Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1791)
Duo in B-flat Major, K. 424 for violin and viola, 1783
In 1783, Mozart and his wife Constanze travelled from Vienna to Salzburg for vacation and a visit with the family. While there, Mozart learned that his friend Michael Haydn (the less famous brother of Joseph Haydn) was ill and unable to complete a commission for six duos from the Archbishop who was withholding pay until he finished. Always generous with his old friends, Mozart offered to complete the set and wrote two duos for violin and viola as a “ghost writer.” At this time, Mozart had absorbed the chamber music of Joseph Haydn as well as the contrapuntal marvels of J. S. Bach and was in the middle of composing a set of string quartets that would set a new high water mark in the genre. It is natural, therefore, that these two “one off” string duos are utter masterpieces in themselves, each a full multi-movement sonata vividly demonstrating Mozart’s musical genius. It is, however, astounding, to realize that such marvelous music arises from such minimal means. The basis of Western harmony calls for at least three if not four notes sounded simultaneously as a chord, yet, a string duo employs only two players, each of which can generally only make one note at a time. The solution is pure counterpoint where two self-sufficient melodic lines weave together creating the “impression” of harmony through horizontal figuration and the swift passage of time. The pairing of violin and viola ensures that each voice is imbued with its own character and it is miraculous to discover that each solo line is perfectly musical in its own right. It is the contrapuntal, interactive and synergistic combination of the two that projects a deep, fully–realized musical experience that perhaps only Mozart could have created.
Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, 1901
Rachmaninoff was a thrice-gifted musician: concert pianist, composer and conductor. He is generally considered that last of the great Russian Romantics ending a linage that includes Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Rubenstein, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky among others. Rachmaninoff is legendary for his towering piano concerti as well as his unparalleled intimate preludes for solo piano. But among his many talents, his astonishing gift for melody is perhaps most noteworthy. Whether you know them by name, you are apt to recognize his Variations on a theme by Paganini or his ineffable Vocalise, originally for wordless voice and piano. Rachmaninoff’s melodies are unmistakable: long lyrical lines full of noble longing and pathos but tinged with a smoky poetry that verges on the exotic. The Cello Sonata of 1901 offers a perfect microcosm of the best of Rachmaninoff. An ample four-movement sonata in a late Romantic style, it features intricate, powerful pianism of the most demanding sort as well as his haunting trademark lyricism made most effective through the singular voice of the cello. There are several transfixing melodies found in this sonata including the absolutely transcendent slow movement that will not fail to transport you to another world.
José González Granero (1985-)
String Quartet No. 1, Noche del Amor Insomne, 2014
Night of sleepless love
A full moon, the night above the two of us,
I began to cry and you were laughing.
Your disdain was a god; my complaints
were instants of time and doves in a chain.
The night beneath us. A crystal of pain,
you cried deep into the distance.
My sorrow gathered its suffering
above your fragile heart of sand.
Dawn united us on the bed,
mouths pressed to the freezing cold spurt
of endless blood spilling out.
And the sun entered through closed shutters
and the coral of light opened its branches over
my shrouded heart.
– Garcia Lorca
Around 18 years ago, I had the great opportunity to visit the house of poet Garcia Lorca in Granada as part of a middle school field trip. The experience was unique. I remember the house was full of magic and art. Also there was Lorca’s piano. The tour guide asked if any of us could play. I answer fearlessly with confidence. I was taking piano lessons and I felt good about my playing, as good as a 13-year-old amateur could feel. I played a little bit of a Mozart. My classmates had no idea I could play and the tour guide was relieved to know that I could play without damaging the instrument. When I finish playing, the man whispered in my ear that I was too young to appreciate what that moment meant. Speaking to everybody, he went on with the tragic story of Garcia Lorca’s tragic death. After the experience I felt more and more aware of what that moment meant, and wanted to compose a piece of music based on one of Lorca’s poems.
This string quartet was composed between February and April 2014 as a commission from Rebecca Jackson for Music in May. I conceived this piece as a single movement although it is punctuated in the middle by a cadenza for soloe violin evoking a Spanish guitar. The whole piece is treated as a poem. Little motifs like verses rhyme within the music. The final, more virtuosic section is lead by a cello ostinato and a combination of all previous motifs. The style features impressionism and Spanish color.
Note by José González Granero
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949)
La Oración del Torero (The Toreador’s Prayer), Op. 34, 1925
Turina composed his single-movement Toreador’s Prayer in 1924 well into the 20th century. For the first thirty seconds or so of the piece, one would swear this was a newly discovered quartet of Debussy or Ravel, not only for its “impressionism” but also for its spicy Iberian flavor that both Debussy and Ravel borrowed from Spanish idioms which they helped to immortalize decades earlier. Shimmering atmospheres peppered with pizzicato and guitar-derived idiomatic ornaments set an exotic scene for adventure, bravado and passion as the toreador approaches the potentially fatal spectacle. Thoughts of mortality, the test of courage and honor, and perhaps a sudden nostalgia for the amorous sensuality of life turn the Toreador inward in a dreamy reflection full of longing and hope. Bright and languid harmonies suggest the amorphous and flowery romantic soundtracks of vintage movies that borrowed so much from this period of French and Spanish technicolor impressionism. The toreador’s private revere turns ultimately to prayer as humility and supplication lift the music up in a chaste, golden glow. The string quartet proves to be an admirably “colorful” ensemble for rendering this deliciously programmatic mood painting. Here, Turina demonstrates the unique power of music to vividly express a complex of conflicted, nuanced thoughts in an organic whole that captures the otherwise inexpressible human condition.
Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881)
Les regrets, Feuilles d’album, Op. 40, No. 2, 1864
Henri Vieuxtemps was a 19th century Belgian concert violinist and composer that is most famous for his seven violin concertos. Coming of age in the Romantic age of barnstorming virtuosi like Paganini, Vieuxtemps helped to throttle the tendency for empty technical display by reintroducing classical form and musical substance in a refined style representative of the Franco-Belgian school of violinists. He helped restore Beethoven’s Violin Concerto to the repertoire. Vieuxtemps was also a chamber musician who became widely known for his excellent quartet playing and was instrumental in promoting the late quartets of Beethoven. Late in life, Vieuxtemps even composed three string quartets. The mid-19th century was also an era of intimate salon music in the form of expressive miniatures for piano and soloist and Vieuxtemps composed a large number of short character pieces or instrumental songs with evocative titles like “Dream”, “Despair”, “Melancholy”, “Serenity” and so forth. These are lovely, finely crafted pieces that showcase the inimitable supremacy of the violin to “sing” a mood, a personality or even a short story. One such collection of “Album Leaves” from 1864 includes a piece titled “Regrets” that perfectly captures a kind of bitter melancholy simply aching with remorse in the most beautiful way suggesting Mendelssohn’s famous comment that music is more specific that words.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
3 Romances for violin and piano, Op. 22, 1853
Clara Schumann (neé Weick) was a child prodigy who became one of the most renowned concert pianists of the 19th century. She married Robert Schumann, initially one of her piano teachers, at the age of 18 and eventually bore 8 children. Clara met a young Brahms shortly before Robert’s health deteriorated, and a deep, lifelong friendship developed between them particularly as Brahms helped to manage the family affairs once Robert was committed to an asylum. Miraculously, Clara also found time to compose creating a small but excellent oeuvre including the 3 Romances for violin and piano on the program tonight written in 1853, the fateful year when she met Brahms and when Robert suffered his final breakdown. The Romances are exquisite short character pieces in the manner of Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, intimate and expressive “songs without words” that might be considered the epitome of the Romantic era. One imagines magical musical evenings in the Schumann home with Clara, Robert, Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim to whom the pieces are dedicated. Given Clara’s vast achievements across the board, she must be considered a great pioneer and a profound artistic force.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1896)
Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 (1854, revised in 1891)
Brahms’ first piano trio is perhaps his most beloved. Brahms was only 21 when he composed the first version while he was living in the Schumann house tending to Clara, her children and the family affairs after Robert was institutionalized. Some thirty years later, a mature, nearly retired Brahms returned to the piece and revised it a bit. As he humorously quipped, “I didn’t provide it with a new wig, just combed and arranged its hair a little”. His changes were in fact substantial: he shortened the work by about one-third, significantly modifying all but the scherzo. The result is one of the finest trios in the repertoire, an amalgam of youth and wisdom, passion and skillful technique. The first movement is an epic sonata form pairing Brahms’ warm lyricism with his fiery development in an unbroken arc of dramatic narrative leading to the fully realized serenity possible only in the final bars. A muscular scherzo full of Brahmsian fire gives way to singular slow movement of delicate intimacy that is nothing less than haunting. The finale is a dramatic struggle, dark and wind-swept ending, almost shockingly, in a minor key. It is no surprise that Robert Schumann predicted that Brahms would become the next great musical lion while Clara Schumann fell in love.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, 1842
Robert Schumann is one of the quintessential Romantic figures of the 19th century. He grew up with twin loves for literature and music and became a great composer and well as a great literary figure, one of the most esteemed and insightful musical commentators of his time. He fell passionately in love with Clara and fought a two-year legal battle against her father to win her hand in marriage. Schumann almost manically attacked the great genres of music and composed, in concentrated fits, piano works, art songs, symphonies and chamber music amassing a formidable catalog of masterworks before madness set it. Schumann struggled with nervous disorders that erupted into aural hallucinations, depression and a suicide attempt resulting in his institutional confinement where he languished for two years before dying, unable to see Clara until his very last day. Literature, love, music and madness make for a rather fantastic life story, but what remains for us is his incredible music.
The Piano Quintet comes from Schuman’s “year of chamber music” where, in 1842, he composed string quartets, piano trios, a piano quartet and broke ground on a new ensemble for string quartet and piano, the most powerful combination of instruments in all of chamber music. This is not only Schumann’s greatest chamber music work, it is one of the greatest chamber works of all time, of such majesty and artistry that it must always come last in a program where it seems to obliterate all music before or sense with its singular power. Chief among many of its fascinating aspects worth appreciating is its use of “recall” creating what is called a “cyclic” form. The bold opening theme in the first movement reappears in the last movement in an apotheosis of dramatic development as it combines in countermelody with the finale’s own theme in a magisterial fugue recalling a tradition of high musical triumph going back through Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart to J. S. Bach. The piano writing itself is on a high order of achievement and virtuosity and the world premiere would feature none other than Clara Schumann at the keyboard. Without a doubt, Schuman’s influenced subsequent piano quintet epics by Franck, Brahms, Dvořák and Shostakovich as the most noteworthy.
Program Notes by Kai Christiansen