Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18 (1839)

The quintessential Romantic composer Robert Schumann distinguished himself in all musical genres, but may well be most admired for his character pieces for solo, piano. At the time he composed Arabesque, he was visiting Vienna where he hoped to make his future home with his love, the extraordinary young pianist Clara Wieck. At the time, however, Clara’s father forbade the union and Schumann would not yet encounter the musical fame he hoped to establish in that eminently musical city. Hence, while composing during his sojourn, the young Schumann oscillated between hope and despair, the ultimate Romantic polarity some commentators find in the emotional makeup of Arabesque itself. Schumann’s letters of the time reveal that he had intended the piece to help him “rise up and become the favorite composer of all the ladies of Vienna,” writing in a special style that he indicated by such sensitive titles as “Flower Piece” and “Arabesque.” Schumann wrote, “the titles say all there is to know, and I am quite blameless that the stems and fronds are so frail and delicate.” Arabesque is one of Schumann’s consummate poetic miniatures, a rondo that features a recurring refrain with interludes of contrasting character derived from the main theme. Truly an organic interlacing of musical foliage as its title suggests, it concludes with an even more delicate coda, a final poignant transformation of the central theme.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, “The Storm” (1801)

When Beethoven composed his only full-length string quintet in 1801, he was beginning a transition between his early and middle stylistic phases, moving from Classical mastery towards a new kind of epic innovation that would define his mature artistry. The years of 1801-1802 witnessed Beethoven confronting the ironic and devastating fate of losing his hearing, eventually prevailing with heroic resolve. This transitional period finds Beethoven composing his second symphony, his third piano concerto and the marvelous Op. 29 String Quintet known by the nickname “The Storm.” Overshadowed by the fame of his string quartets and the string quintets of Mozart and Schubert, Beethoven’s quintet is rarely performed, a special treat to encounter. It is a large-scale work leveraging the great skills Beethoven honed writing his previous string trios and quartets and, like Mozart’s quintets, features an expansive richness due to the sonority and independence of the lower strings enhanced with a second viola.

The first movement is a full-featured sonata form with two themes (the second in an unusual key), a surging development and a recap with elegant decorations. The second movement is a characteristically lyrical and noble slow movement with a surprising depth of feeling. The scherzo is brisk and vital, famously based on a brief, single-measure leaping motif that saturates all but the contrast of the luscious trio. The finale inspired the quintet’s nickname: over the stormy tremolos in the lower strings, the first violin soars like a bird against gale force winds. Adding to the stormy complexion is a dramatic fugato (“little fugue”) and Beethoven’s famous muscularity in the lower strings. But Beethoven also displays his rough humor with some surprising musical jokes he most likely learned from Haydn.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60, “Werther” (1874)

When Brahms submitted the score of his third piano quartet to his longtime publisher Simrock, he humorously wrote that the cover should show a picture of a man holding a gun to his head. Such was the black, dramatic mood of the music earning the quartet’s nickname after Goethe’s literary character, the young, suicidal Werther. Written in the dramatic key of C Minor that Brahms used for both his first symphony and his first string quartet, suspense and surprise attack feature prominently, beginning with the opening movement’s brooding introduction and the startling crash of its main theme. The prevailing severity ensues with a madly driving scherzo (the second movement), with a pulsing, persistent rhythm that trails a boiling wake of complex textures and rhythms. A very brief trio-like section only slightly stalls this ominous momentum. In a one-two punch, the first two movements seem to seal the fate of this “deadly” quartet. But the great musical masterworks feature stark contrasts and the slow movement, placed third, is one of Brahms’s most exquisite lyrical songs. The finale resumes much of the initial bluster while the conclusion presents a magical transformation of texture, color and mood that keeps the listener hanging until the very last, unexpected note.

Polina Nazaykinskaya
Hope, for solo violin, WORLD PREMIERE (2017)

Composer, conductor and violinist Polina Nazaykinskaya will be familiar to Music in May patrons from the 5th season in 2012. She was then commissioned to compose Haim to honor the miraculous life of David Arben.  A teacher, mentor and inspiration to Rebecca Jackson, founder of Music in May, Arben also left a deep impact on Nazaykinskaya. She was inspired not only by the story of his life and miraculous survival through music, but the quality of his playing itself, and profoundly moved by his death. With her new piece, Nazaykinskaya had both Jackson and Arben in mind.  She explained that the new piece would not focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust, but the virtuosity and musical prowess of Arben. With Hope, she offers a dramatic, virtuosic fantasia for solo violin. It takes advantage of the instrument and represents something of Arben’s spirit, personality and musicality, much as Eugène Ysaÿe did with his six legendary solo sonatas, each dedicated to a specific violinist.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 (1940)

Shostakovich is undeniably one of the greatest 20th Century composers and he was astonishingly prodigious in all genres of music, including a vast treasure trove for chamber music lovers. Impressed with his first string quartet, the Moscow-based Beethoven quartet asked Shostakovich to write a quintet featuring Shostakovich himself at the piano. The result was an immense success earning Shostakovich the Stalin Prize and a cash award of 100,000 rubles, often cited as the largest sum ever commanded by a chamber music work. Traditional forms and modes of expression pervade the entire quintet. The first two movements supply a massive prelude and fugue in the finest sense of Bach. Shostakovich was a skillful and artistic contrapuntist with masterful fugues all through his oeuvre. The third movement is a fantastical scherzo and trio:. In startling contrast to the poise and grandeur of the prelude and fugue, the scherzo dances with a rustic, wild abandon leering towards parody and sarcasm, so typical of Shostakovich. Less traditional is a second slow movement, a ponderous intermezzo placed between the scherzo and finale. The finale has a clearly articulated classical sonata form with distinctive themes and a development section. A march-like feel is always just beneath the surface, occasionally swelling in grand gestures while, in between, a brief recollection of the intermezzo temporarily clouds an otherwise sunny end. Shostakovich’s quintet is one of his most popular works and firmly in the small repertoire of epic piano quintets from the likes of Schumann, Brahms, Franck and Dohnányi.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 (1880)

Tchaikovsky had such an intuitive gift for melody, rhythm and musical expression in general that many of his compositions have become enduring popular classics, including the beloved Serenade for Strings. Unlike many of his contemporary Russian composers who eschewed the Western European classics in an attempt to write music that was genuinely Russian, Tchaikovsky was more than content to emulate the masters, particularly his favorite: Mozart. Tchaikovsky specifically stated that his Serenade was a deliberate imitation of Mozart’s style, even though it is more Tchaikovsky than Mozart. The notion of a serenade as generally pleasing evening music, often as a tribute to a person or celebration of an event, was definitely a Viennese tradition of Mozart’s era. Mozart himself left multiple serenades suitable for either a string orchestra or a more intimate chamber ensemble. While graceful, inspired charm and masterful craftsmanship are qualities both Tchaikovsky and Mozart share, the Serenade features several aspects unique to Tchaikovsky.

The music begins with an introductory chorale, a stirring hymn instantly evocative of noble Russian character. The chorale is both a framing device and a kind of inspirational mother lode. It will appear again at the end of the first movement, and towards the end of the finale, while its melodic shape will strongly influence both themes in the finale, as though they were derived from or perhaps gave birth to it. After the chorale, the first movement features a sonatina (“little sonata”) with two contrasting themes and skillful contrapuntal textures featured throughout the Serenade. The second movement is a delicious waltz in Tchaikovsky’s famous manner, eventually inspiring choreography from George Balanchine. The third, slow movement is titled “Élégie.” It begins and ends (somewhat like the first movement) with a slower paced section, featuring muted strings and a similarly stirring affect. The finale, subtitled “Tema russo”, features two different themes of a clearly Russian character intimately related to the initial chorale that, in a pleasing artistic symmetry, will surface towards the end before a rousing conclusion of sweeping elegance.

© 2018 Kai Christiansen and earsense.org, the chamber music exploratorium.