Works for clarinet and piano, and string quartet, performed by Carol McGonnell, clarinet; Steven Beck, piano; and the Borromeo String Quartet.
In 1933, Arnold Schoenberg—the founding father of atonality, and in many ways the very definition of “progressive”— turned the classical music establishment on its head when he declared Johannes Brahms one of the greatest innovators of the Romantic era. One of the pieces Schoenberg cited as evidence of Brahms’ pathbreaking sensibility is the featured work on today’s podcast: his first string quartet. Schoenberg felt that Brahms’ ability to spin out large sections of music from small motives foreshadowed twentieth-century techniques. We’ll begin with a twentieth-century work: Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, a series of brief miniatures. Apparently the piece caused some friction with Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher, who criticized his pupil for writing such small-scale works and encouraged him to think bigger. Interestingly, Berg would go on to become best-known for his operas—which were, without a doubt, larger in conception. Schoenberg’s criticism notwithstanding, the clarinet pieces are actually wonderful little works—atonal but strikingly lyrical.
Works for double bass and pipa, performed by DaXun Zhang, double bass, and Yang Wei, pipa.
In this episode of The Concert, we’ll hear how Western classical music interacts with one of the most ancient classical traditions: Chinese classical music. Today’s podcast features three ancient Chinese melodies, performed by bassist DaXun Zhang and pipa player Yang Wei. Ancient Battle Field shows off the full expressive range of the pipa with strumming and plucking techniques designed to evoke everything from the sounds of army drums and horns to the neighing of horses, the shouting of soldiers, and the firing of cannons. Later in the program, Zhang joins on bass in renditions of Rainbow Dance and Galloping Horses (with yet more neighing!). We’ll also hear the two play Western pieces, including Bach’s inventions, Handel’s Passacaglia, and Mozart’s Turkish March. Another highlight is Four Short Pieces, a contemporary work for solo bass by David Anderson which offers a delightful showcase for this incredible bassist’s expressive range—a musicianship that speaks across national boundaries.
Works for voice and chamber ensemble, and string quartet, performed by Rebel Baroque Orchestra with Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor, and the Borromeo String Quartet.
For any composer of vocal music, the text is an important and often driving force in determining musical content and structure. We begin this episode with two early examples from opera, Porpora’s gorgeous “Alto Giove” from his opera Polifemo—a beautiful prayer of thanks to Jove—and Handel’s fiery and melismatic “Rompo i lacci” from Flavio. Beethoven’s use of text is subtler, but just as important in his final string quartet, opus 135, number 16. At the beginning of the final movement, Beethoven scrawls a fateful-sounding title across the manuscript: “The Difficult Decision.” Alongside the beginning chords, he poses a question: “Must it be?” The quartet chews over the question for a while in the introduction until, all of a sudden, the key changes to F Major and Beethoven gives us his answer: “Yes, it must!” Historians and musicologists have batted around many theories as to what Beethoven meant by this ambiguous question and answer.
Works for piano performed by Paavali Jumppanen.
A funny thing happened on July 31, 1990 at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Deep in a storage space, a controller scouring for historical records found the fourteen-page manuscript to Mozart’s Fantasy and Piano Sonata in C minor, an incredibly important autograph edition that later sold at auction at Sotheby’s for some $1.7 million. It’s a rather extreme example of the case that can be made for the enduring significance of Mozart’s music. We begin this episode with Mozart’s Sonata No. 12 in F Major. Those interested in historical performance practice will be delighted to know that Mozart’s own ornamentation of the second movement has been preserved in an extant first edition, offering a glimpse into the sort of embellishments a consummate player would have been expected to add. We then hear that discovery from the seminary vault: Mozart’s Fantasy and Sonata in C minor. Here, too, we find evidence of Mozart’s performance style: the manuscript found in the safe in 1990 offers an entirely different set of ornaments than the previously published edition. As pianist Paavali Jumppanen proposes, it’s likely that the composer himself played the piece a bit differently each time, and that flexibility is reflected in the changes visible between the different scores.
Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C Major performed by Musicians from Marlboro.
Let’s play a little word association game. When I say the words “Schubert” and “quintet,” what’s the next word that springs to mind? Perhaps “trout?” It’s fitting that the chamber work many of us may know Schubert for was inspired by one of his art songs, or lieder. Even towards the end of his all-too-brief lifetime, when he was in the prime of his career, Schubert was known more for his songs and piano pieces than his chamber and orchestral works. In fact, that “other” quintet—the one we’ll hear today, his cello quintet in C Major—was rejected by his publisher. A quarter-century went by before it was eventually published, posthumously. But that lack of recognition is no indication of the quality of the work. Today, the cello quintet is widely seen as one of the most important chamber works of the Romantic era, and the pinnacle of Schubert’s own output.
Works for solo cello, and violin and piano duo performed by cellist Colin Carr, violinist Corey Cerovsek, and pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
Sometimes, what isn’t there is just as important as what is. It’s a concept that carries across multiple artistic forms—in the visual arts, we call it negative space; in music, it’s rest. In this episode, we examine two pieces that take different approaches to this “negative space.” First, Bach’s third cello suite. There are many reasons the cello suites number among Bach’s most incredible achievements, but his use of implied harmony is surely among the most remarkable. While he does include some multiphonics (two notes sounded simultaneously), more often he relies on the solo lines to suggest the contours of the harmonies—giving us just enough information that our ears fill in the harmonies. In Beethoven’s playful second violin sonata, the instruments switch places after the first iteration of the theme, with the violin playing the melody—only to pass it off to the piano a few bars later. This back-and-forth continues until the very end of the sonata. Keep your ears open—we won’t give away the surprise, but suffice it to say the playful one-upmanship keeps up right through the final bar.
Works for keyboard and string sextet performed by Charlie Albright, piano, and Musicians from Marlboro.
Today, we’ll hear from two important Czech composers: Dvorák, whose idiomatic Slavonic pieces were among the first to put Czech music on the Western classical “map,” and Janácek, whose inventive work brought it into the 20th century. We begin with Janácek’s Sonata 1.X.1905, an emotional epitaph written to commemorate František Pavlí, killed October 1st, 1905, in demonstrations in Brno. The demonstrators were calling on the government to open a university in the city; the peaceful protest turned violent when Pavlí, a carpenter, was bayoneted by soldiers. Janácek’s emotion about the incident, and also his reaction to it, is clear from the music. Next, we’ll hear Dvorák’s String Sextet in A Major. Written in 1878, around the same time as the wildly successful Slavonic Rhapsodies and Dances, the sextet, too, draws on traditional Czech forms and styles. The middle two movements are modeled on two such folk sources: the Dumka, a thoughtful and melancholy epic ballad, and the Furiant, a fiery Bohemian dance.
Works for keyboard and string quintet performed by Katherine Chi, piano, and Musicians from Marlboro.
The late 80’s were good to Mozart. In 1786, his opera The Marriage of Figaro premiered to widespread acclaim; the next year, Don Giovanni opened to similar accolades. The work we’ll hear on today’s podcast, his string quintet in C Major, K. 515, springs from that wonderfully productive time. For this delightful and sunny quintet, Mozart imaginatively adds a second viola to the standard string quartet. He uses this second interior voice to lovely effect in the third movement in particular, as a duet partner to the first violin. We’ll introduce the quintet, fittingly, with an arrangement of themes from Mozart’s then-recent operatic triumph, The Marriage of Figaro. Katherine Chi will perform the Fantasie on Two Motives from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Composed by Liszt but left incomplete, the piece and was later completed and published by the famous pianist and Liszt enthusiast Ferruccio Busoni. A charming pianistic take on the opera, the piece quotes two arias: “Voi che sapete” and “Non più andrai.”
Stravinsky once famously said, “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.” Today we’ll listen to works by two composers who stole from themselves. “Meditation” began its life as the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, but was rejected and re-cast as the first movement of his Souvenir d'un lieu cher for violin and piano, and finally extracted and published separately, as it is performed in this recording. Dvorák’s String Quintet was originally written as a five-movement work, with an Intermezzo as the second movement, as we hear it performed on this podcast. That movement, however, was cut from the final version of the quintet, and it has had several lives in other arrangements.
Today, we will hear two pieces by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, beginning with his Terzetto for two violins and viola from 1887. Besieged with commissions after several very successful trips to England, Dvorák wrote this piece in just one week! Unapologetically melodic, the Terzetto’s themes dovetail and layer between the instruments, always containing a hint of wistfulness. The piece is far more rich, dramatic, and complex than either its title or its simple instrumentation would indicate. One of Dvorák’s earlier works, his Serenade for Winds and Strings, was written over the course of two weeks in 1879, during another period of increased demand for his compositions. Scored for a large ensemble of winds, brass, cello and bass, it nonetheless maintains a simplicity of line and texture. The work’s solidity of sound and honesty of expression convey an integrity that is present in much of Dvorák’s music, especially fitting for a composer who always placed family, homeland, nature, and music above all else.
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