Works for strings by Brahms performed by A Far Cry on December 9, 2012 and Musicians from Marlboro on May 10, 2015.
Imagine if, before you published your first string quartet, you wrote and discarded twenty others? As the All Music Guide notes, in his entire compositional life, Brahms produced just three string quartets to Haydn’s 68, Mozart’s 23, and Beethoven’s 16. This is all the more striking if one considers Brahms’ relatively long lifespan of 63 years compared to, say, Mozart, who died at age 35.
We’ll hear Brahms’s first published quartet on our podcast today, the String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, in a performance by Musicians from Marlboro. It’s not hard to hear what made this piece so challenging to write. Brahms creates a quartet that is very tightly structured, with themes that recur throughout the length of the work, not just within the individual movements, and a carefully constructed harmonic architecture.
Before we dive into the quartet, though, we begin with a piece that shows Brahms’s lighter side: an orchestral version of his Hungarian Rhapsody, arranged for the chamber orchestra A Far Cry by their cellist Alastair Eng.
Work for string quartet by Boccherini performed by Musicians from Ravinia's Steans Institute on May 3, 2015 and work for solo piano by Bach performed by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger on April 2, 2008.
What is the single most famous piece of chamber music from the Baroque era?
It’s hard to argue that the prize goes to the first work on this podcast, Boccherini’s String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5, particularly the third-movement minuet. With its flirtatious turns and lilting, syncopated arpeggios, you will recognize the tune the moment it begins. The quintet comes to a close with a rondo that gives each player a moment in the sun. We’ll hear it all performed by musicians from the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute.
Then, we have an arguably more famous composer, with an arguably less famous piece: Bach’s Italian Concerto in F Major, played on piano by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger. This piece is curious animal: a concerto for solo piano, without any orchestra or other ensemble. In a way, it is a concerto for a pianist and himself—at times, the music conjures the heft of a full ensemble, with richly voiced chords, while at others it clearly takes a more soloistic tack, with elaborate counterpoint.
Works for string orchestra and voice by Meder and Vivaldi performed by A Far Cry and Amanda Forsythe, soprano on November 16, 2014.
On this podcast, we feature three pieces from A Far Cry’s recent program of Baroque works, titled “Obsession.” Each of the works is bursting with relentless passion, though it is directed at very different subjects, for very different reasons.
In the first piece, Johann Meder’s Sonata di Battaglia, that alternates between aggressive, military-like marches and tender, reflective passages, perhaps depicting the characters’ mixed emotions at setting off for the battlefield.
Next comes Vivaldi’s variations on the famous Spanish theme “La Folia,” a tune that was a common test of a composer’s mettle. The piece gets wilder as it progresses, demanding ever more virtuosic playing from the featured violinists.
We close out the podcast with a piece featuring A Far Cry’s special guest for this concert, soprano Amanda Forsythe, in another Vivaldi work—his motet Nulla in mundo pax sincera. An ode to the bliss of heaven, the piece scorns the pains and empty pleasures of earth. Forsythe tackles the dazzling vocal passagework with delicious enthusiasm, and A Far Cry is with her every step of the way.
Work for piano trio by Schubert performed by Claremont Trio on April 26, 2015.
Some works call for their own podcast. We have just such a piece on this program: Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2, opus 100. We’ll hear it performed by the Claremont Trio: violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Donna Kwong.
The second movement features a minor tune that—thanks to Schubert—has become fairly well known. The use of this folk tune was supposedly inspired by the composer’s encounter with a Swedish folk singer shortly before he wrote the piece. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that the theme returns. In the final movement, it makes a second appearance, this time a bit altered to fit its new surroundings, but still recognizable. It gives the expansive piece a sense of coherence and familiarity, a feel of musical déjà vu: I’ve been here before, one can’t help but think, although things look very different the second time around.
Unlike many of his other late works, Schubert actually had the opportunity to hear this trio played before he passed away. It was performed at an engagement party for a school friend of Schubert’s.
Works for solo piano by Bach and Ravel performed by Ji, piano on April 12, 2015.
First, we have the less razzle-dazzle of the pair: Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major. The piece opens with a fairly serene, lilting theme. The second movement gets a bit more rollicking, with dotted rhythms and skips in the bass. And the final movement has some more virtuosic passagework.
After that comes the real fireworks: Ravel’s famous La Valse. The composer’s own introduction is really the best way to describe what happens over the course of the piece: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished,” he writes. “The clouds gradually scatter: one sees an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth.” As the piece goes on, it seems to get more and more out of control, ending in a frenzy that recalls a danse macabre—a dance to the death.
Ravel originally wrote the work for orchestra, and he intended it to be choreographed as a ballet. But when he presented the score to the Russian impresario Diaghilev, he refused. The piece was a masterpiece, Diaghilev said, but it shouldn’t be danced: it was itself a portrait of the ballet—no dancers required.
Works for chamber orchestra by Rebel and La Guerre performed by Les Délices on November 23, 2014.
We begin with an instrumental piece: La Fidelle by the composer Jean-Fery Rebel. The title—meaning “faithful one”—has clear connections to the other Rebel work on the program: a vocal selection from Rebel’s opera Ulysse. We’ll hear a pair of arias sung by Penelope at the end of the opera, when she is reunited with her husband Ulysses after his journey has finally brought him safely home. Penelope sings of the extreme pleasure of seeing her long-lost love again. We’ll hear the lovely soprano Clara Rottsalk in the role of Penelope.
Between the two Rebel works, we have a piece that is not only about but written by a woman: Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s Le Sommeil d’Ulisse, a telling of another part of the same mythic story. The singer—Clara Rottsalk again—tells of a fierce storm stirred up by Neptune that tosses Ulysses’ boat violently. But, in the end, Minerva intervenes, saving him from the frothing waves and lulling him and his crew to sleep.
Work for chorus by Sibelius performed by Boston Children’s Chorus on March 28, 2015 and work for string quartet by Tchaikovsky performed by Borromeo String Quartet on November 13, 2005.
Our podcast begins with a brief, touching selection from the Boston Children’s Chorus: a setting of Sibelius’s theme from Finlandia, translated in English as “This is My Song.” The peaceful hymn tune was originally a part of Sibelius’s patriotic symphonic poem, but it was so beloved that it was excerpted, combined with lyrics by a Finnish poet, and became the de facto national hymn of Sibelius’s home country.
After that sweet beginning, we leap into a string quartet that also has ties to its composer’s homeland: Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1. It is in the second and third movements that we especially hear the influence of the composer’s Russian homeland. The theme in the middle movement is a folk song. Stories vary: some say that Tchaikovsky learned it from a carpenter, others that he heard his sister’s gardener humming it on a visit to Ukraine. Several years later, Tchaikovsky looked back on a performance of the piece with pride, writing, “Never in my life have I felt so flattered…as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting next to me, heard my Andante with tears coursing down his cheeks.”
We’ll hear the piece played with great feeling by the Borromeo Quartet.
Work for sextet by Beethoven performed by Musicians from Marlboro on May 10, 2015 and work for string trio by Beethoven performed by Musicians from Marlboro on November 13, 2005.
We’ll hear two Beethoven chamber works on this podcast…though one sounds suspiciously symphonic in scope. As the saying goes: three’s company, but six—apparently—is a crowd.
We begin with the sonically oversized Sextet in E-flat Major, for two horns and string quartet. Though clearly chamber music, in terms of sheer numbers, the piece has the feel of a concerto, with the strings playing a supporting, “orchestra-style” role, and the horns offer a pastoral-sounding duet with no shortage of technical challenges.
Then, we cut the forces in half for the more intimate but no less substantial String Trio in D Major, opus 9, number 2. Written a couple years after the sextet, this piece has a more collaborative character, with all three players taking equal part, and musical ideas at least as ambitious in scope as the sextet, if not more so. The first movement, for example, boasts not one theme, but three—all cleverly related and interwoven in the development section.
Both performances on this podcast are by Musicians from Marlboro, a perennial favorite with Gardner Museum audiences. We begin with the sextet.
Work for solo piano by Schubert performed by Ji, piano on April 12, 2015 and work for violin and piano by Schubert performed by Aleksey Semenenko, violin and Inna Firsova, piano on November 2, 2014.
How many great works have been saved from the ash heap of history by posthumous publication?
From time to time, one encounters a piece of classical music with a mysterious-looking opus number—often chronologically nonsensical, sometimes containing an abbreviation. Often, this denotes a work published (and assigned a catalogue number) after the composer’s death. Such is the case with both of the Schubert pieces on this podcast—the third Impromptu in B-flat Major and the “Grand duo” Sonata for violin and piano in A Major.
The first is played by Ji, a well-known Korean pianist who won the Young Concert Artists auditions and recently made his Gardner Museum debut. If the theme sounds a bit familiar, don’t be surprised. Drawn from the composer’s incidental music to the play Rosamunde, it was apparently a favorite tune. The impromptu takes the form of a theme and variation.
The “grand duo” sonata—also published after the composer’s death—is fittingly named: the piece exhibits true equality and partnership between the piano and violin, played on this recording by violinist Aleksey Semenenko and pianist Inna Firsova. (Semenenko, like Ji, is a recent YCA winner.) It is an elegant but compact little work, less than 20 minutes in length.
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