Works for chamber orchestra performed by A Far Cry with guest violist Hellen Callus on February 2, 2014.
The Elgar, though written as an introduction, will come second on our podcast. Clocking in at about 14 minutes, the piece is a rich work of post-Romantic passion, written for string quartet and string orchestra – a sort of modern concerto grosso. In another nod to earlier styles, Elgar also inserts a devilishly difficult fugue, which comes around the middle of the Allegro, in place of a more conventional development section.
Before the Elgar, we’ll hear Bach’s Viola Concerto in E-flat Major. This is a somewhat curious piece. There’s substantial evidence that Bach did, in fact, write a viola concerto made up of these movements—or ones very much like them—but the manuscript itself was lost. The score we’ll hear performed is actually a reconstruction, assembled by a contemporary musicologist, from three surviving Bach works that are believed to contain fragments of the lost concerto. The performance we’ll hear of this rediscovered and little-known piece features the sought-after violist Helen Callus, whose performance makes a compelling case for this work’s place in the repertory.
Works for solo piano by Mozart performed by Jeremy Denk on January 12, 2014.
As the The New York Times puts it, “Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs.” Today, we’ll hear Jeremy Denk play a bit of music from the classical era, two sonatas by Mozart: number 15 in F Major and number 8 in A minor.
The A minor sonata – written when Mozart was just 22 – is one of very few minor-key sonatas by Mozart, and it’s not surprising that he wrote it during a trying time. Mozart had left his job as a court musician in the summer of 1777, and he spent the next year traveling, performing, and trying to find a suitable position. His mother fell ill and passed away in the summer of 1778, right around the same time Mozart was composing the piece. The emotional, even angry tone of this piece is not surprising, given the context. But even within this tumultuous piece, there are moments of lightness, particularly in the second movement.
Before that, we’ll begin the program with the F Major sonata, Mozart’s fifteenth, unique in its transparent, finely wrought contrapuntal textures and its liberal use of dissonant clashes, particularly in the slow movement.
Work for string orchestra by Ljova performed by A Far Cry on December 8, 2013 and work for clarinet trio by Brahms performed by Musicians from Marlboro on March 25, 2012.
On our podcast today, we have a pair of musical melting pots: pieces that combine diverse musical influences.
We’ll begin with a performance by A Far Cry of Vjola Suite, a fun contemporary dance suite by a young Brooklyn-based composer and performer who goes by the pen name “Ljova”. This suite was inspired by Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s experiences living and playing in New York City, with its myriad cultures. The piece draws on the folk music of Eastern Europe, West Africa, Cuba, and the Middle East. It is – as the composer puts it – “a collection of lively dances, for which the steps have not yet been choreographed.”
After the suite, we’ll hear some more dances, in Johannes Brahms’ clarinet trio in A Minor, Op. 114. Brahms’s dances aren’t quite so geographically diverse, but they are, in their own way, a melting pot of then-contemporary influences as well. There is a flavor of the gypsy tunes, the refined Viennese waltz, and the more raucous Austrian Ländler, which features a spirited solo for the clarinetist. Performing the Brahms we’ll hear a trio of musicians from the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute.
First, the chamber orchestra A Far Cry performing the Vjola Suite.
Works for solo piano by Schubert and an improvisation by Albright, performed by Charlie Albright, piano on November 17, 2013.
Our program today has as its centerpiece Schubert’s final notes – his sonata in C minor, D. 958, one of the last three sonatas he wrote.
Schubert had been suffering from health problems for some time, likely complications of syphilis, but in the fall of 1828 he took a turn for the worse. He moved to his brother’s house outside the city, hoping the fresh air might alleviate his illness. He never recovered, but he also never stopped writing music. He composed up until the very end.
Whether Schubert knew quite how serious his condition was at the time he was writing these sonatas is debatable, but it is tempting to read these final three pieces as a musical reckoning with death. The sonata we’ll hear is the first of the group, and it is perhaps the most emotionally stormy of the bunch.
The pianist in the recording we’ll hear is Charlie Albright, a young musician whose performances we’ve featured previously. After the sonata, we’ll hear some of Charlie’s own music: an improvisation in the style of Schubert recorded at the same recital, in November of 2013.
Work for string orchestra and voice by Handel performed by Rebel Ensemble with Derek Lee Ragin on October 2, 2005. Work for string quartet by Beethoven performed by the Borromeo String Quartet on January 30, 2011.
Loss is a topic that has often been explored in great works of art. Today, we’ll hear a couple of pieces inspired by losses of varying sorts.
First, we have Handel’s aria “Cara sposa” from the opera Rinaldo, performed by counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin and the early-music ensemble Rebel. As the aria begins, Rinaldo’s fiancée has just been abducted by the powerful sorceress Armida. He laments her disappearance and his sorrow and pain is evident in Handel’s writing, which contains moments of wrenching dissonance.
Then, we’ll hear Beethoven’s Ninth String Quartet, in C Major, performed by the Borromeo Quartet. We cannot know exactly what Beethoven was thinking when he wrote this piece but the writer and composer Robert Simpson has suggested that the piece can be viewed as a literal narrative of Beethoven’s coming to terms with his deafness: the tonally unmoored, dissonant opening chords a depiction of deafness itself; the following consonant sections a representation of the discovery that Beethoven could still “hear” music in his head; and the finale a defiant triumph.
First, we’ll hear Handel’s lament, “Cara sposa,” from Rinaldo.
Work for solo piano by Liszt performed by Martina Filjak on April 8, 2012. Work for string orchestra by Grieg performed by A Far Cry on September 22, 2013.
Both of the works on today’s program have literary roots.
We begin with Franz Liszt’s virtuosic Ballade No. 2 in B minor, a piece thought to have been inspired by the German author Gottfried Bürger’s influential poetic ballad Lenore. The piece embodies a similar sense of drama, and the ominous beginning is very much in keeping with the suspenseful emotional climate of the poem. We’ll hear it performed by Martina Filjak, a Croatian pianist.
Next, we’ll hear a piece that was dedicated outright to an important writer: Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite for String Orchestra, opus 40. Grieg had been commissioned to write a work in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ludvig Holberg, one of the most important forefathers of modern Danish and Norweigian literature.
In response, Grieg wrote this piece, subtitled “From Holberg’s Time,” intended as an evocation of the music of the Baroque. Grieg’s piece is modeled on a Baroque keyboard suite and though originally composed for piano, we’ll hear the version that Grieg adapted for strings, performed by A Far Cry.
First, the Liszt Ballade.
Work for string quintet by Mozart performed by the Orion String Quartet with Ida Kavafian on October 15, 2006. Work for string orchestra by Mozart performed by A Far Cry on April 21, 2013.
“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is probably Mozart’s most famous composition– and arguably one of the most famous pieces of classical music today. The phrase does translate literally as “A Little Night Music,” but in Mozart’s day, the word “nachtmusik” was a fairly common musical description, often substituted for the more familiar “Serenade.” Indeed, the piece most of us know as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is more properly known as the Serenade in G, K. 525.
This work is inherently appealing and supremely fun to listen to. We’ll hear it played by A Far Cry, the Gardner’s chamber orchestra in residence.
Beforehand, we’ll hear another lovely little ditty of Mozart’s, the first viola quintet, in B-flat, performed by the Orion String Quartet and guest violist, Ida Kavafian. This string quintet is often referred to as a “viola quintet” because the violist is the “special guest”. It was a somewhat unconventional choice (other composers more often added an extra cello, rather than a viola) but Mozart returned to this quintet configuration several more times.
We’ll hear the quintet first, followed by that very famous serenade.
Works by Tchaikovsky for cello and piano performed by Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Noreen Polera. Work by Tchaikovsky for string orchestra performed by A Far Cry ensemble.
On today’s podcast, we’ll have the lovely experience of being serenaded by Tchaikovsky for the next 40 minutes or so.
The star of the program is the piece you were perhaps already expecting, given that introduction: Tchaikovsky’s beautiful and beloved Serenade for Strings in C Major, as performed by A Far Cry, a young, conductor-less ensemble based in Boston.
The heart-on-your-sleeve passion shines through in nearly every note of the piece, which contains luscious harmony, tender melodies, and spirited passage work. The chorale-like theme introduced at the very beginning of the piece returns time and time again, lending the piece a sense of groundedness, and making for an incredibly satisfying conclusion, when the theme returns for one final time.
We’ll have a couple brief musical appetizers before we dig into the Serenade, two works for cello and piano: Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne and his Pezzo Capriccioso. The Nocturne has a beautiful, singing melody and the “Capricious Piece” (as the Italian translates) changes mood on a dime, from dark drama to rising melody. We’ll hear both of these brief pieces as performed by cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Noreen Polera.
Work for solo piano by Schubert performed by Charlie Albright, piano.
With a title like “Impromptus,” one expects this set of four piano pieces by Schubert to be a bit spontaneous. But anyone expecting a Keith Jarret-like improvisation will be surprised to discover how structured and planned these “Impromptus” feel.
Indeed, there was some disagreement, after the fact, about the justification for the title “Impromptus.” Robert Schumann – a friend of Schubert’s – apparently maintained that the piece was really a four-movement sonata in disguise, broken up and named by Schubert’s publisher in an effort to encourage more sales.
The four Impromptus are varied in character and structure, but each does seem to create a particular mood or emotional landscape, and then explores that landscape, whether through the straightforward theme-and-variations structure of the third impromptu or the more structured, sonata-like form of the first impromptu. And in this way, at least, it’s perhaps not so far off from the idea of improvisation.
We’ll hear these works performed by Charlie Albright, a talented young pianist who recently graduated from New England Conservatory and Harvard’s joint degree program and is now earning his Artist Diploma at Juilliard.
Works for voice and piano performed by Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, and Christopher Cano, pianist and string quintet performed by Borromeo String Quartet with Nathaniel Martin, bass.
For our 185th podcast program, we’ll hear from Antonin Dvorák, focusing on two of his chamber works.
We begin with Dvorák’s Gypsy Songs, opus 55. The cycle of seven songs is based on Czech poetry by Adolf Heyduk about the lives of Slovakian gypsies. But Dvorák chose to premiere and publish the songs in a German translation of the original text. The cycle was fairly successful; in particular, the song at the heart of the cycle—the fourth of seven—has become one of his best-known, usually translated in English as “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Throughout, the songs are both lyrical and spirited, combining the flavor of gypsy music with the sophistication of Western art song.
After the songs, we’ll turn to Dvorák’s second string quintet, opus 77. Written in 1874, the string quintet is among Dvorák’s earliest mature works. At the time of its composition, he had been working in relative anonymity in Prague. The music itself, though, reveals a composer already in possession of a unique and self-assured voice, with a gift for melody and a wonderful knack for writing spirited, dance-infused passages.
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