Works for violin and piano by Benjamin Beilman, violin and Yekwon Sunwoo, piano and wind quintet by Stephen Taylor, oboe; David Shifrin, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; William Purvis, horn; and Gilles Vonsattel, piano.
It’s a curious thing: today, when there is a piano part in chamber music, we tend to think of it as the “accompaniment” to whatever instrument or voice it is paired with. But that was certainly not the case in Mozart’s time, as we’ll hear in the two pieces on today’s podcast.
We start with Mozart’s 19th Sonata for piano and violin, in E-flat major. The sonata was published in 1778, when Mozart was 22, as part of a set of six sonatas.
These sonatas were actually rather progressive for their time. In the 18th century, it was the norm for the piano to dominate in settings for keyboard and other instruments—sonatas were for “piano and violin,” not the other way around. But in this set Mozart made an effort to treat the instruments more as equals, giving both players a crack at the main themes. Performing the piece, we’ll hear pianist Ye kwon Sunwoo and violinist Benjamin Beilman.
In the second work on the program—Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds—often feels like a miniature concerto, with the piano taking the starring role and the wind instruments providing backup. The recording features Gilles Vonsattel on piano with Stephen Taylor on oboe; David Shifrin on clarinet; Peter Kolkay on bassoon; and William Purvis on the French horn. Mozart himself premiered the piece in 1784 and called it, in an oft-quoted letter to his father Leopold, “the best thing I have written in my life.”
Mozart was not alone in finding it an especially fetching piece. About a dozen years later another quintet appeared on the scene in Vienna, scored for the same instruments, by a young admirer: Ludwig van Beethoven. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Songs for voice and keyboard by Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, and Christopher Cano, piano:
Today, we'll take a little trip around the world in song, hearing Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Españolas and three songs by Franz Liszt. All the recordings we'll hear today were taken from a recital last year by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and pianist Christopher Cano. (And to answer the question you're probably all asking yourselves right now, yes, the two are husband and wife.)
We'll begin with the de Falla set, a delightful and varied collection of Spanish folksongs that is quite possibly the single most popular piece of classical Spanish vocal repertoire out there. The songs vary, from lovelorn laments to intimate lullabies to spirited dances, but all share an incredibly sensitive and evocative approach to the piano accompaniment—creating a sense of place and mood, while putting the traditional tunes front and center.
Next, we'll hear a selection of three songs by Franz Liszt, the composer and virtuoso pianist. Liszt's songs are less familiar than his piano music, but he wrote a good many of them: about six-dozen in all. As a song composer, Liszt was a bit of a chameleon. His accompaniments were often dense and complex—likely owing to his own experience and skill as a pianist—and he experimented with many different types of poetry, as you'll hear from today's selections.
Songs by Antoine Tamestit and Ying-Chien Lin, and Musicians from Ravinia's Steans Institute:
This week, we’ll hear two works by young composers who benefited mightily from various efforts to support the creation of new chamber music—one in 20th-century Massachusetts, and the other in 19th-century France.
First up is the Sonata for Viola and Piano by Rebecca Clarke, a name that is likely new to many of us. She was an accomplished violist, and after leaving home in 1910, she supported herself by performing throughout England, the British colonies, and the US.
In 1919, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge—an influential patron of contemporary chamber music—invited Clarke to enter a composition competition she sponsored each year through the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music. A work by Ernest Bloch won, but Clarke’s viola sonata went on to earn an enduring place in the viola repertoire. Clarke, alas, wrote relatively few works over the course of her career; in total, about 100 works survive, and of those only 20 were ever published. Looking back, Clarke called the viola sonata “my one little whiff of success.” We’ll hear it performed by violist Antoine Tamestit and pianist Ying-Chien Lin.
Next, we’ll hear a chamber work from a more familiar source: Gabriel Fauré. The composer himself premiered the work with the National Music Society—an organization dedicated to the presentation of new chamber music, founded by Saint-Saëns in 1871. The founding of the society brought new opportunities for the performance of instrumental chamber music, and with it the impetus to compose such works. On today’s podcast, we’ll hear it performed by Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Institute. We begin, however, with Rebecca Clarke’s viola sonata.
Songs for voice and keyboard and string quartet by Dina Kuznetsova and Michael Barrett, and the Borromeo String Quartet:
The centerpiece of today’s program is probably the only chamber work of Dvorák’s that most classical music lovers recognize immediately: his twelfth string quartet, known as the “American” quartet.
Dvorák was smitten with the country’s traditional music, African-American spirituals and Native American songs in particular. They shared one important attribute: the pentatonic scale that tugs at the heartstrings, and is the backbone of many old American tunes. Dvorák’s “American” quartet makes use of the scale as well as the rhythms of American music.
We’ll hear a few “love letters” to the folk music of Dvorák’s native land: a group of three Czech songs. The first song is a devoted outpouring of affection. In the second song, the protagonist wishes his beloved a night of sweet dreams. Third, we get a story of love gone wrong. In the song, translated as “I have a powerful horse,” the narrator’s initial exaltation of the things he has quickly turns to a reminiscence of the things he doesn’t--most importantly, the sweetheart who has left him.
Songs for voice and piano by Musicians from Marlboro, John Moore, Anna Polonsky, and Benjamin Hochman:
On today’s podcast, we’ll hear three Schubert works with connections to the mountains.
The meat of our program is the composer’s 17th piano sonata, in D Major, written during a sojourn in the Austrian town of Gastein with singer Michael Vogl. One outcome was this sonata, which was the composer’s 17th but would become only his second to be published. It is a charming piece--far more work for the performer, who must make it through a few speedy movements, than it is for the listener, who can merely sit back and enjoy Schubert’s gift for melody and his way with harmony.
We’ll set the tone a bit with two Schubert songs, each of which alludes to mountainous surroundings. First we’ll hear Nachtstück the German word for “Nocturne,” a setting of a Mayrhofer poem. The first stanza sets the scene, with mist pouring over the mountaintops and an old man playing his harp in the wilderness.
We’ll hear Musicians from Marlboro, John Moore, baritone andAnna Polonsky, piano performing the songs beginning with Nachtstück, followed by pianist Benjamin Hochman, with the sonata.
Songs for piano duo by Christina and Michelle Naughton:
What kind of theme lends itself best to variation?
It’s a question worth asking yourself today, as we hear two pieces that take the form of theme and variations: Mendelssohn’s Andante and Variations, opus 83, and Brahms’s “St. Anthony Variations,” both pieces written for a pair of pianists, in the former case playing one instrument, in the latter, two.
The similarities between the two composers’ chosen themes are quite striking. Both use a chorale-like theme--largely homophonic, with chords beneath a single, clear melody. As a listener it means that, even after just one hearing, you’ve got a pretty good grasp of the tune you’re about to hear turned on its head--enough to be able to follow the journey the composers are about to take us on.
Performing on today’s podcast, we’ll hear a duo that is perhaps more perfectly paired than most: pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, 24-year-old identical twins from Madison, Wisconsin. Graduates of the Curtis Institute, the two perform duo piano repertoire together worldwide.
Songs for string quartet by A Far Cry and the Borromeo String Quartet:
When Bartók composed his first string quartet, in 1909, the idea of Hungarian folk music had already found its way into the musical consciousness of Western Europe. Liszt had his Hungarian Rhapsodies, Brahms his Hungarian Dances--written in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, several decades before Bartók was even born.
While studying in Budapest at the Royal Academy of Music, Bartók had befriended a fellow pupil, Zoltan Kodály. In 1908, the two decided to travel beyond the cafes of downtown Budapest, deep into the countryside, to hear what they could hear.
It was early the following year that Bartók completed his first string quartet, and it can easily be read as a sort of musical dramatization of his path. We’ll hear the piece played by Gardner Museum regulars the Borromeo String Quartet.
We have a recording by the chamber ensemble A Far Cry of another of Bartók's folk-inspired works: his Romanian Folk Dances, arranged for string quartet. Originally written for piano, the brief piece is a set of six songs, all arrangements of folk tunes.
Song for voice and keyboard by Randall Scarlata and Benjamin Hochman.
If you had to pick one word to describe the sentiment of Schubert’s final song cycle, Schwanengesang (meaning Swan Song), it would have to be sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is one of those wonderful German words, simultaneously quite literal and entirely impossible to translate. It combines the German words for “longing” and “addiction”; it means something like “yearning,” with a healthy dash of “nostalgia”.
And so, Schubert creates these songs, which capture--in beautiful, perfect miniature--both the intensity of young love and the profound disappointment that only one whose heart has been broken can grasp. Both have that sense of longing, for the thing one has not yet enjoyed and for that which has slipped away.
Taken together, the set of 14 songs offers a good overview of Schubert’s palette, venturing from light and hopelessly optimistic to deep and world-weary. We’ll hear them as performed at the Museum’s Calderwood Hall in February 2013, by baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Benjamin Hochman.
Songs for voice and keyboard and string quartet by the New York Festival of Song and the Borromeo String Quartet.
Many of us have heard the narrative of “Dvorak: the champion of Czech folk music.” And in a way it’s true: he did popularize Czech--and more broadly, Slavic--folk music, combining it with Western classical forms in a way that made it accessible and appealing to a broad European audience. But, as with so many artists, he was constantly fighting against the very “box” he had created for himself.
The string quartet we’ll hear on today’s program--Dvorak’s 10th--was, perhaps, a halfway point. In it, Dvorak at times drifts fairly far afield from the well-worn terrain of the “Slavonic Dances.” Indeed, the third movement of the quartet could be mistaken for the work of one of Dvorak’s German contemporaries. But at other times--the second-movement “dumka,” for example--Dvorak was clearly playing to the crowd, and giving them what they expected of a composer who was, at the time, still a bit pigeonholed.
We’ll begin with a recording of “Goin’ Home” by the New York Festival of Song, and continue with the complete string quartet in E-Flat Major, performed by the Borromeo String Quartet.
Songs for string and keyboard and string octet by Colin Carr and Thomas Sauer, and the Borromeo and Jupiter String Quartets.
By most accounts, Felix Mendelssohn had a rather charmed childhood. Compared to other child prodigies of the classical and Romantic eras--Mozart, of course, springs to mind--Mendelssohn had a fairly easy time of it. His parents were encouraging and supportive without being overbearing.
But some unhappiness surely lurked below the surface. For one thing, his sister Fanny, with whom he grew up playing and studying music, was at a certain point forbidden from progressing further as a serious composer, and Felix was at least as involved in the decision to hold her back as her parents. For another, though he was born Jewish, his parents hid his identity, baptizing him into the Lutheran church, and even changing his name.
He wrote his octet in E-flat Major, the second work on today’s podcast, when he was just 16; the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream came about a year later. We’ll hear it performed by the combined Borromeo and Jupiter String Quartets. By the time he wrote the Song without Words for cello and piano, opus 109, Mendelssohn had reached the advanced age of 36. We’ll begin with the Song with Words, played by cellist Colin Carr and pianist Thomas Sauer.
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