The week began with Camerata San Antonio’s superb accounts of French and Spanish string quartets..
We’ve been privileged to hear many of the most acclaimed globe-trotting string quartets over the years, thanks to the San Antonio Chamber Music Society – and even more privileged to have Camerata San Antonio’s core string quartet in our midst, playing for us several times a year. These folks can go toe-to-toe with the best – violinists Anastasia Parker and Matthew Zerweck, violist Emily Freudigman and cellist Ken Freudigman.
Camerata’s program on Nov. 5 held the sole string quartets of two French masters, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy, and by the French-influenced Spaniard Joaquin Turina. The Fauré was especially welcome: Composed just before he died in 1924, it is one of his finest achievements, an engrossing essay in slippery tonality, dense textures and complex counterpoint.
The performances were consistently vigorous, unified, smartly detailed and sonically lustrous. But most impressive was the ever-clear sense of direction, the inexorable momentum that carried the listener from start to finish, especially in Fauré and Debussy. The Turina piece, with one foot in Spanish folk idioms and one in Debussy, and a bit of Chausson for good measure, was less amenable to a clear arc, but still pleasurable.
The recording equipment visible at this concert emboldens us to hope that Camerata will release a recording of the Fauré and Debussy quartets, at least.
Only one minor complaint: Either the electronic enhancement in the University of the Incarnate Word’s concert hall was set too high or my ears were temporarily hyper-sensitive.
Three worthy concerts in two days: On Oct. 1, Camerata San Antonio brought back pianist Viktor Valkov to join its excellent string quartet…Camerata San Antonio opened its season in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall with a program of Brahms, pseudo-Brahms (Carl Frühling) and something completely different, Entr’acte (Minuet and Trio) (2011) for string quartet by the American composer Caroline Shaw, the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 2013.
Read more at incidentlight.com
Fauré, String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121
By the time Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) had reached his 77th year, he had assembled a fine catalog of chamber music that comprised two violin sonatas, two cello sonatas, two piano quartets, and two piano quintets. Possibly wishing to make the cycle more complete, the composer embarked on a string quartet and a piano trio. He composed them simultaneously and completed the trio in the spring of 1923. The quartet, finished in September 1924 about a month before Fauré’s death, was his final work. It was also his only chamber work not to include a piano.
On September 9, 1923, the composer wrote to his wife Marie in Paris from his working-vacation spot, Annecy-le-Vieux:
I have undertaken a quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it! . . . So you can well imagine I am frightened too. I have spoken of this to on one. I shall say nothing about it as long as I am nowhere near my objective: the end! (Translation: J. Barrie Jones)
And as was Beethoven when composing his Last Quartets, Fauré was now completely deaf. Returning to Paris for the fall season, he had finished the first two movements. It was not until the following summer that he was able to resume work, but on September 12, 1924, he wrote to his wife, “I finished that finale yesterday evening. So, therefore, the quartet is completed. . . .” The premiere took place the following June, but, unfortunately, Fauré did not live to hear it.
The style of the first movement may surprise those who love Fauré’s more standard, lyrical works. In his very late style, his music was often more abstract, more dissonant, and less attached to the polarity of keys. In the central portion of this movement, the music becomes for a time steeped in counterpoint, giving us textures unusual in Fauré’s music. A reprise of earlier ideas eventually winds down, bringing the movement to a pianissimo ending.
The impressionistic description of the second movement by biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux is in the gossamer (and more traditional) style of the music itself:
The Andante is one of the finest pieces of string quartet writing. From start to finish, it bathes in a supernatural light. . . . There is nothing that is not beautiful in this movement with its subtle variations of light-play, a sort of white upon white. [At the ending,] the sublime music sinks out of sight, where it carries on, rather than seeming to come to an end.
For a time, Fauré considered adding a fourth movement to this work. As we listen to the existing final Allegro, we can understand how that might have been possible. For this music can be perceived as a scherzo in disguise. The playful pizzicato and spiccato accompaniments support long-breathed melodies. However, once we are accustomed to the pace of the background, the music may give listeners a sense of abstract meditation.
Every aspect of Fauré’s String Quartet is fresh and inventive. This puts us in mind of a famous earlier quotation by the composer himself: “Where there is invention, there is genius.”
Turina, String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 4 (“de la Guitarra”)
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was, alongside Albéniz, Granados, and de Falla, one of the leading Spanish nationalist composers of the early 20th century. Like Falla, he spent time in Paris, where his style developed certain aspects of musical Impressionism. These he mixed effectively with native and synthesized Spanish folk melodies to produce music in a style similar to Falla’s, yet distinctive in many ways. Turina became best known for both his atmospheric solo piano music and his colorful orchestral and chamber ensemble works.
He also contributed significantly to the literature of the classical guitar. Encouraged and inspired by Andrés Segovia, who brought the instrument to prominence in the 1920s, Turina composed several works for the guitar, mostly modelled on Andalusian dances. The String Quartet “de la Guitarra” is so called because it contains a musical motto comprised of the tones of the guitar’s open strings. Composed in 1911, the quartet preceded Turina’s relationship with Segovia by more than a decade. Thus, the music demonstrates this composer’s affinity as a Spaniard for this Spanish instrument.
Following an explosive opening, the Preludio presents the guitar-string motto in the cello pizzicato, leading to a flowing sequence of melodies and short ideas. The motto appears again twice, each time leading to a chain of attractive song-like melodies.
The second movement (Allegro moderato) gives us a glimpse of Turina’s time in Paris and the Impressionistic side of his music. Momentary themes weave in and out of the quartet’s multi-voice fabric, and the harmonic language is often reminiscent of Debussy. A subtle climax occurs about two-thirds through the movement, after which the music takes on a more climactic, determined Allegro feeling.
The Zortzico, a Basque folk dance, is the model for Turina’s third movement. Much of the dances asymmetrical rhythmic character occurs in the opening section. In the central portion, the composer repeatedly presents a lyrical melody that unmistakably reflects the music of his native Seville. Rounding out the movement, the asymmetrical rhythms of the opening return, but the music takes on in a quieter character.
The Andante quasi lento is a study in mood contrasts. Its chain of brief sections presents a continuity of contrasting themes, most of which are distinctly Impressionistic. Apparent tempo changes aid this kaleidoscopic effect.
Sunny Iberia would seem to be Turina’s idea at the opening of the Finale. He goes on to develop this music as well as offer a few new themes. Wisps of flamenco melody weave in and out of the musical fabric. The guitar string motto introduces the final section, which summarizes the Quartet’s message.
Debussy, String Quartet in G Minor
The songs show Debussy to be the poet’s musician, and many of the piano works the painter’s musician. He is seldom the musician’s musician, at any rate not in the sense that he wrote works deriving inspiration from the technical resources of music alone.
With these words, biographer Edward Lockspeiser introduced the chamber music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The passage suggests that, like Mussorgsky before him, Debussy was out of his element in “absolute” music, much of which he found too academic to be dynamically interesting and vital. However, he found ways around the problem in his 1892 String Quartet, which was not without “outside” influences. The Javanese gamelon music, which had impressed Debussy so deeply when he heard it at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, had found its way into his style. We may hear the gamelon spirit especially in the quartet’s second movement. The outside sections, with their insistent pizzicato in moto perpetuo give an approximation of the repetitious, percussive music of the Javanese.
Debussy usually avoided or severely recast the classically-fashioned classical forms inherited from the Viennese masters. The quartet is something of a paradox in this respect, for amid the lush harmonies, the modal scales, the flights of thematic fancy, and the splashes of impressionistic tone color lie the outlines of pure, clear classical form.
Debussy builds the quartet around a motto theme, which appears in each movement. This cyclic technique had first been introduced by Beethoven and was used frequently by Debussy’s teacher (and sometime adversary), César Franck. The first movement, a very loose sonata form, is dominated by the motto. In the second, a three-part form, the theme occupies the flanking sections, while contrasting ideas are introduced in the center. The slow movement, another ternary form, reverses the thematic pattern: A fragment of the motto appears in the middle section, while the outside sections seem to ignore it entirely.
In the finale, we hear echoes of the motto as early as the introduction and in the fugato (!) that follows it, then more fully (and in long notes) toward the middle of the movement. The quartet’s finale is constructed more as a mosaic than a classical form, and it completes what may be Debussy’s finest contribution to the chamber medium.
Dr. Michael Fink, Copyright 2017. All rights reserved
Shaw: Entr’acte (Minuet and Trio)
The youngest composer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music is Caroline Shaw (1982- ). At age 30, she received this honor for her a cappella vocal work Partita for 8 Voices. In addition to composing, Shaw is active as a violin soloist, chamber musician, and ensemble singer, chiefly with the group Roomful of Teeth, for whom she composed Partita. Her recent commissions include works for Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. She has also collaborated frequently with Kanye West. Currently a doctoral candidate at Princeton, Shaw has also studied at Rice and Yale Universities.
Shaw remarks about this work:
Entr’acte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.
The music develops a refreshing blend of traditional harmony, contrasting dissonance, and impressive string effects. The piece also contrasts rhythmic strictness (Minuet) with free riffing style and riffing against the viola’s strict broken chord repetitions in the Trio. Shaw’s instructions to players are unusually warm and conversational. For example, in the Trio the cellist reads: “Notes with fall-off gesture are basically that. Slide down from the written pitch (which does not have to be absolutely exact, except where tenutos are marked), maybe a half or whole step, with a slight coming away. Like a little sigh.”
And what about the listening experience? Entr’acte has a haunting, surreal quality. Taking his cue from Shaw’s words, Musician/writer Timothy Judd likens this to reading Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. He comments, “Throughout the piece we get subtle glimpses of classical and baroque music that has suddenly found itself in the wrong century.”
Frühling: Piano Quintet in F# Minor, Op. 30
During the first half of the 20th century and a bit beyond, “modern” music was developing at the hands of Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and others. At the same time, many composers clung tightly to the style and traditions of Romanticism. In Europe, Richard Strauss, Jan Sibelius, and Sergei Rachmaninoff were probably the most notable examples. In the United States, next to progressive figures such as Aaron Copland stood arch romantics, many of whom were very popular during their lifetime and afterward, like Charles T. Griffis (1884-1920). Others were soon forgotten, such as the successful composer Charles Haubiel (1892-1978), who emulated Brahms and Dvořák much of the time.
In Europe, there were conservatives who, like Brahms, eschewed opera in favor of classical instrumental forms, choral music, and songs. Among these was the Austrian composer and pianist Carl Frühling (1868-1937). His musical education was traditional at the Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde, and he made his living chiefly as a piano accompanist. Very successful at this, he accompanied the likes of Pablo Sarasate and was heard regularly with the Rosé Quartet. Sadly, the severe economic crisis in Austria following World War I destroyed his career in the 1920s, and he lived out his life in straitened conditions. His high quality music, mostly unknown during his lifetime, has been revived in ours.
Frühling actually composed two early piano quintets, the F-sharp Minor being the first. It was completed in 1892 and published two years later. The composer was still firmly entrenched in Romantic tradition in this early period, as can be heard at the outset of the first movement. Here is a rich palette of emotion ranging from the heroic to the sweet. With its emphasis on the piano, this and much of the quintet nearly qualifies as a chamber “concerto” for piano and strings.
The lengthy cantilena with which the cello introduces the Andante cantabile is worthy of an echo in the piano and a slight elaboration before the tempo livens. Here, the piano introduces a new theme, which is developed and intensified in the strings. The music fairly explodes with tremolo chords in the strings, only gradually calming into a return the controlled mood of the opening. With a brash reprise of the cantilena, the movement finally winds down to a quiet close.
A Scherzo follows, and its playful wit seems to counterbalance the emotional concentration of the previous movement. Frühling seems to be taking the meaning of the Italian word scherzo (“joke”) literally, giving us a waltz parody. It is a theatrical-style waltz with an occasional “hoochy-koochy.” By contrast, the central section is smooth, darker, and more serious. The tricky main scherzo reprises to round out the movement.
The shadow of Brahms hangs heavily over the march-like opening theme of the Finale. Without warning, a brief fugato bursts out, providing a brief, exciting transition to the second theme. This is guided by a playful rhythm found alternately in piano and strings. Imperceptibly, Frühling slips into an extensive development of the first theme. Then, reprising the second theme, he drives to an exciting finish by bringing back the resolute first theme. In a faster tempo, this theme pounds its way to an insistent ending.
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34
The [piano] quintet is beautiful beyond words. Anyone who did not know it in its earlier forms of string quintet and [two-] piano sonata would never believe that it was not originally thought out and designed for the present combination of instruments. You have turned a monotonous work . . . into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music, the like of which we have not seen since the year 1828.
(Clara Schumann to Johannes Brahms, 1864)
The year 1828, which Clara refers to, was not only the death date of Schubert but also the year in which he wrote his C Major String Quintet, a work, which stood as a spiritual guide to Brahms in his own early string quintet. However, Joachim had several criticisms of the work, and Brahms himself was not satisfied. So the composer re-cast it as a sonata for two pianos in which form it was performed in April 1863. Again, things were not quite right, and Brahms required little coaxing from Clara Schumann and conductor Hermann Levi to remodel the work once more, this time in its final form of a piano quintet. In 1865, Brahms put the finishing touches on what analyst Michael Musgrave has termed “a work of synthesis as well as of culmination.”
The opening movement of the F-Minor Quintet contains a rich variety of themes — five in all. Interestingly, the second theme group, normally in major, begins in minor but smoothly moves to the major. The development progresses from a mood of solemnity to one of passion, and the recapitulation sheds some new light on the old themes.
In the tender Andante, the melody of the first section (in the piano in thirds) seems to be constantly unfolding. The central section is more contrapuntal, more symphonic in conception, and more daring in its harmonic shifts. With the return of the opening material, the strings carry more of the thematic weight, as a quasi-symphonic cooperation continues.
Following an introductory phrase, the Scherzo presents two heroic themes, one in 2/4 and the other in 6/8 time. Working out both of these gives this movement a special quality of tension. A smooth and rich (but rather brief) Trio leads to a literal repeat of the main Scherzo, ending somewhat unexpectedly on an inconclusive harmony.
Conclusiveness comes with the slow, introductory opening of the final movement. The main body of the movement is an original form based on classical sonata principals. Initially, the somewhat gipsy-styled first theme dissolves into an atmospheric transition that leads to a stormy second theme. Then, the themes return in order, but the first theme now carries the rhythm of a gavotte. The lengthy but clever Presto coda includes material from the first theme in the rhythmic guise of the second, creating a powerful ending climax.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2017
We are excited to announce that we are teaming up with Chef Denise at Little Gretel to offer a special pre-concert dinner before our Season Opener in Boerne on Sept 29. Reservations are suggested, as is arrival by 6:15 to ensure you don’t miss a note of the 17-18 season. It will be a feast for the senses!