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

Work for solo piano performed by Cecile Licad:

  • Liszt: Années de pèlerinage, Premiere année: Suisse, S. 160

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.

2 years ago | |

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.

2 years ago | |

Works for solo cello and piano performed by Colin Carr, cello and Martina Filjak, piano.

  • Bach: Solo Cello Suite No. 1
  • Schumann: Carnival Scenes from Vienna, Op. 26

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.

2 years ago | |

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:

  • Dvorák: Bože! Bože! Písen novou, from Biblical Songs No. 5, Pri rekách babylonských, from Biblical Songs, No. 7, Zpívejte Hospodinu písen novou, from Biblical Songs, No. 10
  • Dvorák: A já ti uplynu, from Moravian Duets, Op. 32, No. 1
  • Dvorák: String Quartet no. 14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105

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.

2 years ago | |

Works for cello and piano by Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello and Noreen Polera, piano:

  • Fauré: Elegie
  • Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major, transcribed for cello

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.

2 years ago | |

Works for string quartet by Musicians from Marlboro and Daedalus Quartet:

  • Haydn: Quartet in G Major, Op. 17, no. 5
  • Lerdahl: String Quartet No. 1

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.

2 years ago | |

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.

  • Mozart: Violin Sonata in E-flat Major
  • Mozart: Quintet in E-Flat Major

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.

2 years ago | |

Songs for voice and keyboard by Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, and Christopher Cano, piano:

  • De Falla: Siete Canciones populares Españolas: El Paño Moruno, Seguidilla Murciana Asturiana, Jota, Nana, Canción, Polo
  • Liszt: Pace non trovo, Der du von dem Himmel bist, Oh! Quand je dors

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.

2 years ago | |

Songs by Antoine Tamestit and Ying-Chien Lin, and Musicians from Ravinia's Steans Institute:

  • Clarke: Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919)
  • Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor

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.

2 years ago | |

Songs for voice and keyboard and string quartet by Dina Kuznetsova and Michael Barrett, and the Borromeo String Quartet:

  • Dvorák: 3 Songs: Ó, duše drahá, jedinká (“Oh Dear Soul, the Only One”) from Love Songs, Op. 83; Dobrú noc, má milá ("Goodnight, my Dear, Goodnight”) and Ej, mám já kona faku ("Hey, I have a Powerful Horse that Bears Me Well”), both from In Folk Style, Op. 73
  • Dvorák: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 ("American")

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.

2 years ago | |
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