo-les-Bains, France, May 18, 1909
Book One (1906) from Iberia: Twelve New Impressions (1905-8)

One of the great works of Spanish composition, the four volumes of Iberia bring together all the genius and virtuoso craft of the Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albéniz. Each piece in the collection, subtitled Twelve New Impressions, evokes an aspect of Spain, Andalusia in particular. They are the last works that Albéniz completed before his death at the age of 49. He wrote Iberia not in Spain but in France – and French music, impressionism, and craft colour its pages. Composed in Paris and Nice between 1905 and 1908, the collection is a remarkable synthesis of the compositional craft of Paris, the keyboard virtuosity and often hair-raising technical demands of Franz Liszt and Spanish, notably Andalusian, musical idiom. Iberia remains a major landmark in Spanish music, unconquered by all but a handful of pianists. In these twelve ‘Impressions’ of Iberia, Albéniz was generous with his colours. He was generous with notes, too, and is reported to have told his fellow countryman Manuel de Falla that the technical challenges in the score made him consider destroying the work as unplayable.

As a child prodigy, Albéniz was already giving piano recitals at the age of four, spending much of his early life performing in Europe and the Spanish-speaking Americas. By his mid-twenties, with studies in Brussels and Barcelona behind him, Albéniz had written more than 50 works, mostly for piano, often in a fluent salon style. For the rest of his career, Albéniz travelled extensively, spending several years in London, where he concertized extensively and wrote operas, after signing a contract with an English banker which left him comfortably off for the rest of his life. His later years were spent in France where an affable personality and gift as a raconteur led him to socialize with all the leading French composers. Debussy took special delight in Iberia, having worked at an orchestral piece with the same title at the same time. “Few works in music are worth as much,” Debussy wrote of El Albaicín in 1913.

Two contrasting themes or melodic fragments are usually found in each piece, as in Evocación, the first piece of Book One. Here, the jota dance from Navarre is contrasted with a melody from Andalusia in a dreamy, romantic reverie. The second piece, El puerto, is a vibrant picture of Santa María, a little fishing port across the bay from Cádiz, bright and shimmering in its colours, fiery in its rhythmic echoes of the flamenco polo. The music then falls another fifth to a bright, radiant F-sharp major and El Corpus en Sevilla - an undisputed masterpiece in the series. This tone poem for the piano portrays the approach of one of the great religious processions, winding its way through the streets of Seville on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Albéniz demands extreme dynamics from his pianist, ranging from the softest pppp to the loudest ffff. The music is punctuated by cries from the crowds lining the streets. This spontaneous cry, known as a saeta, continues to colour the music to the end. Throughout, the writing is especially clear and economical, yet richly suggestive – music that was to stand as a model for Spanish composers for generations to come.

MAURICE RAVEL
Born in Ciboure, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, France, December 28, 1937
Jeux d’eau (1901)

With Liszt's Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este as its inspiration, Ravel’s ground-breaking Jeux d’eau (Fountains or Water Play) is prefaced by an evocative quotation from the French symbolist poet Henri de Régnier: "The river god, laughing at the water that tickles him." Ravel’s short piece portrays the bubbling, rising and falling water, drop by drop, shimmering in the piano’s upper register, building to a dramatic downward glissando. Ravel knew that he had gone beyond Liszt’s divine evocations to create something original, impressionist and quite new. “Jeux d’eau,” he said in his autobiographical sketch, “is the source of all the pianistic innovations people have claimed to find in my music. It is inspired by the bubbling of water and the musical sounds of water of fountains, waterfalls and streams. It is built on two themes in the manner of the first movement of a sonata, although it does not stick to the classical tonal scheme."

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
La valse: poème chorégraphique (1919-20)

La valse is a disturbing work, a product of the disturbing times in which Ravel worked on it. He began the score before the First World War as a symphonic poem to be called Wien (Vienna). “It is a grand waltz,” he wrote at the time, “a kind of homage to the memory of the great Strauss – not Richard – the other, Johann!” La valse only took its final form in 1920, when both Vienna and the world around Ravel himself were very different places. By 1920 – almost a century after Schubert wrote his Impromptus in the city – Imperial Vienna had forever been changed and Ravel's attitude towards its ideals had been shaped by events in Europe. He dropped the original title of the piece and reworked its music as a ‘choreographic poem.’ He no longer referred to his score as an apotheosis of the Viennese waltz. All the surface charm of the Straussian waltz appears to be present in La valse. But there are unsettling undertones and snatches of uneasy tension that couldn’t have been written before the war. The fantastic and fatal whirling seems to speak of narcissism and the end of an era. The typical Viennese 'lift' to the music seems ironic. The very bones of the waltz are laid out in front of us, picked over and fall apart, even as we listen. Diaghilev commissioned La valse from Ravel for his Ballets Russes. But he rejected the music with a perceptive comment: “It’s a masterpiece,” he said. “But it isn’t so much a ballet as the portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet." One side of the canvas is an impressionist representation of the waltz; the other is expressionist.

— Program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


STRINGS

ESMÉ QUARTET
Thursday, March 24, 2022 at 8 pm

SOO YEON LYUH (b. 1980)
Yessori: Sound from the Past (2016)
   Elegant, flowing – Lively, as a dance – Freely, expressive – Powerful, insistent – Stately, assured
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, L. 85 (1893)
   Animé et très décidé
   Assez vif et bien rythmé
   Andantino, doucement expressif
   Très modéré

INTERMISSION

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (‘Razumovsky’) (1806)
   Allegro
   Molto adagio
   Allegretto
   Finale (Presto)

SOO YEON LYUH
Born in Daegu, South Korea in 1980
Yessori: Sound from the Past (2016)

“The first time I experienced Korean traditional music, the relative pitch relationships and fluid nature of the rhythmic cycles felt chaotic, perhaps because of my background in Western music,” confesses Korean composer Soo Yeon Lyuh. She grew up studying both piano and violin in her home country of South Korea and then turned to traditional Korean music at the age of 17. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2015, Lyuh is now a respected expert on the two-stringed traditional bowed haegeum [Heh-guum]. As a scholar and lecturer, she has delved deep into the rich lineage of Korean traditional music, with its court and folk repertories. This was accomplished at universities and through membership of the new music troupe at the South Korean National Gugak Centre, founded to help preserve the more than one-thousand-year history of Korean traditional music. After receiving her doctorate, she taught at Seoul National University for six years, then was a visiting scholar at Mills College, UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

Lyuh has arrived at composition through her work in improvisation, essentially the original way that traditional music was created. “When I first played the haegeum for Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington,” Lyuh says, “he commented that the sound seemed ‘ancient,’ and commissioned me to write a piece that explores aspects of Korean traditional music. With this in mind, I composed Yessori, which is Korean for ‘sound from the past.’” She began to record five improvised layers of sound on top of one another, each layer interacting with the previous layer(s). To approximate the range of the string quartet, she played on three types of haegeum (soprano/regular and the more recently introduced alto and bass). Lyuh and the Kronos then worked together to transfer Lyuh’s improvisations and their distinctive techniques, vibrato, and articulations to the medium of haegeum plus string quartet and string quartet alone. “When I composed the piece, I stepped out of my shell,” Lyuh says, “and I forced myself to experience what the liberating process of improvisation has to offer.”

Lyuh refers to her piece as a fantasia. It is about 10 minutes long, with five sections. In the first, and indeed throughout, listen for the variety in vibrato – “sometimes wild, sometimes delicate” is the way Kronos violist Hank Dutt puts it. The second section sees the cello playing a gong-like percussion instrument. Its rhythm is in two-bar cycles, while the three upper instruments play folk-like melodies with vibrato that Lyuh describes as “wild, big and fast.” In the central section, collective improvisation is introduced, with each player selecting two gestures from a printed sequence of 12, playing for about 30 seconds until the next player enters by overlapping and continuing its general musical character. The final two sections, mostly in unison, bring a feeling of resolution, perhaps even triumph.

Yessori was created in the third year of the ground-breaking Kronos project Fifty for the Future, which over five years has commissioned 50 string quartets from prominent and emerging composers around the globe with the aim of developing skills required for the performance of 21st century repertoire. Scores, parts, recordings, interviews and other digital material is freely available to all online – performers and non-performers alike – with a view of presenting string quartet music as a living art form: https://50ftf.kronosquartet.org

When the Esmé presented Soo Yeon Lyuh’s Yessori: sound from the past as one of two Fifty for the Future pieces in the Haydnsaal of the Esterházy Palace in Austria, September 17, 2018, one of the quartet members commented: “We could feel our national roots.” I interviewed Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington shortly after this concert, which the Kronos shared. “My inner Haydn was smiling when we were there,” he said.

Music TORONTO originally planned that Soo Yeon Lyuh would be here to play with the Esmé Quartet. However, she is unable to travel to be here for this performance. The quartet is playing the string quartet alone version of Yessori.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
Born in St Germain-en-Laye, France, August 22, 1862; died in Paris, March 25, 1918
Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, L. 85 (1893)

Debussy titled this string quartet his Premier Quatuor en sol mineur, Op. 10. However, it remains both his only string quartet and the only work to which he ever gave an opus number. It’s also the only work in which he indicates a key. It’s an ironical touch from a non-conformist young composer, confident in his own musical voice. He promised a second quartet “in a more dignified form,” to Ernest Chausson, a friend and mentor at the time, but nothing ever came of it. 1893, the year of the G minor Quartet, was to prove a watershed. Debussy was already 30 and had just received his first important performance, the cantata La demoiselle élue. He had recently seen Maeterlinck's symbolist drama Pelléas et Melisande and had begun working on an opera on the same subject. His revolutionary tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was also well underway. As an orchestral score, it was quite unlike anything heard before and its première was to mark the start of his fame.

The String Quartet comes from the beginning of Debussy’s maturity and the influences he absorbs in its pages are extraordinary. He develops the cyclical form of his senior colleague César Franck in the way an impressionist painter would capture different facets and varying hues of the same object on a single canvas. A Javanese gamelan he encountered in Paris at the 1889 World Exposition led to the exotic sounds of the second movement. “Harmony formed out of melodies” he heard in a Palestrina Mass led to an even stronger influence throughout the quartet, that of the old church modes. Debussy’s Quartet also reveals other influences. These are as diverse as the polished melodic writing of Massenet or, in the pizzicatos of the scherzo and sensuous slow movement, the exotic writing of Borodin and Mussorgsky – music he had heard while working in Russia for Tchaikovsky’s patron. In the finale, there's even an echo of Grieg's String Quartet. But through it all, Debussy's voice emerges with passion and clarity, the very hallmarks of French chamber music writing. His Quartet introduces modernity into a musical form that was, perhaps, the least likely vehicle to accommodate its revolutionary impact.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born in Bonn, Germany, baptised December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (‘Razumovsky’) (1806)

Beethoven had recently completed the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas when the Russian Count Razumovsky commissioned three quartets that now bear his name. He was Russian Ambassador to Vienna and one of the most prominent patrons of music in a city that prided itself as a centre of culture. Razumovsky played second violin well and was serious enough about his music-making to have asked Beethoven for theory lessons. This was a time of tremendous confidence for Beethoven, despite encroaching deafness. He wrote the three Razumovskys when he was at work on the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. The change in his rapidly evolving musical style was reflected in the sketchbooks he carried when walking. A few years earlier, he would rapidly jot down ideas of 100 measures or more. A few years later, his jottings were more concerned with detail, with the careful refining of an idea to its essence. This was the case with the opening theme of the second Razumovsky. After a great number of jottings and re-jottings, we can see how a once pleasant, symmetrical theme is chiselled into a dramatic, questioning statement. In it, Beethoven discovers the power of silence. He goes on to develop the various elements of this opening theme in a forward-driving, almost brusque manner that is argumentative, terse and built by means of contrast. The scale on which he writes has a symphonic breadth. There is no question that this is music that belongs in the public concert hall rather than a private salon.

By contrast, the slow movement takes us to a world where time stands still. Beethoven said that the idea for this movement came as he gazed at the star-lit sky. Certainly, he had read Kant and liked Kant's phrase about the starry heavens above and the moral laws within. The major-key trio of the Allegretto third movement gruffly puts a Russian folk tune through its paces, bordering at times on a parody of stuffy fugal writing. This theme, included in response to Razumovsky’s request for “some Russian melodies, real or imagined” in the quartets, is the same national melody that Mussorgsky would use in the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov. The exhilarating finale is, again, built from fragments and clearly looks forward to the finale of the Seventh Symphony.

— Program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


The Bedford Trio and the Dior Quartet were scheduled to step in for the Juilliard Quartet on January 13, and then the replacement concert was postponed because of the provincial shut-down.

STRINGS

The Bedford Trio and The Dior Quartet
Thurs. Jan. 13, 2022 at 8 pm

KATHARINE PETKOVSKI (b. 1997)
Piano Trio No. 1 (2020)
   Vivace
   Andante
   Allegro
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49 (1839)
   Molto allegro e agitato
   Andante con moto tranquillo
   Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace
    Finale: Allegro assai appassionato
ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 13, in G, B.192, Op. 106 (1895)
   Allegro moderato
   Adagio ma non troppo
   Molto vivace
   Finale: Andante sostenuto - Allegro con fuoco

KATHARINE PETKOVSKI
Born in Ontario, October 2, 1997
Piano Trio No. 1 (2020)

Canadian composer, pianist and producer Katharine Petkovski draws from many genres of music, layering and experimenting with acoustic instruments and synthesized textures to create exciting sonic palettes. She is especially passionate about scoring music for multimedia, and has written for a variety of films, most recently With Love from Munera (2020), a documentary that premiered at Inside Out Film Festival, Canada's largest LGBTQ+ film festival, and was shown at TIFF Next Wave Film Festival and the Reel Asian Film Festival.

Katharine holds a BMus and MMus in Composition from the University of Toronto, where she received the prestigious Tecumseh Sherman Rogers Graduating Award. She is a member of the Screen Composer’s Guild of Canada, and the Alliance for Women Film Composers. She has released a number of recording projects, and has composed for the Odin Quartet and Bedford Trio. She is an active choral composer and has been commissioned by the Exultate Chamber Singers and RESOUND Choir.

Selected as the winner of the 2021 Piano Trio Composition Competition at the U of T’s Faculty of Music, my Piano Trio No. 1 was written for and premiered by Bedford Trio in the winter of 2021. The piece is composed in three movements, each with its own distinct flavour and pace. Being of Macedonian heritage, I was particularly influenced by the irregular rhythms, polymetric time signatures, and harmonic language that is found in Balkan folk music. (— Katharine Petkovski)

Listen to Katherine Petkovski’s Piano Trio here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGNCpHRK8S8

FELIX MENDELSSOHN
Born in Hamburg, Germany, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, Germany, November 4, 1847
Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) (29 minutes)

Mendelssohn wrote his earliest piano trio before he was eleven. It was one of the works that recommended the young prodigy to Goethe, who remained a mentor for the rest of his life. His D minor Piano Trio is the first of two mature trios and was premièred at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, February 1, 1840. Mendelssohn wrote it the previous year, at the same time as a large number of other chamber works. They included the three string quartets, Op. 44, the B-flat Cello Sonata, songs for solo and mixed voices, organ fugues and, as Mendelssohn himself put it in a letter, ‘half a Psalm.’ At this time, he regularly conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and had recently married the beautiful Cécile Jeanrenaud. Something of the intense activity in his personal and professional life comes through in the vitality of the D minor Trio. The piano writing in the opening movement is of great brilliance and its concerto-like virtuosity adds to the urgency of the music. The themes are shared equally between the instruments and lie comfortably for the musicians. Unusually, both themes of the opening movement are first heard on the cello.

The piano is more to the fore in the slow movement. This is a typically Mendelssohnian mix of gentle sentiment and nostalgia and recalls the composer's Songs without Words. In both, the outer sections of a slow movement share a theme and frame a more restless, often minor-key central episode. The third movement is a featherweight scherzo after the manner of those in the Octet and the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. This whirlwind, graceful movement is one of the best from a master of the genre. The momentum continues in the finale, where an insistent rhythmic pattern underlines two of the three themes.

ANTONIN DVOŘÁK
Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
String Quartet No. 13, in G, B.192, Op. 106 (1895)

Dvořák spent Christmas 1895 at his country home at Vysoká, just outside Prague. He was working fluently and had already completed the String Quartet in G, Op. 106, his thirteenth quartet, over a four-week period in November and early December. He spent Christmas Day putting the final touches to yet another quartet and just five days later, this quartet, too, was finished. Dvořák had composed two of his finest quartets in less than two months. But the ease and pleasure with which he created them came after a period when the ink ran dry.

Behind him was a second visit to the United States. Artistically, it had been a success. He could look back with pride at the new Cello Concerto, the New World Symphony, the American String Quartet and more. But Dvořák had felt cut off from his friends and relatives. He had been isolated from the Bohemian countryside and from a life that provided inspiration for his creativity. “Oh, if only I were home again!” the homesick Dvořák had written from New York. Here he was disappointed that his lifelong fascination with the steam locomotive was thwarted, since a train ticket was needed for even an avid trainspotter to enter the platforms of Grand Central Station. Instead, he would map out the arrivals and departures of every ocean liner bound for Europe. He toured them from bow to stern, making friends with their captains.

Dvořák and his wife returned to Bohemia for good in the spring of 1895. Once back in familiar surroundings, he resumed his former routine. He started the day with an early morning stroll in the Karlsplatz Park and taught at the Prague Conservatory. He checked on the comings and goings of the locomotives he loved to watch. He had regular evening meetings with younger musicians and actors in Mahulik's restaurant and with leading Prague artists at Friday soirées at the home of his friend, the architect Josef Hlávka. Work on the G major quartet freed a creative block that had lasted for nine months, the longest fallow period in Dvořák’s life. Now he could say: "I work so easily and everything goes ahead so well that I could not wish it better." The two String Quartets, Opp. 106 and 105 (written in this order) can be viewed as a summing up of all that he found good in the world. They are an affirmation of life and nature and, as his last chamber works, reveal total mastery of the medium.

The G major Quartet opens in a positive, assertive way. Its first theme is joyous and forward-driving. It contrasts with a lyrical, folksong-like second theme that is passed around among the instruments. Dvořák's craft is superb and carries over to the slow movement, the centrepiece of the quartet. The Adagio is eloquent and elegantly written, lofty in ambition, and one of the composer's finest string quartet movements. A busy and vigorous Scherzo follows. It is Mendelssohn-like at times, but with a touch of country earthiness. The finale begins exuberantly but includes wistful, somewhat nostalgic music in its pages. It also brings in echoes of the opening movement before being swept along to an affirmative, joyful conclusion.

— Mendelssohn and Dvořák program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


The Juilliard Quartet, scheduled or January 13, are unable to appear due to illness and inability to travel. Here is what we are missing.

STRINGS

JUILLIARD QUARTET
Thurs. Jan. 13, 2022 at 8 pm

FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No 6, in F minor, Op. 80 (1847)
   Allegro vivace assai - Presto
   Allegro assai
   Adagio
   Finale: Allegro molto
JÖRG WIDMANN (b. 1973)
Cavatina – String Quartet No. 10 (Beethoven Study No. V) (2021)
INTERMISSION
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) String Quartet No. 12, in F, Op. 96, B. 179 (‘American’) (1893)
   Allegro ma non troppo
   Lento
   Molto vivace
   Finale: Vivace ma non troppo

FELIX MENDELSSOHN
Born in Hamburg, Germany, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847
String Quartet No. 6, in F minor, Op. 80 (1847)

The F minor Quartet by Felix Mendelssohn opens and closes with anything but a smile. Intense and urgent, its agitated tremolo opening is punctuated only by the suspended agonies of the first violin, often poignantly poised high above the other three strings. This is not the Mendelssohn of the Biedermeyer drawing room, the Mendelssohn whose volumes of Songs Without Words were placed – and often played – as ornaments, decorating the pianos of middle-class Europeans. The F minor Quartet is ‘late period’ Mendelssohn. Highly subjective music, it strains at the constraints of the medium of the string quartet itself.

In May 1847, Mendelssohn heard of the death of his 41-year-old sister Fanny, a sister with whom he had maintained a close and productive relationship since childhood. She collapsed while rehearsing her brother’s music. Mendelssohn was devastated. He, too, collapsed on the spot and became so distraught that he was unable to attend her funeral. “I cannot think of work, or even music, without feeling the most intense emptiness and barrenness of mind and heart,” he wrote. His wife, Cécile, arranged for him to take the waters at Baden-Baden. His insomnia continued. Traveling to Switzerland, he found some relief. “I force myself to be industrious, in the hope that later on I may feel like working and enjoying it,” he wrote in July to his younger sister Rebecca. By September, the F minor Quartet was complete.

Structurally, Mendelssohn looks back to the classical sonata form of middle-period Beethoven. In each of the four movements, his attention is focused on emotion and passion, underpinned by a recurring thematic use of the notes of the F minor home key. By the end of the opening movement, after an increasingly intense coda, the anger and fury of the inner storm in the music has not abated. In the second movement, Mendelssohn presses on urgently with more music in the same dark and foreboding key of F minor. The movement is a scherzo. But it has none of the lightness and grace of the famous scherzos of the Octet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, all is sardonic and angry. The biting harmonies are prescient of the scherzos of Mahler. Economy of means is again a hallmark in the slow movement and little respite is offered. In the finale, the music turns back to F minor with a vengeance. The restlessness of the opening movement returns. Again, Mendelssohn works with fragments and motifs rather than full-blown melodies. The anguish and drive continue relentlessly to the end. Mendelssohn does not give himself – or the listener – the consolation of a subdued close. The work ends angrily, despairingly, with no hint of catharsis, leaving the listener emotionally drained.

A few weeks after he completed the quartet, on October 3, 1847, Mendelssohn wrote: “Now I must gradually begin to put my life and my work together again, with the awareness that Fanny is no longer here; and it leaves such a bitter taste that I still cannot see my way clearly or find any peace.” Mendelssohn himself was to die just one month later after a series of strokes, November 4, 1847, at the age of 38.

JÖRG WIDMANN
Born in Munich, Germany, June 19, 1973
Cavatina – String Quartet No. 10 (Beethoven Study No. V) (2021)

German composer Jörg Widmann finds Beethoven “an inexhaustible reservoir.” He adds: “His music has visionary power; it has not collected patina or lost any of its impertinence.” In his String Quartets 6 through 10 (2019-21) Widmann digs deep into Beethoven, simultaneously paying homage to his place in the classical tradition without framing the composer as a museum piece. These five quartets are a sequence of what he terms Beethoven Studies, in which he consciously strives to find inspiration, reinvention, deconstruction, and distortion in Beethoven’s late quartets.

The precedent in his own music is a curtain raiser commissioned for a concert that included performances of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies. Con brio (With Spirit) draws on the energy and heroic gestures of Beethoven’s symphonies and weaves them into a virtuoso, attention-grabbing, sometimes explosive concert overture for the 21st century. The overture has quickly become Widmann’s most frequently played composition. But Beethoven is by no means the only catalyst for creativity in the music of Jörg Widmann. The brittle, crystalline shards of the Fünf Bruchstücke (Five Fragments) (1997) for clarinet and piano marry extremes of register from both instruments with extended techniques. Babylon, Widmann’s 2012 three-and-a-half-hour opera for the Bavarian State Opera, utilizes a kaleidoscope of musical styles to represent what one critic views as philosopher-librettist Peter Sloterdijk’s “colourful cocktail of distorted myths and symbols from Greek, Babylonian and Old Testament sources.”

Widmann is recognised as a leading clarinettist as well as composer, appearing also as a pianist and, increasingly (in pre-Covid-19 times), as conductor – both internationally and as principal conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. During the lockdowns he has produced a socially-distanced “Covid composition” for Daniel Barenboim’s Festival of New Music in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal, together with today’s Cavatina for the Juilliard Quartet. The quartet is the fifth of the Beethoven Studies. “I consider Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 with its Grosse Fuge as the pinnacle of all quartets,” Widmann writes. “In each of the four movements, Beethoven succeeds in re-inventing the archetypal movement forms with equal intensity, meaning that they are consequently nothing like what they once were. My Beethoven Studies (String Quartets 6-10) explore the cosmos of this so very unique quartet to a greater or lesser degree, and in explicit form in this concluding quartet of the cycle. The Cavatina from Op. 130 is one of the most emotional movements ever written by Beethoven. Although some of the original material can be recognised in my own Cavatina, I consider it as one of the most personal and freest movements of my entire quartet cycle. This is a free form of ardent singing and flowing, marking the conclusion of the cycle which grappled so vehemently and sensuously with the cosmos of Beethoven’s quartets. Everything hovers … into the open … into free space.”

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK
Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
String Quartet No. 12, in F, Op. 96, B.179 (‘American’)(1893)

“Why did not Dvořák come to us earlier if he can write such music here in America?” asked the critic of the New York Daily Herald after the première of Dvořák’s new F major String Quartet. The work soon acquired the nickname, ‘American’, and began to be requested by concert promoters everywhere. Boston’s Kneisel Quartet, who gave the première in Boston on New Year’s Day, 1894, repeated the performance 12 days later at Carnegie Hall. Within one year they had given 50 performances. The American had already become the most popular of Dvořák’s 14 quartets.

Dvořák wrote the piece in Spillville, a rural community of Czech immigrants in Iowa, the hometown of the violin student Josef Jan Kovarík whom Dvořák had employed as his secretary. Dvořák, his wife, six children, sister, maid and Kovarík arrived in Spillville June 5, 1893. What he found was a small settlement of 380 Czechs (it has the same population to this day). These settlers maintained the cultural traditions of the old country and communicated with one another in their native language. Dvořák was happier here than at any other time in his three-year stay in the States as Director of the National Conservatory in New York. Within three days he was hard at work on the new string quartet. His early morning walks through the woods by the Little Turkey River brought the sounds of birdsong – something he had missed in New York. He even incorporated the song of a small red bird with scarlet wings (a scarlet tanager) into the third movement of the new quartet.

Dvořák sketched the quartet in just three days and wrote it out fully in a further 12. Always a quick worker when inspiration was running high, Dvořák began work on a string quintet three days later and completed the work by the beginning of August. It, too, is sometimes referred to as the ‘American’. "The influence of America must be felt by everyone who has any 'nose' at all," Dvořák wrote during his summer in Spillville. In the opening movement of the quartet, listeners have heard everything from the melancholy grandeur of the broad plains to the poignancy of plantation songs. The slow movement may combine the intensity of Dvořák’s homesickness with the deep emotion of the spirituals he heard sung by his New York student Henry Burleigh. In the quiet, chorale-like theme in the finale, there are said to be echoes of the little organ that Dvořák used to play in the Spillville church. Above all, though, it's the contentedness and happiness of being in the countryside among friends that seems to be reflected in the music of the ‘American’ quartet.

— Program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca

STRINGS

Gryphon Trio
Thurs. Dec. 9, 2021 at 8 pm

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-97)
Piano Trio in B, Op. 8 (1853-4, rev. 1889)
   Allegro con brio
   Scherzo: Allegro molto
   Adagio
   Allegro
JEFFREY RYAN (b. 1962)
JEFFREY RYAN
Born in Toronto, ON, February 24, 1962
Chimera (2021) (world première)
INTERMISSION
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87 (1889)
   Allegro con fuoco
   Lento
   Allegro moderato grazioso
   Finale: Allegro ma non troppo

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Piano Trio in B, Op. 8 (1853-4, rev. 1889)

Brahms took his chamber music seriously and re-energized the medium for the later 19th century, raising it to the highest level of achievement. His original plan was to bookend his output with two versions of a piano trio, written 35 years apart – and then retire. But the expressive musicality of Richard Mühlfeld, the Meiningen Court clarinettist, propelled him to add a coda of four more glorious chamber works as the finale to his creative life. With an overall catalogue of 24 widely varied chamber compositions spanning four decades, it’s arguably the piano trios that best marry the medium with the message. Before Brahms, Beethoven had found his voice in the string quartet; Schubert, for the most part, found his in the string quintet and Schumann his, in the piano quintet. The piano trio gave Brahms the most comfortable, natural vehicle for his carefully crafted compositions.

The Piano Trio in B, Op. 8 is both the first and last work Brahms wrote in the medium of piano trio. He wrote the first version in 1853-4 and published it as his Op. 8, not long after being proclaimed a musical genius by Schumann – “springing forth like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove.” Then, late in life, in 1889, when a new publisher acquired rights to several of his chamber music compositions, Brahms took the opportunity to re-write a piece first conceived by an up and coming 20-year-old. “It will not be so wild as before,” he wrote to Clara Schumann, who had helped workshop the earlier version. He tightened its expansive style, simplified its structure and used its themes as the building blocks of what is, essentially, a new work, one third shorter than the original. What is striking is that Brahms, who assiduously destroyed his sketches and early drafts, entered the process knowing that a work that had been in circulation for nearly 40 years could not be deleted from his catalogue. Striking, too, is the skill with which Brahms sustains the youthful energy of the first version. “I did not provide it with a wig,” he said in a manner calculated to confuse, “I just arranged its hair a little!” It is this revised version, written after a lifetime of composition and after almost one hundred published works, that is usually played today. Brahms jokingly referred to it as his Op. 108, rather than his Op. 8.

In the ‘new’ Op. 8, Brahms retains the lyrical opening theme. It is instantly recognisable as Brahmsian, being characteristically nutty brown in texture, somewhat wistful in mood. Its expansive nature, on the scale of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, ensures that the broad sweep of the opening movement will remain, though this is virtually all that does remain from the earlier version of the trio. Other Brahmsian thumbprints, like hemiola patterns and additional rhythmical shifts, add new energy, direction and tautness to the music. The deftly scurrying Scherzo pays homage to Mendelssohn. Together with its broadly lilting, waltz-like trio, it is virtually unchanged from the 1854 publication. The slow movement is built upon a solemn, expansive chorale-like opening, again showing the influence of the Archduke trio but now speaking in Brahms’s mature voice – the more so with a new, autumnal second theme. The questioning B minor cello theme that opens the finale, introduces a note of restlessness. But it immediately gives way to a brightly assertive D major second theme that introduces a valedictory tone to the movement. Although the music ends in the minor, its mood is confident and hard-won.

JEFFREY RYAN
Born in Toronto, ON, February 24, 1962
Chimera (2021) (world première)

Music TORONTO’s Composer Advisor Jeffrey Ryan writes about Chimera, commissioned by Jennifer Taylor for the Gryphon Trio in celebration of Music TORONTO’s 50th anniversary:

“The original Chimera from Greek mythology was a fire-breathing hybrid of lion, goat, and serpent. Over time, ‘chimera’ came to describe any creature, mythical or real, comprised of multiple DNAs. The Sphinx, the Manticore, the Kotobuki, Anubis, Ganesha, and of course the Gryphon are all examples of chimeras (as are most marmosets and more than a few humans). When I began looking for inspiration for a new work for trio—three individual voices that merge into a single entity—the three-part Chimera was the perfect choice.

“Three different musical ideas form Chimera's DNA. The mass and strength of the lion are represented by dense chords that become internally activated and rhythmically pulsed. The mountain goat, high and distant, appears as still sustained tones. The serpent provides the long sinuous lines that weave through the texture. These three elements are overlapped, juxtaposed, and intertwined, passing amongst the players and transformed along the way.

“In a single movement, Chimera begins very slowly, as if shrouded in mist (Diaphonous). As the piece unfolds, the music gradually becomes faster and more focussed, moving through Mysterious, Stealthy, Restless, and Racing, until the final section (Determined) explodes in fire.”

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK
Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87 (1889)

Like Brahms, chamber music was important to Dvořák, and he left more than 30 chamber works. They include two piano quartets, written almost 15 years apart. The earliest of them dates from 1875 when Dvořák was still a relatively unknown composer. It found little favour with the public. Brahms, however, had enjoyed substantial success with his three piano quartets and sales had brought their publisher, Simrock, a good return. Hoping to repeat the success, Simrock now pressed Dvořák to honour a commitment he had made to write a second piano quartet. After a tentative start, Dvořák found that the ideas flowed without difficulty. One month after he began the work, Dvořák was able to write to a friend: “I’ve now already finished three movements of a new piano quartet and the finale will be ready in a few days. As I expected, it came easily and the melodies just surged from me, thank God!” In all, the E-flat Piano Quartet took ten days from its earliest draft to completed score, August 19, 1889. Publication came the following year, and the work was given its première in Frankfurt on October 17, 1890.

At the time of its composition, Dvořák was at the height of his skill as a composer. Ahead of him lay his now famous trip to the United States. But he already enjoyed a high reputation throughout Europe. He had positioned himself as a Czech nationalist, though he was careful to use all the current musical techniques of the internationalist. The new Piano Quartet in E-flat is more confident than the earlier work and successfully marries form with content. There’s a strong hint of folk-music in its forthright opening on the strings. Then the piano has other ideas and asserts its independence. Some discussion follows. But it isn’t long before all four instruments join in a radiant statement of the opening theme. A second theme appears on the viola, Dvořák’s favourite instrument. After much sumptuous development, the opening theme finally appears as a ghostly echo of itself, with tremolo bow effects from violin and viola.

The slow movement is scored in the warm, rather veiled key of G-flat major. Its five repeated melodies are closely related and grow out of a splendid melody introduced right away by the cello. The music moves through a wide range of moods. The third movement is rooted in the folk-music that Dvořák so loved. It has the lightness and easy grace of a sentimental waltz or a Ländler, perhaps, coloured by exotic modal harmonies. When the theme appears for a third time, high in the piano, Dvořák’s music distinctly evokes the sound of a Hungarian cimbalom. The forthright opening of the finale, rather unusually for a major-key work, takes us straight into the minor. Each instrument is given a generous share of the melodic writing. There’s some lovely buoyant interplay between the four instruments and a brilliant conclusion ties a bow on one of the finest of Dvořák’s chamber works.

Brahms and Dvořák program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca



The concert has been cancelled, but these notes reveal what we are missing.

STRINGS

St. Lawrence Quartet
Thurs. Nov. 18, 2021 at 8 pm

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76 No. 4 (Hob.III:78) (‘Sunrise’) (1796-7)
Allegro con spirito
   Adagio
   Menuet: Allegro ma non troppo
   Finale. Allegro ma non troppo
JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 No. 2 (Hob.III:76) (‘Fifths’) (1796-7)
   Allegro
   Andante o più tosto allegretto
   Menuetto: Allegro ma non troppo
   Finale: Vivace assai
INTERMISSION
JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5 (Hob.III:79) (1796-7)
   Allegretto
   Largo ma non troppo. Cantabile e mesto
   Menuetto. Allegro ma non troppo
   Finale. Presto
JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 (Hob.III:77) (‘Emperor’) (1797)
   Allegro
   Poco adagio cantabile
   Menuet. Allegro & Trio
   Finale. Presto

JOSEPH HAYDN
Born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, March 31, 1732; died in Vienna, May 31, 1809
Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76 No. 4 (Hob.III:78) (‘Sunrise’) (1797) Hob?
Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 No. 2 (Hob.III:76) (‘Fifths’) (1796-7)
Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5 (Hob.III:79) (1796-7)
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 (Hob.III:77) (‘Emperor’) (1797)

Haydn wrote the six great quartets of his Op. 76 late in life, 1796-7, when he already had been composing for a half century. The quartets were commissioned by and dedicated to Count Joseph Erdödy (1754-1824), who, as a member of an aristocratic music-loving family, had a string quartet who played at his two palaces in present-day Slovakia. The 18th century English musician and man of letters, Charles Burney, heard the set in London in 1799 and wrote to Haydn saying that instrumental music had never given him more pleasure. “They are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects and seem the production, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well already, but of one of highly-cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before." Burney’s comments reflect the high esteem in which Haydn was held throughout Europe. He was, quite simply, the greatest living composer of the time and he knew that musicians everywhere were judging his latest compositions by the high standards he himself had established.

During his two visits to England, Haydn had the opportunity to compose for the public concert room rather than for the private aristocratic salon he had known throughout much of his composing career. His approach to the quartet began to change. His music became more concentrated and closely argued, his thematic and structural material more tautly constructed. It began to speak out to an audience and range boldly through different keys. The six Op. 76 Erdödy quartets were composed over the year following his second triumphant visit to the British capital. They are, in many ways, Haydn’s final thoughts on the medium (if not, quite, his final quartets). In a profound way, he brings a lifetime’s experience to bear on the quartets, in both human and musical terms. They anticipate more from an audience than the earlier quartets, when string chamber music was designed as a background for wining and dining, or for four amateurs to enjoy in the privacy of their own music salon. After these quartets, for the remainder of his life, Haydn was to concentrate on choral music, including the six great masses of 1796-1802 and his two oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.

The ‘Sunrise’, as the B-flat quartet, Op. 76 No. 4 is known in the English-speaking world, has one of the great openings in chamber music. A lovely rising phrase is played by the first violin, over a warm, sustained chord, like the sun rising out of the clouds. Haydn's confidence is at its peak. The music both sums up the great classical era of chamber music and looks ahead to the dawning age of romanticism. While its opening seems to promise a sunny, easy-going work, this never quite arrives. The B-flat major quartet often sounds like a minor-key quartet which happens to be written in the major. Its opening does, however, contain a wealth of musical ideas that provide the fuel, and thereby the unity, of the entire work. The three subsequent movements – a profound slow movement, rustic minuet and exuberant and witty finale – are written with no less skill than the magical opening. Op. 76 No. 4 can be counted among the finest of Haydn’s quartets.

In Germany, the Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 No. 2 has the nickname ’Die Quinten’ (‘Fifths’), referring to the two descending intervals of a fifth with which the piece opens. This falling interval and its inversion and different permutations recur throughout the first movement. It will provide a unifying element in the melodic material of the entire quartet. Haydn would have called this his ‘learned’ (gelehrter) style. And it is a measure of his genius as a composer that we do not need to pick apart the technical sophistication of his musical language to enjoy its content. The craft in Haydn’s music appealed to the younger Mozart and he learned much from it. With the D minor tonality of this quartet, however, we also find Haydn taking a leaf out of the book of a composer more than 20 years his junior. D minor was Mozart's ‘tragic’ key and the key of the powerful Quartet K. 421 that Mozart had recently dedicated to Haydn. In his Op. 76 No. 2, Haydn returns the compliment with one of the most concentrated, rigorously constructed quartets he was to write.

The highly focused, impassioned mood of the first movement relaxes in the following Andante. Here, the first violin serenades us, to alternating plucked and bowed accompaniment, in elegant music that is not without a hint of whimsy – the pleasing, relaxed theme has the unusual length of 15 measures, for instance. The minuet then brings complete contrast. Its severe style introduces a strict canon, first between the two violins, then between viola and cello. Its bleak and eerie minor mood, plus the tension Haydn develops within the music, have given the movement a nickname of its own – Hexenmenuett (‘Witches' Minuet’). The tension between major and minor keys continues in the exuberant finale with its ‘Hungarian’ off-beat inflections, frequent pauses to hold the listener’s attention and extreme leaps – with a surprise in store on the final leaps. The tension is only resolved towards the end when, suddenly, the music eases quietly into the major key and remains there until the jubilant final chords.

The heart of the Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5 is its magnificent slow movement, marked Largo. Almost as long as the other three movements together, it is one of the finest such movements that Haydn wrote. Some printed scores used to subtitle the entire work ‘Famous Largo.’ That’s not as convincing a nickname as the Sunrise or the Emperor, but it does serve to highlight the importance that the slow movement plays to the rest of the work. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the quartet was composed around its slow movement – a practice that Haydn adopted on many occasions in his symphonies and quartets at the time, including the Emperor. [Sadly, the original manuscripts of the Op. 76 set are lost and with the loss goes clues as to the order of composition of both movements and quartets themselves].

The quartet opens with a gracefully lyrical movement, based on a theme that has the character of a sicilienne. It's an unusual way of starting a quartet, initially giving the feeling of informality, but soon developing into intricate, contrapuntal writing between the four instruments in a sequence of closely argued variations. The first violin line is elaborately decorated throughout. By its understatement and exuberant conclusion, the movement provides the perfect foil for the Largo that follows. This is a full sonata-form structure, written in the distant key of F-sharp which right away establishes an ethereal, other-worldly and gently pulsing mood; the bright open strings of the quartet’s instruments do not resonate in the key of F-Sharp major. The marking at the top of the movement, cantabile e mesto, means ‘in a singing style and sad.’ Indeed, as the music constantly reaches ever-distant keys, the entire movement takes on an air of melancholy, a feeling of nostalgia tinged with sadness along the way, pointing the way forward to Beethoven’s hymn-like slow movements and subsequent romantic expression in chamber music.

The Menuetto rolls up its sleeves to bring us quickly back to reality. It leans towards the finale which at once introduces tongue-in-cheek good humour. The movement’s beginning sounds like an ending, were it not for a hidden cache of thoroughly convincing developmental material which demands the lightest, most virtuoso of touches. The D major quartet includes string writing of such richness, sonority and overflowing invention that listeners often use the terms ‘symphonic’ and ‘orchestral’ to describe its impact.

In 1793 Haydn bought a house in Vienna and was able to afford extensive renovations, including the addition of a second floor. He remained on the payroll of the Esterházys, but with minimal duties. Three years later, the city of Vienna was under threat of invasion from Napoleon. French troops led by Napoleon were advancing from the Po valley into Styria. Other troops were advancing from the East and both were closing in on Vienna in a pincer-like move. Vienna was in a state of emergency and a civilian militia had been mobilized to protect the city. Following a state commission, Haydn, a strong nationalist, was commissioned to write a national song for the cause. His beautiful, heartfelt Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God Preserve Franz the Emperor) was a bold challenge to the Marseillaise and was instantly adopted as the Austrian national anthem. In fact, so universal was the appeal of Haydn's melody that it was later to be used as the ‘Brotherhood’ anthem of Freemasonry, as the German national anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, and even as the Protestant hymns Praise the Lord! Ye heavens, adore him and Glorious things of Thee are spoken.

The slow movement of the Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 is a set of variations on this celebrated, dignified tune. Hence the quartet's nickname Emperor, or Kaiser. Each instrument in turn introduces the solemn melody, while the other three instruments weave an increasingly intricate web around it. But Haydn goes further. He again structures the entire work around the slow movement, making it the focal point of the quartet. The melody finds its way into the first movement, whose five-note theme derives from Haydn’s patriotic song: G (Gott) – E (erhalte) – F (Franz) – D (den) – C (Kaiser). This cryptic message would have been recognized in Haydn's day as one of the many ‘learned’ effects he used in his late quartets, complementing such popular elements as the lively country dance he fashions out of the same notes over a viola and cello drone in the central development section. The intensity and dignity of the four slow movement variations is set into relief by a forthright minuet. The finale, an intense, powerful movement, then completes the strong architectural structure that Haydn has built.

— Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


Due to a communication failure, these notes were not published in advance of the concert

PIANO
Stephen Hough
Tues. Nov. 9, 2021 at 8 pm

ALAN RAWSTHORNE (1905-71)
Bagatelles (1938)
   Allegro –
   Allegretto –
   Presto non assai –
   Lento
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838)
   Äußerst bewegt
   Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch
   Sehr aufgeregt
   Sehr langsam
   Sehr lebhaft
   Sehr langsam
   Sehr rasch
   Schnell und spielend
INTERMISSION
STEPHEN HOUGH (b. 1961)
Partita (2019)
   Overture
   Capriccio
   Cancion y Danza I
   Cancion y Danza II
   Toccata
FRYDERYK CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 3, in A-flat, Op. 47 (1840-1)
Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15 No. 2 (1830-2)
Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2 (1830-2)
Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31 (1837)

ALAN RAWSTHORNE
Born May 2, 1905 in Haslingden, England; died July 24, 1971 in Cambridge
Bagatelles (1938)

Practical Cats was my introduction to English composer Alan Rawsthorne back in the 1950s. It is a piece for narrator and orchestra based on six poems from T. S. Eliot’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). It was engaging then and remains so to this day. It falls in the tradition of his friend and fellow-Lancastrian William Walton’s Façade. (Baron Lloyd-Webber, then still a kitten, was to add to Eliot’s fame 27 years later with the musical Cats). Where Walton found an international audience, Rawsthorne’s more consistently restricted musical language, based on constantly shifting tonalities and juxtaposed melodic phrases, somewhat in the manner of Hindemith, led to him being labelled a ‘musician’s composer.’ His compositional craft is secure throughout a large catalogue of compositions – three symphonies, several concertos, and much chamber music including several works for piano, his own instrument. His confident, polished orchestral and instrumental technique also found an outlet in well over 20 movie and theatre scores.

The four Bagatelles on today’s program are among Rawsthorne’s earliest published compositions. They were written for Gordon Greene, formerly a fellow student at the Royal Manchester (now Royal Northern) College of Music and subsequently a teacher of Stephen Hough (their lessons included these pieces). The bagatelles make full use of the keyboard and are interconnected through a recurring theme and the harmonic and melodic use of thirds and fourths. The first is forward-driving and prominently introduces the theme in stern left-hand octaves. It fades into the lilting, graceful, dance-like second bagatelle which, in turn, gives way to the fast and furious scherzo-like third whose middle section reintroduces the first movement theme. The fourth bagatelle is a reflective and sombre two-part invention which builds to a sudden, somewhat enigmatic resolution in the major.

ROBERT SCHUMANN
Born in Zwickau, Saxony, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, nr Bonn, July 29, 1856
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838)

"The best description of Schumann himself,” Brahms once said, “is to be found in some of the writings of Hoffmann – especially in the splendid Kreisler." Johannes Kreisler is a larger-than-life Kapellmeister who appears several times in Hoffman’s published fiction (including, intriguingly, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr). Schumann calls him eccentric, wild and gifted, feeling a bond between the fictional Kreisler and the romantic composer that he himself embodied. The first edition of Schumann's Kreisleriana, published October 1838, even depicts drawings of characters from Hoffmann's writings, as well as pictures of Robert and the young pianist he was soon to marry, Clara Wieck.

Schumann's absorption with the untamed, wittily gifted character of Kreisler did not dampen his own creative spark. He wrote Kreisleriana in the white heat of inspiration, in just four days in April 1838. In its pages he wove constant references to the woman he loved. "You and one of your ideas are the principal subject and I shall call them Kreisleriana and dedicate them to you,” he wrote. “You will smile so sweetly when you see yourself in them.” Cryptic messages are encoded in Kreisleriana. Thematic cross references underline the cycle of eight fantasy pieces and bring a powerful sense of unity to its music.

At the same time, Kreisleriana has been seen as a musical depiction of Schumann’s impending insanity. Turbulent, rhetorical pieces representing the Florestan side of Schumann's character (No. 1, the second Intermezzo of Nos. 2, 3 and 5) alternate with the more reflective, internalized, Eusebius side (Nos. 2, 4 and 6). The music in these movements correspondingly alternates between a restless G-minor and a dreamier B-flat major. The contrasts also occur within each piece, as in the way the serene chorale that ends the seventh piece in Kreisleriana seems to share little with the fiery, cascading sixteenths that precede it. At other times, Schumann makes inner voices appear as if from nowhere, sometimes leaving them ‘hanging' with their dissonances unresolved. The extraordinary crab-like harmonies that emerge from complex counterpoint immediately after the second Intermezzo of No. 2 give the effect of learned improvisation – and, perhaps, that trance-like state that both Schumann and Kreisler entered when immersed in their own world at the piano.

STEPHEN HOUGH
Born in Heswall, England, November 22, 1961
Étude Book One: No. 5 Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow) (1985)
Partita (2019)

Interviewed a couple of years ago, Stephen Hough said: “Tonality is what I live for, it’s my oxygen! I think all music is sort of searching for that resolution. I think if something is purely atonal, it’s impossible to resolve anything because it doesn’t return home. It’s always on the move, and it never comes back. I think however complex a tonal system is, we all want that. It’s something planted in the womb.”

Like most of Hough’s compositions, written for the most part over the last two decades, the 13-minute Partita is a commission. It was commissioned for the Carnegie début of the young Swiss pianist Albert Cano Smit by the Naumburg Foundation in 2019.

Stephen Hough (who can list engaging program note writer as well as blogger in his resumé) writes: “This Partita is in five movements. Its outer, more substantial bookends have an 'English' flavour and suggest the world of a grand cathedral organ. The first of these alternates between ceremonial pomp and sentimental circumstance, whereas the final movement, taking thematic material from the first, is a virtuosic toccata – a sortie out of the gothic gloom into brilliant Sunday sunshine.
“At the centre of the work are three shorter movements, each utilising the interval of a fifth: a restless, jagged Capriccio of constantly shifting time signatures, and two Cancion y Danzas, inspired by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou (1893-1987)"

FRYDERYK CHOPIN
Born in Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, Poland, March 1, 1810; died in Paris, October 17, 1849
Ballade No. 3, in A-flat, Op. 47 (1840-1)
Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15 No. 2 (1830-2)
Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2 (1830-2)
Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31 (1837)

With its origins in narrative poetry and folk song, and its use to describe such 19th century songs as Schubert's Erlkönig, Chopin began to use the title Ballade for solo piano music in 1831. All four Chopin Ballades are single movement, extended piano compositions with an implied storyline. They draw on the idea of contrasting and reconciling opposites – the basis of the sonata principle – but free from the constraints of any conventional form. This is clear in the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47 where two contrasting themes are fused into a third. Essays have been written on the way Chopin transforms the themes of this ballade, a true example of art concealing art. Yet it is a mark of the strength of Chopin's creative powers in 1841 that the Third Ballade flows with natural momentum and strikes us as the most romantic of the set.

Italian opera gave Chopin a love of the long, sustained, elaborately decorated vocal line, a style of singing known as bel canto. “You have to sing if you wish to play,” he said to his pupils . . . who provided him with a substantial income. His absorption of vocal detail found its way into Chopin’s piano writing to a degree previously unexplored, nowhere more so than in the 18 nocturnes he published between 1830 and 1846 (three more make up the complete catalogue). The nocturnes journey through the lyrical, more subjective side of Chopin's nature and are mostly in a simple ABA form. The Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2 pays homage to the Irish composer John Field, who was the first to use the French word Nocturne as a springboard for a poetic, reflective song-without-words for solo piano. Chopin’s early nocturne, however, surpasses Field’s 18 nocturnes in the expressive power, intensity and poetry of its musical language. Already by the time of the Op. 15 collection, published just one year after his Op. 9, Chopin is willing to experiment both emotionally and structurally with the customary three-part form. In the Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15 No. 2 he produces the utmost refinement within the deeply felt ornamentation of the underlying melody in the outer sections of this favourite nocturne, creating an intimate, improvisatory feeling. This, he then extends and broadens into the contrasting turbulence of the nocturne’s middle section.

Chopin was exploring new territory when he wrote single virtuoso scherzo movements outside the context of the symphony and piano sonata. Without the framework of contrasting sonata movements, he made a point of providing contrast within the scherzo itself. The principle behind the four scherzos is that of alternating dramatic and lyrical ideas. A lively outer section often encompasses a more lyrical middle episode, though the shape of each Scherzo does vary. In the opening turbulent outburst of the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, a question- and answer-like statement broadens ínto one of Chopin’s most vivid, plunging and expansive melodies. Dramatic contrast is present from the outset and continues for all three sections of a work that Robert Schumann referred to as ‘Byronic.’ Chopin maintains a feeling of spontaneity and creativity with a structure that brings a surprise at every turn. A triumphant coda culminates in the key of D-flat major rather than in the home key of B-flat minor, resolving the tensions within one of Chopin's most loved and magisterial works.

— Rawsthorne, Schumann and Chopin program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


PIANO
Tues. Oct. 26, 2021 at 8 pm
David Jalbert

KELLY-MARIE MURPHY (b. 1964)
Smoke Darkened Sky (2021) (world première)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images (Book One), L. 110 (1905)
   Reflets dans l’eau
   Hommage à Rameau
   Mouvement
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images (Book Two), L. 111 (1907)
   Cloches à travers les feuilles
   Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût
   Poissons d'or

INTERMISSION

GYÖRGY LIGETI (1923-2006)
Étude Book One: No. 5 Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow) (1985)
Étude Book One: No. 6: Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn) (1985)
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 6, in A, Op. 82 (1939-40)
   Allegro moderato
   Allegretto
   Tempo di valzer lentissimo
   Vivace

KELLY-MARIE MURPHY
Born in Sardegna, Italy, September 4, 1964
Smoke Darkened Sky (2021) (world première)

Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy lives in Ottawa where she teaches composition and where she is currently working on a Triple Concerto for Trio Sōra and the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra and a new work for the Lafayette Quartet. Kelly was the 2018 recipient of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music.

Kelly-Marie Murphy writes: “The pandemic has seared many images into our consciousness. For me, one that made a deep impression was during the second wave in India. There were so many deaths from Covid that the funeral pyres, which were burning day and night, led to intense, thick, clouds of smoke.

Smoke Darkened Sky was commissioned by Jennifer Taylor for Music Toronto for this recital by David Jalbert — one of the first concerts as we return to the stage after being shut for the past 18 months. The single-movement piece explores grief, rage, desperation, and reflection. It explores thickening texture through a variety of techniques, including extended techniques developed by George Crumb.

The very end of the piece is based on the Darbari raga from Hindustani classical music. It is a raga that has the ability for profound emotional impact.”

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
Born in St Germain-en-Laye, France, August 22, 1862; died in Paris, March 25, 1918
Images (Book One), L. 110 (1905)
Images (Book Two), L. 111 (1907)

Debussy liked the word ‘Image.’ He used it twice, in 1905 and 1907, for the two sets of piano pieces we are hearing today. He also used it for the Trois Images for orchestra and for an early set of pieces, not published until 1977, and now known as the Images (oubliées). "I love pictures (images) almost as much as music," he wrote to composer Edgard Varèse in 1911. His friend René Peter says in his memoir: “He may call his compositions pictures, sketches, prints, arabesques, masques, studies in black and white. But clearly, it is his delight to paint in music.” The title Image gives Debussy a framework that is difficult to pin down in words. His titles are often reflections upon the music itself, rather than statements describing what the music is ‘about.’ Debussy valued his Images highly, telling his publisher, Jacques Durand: “I think I may say without undue pride that I believe these pieces will live and will take their place in the piano literature . . . either to the left of Schubert, or to the right of Chopin.”

Water was, of course, a much-loved theme of the Impressionist painters and it posed a challenge to Debussy when he tried to capture its essence on paper. Pianist Marguerite Long writes that Debussy likened the opening motif in Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) to “a little circle in water with a little pebble falling into it.” In this wonderful tone poem, the rippling and shimmer of light have a hypnotic effect and build to a formidable climax, dying away on ripples of sound. Hommage à Rameau (Homage to Rameau) was written when Debussy was editing an edition of a ballet héroique by Rameau, Les Fêtes de Polymnie. It is more of a tribute to the 18th century French composer than an imitation of his style and contains the performing directions "Slow and grave, in the style of a sarabande, but without rigour." The final piece in the collection, a brilliant toccata titled Mouvement (Movement), is pure shimmering virtuosity, built around a non- to slow-moving harmonic bass, which looks forward to the rhythmically driven piano music that Bartók and Stravinsky would write a short generation later.

The first piece in Book Two of Debussy’s Images is the evocative Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells [ heard ] through the leaves). It incorporates a whole-tone scale, on which Debussy’s entire musical structure is built, together with bell overtones and multi-layered textures to summon impressions of distant tolling bells, heard beyond a landscape of rustling leaves. The title of the exotically coloured second Image, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût (And the moon sets over the temple that was), is believed to have been proposed by its dedicatee, musicologist Louis Laloy, after the piece was composed. The music suggests serenity and stillness, coloured by echoes of the gamelan. The technically demanding third Image, Poissons d'or (Goldfish), is believed to have been inspired by a Japanese lacquer painting, showing two darting goldfish in rippling water. Its synthesis of trills, tremolos and a toccata-style of keyboard writing produces vivid illustrative effects, as pianistic bravura transcends technical challenges.

GYÖRGY LIGETI
Born in Dicsőszentmárton [Diciosânmartin, now Tîrnăveni], Transylvania, May 28, 1923; died in Vienna, Austria, June 12, 2006
Étude Book One: No. 5 Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow) (1985)
Étude Book One: No. 6: Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn) (1985)

“Cézanne had trouble with perspectives,” Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti wrote when introducing his three volumes of Études, written over a 16-year period. “The apples and pears in his still-lifes seem about to roll away. In his rather clumsy depictions of reality, the folds of the tablecloth are made of rigid plaster. But what a wonder Cézanne accomplished with his harmonies of colour, with the emotionally charged geometry, with his curves, volumes, and weight displacements! That's what I would like to achieve: the transformation of inadequacy into professionalism.” Ligeti’s professed inadequacy in piano technique – he was not a pianist-composer in the traditional sense of a Rachmaninoff or a Scriabin – resulted in 18 Études, which he began at the age of 60 and which form the core of his music for solo piano. In them, Ligeti pushes at the bounds of musical structure and perception and, in doing so, opens a gateway to the later works, including the shimmering textures and intricate rhythms of the Violin and Piano Concertos. The Études are virtuoso works in both the pianistic and compositional sense. Like the Chopin Études, they proceed, Ligeti said, “from a very simple core idea and lead from simplicity to great complexity. They behave like growing organisms.”

Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow) is one of the most immediately expressive Études, rising and falling in undulating arcs of major and minor 7th chords. Marked Andante molto rubato, con eleganza, with swing, the piece leaves some interpretative room for the pianist to distil what Ligeti describes as the “jazz poetry of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.” “Arc-en-ciel is almost a jazz piece,” Ligeti says. In Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn), Ligeti says, “a single pianist, with only two hands, seems to play simultaneously at two, three, sometimes four different speeds.” Inspired by the harsh political and economic conditions in Warsaw in the early 1980s, the study is built around falling chromatic lines which are layered upon one another in differing polyrhythms. All the while there is a constant 16th-note pulse as the music moves throughout the entire register of the piano.

SERGEI PROKOFIEV
Born in Sontsovka, Russia [now Krasnoye, Ukraine] April 15/27, 1891; died in Moscow, March 5, 1953
Piano Sonata No. 6, in A, Op. 82 (1939-40)

Prokofiev worked on his Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas at the same time, moving from one of the ten movements to another as the mood took him. They were composed against a background of war and terror and soon became known as his ‘War Sonatas.’ Although each is a very different work, together they reflect something of the brutality and harshness of war, its futility, and its rapidly changing moods from optimism to dejection, from love and tenderness back to fury.

The sixth was the first to be finished early in the Spring of 1940 and it is one of the finest sonatas from the last century, the longest of all his sonatas and twice as long as the preceding Fifth. Prokofiev himself gave the première of the work on a radio broadcast in April 1940. The young Sviatoslav Richter made his recital début in November of the same year with its first public performance. Richter had turned pages when Prokofiev gave a preview of the sonata for a group of Moscow musicians and was immediately grabbed by the work’s relevance to life at the time. “With singular boldness the composer severed himself from the ideals of romanticism and included in his music the shattering pulse of the 20th century,” he wrote in his memoirs.

As he began work on the sonata, Prokofiev’s pent-up fury and anxiety were fuelled by political events as the Soviet Union was becoming dragged into the horrors of the Second World War and the parallel terrors of Stalinism. Now, too, for the first time he had been denied permission to return to the West for a concert tour. His friend, theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, had just disappeared in mysterious circumstances after being arrested by the KGB. Prokofiev’s own marriage was under strain as he felt increasingly strong feelings for the young poet Mira Mendelsohn. At a musical level, Prokofiev was uncompromising in his rejection of romantic values and what he saw as the "tired, worn-out arpeggio-ridden techniques" of the great keyboard composers of the past. The biting harmonies of the sonata’s opening movement are built around the clash between A major and A minor. The tonalities first collide in the opening measures of the piece, over a disorienting left-hand tritone. Tritones, the most unsettling and tonally distant of musical intervals, known for centuries as the devil’s interval – diabolus in musica – appear throughout the Sixth Sonata, from the first page to the last.

The first movement stresses the powerful potential of the piano as a percussive instrument, to the point of marking two note clusters col pugno – played with the fist. But the more lyrical side of the piano is not ignored, particularly in the middle movements. On the surface, the second is a graceful and dance-like march. But there’s an underlying feeling of irony that won’t go away. The sentimental, if robust, waltz of the third movement brings to mind Prokofiev's ballet music. With the finale, we return to the fury and turmoil of the battlefield. Powerful motoristic rhythms and violent climaxes propel the music relentlessly forward to a brilliant conclusion, punctuated only by rather sinister, even macabre, flashbacks to themes – and, ultimately, the same persistent and unresolved tritone – from the opening movement.

Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


STRINGS
Thurs. October 21, 2021 at 8 pm
Parker Quartet

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703, (1820)
ZOSHA DI CASTRI (b. 1985)
String Quartet No. 1 (2016/17)

INTERMISSION

ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Quartet in A, Op. 41 No. 3 (1842)
   Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato
   Assai agitato
   Adagio molto
   Finale: Allegro molto vivace

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Born in Vienna, Austria, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703, (1820)

The intense and almost orchestral scale of the Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement) shows that something profound was developing in the chamber music of the 24-year-old Franz Schubert. Ahead lay the quartets of his maturity and the Romantic age beyond. Behind him lay the classicism of Haydn and Mozart and life in the family home, where quartets were composed to be played by the family string quartet. The Quartettsatz is a chamber music torso that is analogous with the orchestral Unfinished symphony, written not long after. In 1820, however, there is no doubt that Schubert intended the Quartettsatz as the opening movement of a full string quartet, since he also completed 41 bars of a slow movement. But where the slow movement flounders, the Quartettsatz confidently progresses beyond traditional first-movement sonata form – telescoping the repeat of the main opening theme later in the movement, ranging far and wide in key development and only returning to the drama of the home key, C minor, in the coda. After the Quartettsatz, Schubert was to write no more chamber music for four years. It was as though the fiery Quartettsatz, with its hushed tension and dark tremolos, represented too rapid a leap into the Romantic sound world and Schubert was unable, at that time, to sustain the implications of one of his most romantic and deeply poetic string quartet movements.

ZOSHA DI CASTRI
Born in Calgary in 1985
String Quartet No. 1 (2016/17)

Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri is based in New York where she is the Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University and a 2021 Guggenheim fellow. Her music has rapidly gained wide attention and shown a desire to reach beyond the concert hall to include music theatre, and many collaborations – with electronics, video, dance, and interactive sculpture installations. A 15-minute lunar prelude to the 2019 BBC Proms, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, added to her international acclaim. A new work for soprano and orchestra will be premièred by Barbara Hannigan and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra later this season.

Di Castri has drawn inspiration from nature in some of her music – a frozen prairie landscape in the first of two, high-profile commissioned works for the New World and San Francisco Symphonies, for example. But here in this eleven-minute quartet, she draws from the very sounds of music itself. It was written as the imposed piece for the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. The piece derives, she says, from close (even ‘microscopic’) interactions with actual sound files and improvisations in a digital audio workstation. The constantly shifting, mercurial, single-movement piece develops a series of intense motifs, many of which are clearly laid out in a slower, ethereal section just before the work concludes. These motives, Di Castri says, provide “an opportunity to explore an enormously varied sound palette for contemporary experimentation. A close listening will reveal recurring motives, like the swelling-sliding ‘warp’ chord heard at the beginning, as well as returning textures, which range from wonky unisons to pointillistic reverse sounds, percussive strumming to squeaky insectile chatter, zips, squeals, ricochets, and lightening-speed hocketing glissandi. Escaping the agitation and frenzy are moments of melodic beauty, microtonal introspection, and a delicate fabric of time-suspending harmonics.” Around the time that she wrote this String Quartet No. 1 (her only quartet so far), Di Castri said to an interviewer, laughing at the same time: “If anything, maybe the very fast, shifting nature [of the piece] somehow subconsciously reflects my current lifestyle here in New York trying to juggle writing, teaching at Columbia University, and entertaining a one-year-old.”

ROBERT SCHUMANN
Born in Zwickau, Saxony, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, nr Bonn, July 29, 1856
Quartet in A, Op. 41 No. 3 (1842)

Schumann wrote his three string quartets during a highly focused seven-week period in the summer of 1842. We now know that his intense bursts of creativity, juxtaposed with troubling periods of melancholy, were related to a lifelong mental illness that eventually led to an early death. His interest in the quartet followed a flood of piano music in 1839. Then there followed his ‘year of song’ and, significantly, his long-delayed marriage to pianist Clara Wieck. The next year saw an outpouring of orchestral music. Then, in June and July of 1842, he turned to the string quartet. A few months after completing his three quartets Op. 41, Schumann wrote to a friend: "You may be sure that I have spared no pains to produce something really good; indeed, I sometimes think, my best."

Schumann saw the medium of the string quartet as a “by turns beautiful and even abstrusely woven conversation between four people.” In his critical writings, he gave praise when he saw an awareness of tradition in a composer’s music, rejecting orchestral-like writing on the one hand and intrusions from the opera house on the other. The Third Quartet, written between July 8 and 22, 1842, is the most unified and yet relaxed of the three quartets. Many view it as the finest. Like Beethoven's Harp Quartet, it opens with a sigh, a melancholy, pleading sigh that soon evolves into the sunnier, lyrical opening theme of the first movement. Both the interval of a falling fifth and the opening chords – echoing the same chord found in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 3 – become the building blocks of the entire movement. It ends, again, with a sigh.

The ingenious second movement begins much like a scherzo by Mendelssohn (to whom the three quartets are dedicated). However, it soon becomes clear that it is, in fact, a set of variations, four in all, where three of the variations actually precede the theme itself. The movement concludes with a final variation and again uses the same musical building blocks as the opening movement. The musical unity continues in the two remaining movements. The beautiful, yearning slow movement takes the interval of a fifth and inverts it to produce one of the most eloquent of all Schumann's slow movements. The finale, on the other hand, returns right away to further explore the opening chord. Its originality of development, combining elements of rondo, scherzo and trio in an altogether unique manner, is a fitting conclusion to one of the finest works in the repertoire.

Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


PIANO
Thurs, September 23, 2021 at 7:30 pm
Marc-André Hamelin

MARIA SZYMANOWSKA (1789-1831)
Nocturne in B-flat, (publ. 1852)
CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH (1714-1788)
Suite in E Minor, Wq. 62/12, H. 66 (1751)
   Allemande
   Courante
   Sarabande
   Menuet I - II - III
   Gigue
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A, D. 959, Op. posth. (1828)
   Allegro
   Andantino
   Scherzo: Allegro vivace
   Rondo: Allegretto

MARIA SZYMANOWSKA
Born in Warsaw, December 14, 1789; died in St Petersburg, July 25, 1831
Nocturne in B-flat, (publ. 1852)

Warsaw-born Maria Agata Szymanowska was a successful pianist–composer, active throughout Europe a generation before her fellow countryman Fryderyk Chopin and even longer before the Germany-based pianist Clara Wieck (Schumann). She was born to a cultured middle-class family and made her Warsaw début in 1810, followed immediately by her first foreign tour, to Paris. Marriage followed later that same year, with twins in 1811 and a daughter (who was to marry Poland’s greatest Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz) in 1812. Her professional career resumed in 1815, with her first visit to England in 1818 and to Berlin. By 1820 the marriage had failed.

Two years later, Szymanowska and her three young children began an 18-month tour of Russia, followed closely by a swing through Western Europe, including many leading German cities, Paris and London. This huge undertaking was managed with the help of her brothers and sisters. Szymanowska performed with leading artists and ensembles of the day, with a repertoire of her own music and that of her contemporaries such as Hummel, Field, Dussek, Ries, Herz and others. She also included the music of Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in her public and private recitals. Robert Schumann reported that she was frequently referred to as ”the feminine Field, not without reason.” Hummel, for his part, is reported as saying as early as 1822: “From now on, I will only be composing, and she will be playing.” Goethe fell in love with her, wrote poems to her and ranked her higher than Hummel on the rapidly expanding roster of traveling pianist–composers. Writing to his mother from Weimar in 1825, Mendelssohn mocked Goethe’s and other musicians’s high ranking of Szymanowska, saying: “It seems to me that they have confused her pretty face with her not so pretty playing.”

Further fuelling 19th century sexist criticism, in the first edition of his Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sir George Grove spilled more ink over Goethe’s infatuation with Szymanowska than with her playing. However, a more recent Online Grove contributor reports 19th century praise for the delicacy of Szymanowska’s tone production and for her lyricism combined with virtuosity. Szymanowska settled permanently in St Petersburg in 1828, withdrawing from public concert giving, now teaching, bringing up her children, and hosting a salon which was attended by the capital’s élite. Many of her compositions, which numbered some 113 mostly piano and vocal works in all, were published by Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig from 1820, and by other publishers around Europe. Her piano music, mostly written between 1815 and 1820, includes a collection of 24 Mazurkas, six Polonaises, and Vingt exercices et preludes, all of which have been seen as influential upon Chopin.

Chopin planned to attend Szymanowska’s January 15, 1826 farewell concert in Warsaw. He left no record of his impressions, so whether he went we cannot be certain. One piece he would not have heard, however, is Szymanowska’s gentle Nocturne in B-flat which opens this concert. This is a late composition, believed to date from the late 1820s and eventually published posthumously, in St Petersburg in 1852. It is, consciously or unconsciously, an homage to her friend and sometimes colleague John Field’s brief B-flat Nocturne of 1817. Szymanowska’s melody and accompaniment are similar but range more widely across the keyboard. She adds more filigree to her right-hand melody and includes more virtuoso touches than Field’s earlier, calmer nocturne. [Interestingly Chopin also pays homage to Field’s B-flat Nocturne in his Op. 32 No. 2 Nocturne of 1837]. Maria Agata Szymanowska died at the age of 42, in the 1831 cholera epidemic in St Petersburg.

CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH
Born in Weimar, March 8, 1714; died in Hamburg, December 14, 1788
Suite in E Minor, Wq. 62/12, H. 66 (1751)

From the 16th century to the 19th, there were seven generations of the Bach family. Many of them made fine careers as musicians. During his lifetime, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the best known of them all, better known even than his father, Johann Sebastian. For more than a quarter of a century, J.S. Bach’s second-born son worked at the Prussian court of the flute-playing Frederick the Great, before succeeding his godfather, Telemann, to a position of prestige, as Kantor to the Hamburg Johanneum, with teaching responsibilities and directorship of the five principal churches in Hamburg. In Berlin, Bach’s position as Court Harpsichordist to a musically conservative ruler, was relatively modest. His salary, too, was decidedly modest – one sixth that of Quantz, whose easy-going music Frederick preferred. Bach’s worldly-wise character, keen intellect and genial personality, however, made him well-known among Berlin’s leading artists, poets and philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment, while his published music gave him a reputation as one of the most respected, progressive and forward-thinking composers throughout the German-speaking lands.

Like Haydn, a generation later, Bach became adept at navigating the fine line between court servant and freelance composer. In Berlin, he wrote many keyboard sonatas which, when published, generated a useful second income. Many, like those written immediately before and after today’s E minor Suite, were designed with the amateur in mind and are galant in style. Among the more than 300 works he wrote for keyboard we also find forward-looking fantasies, rondos, minuets and many more sonatas in which Bach ‘touches the heart’ and ‘awakens the passions.’ These were the two key ingredients of the north German Empfindsamkeit, a movement associated in all the arts with heightened feeling and emotion in reaction to the rational thought of the Enlightenment. They reveal many of the dramatic contrasts, wide melodic leaps, plunging key changes and startling harmonies that we find in Bach’s orchestral symphonies and concertos. The Suite in E minor, on the other hand, is one of only two suites to be found in Bach’ catalogue and, at first glance, its familiar sequence of dance movements look like something we might expect from the pen of his father. By 1751, the keyboard suite was, indeed, somewhat out-dated. Bach himself, on the other hand, was on the cutting edge of where music was heading. Once into the Allemande, however, the music almost immediately lingers on a highly expressive chromatic sighing motif, all the while maintaining a characteristically Baroque style brisé texture of constantly arpeggiated notes. The sighing motif and sensitive chromatic writing is even more present in the lovely, intimate Sarabande, where the left hand echoes the right throughout, in wide melodic leaps. In the first of a string of three contrasted minuets, we get a glimpse of Bach’s teasing way with the use of silence. A playful Gigue concludes this intriguing suite, written, interesting enough, in the year following J. S. Bach’s death. As the 18th century English music historian and traveller Charles Burney put it: “Of all the musicians who have been in the service of Prussia, for more than 30 years, Carl P. E. Bach and Franz Benda have, perhaps, been the only two who dared to have a style of their own; the rest are imitators.”

FRANZ SCHUBERT
Born in Vienna, Austria, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
Piano Sonata in A, D. 959, Op. posth. (1828)

Franz Schubert composed three towering piano sonatas in 1828, the last year of his life. They were only published eleven years later and are therefore given the rather ominous looking opus posthumous designation. They progress from the tragic and brooding C minor (D. 958) to the emotionally wide-ranging A major (D. 959) and to the meditative and peaceful B-flat (D. 960). Schubert worked on all three at the same time, sketching, revising, composing hurriedly in ink on different sizes of manuscript paper, clearly in a feverish state of mental exhilaration. Although sketches for the sonatas exist from early in 1828, Schubert would have mentally contemplated the material over much of the year, completing all the writing in a remarkably short period of time, in September 1828. This final trilogy of sonatas is one of the most striking accomplishments in the entire piano repertoire.

The first movement of D. 959 opens with bright, arresting A major rhythmic chords which contrast with a calmer, hymn-like second theme. Each idea is put through many variations in all registers of the piano before we get to the customary central development section. At this point, in one of many striking twists on standard practice, Schubert uses an entirely new theme. The music rocks back and forth a half step, between B major and C major – these are key relationships that are quite without precedent in classical sonata writing. Another twist comes in the coda, where the two main themes are gradually and magically fused.

The Andantino is one of Schubert's most poignant, tormented movements. Its main theme, hypnotically repeated, touches on emotions found in Schubert’s bleakest songs. Calling its middle section “among the most daring and terrifying pages in all music,” Alfred Brendel sees a parallel between this tortured movement and the war paintings of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who died, like Schubert, in 1828. These present a damning indictment of human cruelty and the fragile vulnerability of individuals confronted by power. Few composers have delved so deeply into the darker side of humanity as does Schubert in the sonata’s slow movement.

The Scherzo, with its pizzicato-like opening chords, relaxes the tension by light-heartedly toying with variants of themes from the previous two movements. The finale, for all its lyricism, has an undercurrent of melancholy. In it, Schubert re-uses a melody from the youthful A major sonata (D. 537), though he re-works it into something altogether more subtle and distinctive. In matters of form, the movement tips its hat to the finale of Beethoven's G major Sonata, Op. 31 No. 1. But where Beethoven gruffly resolves the arguments, Schubert polarises the music. There is no resolution between what Robert Schumann referred to as Schubert’s ‘heavenly lengths’ and the storm and drama of the central section. Schubert fragments the main theme of the finale in the coda, leaving echoes hanging in silence. This powerful sonata closes with a glance backwards to the arresting chords of the opening.

Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


TRIO
Thurs, August 26, 2021 at 7:30 pm
The Powerhouse Trio

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Sonata in B-flat, K. 454 (1784)
   Largo - Allegro
   Andante
   Allegretto
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 2, in A, Op. 100 (1886)
   Allegro amabile
   Andante tranquillo
   Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante)
CRIS DERKSEN (b. 1990)
Nice and Clean (2021), for piano, cello, and audio clips
Planes, for cello and violin

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Violin Sonata in B-flat, K. 454 (1784)

“I’ve got to write at breakneck speed – everything’s composed – but not written yet,” Mozart wrote in a letter to his father about an upcoming opera. What he means is that the outline of the opera was in a draft form, sketched on manuscript paper and he had yet to tackle the filling out process, writing down every note. That’s the composing method that was meant to happen with this B-flat Sonata, K. 454, undertaken at the last minute for Regina Strinasacchi (1764-1839). The 23-year-old Italian violin virtuosa had been touring between 1780 and 1783, arriving in Vienna the following year. Mozart was proud to write about her to his father in Salzburg: “I am right now composing a sonata which we are going to play together on Thursday at her concert in the theatre.” It was a concert organized by his friend the clarinettist Anton Stadler and it also included a performance of the Wind Serenade, K. 361.

The audience in the Kärtnertor Theatre on April 29, 1784 included Emperor Joseph II, who asked to see Mozart’s music, after it had been tumultuously acclaimed. Mozart showed him the violin part, handwritten, with hastily drawn lines, between which were a few sketches for the piano part. Mozart, it seems, had relied on his prodigious memory for the performance. (Fourteen years after the concert, his widow Constanze exaggerated things when she recalled how Mozart presented the Emperor with a blank sheet). The original manuscript, now in Stockholm, largely corroborates the facts. The piano part, added after the concert, is written in a different colour ink and is frequently compressed between the existing violin part lines to the point of illegibility.

K. 454 opens, unusually for a work on this chamber-music scale, with an introduction. In it, violin and piano are presented as equal partners. After a tightly argued first movement, with several striking modulations, the slow movement provides the focal point of the work. Here, the richly decorated violin and piano parts dovetail and truly share the material. This marked a turning point in Mozart’s writing for the duo sonata. The finale is a cheerful, often concerto-like rondo, with four episodes. The sonata quickly became a favourite with the Viennese. Within a few years it had been arranged for flute quartet, for string quartet, and for string trio.

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Violin Sonata No. 2, in A, Op. 100 (1886)

Brahms wrote his Second Violin Sonata in the summer of 1886 in the Swiss town of Hofstetten on Lake Thun, near Bern. The setting proved ideal. Renting the entire top floor of a farmhouse, at the edge of the river Aar, with a view of the alpine glaciers in the distance, Brahms produced three of his most successful chamber works – the A major Violin Sonata, the F major Cello Sonata, and the C minor Piano Trio. His latest flirtation was with the North German contralto Hermine Spies, who was on vacation in Switzerland, and for whom Brahms was to write many of his late songs. Echoes of two of his best-known songs (Immer leiser and Wie Melodien) and others written for her in Hofstetten are woven into the violin sonata. As his close and trusted friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg put it: “The entire sonata is a caress.” In performance, the caress may sound as spontaneous and as unbuttoned as Brahms ever becomes. But there is a rigorously disciplined mind behind the romantic glow. Listen, for instance, how the opening phrase reappears, inverted, as the melody of the second movement – and, again, how it can be clearly heard in the background, in the piano accompaniment to the violin’s new third movement theme. Similar intricacies abound and give the sonata an inner strength and structural balance. The second movement is something of a hybrid, alternating a slow-movement’s graceful hymn melody with a Scherzo-like, though still melancholy Slavonic-style dance, with its distinctive hiccup at the end. The finale won’t be rushed and its emotional path is rich and complex.

CRIS DERKSEN (b. 1990)
Born in NorthTall Cree Reserve, Alberta in 1990
Nice and Clean (2021), for piano, cello, and audio clips
Planes, for cello and violin

“I’m Indigenous, I’m half-Cree, half-Mennonite. I come from a classical background. I work with electronic tools. I’m really into creating music that is accessible and relatable. I’m into bringing classical music into a space that folks who don’t usually go into classical spaces can feel comfortable with.”

That’s composer-cellist Cris Derksen speaking with composer-professor T. Patrick Carrabré six or seven months ago at her alma mater, the University of British Columbia. By the time Derksen graduated from UBC with a B. Mus in cello performance in 2007, she was already touring with genre bending Inuit vocalist Tanya Tagaq. She continued to steadily build a career as both performer and composer, mostly on the road, for the next 13 years, broadening her audience base at every turn. She has been mentored by Buffy Sainte Marie, and collaborated with other leading Canadians including Naomi Klein and A Tribe Called Red (The Halluci Nation), Leanne Simpson, Lightning Dust.

As a result of this wide experience, first in the classroom, then in real life music-making, Derksen managed to keep busy during the first year of the Pandemic composing music for the Calgary Philharmonic, composing for a combined art-dance-fashion-creative piece for Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, scoring a documentary series B.C.: A History for Knowledge Network, and performing many virtual concerts. All the while, her clear vision about what she wants to do creatively, and her ability to articulate this, has made her a leader among a new generation of Indigenous artists. “Let us tell our own stories,” she said, coming out of the conference Call to Witness: The Future of Indigenous Classical Music, in 2019 in Banff. “Let Indigenous people do classical music. Give us the reins, we’re ready!”

Of the first of two selections, Nice and Clean (2021), for piano, cello, and audio clips, Derksen says: “I wanted to create a piece of music that showcases White folks talking about Indigenous folks. The audio comes from a 1967 documentary called Elliot Lake, talking about relocation of ‘Indians’ from reserves to the town of Elliot Lake in Northern Ontario.”

Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


strings
Thurs, July 22, 2021 at 7:30 pm
Juilliard Quartet

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
   Quartet in B-flat, K. 458 (‘Hunt’) (1784)
   Allegro vivace assai
   Minuetto. Moderato
   Adagio
   Allegro assai
HENRI DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
String Quartet Ainsi la nuit (1971)
         Ainsi la nuit
      I. Nocturne
         Parenthèse 1
      II. Miroir d’espace
         Parenthèse 2
      III. Litanies
         Parenthèse 3
      IV. Litanies 2
         Parenthèse 4
      V. Constellations
      VI. Nocturne 2
      VII. Temps suspendu
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
   Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)
   Allegro non troppo
   Andante moderato
   Quasi minuetto, moderato
   Finale - Allegro non assai

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Quartet in B-flat, K. 458 (‘Hunt’) (1784)

Nicknamed ‘Hunt’, this B-flat quartet is the fourth of a set of six that Mozart dedicated to his good friend, Josef Haydn. He began work on the set the year after his move from Salzburg to Vienna. In the Austrian capital, he soon encountered the music of Bach and Handel through musical gatherings held by the music-lover Baron von Swieten. His new knowledge of the economy and expressive power of contrapuntal music had a noticeable effect on his quartet writing. Nowhere else did Mozart labour so painstakingly over his music – and with very few other works did he leave the trail of corrections and crossings-out that he does with today’s quartet. The main reason for the extra effort was a set of quartets recently written by Haydn, the older, more established composer of the two. When Haydn’s so-called Russian quartets, Op. 33 were published in 1781, he spoke of them as being in "an entirely new and special style." Mozart knew this to be true. Haydn increased the dialogue between all four instruments, not only in the customary, ‘busy’ section of a movement (the ‘development’ section), but throughout. He showed how it was possible to liberate the lower instruments by increasing the dialogue between them. He also showed how fragments of themes could be used as the basis for development. Mozart worked long and hard to understand and absorb these influences and, over the course of four years, created a remarkable set of six quartets. The 26-year-old Mozart dedicated them to his senior colleague Joseph Haydn. "They are, to be sure, the fruit of long and arduous work," Mozart wrote in a by-now famous dedication.

K. 458, the fourth of the set, is the most immediately appealing. It opens in an outgoing mood with a galloping theme reminiscent of a hunting-call. With his newly acquired economy of means, this 12-bar theme gives Mozart all the material he needs for the rest of the movement. It also gives the quartet a convenient nickname, although the hunt-like mood stops with the first movement. The Minuet which follows lacks the extrovert vitality of a hunt and its trio is very gentle. The Adagio is one of the most moving in the collection. It twice reaches spine-tingling intimacy when first the violin and then, echoing it, the cello play a brief minor-key descending phrase over pulsing inner strings. The finale shows real joie de vivre. There's humour and, at the same time, sophistication in the writing. Mozart recognized these qualities in the quartets of his friend Haydn and they were qualities he was proud to emulate.

The autobiographical element in Britten’s late music is strong, as it was with Gustav Mahler, another composer haunted by death. But death, for Britten, unlike Mahler, was not to be feared and fought against. “Death will give me freedom,” Phaedra sings in a cantata Britten wrote immediately before the quartet. And in his quartet, Britten ultimately finds peace; there is no regret. In the work he also embraces joy for life, ecstasy in that life, pain that is sometimes masked in sardonic humour and parody, while encompassing consummate technical skill. Its five movements follow the precedent of Britten’s instrumental suites of the 1960s, with three moderately paced movements enclosing two scherzos.

HENRI DUTILLEUX
Born in Angers, France, January 22, 1916; died in Paris, May 22, 2013
String Quartet Ainsi la nui (1971)

A severely self-critical musician, French composer Henri Dutilleux maintains a high posthumous reputation based on a relatively small number of works. One of his best-known works, the Sonatine for flute and piano (1943) shows clear connections with French tradition and the music of Debussy and Ravel. Dutilleux, however, disowned much of the music he wrote before the end of World War Two as unoriginal and derivative. He came relatively late to the more progressive 20th century music, blaming a Conservatoire education for the neglect. With his Piano Sonata (1946-8) he stated his own increasing detachment from tonality. Though the language of his music continued to evolve, Dutilleux’s connection with the classic French characteristics of economy of gesture, precision and clarity of thought and a modality of harmonic language, remained strong.

His only quartet, Ainsi la nuit (And so the night) had its origins in a 1971 commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation for a piece for the Juilliard Quartet. Dutilleux, a cautious and exploratory composer, began by making sketches as drafts for the composition. Each of the sections had its own mood and colour. Then, Dutilleux linked them together with short, transitional sections, or parentheses. Throughout the initial draft, themes are rarely presented in their primary form. Rather, the composer tends to work sideways, prefiguring a theme or, conversely, recalling a past event. Dutilleux has acknowledged the influence of Proust on his thinking, in particular on the oscillation between past and present and between the static and the dynamic in his music. In its final form, the quartet is in two large sections, the pause coming between Litanies and Parenthèse 3. Within these two sections are seven movements, four of which are preceded by short transitional sections. Dutilleux, however, dislikes pauses between movements – “They spoil the power of music to enchant us,” he once said. By giving a poetic title to the work, he encourages us to focus on its nocturnal evocations and allusions rather than on the details of its structure.

Dutilleux provided a note in the score, which reads: “Ainsi la nuit is divided into seven sections linked for the most part by parenthèses, often very short, but important because of the organic role which falls upon them. Allusions as to what is to follow – or what went before – find their place there and are situated in the manner of as many reference points. Here, as in other works by Henri Dutilleux, the memory concept intervenes, together with everything associated with it (prefigurations, variations, etc.) and this notion implies a particular subdivision of time, thus of the form adopted. The different titles, including the general title, refer to a certain poetic or spiritual atmosphere, but not in any way to an anecdotal idea.”

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)

"It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six lovely quartets," Brahms wrote of the collection Mozart dedicated to Haydn, "so I will try my hardest to turn out two passable ones." But it wasn’t until he was 40 years old, with a secure reputation as both composer and pianist, that his first two quartets saw light of day. Brahms was a fierce critic of his own music. As a 20-year-old composer he thought of publishing a B minor quartet as his Op. 1. But it was only 20 years – and 20 string quartets later – that the two quartets we now know as his Op. 51 were to mark his official début as a composer in the medium. Four years later he felt confident enough to introduce his First Symphony to the public. What held him back from publishing both quartets and symphonies was a fear of being compared with the established masters of the Viennese classical tradition. Towering above them all in Brahms’s mind was the presence of Ludwig van Beethoven, a musician whose bust dominated his study in Karlgasse in Vienna.

So, what happened to the 20 early quartets? "The boxes with the old papers remained in Hamburg for a long time,” Brahms told a friend many years later. "When I was there two or three years ago, I was overwhelmed. The whole room was most beautifully papered with my notes, even the ceiling. I had only to lie on my back to marvel at my sonatas and quartets. It looked very good. Then I tore everything down – better that I should do it than someone else! The stuff has all been burned." Brahms knew that sketches and fragments had a story to tell, since he owned sketchbooks by Beethoven. He made a thorough job of the burning; none of his fragments or sketches has ever been tracked down.

Brahms frequently worked simultaneously on pairs of works. He wrote the two piano quartets, the two clarinet sonatas, the first two symphonies, the serenades and the sextets together. But these 'twinned' works were never born as identical twins. The C minor quartet, Op. 51 No.1, for instance, continues the powerful tradition of Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets. Today’s A minor quartet, Op. 51 No. 2, comes closer to the dreamy, melancholy world of Schumann. Its tender, lyrical nostalgia and longing provide a positive feeling to the music. The opening soaring violin melody contains a tribute to the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms weaves Joachim's personal motif, the notes F-A-E, standing for Frei, aber einsam (‘Free, but alone’) into the beginning of the phrase. Brahms also incorporates the phrase he took as his own motif, the notes F-A-F (Frei, aber froh – ‘Free, but happy’) into the score. It is a small indication of the wealth of contrapuntal invention that he uses throughout this quartet.

Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca


strings
Thurs, June 17, 2021 at 7:30 pm
⬗⬗⬗ collectif9 ⬗ RITUÆLS ⬗⬗⬗

collectif9 concert

“A sensory landscape that evokes timelessness ... the real, the important.” - Pan M 360

"Whenever we make something, especially something new, we may not always know what we’ve made.
It’s therefore quite marvelous to discover something displaying génuine mastery, created with a deep
understanding of the issues facing the audience." - Barcza Blog

"Moved, moved to tears, shivers, hairs standing up, the spine straightening on its own, the
heart tightening, a smile forming, tenderness received, all senses on alert ... in the end,
I just want to say thank you." - Audience member

A 60-minute feature-length film, RITUÆLS brings together works dating from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, launching a series of films produced by collectif9 that create various multidisciplinary universes. RITUÆLS is a mystical artistic experience confronting the infinitely large to the infinitely small, the cosmic with the microscopic, delicately questioning our place in the universe and in relation to our environment. The performance of the charismatic dancer Stacey Désilier accompanies us through the concert like a supreme presence, complementing this imagery.
The musical performance itself can be seen as a grand artistic ceremony during which the musicians occupy several spaces throughout the Church of Saint-Pierre-Apôtre (Montréal) in a way that echoes the grandeur and depth of the pieces on the program, becoming its own ritual. The lighting, scenography, and staging contribute to the creation of a succession of moments that transport us and invite contemplation, creating a moment of connection despite what separates us.

 

MUSICAL PROGRAMME
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): O vis æternitatis
Arvo Pärt (born 1935): Psalom and Summa
Nicole Lizée (born 1973): Another Living Soul
Bryce Dessner (born 1976): Aheym and Tenebre
Michael Tippett (1905-1998): Lament
Jocelyn Morlock (born 1969): Exaudi

The music begins with a murmuring drone, from which the slow, monodic chant of medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen appears. From there, seamlessly into Arvo Pärt’s Psalom, which follows a style reminiscent of medieval and renaissance music - later we will play Pärt’s enigmatic Summa. Nicole Lizée is inspired by art forms of the recent past (in this case stop-motion animation) and creates a serene world that is backed by intense detail, within which “the impossible becomes possible — souls emerge from where once there were none.” The relationship between darkness and light guides Bryce Dessner’s Tenebre, and his Aheym brings guides us through a journey (the title translates to “Homeward” in Yiddish).

Michael Tippett’s Lament expresses grief using Purcell’s aria Ah! Belinda, during which a solo violin comments with a barely recognizable variation an Irish popular tune of the Renaissance, while Jocelyn Morlock’s Exaudi, also an expression of grief, includes hope. She writes of the piece: “the music moves us from an inability to comprehend our loss to passionate cries of anguish, to acceptance and angelic reassurance.” Exaudi was originally written for vocal ensemble and solo cello, and has been arranged for collectif9 by Thibault Bertin-Maghit.


ON SCREEN
> Chloé Chabanole, John Corban, Robert Margaryan, Elizabeth Skinner, violin
> Scott Chancey, Xavier Lepage-Brault, viola
> Jérémie Cloutier, Andrea Stewart, cello
> Thibault Bertin-Maghit, double bass
+
> Stacey Désilier, dance

CREATIVE TEAM
> Conception & Artistic direction: Thibault Bertin-Maghit
> Video production: Benoit Fry & Lucas Harrison Rupnik
> Audio production: Carl Talbot
> Lighting: Alexandre Péloquin
> Scenography: Joëlle Harbec


 

COLLECTIF9
Montréal’s classical string band collectif9 has been attracting varied audiences since their 2011 debut. Known for their innovative programming and unique arrangements of classical repertoire, the group performs “with an infectious energy and vigour that grabs an audience’s attention” (The WholeNote). collectif9 has performed over 150 concerts across North America, Europe, and Asia. collectif9 operates on the premise that a change of context can influence communication and experience.

Inspired by the processes of other artistic movements, collectif9 continually searches for new ways of expression within the classical medium, fostering communication and collaboration between artists of all kinds and members of society. collectif9 presents several new programmes every season in Montréal, Canada, and their national and international touring schedule includes performances in chamber music series, festivals, universities, and more. Recent highlights include concerts in the Festival de Música de Morelia (Mexico), La Folle journée de Nantes (France), and Sound Unbound (Barbican Centre, London).
> Visit www.collectif9.ca for the group’s complete biography.


COLLABORATORS
Photo of  Stacey Désilier, dancer
Stacey Désilier, dancer
Passionate about movement and possibilities of the body and fascinated by dance, Stacey quickly discovered the desire to make dance her profession. She pursued professional studies at the Montreal School of Contemporary Dance, which led her to collaborate with choreographers and performers Marie-Claire Forté, Sasha Kleinplatz, George Stamos, Helene Simard and Mélanie Demers, and the company MAYDAY.
In 2018, Stacey joined the company Animal of Distinction and participated in their new creation FRONTERA. She then set off to discover the world through movement thanks to collaborations with Cirque Éloize, Les 7 doigts de la main, L'Opéra de Québec (Starmania), and most recently with the company Tentacle Tribe which brought her back to her roots of urban dance and Haitian culture. Her artistic practice and cooperative work give her an inner richness that she wishes to share with various organizations, countries, and artists.


Benoit Fry, video producer & editor
Benoit Fry is a director, editor, and cameraman, and has been creating promotional content, music videos, fiction films, and documentaries for 15 years. He is known for producing sequences filled with emotion and for his impressive efficiency. With a solid cinematographic background, he is a masterful visual storyteller. He describes himself as a “creator of atmospheres”. A perfectionist, he always follows his ideas to the very end.
Passionate about film photography (he regularly shoots Super 8 film), he is also a photographer, and produces medium format film portraits, developed in his darkroom by hand. He has been part of the Shoot Studio team in Montreal since 2017.


Lucas Harrison Rupnik, video producer
Director, cameraman, editor, sound engineer and mixer, Lucas is recognized for his versatility, his autonomy, his openness and his clear and bold vision. Son of a photographer from a varied background, he likes challenges and is an enthusiast of music, cinema and the sea. He has a recording studio, learns quickly and is not afraid of the most complex software and equipment. Lucas loves road trips, he never gets tired of watching the movie 'JAWS', he wakes up without an alarm, and loves natural imperfections.


Carl Talbot, audio producer
Carl Talbot, recording producer and sound engineer, is a well-established audio professional in his community. His productions have received nominations, honours, and awards across the globe: Grammy, Juno, Felix, Gramophone Critics’ choice awards, Diapason d’Or, and many more. His 20 years of experience have led to hundreds of albums and films. Known for his musical approach and aesthetics, he benefits from having the rare qualities of being at ease artistically and technically in many genres of music.
Carl is currently the leading producer at Analekta, Canada’s largest classical label, with whom he has produced nearly a thousand titles since 1999. He has also worked with numerous labels, including Effendi Records, Justin Time Records, Sony-BMG, EMI, Virgin Classics, and Radio-Canada.


Alexandre Péloquin, lighting designer
A much sought-after lighting designer, Alexandre Péloquin works on the pop, electronic, and contemporary music scenes. He has worked with Pierre Lapointe, Milk&Bone, Ariane Moffatt, Yann Perreau, and Ensemble SuperMusique among others, in many festivals (Mutek, Piknik Électronik, Igloofest, Complément Cirque, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, Festival de la chanson de Tadoussac, Festival Just for Laughs).
In 2018, he was awarded a Félix at the ADISQ Gala in the Lighting Designer of the Year category for the show La science du cœur by Pierre Lapointe, his longtime collaborator. He was a finalist in this same category in 2019 (Deception Bay - Milk&Bone), 2015 (Ariane Moffatt), and 2014 (Punkt - Pierre Lapointe).


Joëlle Harbec, scenographer
Joëlle Harbec has been working as a scenographer and artistic director since graduating from the theatre program at Lionel-Groulx college in 2011. In theatre, television, cinema, or circus, her passion is above all to create worlds that are vectors of emotions. Playing with materials and colours in juxtaposition to the lighting and performers allows her to create meaningful images, as one would in a painting.
She has collaborated on several theatrical projects with director Nicolas Gendron (Mélanie sans extasy, L’enfance de l’Art, Et au pire on se mariera). On television, her recent set designs have been seen on Projet 2000 on Tou.tv, Danser sa vie on Radio-Canada, and L’Heure est grave on Télé-Québec. In 2019, Joëlle worked as artistic director for the first time for a feature film with director Rodrigue Jean for L’Acrobate.


strings
Thurs, May 27, 2021 at 7:30 pm
CARDUCCI QUARTET
with clarinetist JULIAN BLISS

DAVID BRUCE (b. 1970)
Gumboots, for clarinet/bass clarinet and string quartet (2008)
Part one
Part two
   Dance 1. Angry, “with attitude” –
   Dance 2. Presto –
   Dance 3. –
   Dance 4. Light and joyful –
   Dance 5. Jubilante

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 (1789)
   Allegro
   Larghetto
   Menuetto
   Allegretto con variazioni 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 (1789)
   Allegro
   Larghetto
   Menuetto
   Allegretto con variazioni 

Mozart loved the clarinet, an instrument he first heard in London at the age of eight. Each of the four movements of his Clarinet Quintet reveals his genius in setting off the many tone colours of the instrument against that of the strings. He wrote it for Anton Stadler whom he first met in 1781, shortly after moving from Salzburg to Vienna. Stadler was then the best-known wind player in the city, though the clarinet was still rare as a wind soloist and only just emerging as a full-time member of the orchestral wind section. The two quickly became close friends and fellow masons and Mozart continued to lend Stadler money, even when his own life was full of hardship and borrowing from friends and patrons. He had several nicknames for Stadler, deliberately misspelling his name as Stodla on occasions, Nàtschibinìtschibi, meaning something like ‘poor miserable fellow of stupidities’, and Ribisel-Gesicht, literally ‘red-currant face.’

Nevertheless, Stadler’s playing was to inspire not only this Quintet, one of the most sublime works in the repertoire, but also Mozart’s Clarinet Trio (Kegelstatt trio, K. 498), and the serene, melancholy Clarinet Concerto he composed a little more than a year after the Quintet. With the clarinet as the first amongst equals, the opening movement includes passages where each instrument leads the ensemble through the most poignant of sequences, the texture limpid, the line lyrical. Sometimes, as in the glorious slow movement, Mozart creates a blend between the wind and the string sonorities. Here, the warm, romantic, chalumeau sonority of the clarinet is delicately supported by the four string instruments, which are played with their mutes on throughout.

The minuet that follows brings us back to reality, though the movement’s very presence makes the Clarinet Quintet the only work for wind instrument and strings that Mozart wrote in four, rather than three movements. One of its most striking moments is the first trio section, where the strings play alone in the minor key in a somewhat anxious, poignant moment. The second trio – a rarity in Mozart’s chamber music – is a more rustic dialogue between clarinet and first violin. After abandoning a few pages of his first ideas for a finale, Mozart settles upon a set of five variations and coda on one of his disarmingly cheerful themes. Though the music frequently has the outward appearance of sweetness, there is an underlying sense of despair behind its radiance. It has been said that this music smiles through its tears.

DAVID BRUCE
Born in Stamford, Conn., USA in 1970
Gumboots, for clarinet/bass clarinet and string quartet (2008)

American-born, but UK-raised, David Bruce now has a thriving career on both continents. While composer-in-residence with the Royal Opera House in London, his Nothing, an opera for young people, had its première at Glyndebourne in 2016 to critical acclaim. It followed the success of his chamber opera, The Firework Maker's Daughter. Gumboots was Bruce’s first major commission, now the first of four commissions for Carnegie Hall, written in 2008 for the St Lawrence String Quartet and Todd Palmer. Since then, it has been taken up by many performers and is by far the composer’s most played work – though, intriguingly, David Bruce admits – not necessarily his ‘best.’

The title pays homage to Gumboot (rubber boot) dancing, dances born out of the harsh working conditions in Apartheid-era South African gold mines. Miners wore gumboots in the dark, flooded mines and were chained together, communicating illicitly by means of slapping the boots and rattling the chains. Soon, above-ground, a rhythmic dance was developed by the miners and the idea began to spread. Dances were presented for entertainment. Dance troupes were formed and shows were later given for tourists (and, of course, for cash). Inevitably, they’re now easily found on YouTube. “The idea is, for me, a striking example of how something beautiful and life-enhancing can come out of something far more negative,” David Bruce says. “Of course, this paradox has a far simpler explanation – it’s the resilience of the human spirit.”

Five dances were the first part of Gumboots to be written, though now they form Part 2 of the work. Each is based, for the most part, on a single idea and is only a few minutes in duration. “I like the crispness of form you get from keeping things short,” Bruce says. “My interest in folk music is usually less to do with specific melodies or harmonies and more to do with colours, ways of playing, ways of interacting and, of course, rhythms,” Bruce continues. Tension lies close to the surface in the first dance, marked “Short, spikey, with military precision.” The clarinet tries a flippant attitude, but anger boils to the surface at the movement’s climax, and the tension continues to the end. The second dance is inspired by a call-and-response type of African singing, with the clarinet becoming the leader and the other strings interjecting brittle, plucked chords. Dance 3, a perkily playful scherzo, seems almost designed to keep your foot tapping. The exuberance of Dance 4 layers rhythm upon rhythm in a virtuoso way, while the teasing rhythmic drive of Dance 5 derives from a nine-beat polyrhythm Bruce found among the Baka people of Cameroon.

Bruce then took some time to realise that a counterbalance to the dances could be provided with a prefatory single long slow movement. “It just felt right,” he says. “It felt interesting because it was such a unique structure.” The first part opens with bass clarinet and viola introducing a sombre, reflective tune, each instrument taking a slightly different approach, not always in step with the other, the whole a little distant and melancholy. The movement plays out as a kind of meditation upon this theme, unhurried, thoughtful, carefully crafted – or, as the composer puts it: “tender and slow moving, at times 'yearning'; at times seemingly expressing a kind of tranquillity and inner peace.”

— Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca



strings
Thurs, May 13, 2021 at 7:30 pm
JACK QUARTET

RODERICUS (fl. late 14th c) arr. Christopher Otto
Angelorum psalat tripudium (Antiphon of the Angels) (c 1390s)

RUTH CRAWFORD (SEEGER) (1901-53)
String Quartet 1931
   Rubato assai –
   Leggiero –
   Andante –
   Allegro possibile

ELLIOTT CARTER (1908-2012)
String Quartet No. 3 (1971)
Duo II: Maestoso (giusto sempre)—Pause—Grazioso—Giusto, meccanico / Duo I: Furioso (quasi rubato sempre)—Leggerissimo— Andante espressivo—Pause
Duo II: Pause—Scorrevole / Duo I: Giocoso—Pause
Duo II: Giusto, meccanico—Grazioso / Duo I: Leggerissimo—Furioso—Pause
Duo II: Maestoso—Pause / Duo I: Giocoso—Andante espressivo
Duo II: Largo tranquillo—Appassionato—Largo tranquillo / Duo I: Pause—Leggerissimo—Giocoso—Furioso
Duo II: Scorrevole—Appassionato—Coda / Duo I: Andante espressivo—Furioso—Coda


TYSHAWN SOREY (b. 1980)

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes (2018)


RODERICUS (fl. late 14th c) arr. Christopher Otto
Angelorum psalat tripudium (Antiphon of the Angels) (c 1390s)

The mediaeval music manuscript known as the Chantilly Codex is to be found today in the museum at the Château de Chantilly in Chantilly, Oise, about 35 km north of Paris. It contains 112 secular polyphonic pieces, mostly by French composers, comprising popular courtly dance styles of the time, including ballades, virelais, and rondeaus. Angelorum psalat tripudium (Antiphon of the Angels) is one of two Latin ballades in the collection and is the only surviving piece attributed to ‘Rodericus’, under the reversed form of his name S Uciredor. Like most of the collection, this two-part ballade is written in a complex notation which encompasses voice, pitch and rhythm in some 20 different note shapes, some aspects of which cannot be reproduced in today’s notation, which it predates.

The JACK’s viola player Christopher Otto was drawn to the intricacy of the 700-year-old Antiphon of the Angels which allows for several realisations. “For my arrangement,” he writes, “I have relied on the transcription of Nors. S. Josephson, in whose interpretation the note shapes signify a radical expansion of rhythmic possibility, specifying a much richer variety of speeds and durations than most Western music before the twentieth century. I have given the first violin and viola the original two parts and added the second violin and cello parts to clarify the underlying grid of these complex rhythms.”

RUTH CRAWFORD (SEEGER)
Born July 3, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio; died November 18, 1953, in Chevy Chase, Maryland
String Quartet 1931
Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)

In the Epilogue to her biography Ruth Crawford Seeger : A Composer's Search for American Music, Judith Tick quotes Seeger’s daughter Peggy trying to come to terms with her mother’s early, progressive new music: "I don't understand how the woman that I knew as a mother created something like the 1931 string quartet. It is like someone crying; it is like someone beating on the walls... and I don't want to think about this as regarding my mother because my mother always seemed to me to have it all together, to have gotten a life that pleased her."

Ruth Crawford’s search for American music started in earnest while studying piano in Chicago in her early twenties, soon attracting the attention of Henry Cowell. This American composer and pianist, just four years older than Crawford, was already well established as a musical pioneer and, appreciating her as a “completely natural dissonant composer,” suggested Crawford study in New York with his own teacher Charles Seeger. Here Crawford’s Modernist interests in dissonant harmony and linear musical structure meshed with the analytical work Seeger was doing for his treatise on dissonant counterpoint in the rugged American new music of the time. She was to continue collaborating with Seeger on this aspect of his many specialties for years to come. Meanwhile, with music published in Cowell’s New Music Quarterly and her chamber and solo works being played in the concerts of prestigious new music organisations in both New York and Chicago, Crawford became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which funded study in Berlin and Paris.

Throughout her time in Europe (1931-2) Crawford continued to develop her ideas about composition, with Seeger’s regular advice sent by mail. On returning to the United States, she married Seeger in 1932, immediately becoming wife and mother to Seeger’s three boys (Charles, John, and Pete) and soon mother to four of their own children (Mike, Peggy, Barbara and Penny). With a move to Washington, D.C. and with her own progressive new music taking second place to motherhood, Crawford (now Crawford Seeger) turned a composer’s search for American music in the direction of another of Seeger’s interests, towards folk music. Working at the Archive of American Folk Song, Crawford painstakingly transcribed hundreds of folksongs gathered by John and Alan Lomax, wrote articles about folk song, published her own song arrangements, and built a wide reputation as an educator. After wryly referring to her recent work in 1938 as ‘composing babies,’ Crawford was only able to return to composition in the late 1940s. Her Suite for Wind Quintet won a national competition in 1952 and, after a creative silence of two decades, Crawford intended it as a return to exploratory, probing creativity. However, a diagnosis of intestinal cancer the following year was to lead to her death at the age of just 52.

The String Quartet 1931 is the centrepiece of a tiny catalogue of important but short compositions dating, for the most part, from the years 1930-33. Composed mostly in Europe, its structure is compact (11-12 minutes) and its four movements follow one another attacca, without break. The first, with four main thematic ideas, primarily explores the tension between the two opening themes, the first on violin, high and lyrical, simultaneously with a brusque, angular rising theme on cello. Throughout the brief movement, the lyrical theme recurs in one iteration or another, usually enveloped in evolving versions of the other three themes, all played with a feeling of ebb and flow. The richness and multiplicity of ideas within each instrumental line was an idea soon to be taken up by Elliott Carter. The movement winds down to long, sustained notes from all but second violin. A sudden, terse chord marks the opening of the second movement, now rhythmically precise, as the instruments chase one another in scalar fragments through a fleeting, contrapuntal web.

Crawford describes the highly original third movement (Andante) as “a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi” where each instrument hovers over a single note for several measures. The pulsing mosaic-like effect increases in intensity as the melodic line constantly emerges and then disappears into the shifting harmony until it reaches a breaking point. Here, the pulsing is shattered by jagged shards, only to quickly unwind to the point from which the movement began. The fourth movement is a rigorously constructed dialogue between violin 1 and the other three instruments. Its opening section has the violin line building an additive structure, beginning with a one-note statement, then a two-note, then three and so on. Meanwhile the other instruments answer with a subtractive response, initially a 20-note phrase, then 19 and so on up to the turning point, when the entire process is reversed – the violin ending the movement with a single note. There is much more at play within this overall structure, adding to the unity and cohesion of the piece. Writing to Charles Ives a few months after the première of Crawford’s quartet, Henry Cowell said of its Andante that it was “perhaps the best thing for quartet ever written in this country.”

ELLIOTT CARTER
Born in New York City, December 11, 1908: died in New York City, November 5, 2012
String Quartet No. 3 (1971)

American composer Elliott Carter was referred to as the Haydn of new music when he was already over 100 years old and a quarter century into a remarkably productive Indian summer of composition. His five string quartets span his mature creative career at roughly ten-year intervals, challenging, provoking, rethinking, and energising a musical genre rather than comfortably falling back on a well-established tradition of civilised discourse. Late in life (in a 2012 interview with Laura Emmery) Carter said: “I consider all these pieces [his quartets] an adventure. Hence, I have to do something I haven't. I already had one adventure and now I want another one that's different. As a result, I think up something that intrigues me. When I'm writing, it's not like Haydn or Mozart who wrote a whole string of string quartets one after the other. They are all more or less in the same general pattern, although they are filled with variety and differences. My quartets are in very different patterns, very different conception.”

Carter referred to the Third Quartet as “the most complicated one of them all.” It took the Juilliard Quartet, who gave the première, over an hour just to put the first measure together. The piece, Carter says, “divides the instruments into pairs: a Duo for violin and cello that plays in rubato style and one for violin and viola in more regular rhythm. The violin-cello Duo presents four different musical characters: an angry, intense Furioso, a fanciful Leggerissimo, a pizzicato giocoso and a lyrical Andante espressivo, in short sections one after the other in various orders, sometimes with pauses between. The violin-viola Duo, meanwhile, presents the six contrasting characters listed in the program. During the Quartet each character of each Duo is presented alone and also in combination with each character of the other Duo to give a sense of ever-varying perspectives of feelings, expression, rivalry and cooperation.”

TYSHAWN SOREY
Born in Newark, New Jersey, July 8, 1980
Everything Changes, Nothing Changes (2018)

Announcing an upcoming audio recording on the website of New Music USA, the JACK Quartet gives some background to Tyshawn Sorey and his first string quartet, which concludes this virtual concert.

“The music of Tyshawn Sorey defies time-worn genre definitions and challenges the gate-keepers of classical music to recognize the compositional work of musicians of colour, often incorrectly categorized as jazz artists. An excellent improvisor in a number of styles, from the most outré sonic experimentations, to modern jazz, and more popular styles, Sorey has made a name for himself as a performer of his own and others’ music. However, his compositional voice enters the concert hall as a unique presence in the young generation, as he possesses a singular ear for harmony and a staggering formal control. Sorey uses number games as well as his polymath sonic imagination to create ground-breaking scores.

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes is the first quartet by Tyshawn Sorey, written for and premiered by JACK in July 2018, at the Banff Centre for the Arts as part of the EQ: Evolution of the String Quartet program. JACK and Sorey collaborated on details of Everything Changes, Nothing Changes while in residence at the Banff Centre. Sorey’s piece is a tour-de-force of subtle voicings, beautifully shifting harmonies, and a meltingly perfect pacing of pulsating string sounds over a long form.”

"It's dark ... literally ... that's all I can say," adds violinist John Richards from the JACK Quartet.

— Rodericus, Crawford Seeger and Carter program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca



strings
Thurs, April 15, 2021 at 7:30 pm
CASTALIAN QUARTET

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 (Hob.III:77) (‘Emperor’) (1797)
   Allegro
   Poco adagio cantabile
   Menuet. Allegro & Trio
   Finale. Presto
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)
   Allegro non troppo
   Andante moderato
   Quasi minuetto, moderato
   Finale - Allegro non assai

 

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet in C, Op. 76 No. 3 (Hob.III:77) (‘Emperor’) (1797)

In 1796, the city of Vienna was under threat of invasion from Napoleon. French troops led by Napoleon were advancing from the Po valley into Styria. Other troops were advancing from the East and both were closing in on Vienna in a pincer-like move. Vienna was in a state of emergency and a civilian militia had been mobilized to protect the city. Following a state commission, Haydn, a strong nationalist, was commissioned to write national song for the cause. His beautiful, heartfelt Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God Preserve Franz the Emperor) was a bold challenge to the Marseillaise and was instantly adopted as the Austrian national anthem. In fact, so universal was the appeal of Haydn's melody that it was later to be used as the ‘Brotherhood’ anthem of Freemasonry, as the German national anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, and even as the Protestant hymns Praise the Lord! Ye heavens, adore him and Glorious things of Thee are spoken.

The slow movement of the Op. 76 No. 3 String Quartet is a set of variations on this celebrated, dignified tune. Hence the quartet's nickname Emperor, or Kaiser. Each instrument in turn introduces the solemn melody, while the other three instruments weave an increasingly intricate web around it. But Haydn goes further. He structures the entire work around the slow movement, making it the focal point of the quartet. The melody finds its way into the first movement whose five-note theme derives from Haydn’s patriotic song: G (Gott) – E (erhalte) – F (Franz) – D (den) – C (Kaiser). This cryptic message would have been recognized in Haydn's day as one of the many ‘learned’ effects he used in his late quartets, complementing such popular elements as the lively country dance he fashions out of the same notes over a viola and cello drone in the central development section. The intensity and dignity of the four slow movement variations is set into relief by a forthright minuet. The finale, an intense, powerful movement, then completes the strong architectural structure that Haydn has built.

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 (1865-73)

"It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six lovely quartets," Brahms wrote of the collection Mozart dedicated to Haydn, "so I will try my hardest to turn out two passable ones." But it wasn’t until he was 40 years old, with a secure reputation as both composer and pianist, that his first two quartets saw light of day. Brahms was a fierce critic of his own music. As a 20-year-old composer he had at one point intended to publish a B minor quartet as his Op. 1. But it was only 20 years – and 20 string quartets later – that the two quartets we now know as his Op. 51 were to mark his official début as a composer in the medium. Four years later he felt confident enough to introduce his First Symphony to the public. What held him back from publishing both quartets and symphonies was a fear of being compared with the established masters of the Viennese classical tradition. Towering above them all in Brahms’s mind was the presence of Ludwig van Beethoven, a musician whose bust dominated his study in Karlgasse in Vienna.

So what happened to the 20 early quartets? "The boxes with the old papers remained in Hamburg for a long time,” Brahms told a friend many years later. "When I was there two or three years ago, I was overwhelmed. The whole room was most beautifully papered with my notes, even the ceiling. I had only to lie on my back to marvel at my sonatas and quartets. It looked very good. Then I tore everything down – better that I should do it than someone else! The stuff has all been burned." Brahms knew that sketches and fragments had a story to tell, since he owned sketchbooks by Beethoven, so he made a thorough job of the burning; no fragment or sketch has ever been tracked down.

Brahms frequently worked on pairs of works simultaneously. He wrote the two piano quartets, the two clarinet sonatas, the first two symphonies, the serenades and the sextets together. But these 'twinned' works were never born as identical twins. The C minor quartet, Op. 51 No. 1, for instance, continues the powerful tradition of Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets. Today’s A minor quartet, Op. 51 No. 2, comes closer to the dreamy, melancholy world of Schumann's music. Its tender, lyrical nostalgia and longing provide a positive feeling to the music. The opening soaring violin melody contains a tribute to the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms weaves Joachim's personal motif, the notes F-A-E, standing for Frei, aber einsam (‘Free, but alone’) into the beginning of the phrase. Brahms also incorporates the phrase he took as his own motif, the notes F-A-F (Frei, aber froh – ‘Free, but happy’) into the score. It's a small indication of the wealth of contrapuntal invention that he uses throughout this quartet.

— Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca