Work for solo piano by Schubert performed by Charlie Albright, piano.
With a title like “Impromptus,” one expects this set of four piano pieces by Schubert to be a bit spontaneous. But anyone expecting a Keith Jarret-like improvisation will be surprised to discover how structured and planned these “Impromptus” feel.
Indeed, there was some disagreement, after the fact, about the justification for the title “Impromptus.” Robert Schumann – a friend of Schubert’s – apparently maintained that the piece was really a four-movement sonata in disguise, broken up and named by Schubert’s publisher in an effort to encourage more sales.
The four Impromptus are varied in character and structure, but each does seem to create a particular mood or emotional landscape, and then explores that landscape, whether through the straightforward theme-and-variations structure of the third impromptu or the more structured, sonata-like form of the first impromptu. And in this way, at least, it’s perhaps not so far off from the idea of improvisation.
We’ll hear these works performed by Charlie Albright, a talented young pianist who recently graduated from New England Conservatory and Harvard’s joint degree program and is now earning his Artist Diploma at Juilliard.
Works for voice and piano performed by Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, and Christopher Cano, pianist and string quintet performed by Borromeo String Quartet with Nathaniel Martin, bass.
For our 185th podcast program, we’ll hear from Antonin Dvorák, focusing on two of his chamber works.
We begin with Dvorák’s Gypsy Songs, opus 55. The cycle of seven songs is based on Czech poetry by Adolf Heyduk about the lives of Slovakian gypsies. But Dvorák chose to premiere and publish the songs in a German translation of the original text. The cycle was fairly successful; in particular, the song at the heart of the cycle—the fourth of seven—has become one of his best-known, usually translated in English as “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Throughout, the songs are both lyrical and spirited, combining the flavor of gypsy music with the sophistication of Western art song.
After the songs, we’ll turn to Dvorák’s second string quintet, opus 77. Written in 1874, the string quintet is among Dvorák’s earliest mature works. At the time of its composition, he had been working in relative anonymity in Prague. The music itself, though, reveals a composer already in possession of a unique and self-assured voice, with a gift for melody and a wonderful knack for writing spirited, dance-infused passages.
Works for cello and piano performed by Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello and Noreen Polera, piano and solo piano performed by Charlie Albright.
Robert Schumann was really the quintessential Romantic composer—with a capital ‘R’. Not content to write music that was focused on formal brilliance or technical sophistication, he wanted his work to capture and convey emotion, to unify music with other art forms—especially the written word. In many ways, he wanted his music to tell a story.
But his stories were rarely simple. His favorite plots often involved fictional characters or archetypes, but most frequently two somewhat abstract characters of his own invention: Florestan and Eusebius. They were his alter egos, depictions of two different aspects of his own self: Florestan, the passionate, extroverted side, and Eusebius, the reflective, introverted side. We’ll hear from both today when we listed to Schumann’s opus 9, Carnaval for solo piano, in which he depicts not only Florestan and Eusebius but also a gaggle of literary and real-life personalities.
Before we dive into that somewhat unruly work, we’ll listen to something a bit more straightforward, also by Schumann: his Fantasiestucke, opus 73. You’ll hear this performance by cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Noreen Polera. The piece is lyrical and fairly brief, at about 10 minutes—a good foil for the carnival to follow.
Works for piano performed by Paavali Jumppanen.
On today’s podcast, we’ll hear Beethoven’s two most famous “farewells” for solo piano: his 12th and 26th piano sonatas, nicknamed the “funeral march” and “lebewohl” sonatas, respectively.
First is the earlier sonata, Beethoven’s 12th piano sonata, opus 26, often called the “Funeral March” sonata because of its dirge-like third movement. By placing the slow movement third, Beethoven flips the traditional sonata structure a bit on its head. Typically, the piano sonatas of Beethoven’s era began when an upbeat movement is placed third rather than second, and in this spot it provides a sort of springboard for the finale, which seems all the more dazzling because of its proximity to the funeral march.
Next we hear Beethoven’s 26th piano sonata, often called “Das Lebewohl,” or—in French—“Les Adieux.” There is some disagreement as to the authenticity of the subtitles given to the three movements of this sonata, which translate into English as “The Farewell,” “The Absence,” and “The Return.” The descriptive titles stuck, though, authentic or not, probably because they seem such a good fit for the music.
Work for solo piano performed by Cecile Licad:
I hope you’re ready for a journey.
This week, we’re packing up and accompanying Franz Liszt on a journey through Switzerland—in the form of the first part of his massive piano suite Années de pèlerinage or “Years of Pilgrimage.” Year One, “Switzerland,” will comprise the entirety of our podcast, running a bit more than 45 minutes in its entirety.
The work is an undeniable product of the Romantic era, a sort of musical “bildungsroman”—a coming-of-age journey—inspired by the composer’s own, real-life travels.
The movement titles are evocative: The Chapel of William Tell, At Lake Wallenstadt, Pastorale, Beside a Spring, Storm, Obermann’s Valley, Eclogue (a type of bucolic poem), Homesickness, and, finally, The Bells of Geneva.
Each movement begins a few lines of poetry. The passage that precedes the final movement perhaps sums it up best. Liszt writes, quoting the narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “I live not in myself,” “but I become / Portion of that around me.”
We’ll hear this monumental work played by pianist Cecile Licad.
Works for piano trio performed by the Claremont Trio.
This week, we’ll hear two crowning achievements by two great composers: piano trios by Mozart and Mendelssohn.
Mozart’s fourth piano trio, K. 542 was written about three years before the composer’s death, in the middle of an especially rough period. He managed to write, in that same year, his final three incredible symphonies and his last three piano trios; this trio was the first of the group.
However musically brilliant, this trio was an imperfect fit for the classical music market at the time, which desired chamber pieces that could be easily picked up and performed off-the-cuff by amateurs as after-dinner entertainment. This piece was not really intended for that sort of casual sight-reading.
Next, we’ll hear Mendelssohn’s second piano trio, in C minor. This trio, like Mozart’s, was written near the end of Mendelssohn’s life, one of his final chamber works. By turns dramatic and tuneful, the piece ends with a rousing finale that is always sure to bring audiences to their feet.
The double-bill we’re hearing today was recorded live at a September 2012 recital by the Claremont Trio.
Works for solo cello and piano performed by Colin Carr, cello and Martina Filjak, piano.
Today’s program focuses on two pieces that use small forms to create rich, vivid scenes: J.S. Bach’s first suite for solo cello, and Robert Schumann’s Carnival Scenes from Vienna.
We begin with cellist Colin Carr—a Gardner Museum regular—performing Bach’s first solo cello suite, the prelude of which is arguably the best-known solo string piece Bach ever wrote. While the pieces do make use, from time to time, of chordal harmonies (in the form of double- and triple-stops), much of the harmony is implied, suggested by the shape of the players’ solo lines.
Schumann’s scenes are a bit more literal: his piece, typically translated in English as “Carnival Scenes from Vienna,” was inspired by the sights and sounds of a trip to Vienna during Carnival season. Schumann’s scenes are more of an evocation of the festive spirit that pervaded Vienna during the season than a literal depiction of Carnival. We’ll hear these “scenes” as depicted by pianist Martina Filjak in a 2012 recital.
Works for voice and piano and string quartet by New York Festival of Song: James Martin, baritone and Michael Barrett, piano, sopranos Dina Kuznetsova and Julia Bullock, and Michael Barrett, piano; and Borromeo String Quartet:
We’ve heard fairly regularly from Antonin Dvorák on the podcast, but today’s program offers a unique opportunity to hear works from both the beginning and the end of his fruitful career as a composer.
First, there will be excerpts featuring the baritone James Martin, all taken from Dvorák’s Biblical Songs. These were the composer’s final set of songs, though he would go on to write operas and choral music.
Situated right in the middle of the program we have the first of Dvorák’s Moravian Duets for female voices. These duets, written fairly early in the composer’s career, were Dvorák’s entry ticket into European musical society. The duets became Dvorák’s first international publication and truly launched his career in Europe.
The duet we’ll hear is sometimes translated as “The Fugitive.” It is a playful text, telling the tale of two lovers engaged in a fanciful pursuit in which they transform from fish to doves to stars, chasing each other through the sea, sky, and heavens. We’ll hear the duet performed by sopranos Dina Kuznetsova and Julia Bullock, who appeared at the museum with the New York Festival of Song.
Then we have Dvorák’s last string quartet, number 14 in A-flat Major, and by broad consensus one of his greatest. In this work, Dvorák was able to bring together his flair for lively, Bohemian dance music, which animates the quartet’s second movement, with his sophisticated craftsmanship and gift for melody. We’ll hear the piece as performed at the museum by the Borromeo String Quartet back in 2006.
Works for cello and piano by Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello and Noreen Polera, piano:
On today’s podcast, we’ll take a turn for the poetic, with two selections for cello and piano by French composers.
We’ll begin with Fauré’s beloved Elegie, a bittersweet, rhapsodic work. The piece is just seven minutes long, but it makes a big impression with its dramatic arching form—building from a haunting beginning to a passionate climax that all but dissolves into a beguiling ending.
After that little teaser, we’ll hear another incredibly evocative work: Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, performed in a transcription for cello by the same artists who played the first work: cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Noreen Polera. The Gold Medalist in the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, Narek was mentored by the late, great Rostropovich, and recently received his Artist Diploma studying at Boston’s own New England Conservatory, just down the street from the Museum.
This version of the Franck violin sonata, arranged for cello, is just one of the many versions that have proliferated—including arrangements for flute, saxophone, tuba, and even choir—but it is the only one that the composer himself approved. Like the Elegie, this sonata is just full of poetic little moments of great delicacy and beauty.
Works for string quartet by Musicians from Marlboro and Daedalus Quartet:
This week, we’ll hear a pair of string quartets—one from the father of the genre, and the other from a relative newcomer.
We begin with Papa Haydn, the author of nearly 70 string quartets, and—by broad consensus—the father of the form. Haydn’s quartets are as varied as they are numerous.
The selection we’ll hear today is Haydn’s 22nd string quartet, opus 17, number 5. The piece plays for 17 minutes, beginning cheerful and sunny, passing through a cloudy patch, and emerging—in the finale—in a blaze of joy. Performing it are players from Musicians from Marlboro.
Then we’ll move to 21st century quartet writer: composer Fred Lerdahl, performed by the Daedalus Quartet. The germ of the idea that fueled the three Lerdahl quartets is the chord heard at the very beginning of this first quartet. It flashes by in about a second, but within that chord lies the source of all the ideas that Lerdahl develops throughout the entire twenty-plus minute work, through a technique he calls “expanding variations.”
One hears flickers of the chord throughout the piece, but the form is less a literal “theme and variations” than an organic expansion; from that brief chord, the ensuing variations expand, each one and half times the length of the preceding one.
We start with the seed of the quartet genre itself: Haydn.
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