Works for cello and piano by Michael Kannen and Steven Beck, and piano quartet by Musicians from Ravinia's Steans Institute.
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.
Works for keyboard and string quartet performed by pianist George Li and Musicians from Marlboro.
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.
Works for solo piano performed by pianists Cecile Licad and Jean-Frédéric Neuburger.
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.
Works for solo piano performed by pianist George Li.
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.
Works for solo piano and for piano trio, performed by pianist Paavali Jumppanen and the Claremont Trio.
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.
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.
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