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The Concert
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Classical Music Podcasts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
280 Episodes

Works for solo piano performed by Martina Filjak.

  • Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat Major, K. 333
  • Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14

This week’s podcast is all about playing to your strengths. We’ll hear two piano sonatas, each written by composers who were also noted pianists and often performed their own work. We begin with Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 13 in B-flat Major, a familiar work to many listeners, but lengthy and widely considered one of the composer’s most challenging pieces to play. Mozart most likely wrote it for himself, and he almost certainly performed it in concert. Next, we’ll hear Prokofiev’s second Piano Sonata, in D minor, Opus 14. Prokofiev was an accomplished pianist, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and his first successes as a composer were with works he himself performed, which often included feats of great pianistic virtuosity. We’ll hear both of these virtuoso works played by a young pianist who is making waves of her own. Martina Filjak won the prestigious Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2009 and has since been catapulted into an impressive career.

2 years ago | |
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Works for piano trio performed by the Claremont Trio.

  • Fanny Mendelssohn (Hensel): Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11
  • Helen Grime: Three Whistler Miniatures (World Premiere)

Born in 1805 in Hamburg, Fanny Mendelssohn grew up studying music alongside her little brother, Felix. But as she neared marrying age, she was increasingly discouraged by the men in her family—first her father, then her brother—who thought it improper for a lady to pursue a career as a published composer. In recent decades, however, Fanny Mendelssohn’s music has been published, recorded, and performed with increasing frequency. We’ll begin our podcast today with a performance by the Claremont Trio of Fanny Mendelssohn’s engrossing Piano Trio in D minor, Opus 11, considered by many to be one of her finest works.

After that, we’ll hear another trio, this one by a contemporary female composer, Helen Grime. The three-movement work, titled “The Whistler Miniatures,” was commissioned in honor of the opening of the Gardner Museum’s new concert space, Calderwood Hall, and was premiered there in April 2012. The set of musical miniatures was inspired by three Whistler chalk and pastel miniatures in the Gardner Museum’s collection, all of which can be seen hanging in the Veronese Room at the Museum.

2 years ago | |
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Works for piano and string quartet, performed by Paavali Jumppanen and the Borromeo String Quartet.

  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata in F Major, Op. 54
  • Beethoven: String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1

In the 18th century, chamber music was—as the name suggests—played almost exclusively in the home. Much of the time these intimate performances featured amateur musicians—people playing for their own entertainment after dinner. The pieces we’ll hear on today’s podcast, however, sat at the crossroads of this shift from amateur to professional chamber-music-making, perhaps intentionally so. We’ll begin the program with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Major, op. 54. The sonata begins simply enough, with a sweet minuet. Not one minute in, though, the bass thunders in and introduces an assertive passage of octaves that would give any beginning pianist a run for his money. Pianist Paavali Jumppanen plays it with aplomb.

Concluding our program is Beethoven’s seventh string quartet, in F Major, a work that marked a transition in Beethoven’s development as a composer as he moved towards an increasingly complex and expansive Romantic sensibility. The recording we’ll hear features the Borromeo String Quartet, who are more than up to the task.

2 years ago | |
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Works for cello and piano by Michael Kannen and Steven Beck, and piano quartet by Musicians from Ravinia's Steans Institute.

  • Webern: Two Pieces for Cello and Piano
  • Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25

Our program today pairs a robust Brahms chamber music masterpiece—in this case the First Piano Quartet in G minor—with a piece by the Second Viennese School, examining Schoenberg’s assertion that Brahms was really the original progressive.

We’ll begin with Webern’s Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, performed by cellist Michael Kannen and pianist Steven Beck. Though undoubtedly the work of a young composer—Webern was at the time a 15-year-old high school student—the music contains glimmers of what Webern would become. The listener may be quite surprised by the strong Romantic influence, which is markedly different from later works.

After the Webern, we’ll hear the Brahms First Piano Quartet, played by Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute. Although this piece seems traditional, Brahms is innovating beneath the surface, weaving the four movements together with recurring thematic material. The final movement is perhaps the best known and is particularly delightful—a lively gypsy rondo.

2 years ago | |
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Works for keyboard and string quartet performed by pianist George Li and Musicians from Marlboro.

  • Debussy: Three Preludes
  • Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10

Claude Debussy’s music is so loved by contemporary audiences that it is difficult to imagine him as a rebel. But beneath the seductive, languorous surface of Debussy’s music lies a true modernist, whose experiments with harmony and form ushered in the 20th century.

Today’s podcast shows Debussy working in two stalwart genres of the classical tradition: the piano prelude and the string quartet. Unlike earlier preludes, however, which tended to follow a carefully choreographed progression of keys, Debussy’s two books of piano preludes unfold much more like a parade of miniatures. We’ll hear three of them, performed by pianist George Li: a jaunty depiction of a juggler, called “Général Lavine”; the famous “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”; and the virtuosic “Feux d’artifice”—or, in English, “Fireworks”.

Next, we will hear Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor. Pierre Boulez once said that Debussy freed chamber music from "rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics," a sentiment apparent in this performance by Musicians from Marlboro.

2 years ago | |
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Works for solo piano performed by pianists Cecile Licad and Jean-Frédéric Neuburger.

  • Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp minor, Op. 48 No. 2
  • Chopin: Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49
  • Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35

On February 26, 1832, a young pianist named Frédéric Chopin made his debut at the intimate Salle Pleyel, to a room filled with music-world notables including Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn. He would go on to revolutionize the way composers wrote for the piano, and the way pianists played it. We’ll begin with his Nocturne in F-sharp minor, Op. 48 No. 2, as performed by Cecile Licad. Next we’ll hear a slightly longer work, the Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49 No. 2. This more expansive work earns the title “fantasy” from its semi-improvisatory nature—we move through a series of different sections, with different themes, that unfold in succession. The performance is again by Cecile Licad. Finally, we’ll hear Chopin’s Second Sonata in B-flat minor, as performed by pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger. The four-movement piece roams widely, from the stormy opening to the famous third-movement funeral march, all culminating in a virtuoso perpetual motion finale with rapid-fire triplets.

2 years ago | |
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Works for solo piano performed by pianist George Li.

  • Schubert-Liszt: Ständchen von Shakespeare
  • Schumann: Abegg Variations, Op. 1
  • Schubert: Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 ("Wanderer")

The theme and variations form is one of the oldest in music, and a particularly popular choice for keyboard music. Two of the variations we’ll hear on today’s episode are based on songs by Schubert. The most substantial of these is the last piece on the program: Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, popularly known as the “Wanderer Fantasy.” In this work, Schubert takes his lied, or song, “The Wanderer,” as a kernel of inspiration, and stretches it to an elaborate piece of nearly twenty minutes. The first work is also inspired by a Schubert lied: Franz Liszt’s Ständchen von Shakespeare. Ständchen is one of the lightest pieces in the collection, a ray of sunshine amidst the Sturm und Drang of Liszt’s twelve Schubert lieder transcriptions. Between these two works, we’ll hear Schumann’s Abegg Variations, Opus 1. The piece was inspired by and dedicated to the Countess von Abegg, whose name is literally spelled out in the work’s musical theme—with the notes A, B-flat, E, G and G.

2 years ago | |
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Works for solo piano and for piano trio, performed by pianist Paavali Jumppanen and the Claremont Trio.

  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1
  • Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2

Whether it happens right away or many decades later, it’s inevitable: some works in a composer’s oeuvre will become “hits,” and some will never quite get the attention they deserve. In this episode, we’ll focus on two of Beethoven’s chamber pieces that often seem to be in the shadow of more famous counterparts. First, we’ll hear his ninth piano sonata in E Major. Within the context of Beethoven’s complete sonatas, it’s easy to imagine this work being overshadowed by its immediate predecessor, the beloved “Pathétique.” However, the sonata holds plenty of surprise and ingenuity for the attentive listener. The second piece on the program is Beethoven’s E-flat piano trio. The younger sibling of the “Ghost” Trio—which itself is often outshined by the “Archduke,” the most familiar of Beethoven’s trios—the E-flat trio is really quite a lovely melding of old and new. Beethoven seems to nod at his forbears, Haydn and Mozart, while still pushing the harmonic envelope, resulting in a piece that is unassuming on the surface, but surprisingly modern underneath.

2 years ago | |
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Works for clarinet and piano, and string quartet, performed by Carol McGonnell, clarinet; Steven Beck, piano; and the Borromeo String Quartet.

  • Berg: Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 5
  • Brahms: String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51

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.

2 years ago | |
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Works for double bass and pipa, performed by DaXun Zhang, double bass, and Yang Wei, pipa.

  • Mozart: Turkish March, K. 331/3
  • Trad. Chinese: Ancient Battle Field
  • Anderson: Four Short Pieces for solo double bass
  • Trad. Chinese: Rainbow Dance and Galloping Horses
  • Bach: Invention No. 11 and Invention No. 6
  • Handel: Passacaglia (trans. Halvorsen)

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.

2 years ago | |
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