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.
Works for cello and piano performed by Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello and Noreen Polera, piano and solo piano performed by Charlie Albright.
Robert Schumann was really the quintessential Romantic composer—with a capital ‘R’. Not content to write music that was focused on formal brilliance or technical sophistication, he wanted his work to capture and convey emotion, to unify music with other art forms—especially the written word. In many ways, he wanted his music to tell a story.
But his stories were rarely simple. His favorite plots often involved fictional characters or archetypes, but most frequently two somewhat abstract characters of his own invention: Florestan and Eusebius. They were his alter egos, depictions of two different aspects of his own self: Florestan, the passionate, extroverted side, and Eusebius, the reflective, introverted side. We’ll hear from both today when we listed to Schumann’s opus 9, Carnaval for solo piano, in which he depicts not only Florestan and Eusebius but also a gaggle of literary and real-life personalities.
Before we dive into that somewhat unruly work, we’ll listen to something a bit more straightforward, also by Schumann: his Fantasiestucke, opus 73. You’ll hear this performance by cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Noreen Polera. The piece is lyrical and fairly brief, at about 10 minutes—a good foil for the carnival to follow.
Works for piano performed by Paavali Jumppanen.
On today’s podcast, we’ll hear Beethoven’s two most famous “farewells” for solo piano: his 12th and 26th piano sonatas, nicknamed the “funeral march” and “lebewohl” sonatas, respectively.
First is the earlier sonata, Beethoven’s 12th piano sonata, opus 26, often called the “Funeral March” sonata because of its dirge-like third movement. By placing the slow movement third, Beethoven flips the traditional sonata structure a bit on its head. Typically, the piano sonatas of Beethoven’s era began when an upbeat movement is placed third rather than second, and in this spot it provides a sort of springboard for the finale, which seems all the more dazzling because of its proximity to the funeral march.
Next we hear Beethoven’s 26th piano sonata, often called “Das Lebewohl,” or—in French—“Les Adieux.” There is some disagreement as to the authenticity of the subtitles given to the three movements of this sonata, which translate into English as “The Farewell,” “The Absence,” and “The Return.” The descriptive titles stuck, though, authentic or not, probably because they seem such a good fit for the music.
Work for solo piano performed by Cecile Licad:
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.
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