Prokofiev, String Quartet No. 1, Op. 50
We are most used to hearing such music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) as Romeo and Juliet, the Lt. Kije Suite, The Fifth Symphony, or the later piano sonatas. Those works were products of the repatriated Prokofiev who sought to reach a wide audience and satisfy Soviet authorities. However, there was an earlier Prokofiev, the expatriate with a home base in Paris. This was the Prokofiev of The Fiery Angel, the Second to Fourth Symphonies, and works that show the “primitive” fallout from the earlier Scithian Suite, Sarcasms, etc. The composer resided outside the USSR nearly 20 years, during which time his music was often a little rebellious, a little tinged with French neo-Classicism, and a bit influenced by his fellow expatriate, Igor Stravinsky.
The impetus for composing the First Quartet came during a tour of the United States in 1930. Here, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress commissioned him to write, specifically, a string quartet. As a composer, Prokofiev was not attracted naturally to chamber music, his output being a mere handful of works. However, he accepted with good grace and produced his First Quartet with diligence. In April 1931, the Brosa Quartet gave the premiere at the Library of Congress.
In preparation, he even made a study of Beethoven’s quartets. “That is the source of the rather ‘classical’ language of the quartet’s first section,” Prokofiev later said. Actually, that section — with its squarish-sardonic theme and propulsive accompaniment — is more typically Prokofiev than what follows. The torso of this loose sonata-form is reminiscent of late Beethoven quartets: heavily contrapuntal, broadly developmental of a few short themes, and deadly serious. Here is the intellectual side of Prokofiev we rarely hear.
At the opening of the second movement, Prokofiev tricks us into thinking it will all be slow. However, after a few moments it turns out to be the quartet’s “scherzo,” a big, A-B-A structure, somewhat polyphonic like the first movement. The “A” section’s scurrying quality is a foil for its catchy violin theme. Imperceptibly, the rhythm turns to triplet motion for the B (Trio) section. Here, the music is more ingratiating and traditional. The breathless A section returns to bring closure.
The Andante promised in the foregoing movement is delivered fully in the finale. Here is the most emotionally intense portion of the quartet, where Prokofiev is at last completely at home in his contrapuntal language. This comes across most clearly in the frequent dialogues between high and low instruments. A movingly rich harmonic palette also pervades the movement. Soviet critics later deemed the Andante to be “a peculiarly Russian Romantic introspection,” interpreted as the composer’s longing to return to his homeland. Quite possibly that was the case, for in a few short years, Prokofiev did repatriate to Russia.
Bartók, Out of Doors
In addition to his remarkable prowess as a composer, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was a professional-level pianist. He performed the premieres of his First and Second Piano Concertos as well as many of his solo works. During the 1920s, Bartók developed a special interest in composing solo music for his instrument, the high points being his only Sonata for piano (1926) and the suite, Out of Doors, also completed in 1926. The composer performed the premieres of both works the same year.
Although Bartók did not reveal the impetus for composing his suite, some part of it apparently was related to his current editing of 17th – and 18th-century keyboard music, particularly the suites of Francois Couperin. Although Bartók titled his suite’s third movement “Musettes,” we hear no Baroque posturing such as might be present in Stravinsky’s music from the same period.
Yet the Out of Doors suite is not even neo-Baroque. Its five varied movement titles — “With Pipes and Drums,” “Barcarolla,” “Musettes,” “The Night’s Music,” and “The Chase” — may strike the listener as more akin to those in Robert Schumann’s loosely constructed piano sets.
“With Pipes and Drums” takes full advantage of the piano’s percussive possibilities, which Bartók had perfected about ten years earlier in pieces like Allegro barbaro. Hammer-like dissonances and tone clusters support a fragmentary melody.
“Barcarolla” rests atop undulating accompanying figures, which are rhythmically asymmetrical. The smooth melodies we might expect of traditional barcaroles are here replaced by somewhat jagged, un-romantic strains, where we might suspect some underlying psychological commentary.
In “Musettes” we hear only occasional melody. The focus is on the low drone sounds of small bagpipes (18th-century musettes) and mid-range figuration. The pounding drones dominate and drown out melodic suggestions.
“The Chase” is the suite’s final movement. It amplifies the mood of the first movement to a frenetic level. Atop a rapid, dissonant, repeated figure (ostinato) rides the main focus of the music — not really a melody, but “chase music” such as we might expect in a Western movie. Bartók makes his suite’s finale brief but of high impact.
Discussion of “The Night’s Music,” the fourth movement of Out of Doors is saved for last, because of its importance in piano repertoire and in Bartók’s own output. Perhaps inspired by Debussy’s impressionism, in “The Night’s Music” Bartók gives voice to his extraordinary sensitivity to the sounds and impressions of nature. This was the first of a “brand” of Bsrtókian slow movements, which would reappear in several of Bartók’s later works, notably, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and the Third Piano Concerto. Here is biographer Halsey Stevens’ description of “The Night’s Music”:
The techniques here employed to create the atmosphere of the out-of-doors at night include the blurred sounds of pianissimo cluster-chords, each introduced with a gruppetto of three notes, as a background, against which are heard the twitterings, chirpings, and croakings of nocturnal creatures. Presently a folklike tune is heard in a single line, doubled three octaves above; still later a flute melody . . . appears, upon which cluster-chords, played with the palm of the hand, impinge; then the two tunes are superimposed, as if heard simultaneously from different directions. Fragments of the flute melody continue to the end, evanescent as the night sounds.
In this astonishingly convincing nocturnal excursion Bartók succeeded, as in the many which followed, in devising a music of an intensely personal character which nevertheless re-creates for the listener an atmosphere incapable of misinterpretation.
Ornstein, Piano Quintet, Op. 92
Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) was born in Kremenchug, Ukraine, but immigrated with his family to New York in 1907. After studying the piano at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard) with Bertha Fiering Tapper, he made his debut in 1911 and wrote his first “modernist” compositions in 1913. The following year he toured Europe, and in London gave a performance of contemporary music, which established his reputation as a new music interpreter and as a composer. Four New York recitals the following year established him more firmly as a composer — a controversial one. Pianistic “tone clusters” (groups of neighboring notes played by the fingers, hand, or forearm) became his specialty. Although he did not invent tone clusters, his note groupings, including various gaps, were unique. Around 1918, wishing to pin a label on him, the press and public began to label him a “futurist” composer (part of an extremist movement then raging in Russia, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe). Ornstein’s response in 1918 was clear:
Futurism is not even a name to me. If my music becomes more generally understood at some future time, perhaps, from that point of view it might be called futuristic music. All that I am attempting to do is to express myself as honestly and convincingly as I can in the present.
In 1922, Ornstein abruptly retired for the most part from the performing stage, continuing to build his career as a composer. He did, however, establish The Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, where he remained director until 1953. Much of his music was and is little known, yet he received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. He continued to compose into his 90s, when he wrote some of his finest music.
Ornstein’s Piano Quintet comes from the year 1927. The first movement displays a blend of experimental modern (futurist?) tendencies and more traditional leanings, especially in melody. Some melodies and rhythms suggest Russian, Jewish, or Middle Eastern influences, which might hark back to Ornstein’s pre-American childhood, while other tunes are downright post-Romantic. One striking feature of his forms is a tendency to develop an idea or texture for a short while, then to move on to something new. Perhaps this harks back to Debussy’s do-next-thing procedures in form.
The first extended section of the second movement seems to be an Eastern or Middle-Eastern style dirge employing compelling string effects. Variants on these ideas follow in the strings and the piano. A heroic march breaks in and runs its course. Long lyrical lines for the strings and then the piano follow. This is a free reprise of the first extended section, and it quietly brings the movement to a close.
The final movement brings back the contrast of lyrical and pounding ideas heard in the first movement. Now, however, the music takes on more determination and forward force. The central section, however, is compellingly long-lined and sweet. A passionate rhapsodic mood then sets in, and earlier ideas are developed. Finally, the main theme is stretched out into a long, reflective statement that becomes the Quintet’s final coda.
Copyright Michael Fink 2018
Four French Recital Pieces
Capriccio by Jacques Murgier (1912-1986) is the work of a violinist and former director of the Conservatoire Nationale. The piece’s main theme is in the “capricious” sounding 5/8 meter. It is actual a series of variants on a central musical idea. The piece’s central section is smoother and more dreamy.
Pavane by José Berghmans (1921-1992) is actually more of a comic cakewalk than a classic pavane. Its composer was also a musicologist, so the Pavane’s title and quirky dance rhythms must be tongue-in-cheek.
Serenade by Robert Planel (1908-1994) contains strong elements of Spanish Gypsy Flamenco dance. The outer sections of the piece give us the feeling of rhythmic heel-work, while the lyrical middle is reminiscent of a copla, or sung verse. Planel had a distinguished career that he began by winning the coveted Prix de Rome.
Romance by Henri Barraud (1900-1997) is the most dissonant piece of this set. Smoothly lyrical and controlled, however, the music makes pleasurable sense. In his career, Barraud organized performances of contemporary music and was music director of the French Radiodiffusion for over 20 years.
Gaubert: Two Pieces
Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) was one of the most versatile French musicians of the early 20th century. After winning the Paris Conservatoire’s premiere prix in flute and second place in the Prix de Rome (composition), he went on to perform with the Paris Opéra and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, eventually becoming principal conductor to both. All this he did while teaching the flute at the Conservatoire and forging an active career as a prolific composer and arranger.
Gaubert’s writing style has been described as “somewhere between Fauré and Dukas — colorful in harmonic language, with elegant melodic lines and brilliant, rhapsodic passagework” (The New Grove Dictionary). The Two Pieces fit this description very well, and idiomatic flexibility could be added. Besides the original publication for the oboe, the pieces have been adapted to the flute and to the clarinet.
No. 1, “Romance,” begins with a long cantilena, mostly in the oboe, against a waltz-like piano accompaniment. The contrasting section that follows departs from the waltz feeling and turns more overtly emotional. The music becomes more subdued for a quiet ending.
No. 2, “Allegretto,” is much briefer but more virtuosic for the oboist. “Arabesque” comes to mind when describing the oboe’s fanciful melodic lines. This second piece provides pleasant relaxation following the more intense previous composition.
Nielsen: Two Fantasy Pieces, Op. 2/3h
We are used to thinking of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) as a symphonist only. However, especially in his early years, he contributed seriously to the chamber medium. Nielsen completed five string quartets, a string quintet, a woodwind quintet, three violin sonatas, and some shorter works.
In 1889, Nielsen became a second violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. The steady income enabled him to compose. About two years later he wrote his Two Fantasy Pieces for solo woodwind and piano. Nielsen’s first conception was for the clarinet. However, the music is flexible enough and sufficiently modest in range to adapt well to the oboe.
The Romance is astonishing for so young a composer. The engaging melodies and then-modern harmonies make for a memorable listening experience. The piece’s central section differs subtly from the reprised first section, and Nielsen even cleverly inserts some counterpoint, which actually has an emotional impact.
In the character of a strutting folk dance, the Humoresque raises the listener’s spirits. As in Brahms’s folk-inspired dances, Nielsen knows to occasionally relieve the bright rhythms with some smooth lyricism. It all works to provide the listener with a buoyant miniature.
Altogether, the youthful Two Fantasy Pieces give us a brief yet brilliant foretaste of the masterful music still to come from the mature pen of Carl Nielsen.
Povolotsky: French Sonata (Exercise in Spirit of Poulenc) for Oboe and Piano
Born in Odessa, Russia in 1962, Yuri Povolotsky completed his education in 1986 at the Gnesin Russian Music Academy in Moscow. His chief teachers were Heinrich Litinsky and Alexei Muravlev. About five years later, Povolotsky moved to Israel, where he has made a successful career as both a composer and keyboardist.
Povolotsky’s symphonic and chamber works in several styles and genres have been performed in Israel, countries of the former USSR and in more than two dozen other countries around the world. Several of those performances have been part of festivals. His concert works have earned him two prestigious Israeli awards: the Jerusalem Olive (2007) and the Yuri Stern (2009).
Povolotsky is also active as a composer-performer of “Jewish Soul Music,” that is, Klezmer. He is artistic director of the Jazz-Klezmer band APROPOS.ART, in which he plays keyboards.
The Oboe Sonata was written in 2010. Its first movement captures Poulenc’s spirit beautifully: alternations and combinations of lyricism and playfulness. The music flirts with neo-classicism; nonetheless, the composer’s personality shines through.
The Misterioso second movement begins rather like an action film, only to be momentarily interrupted by a feeling of film noir mystery. Then, the chase continues.
In Con elegia, a long plaintive melody by the oboe is answered at intervals by the piano. Emotional tension increases until an oboe cadenza brings back the tenderness of the opening.
In the finale, we hear a bouncy, often humorous dance with a punchy piano part, but the oboe has one passage of refined lyricism (a last reflection of Poulenc?) before a drive to the bubbly finish.
About this work, Povolotsky has written:
The title and the subtitle of the piece reflect its structure, which, however, serves only as the background for the development of the author’s original ideas. Even the composition’s form is not traditionally comprised of three parts, but of a complete four-part cycle, in which the neoclassical aura successfully coexists with modern rhythms and sounds. The world premiere of the sonata took place on January 30, 2013 in Moscow, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc.
Barlow: The Winter’s Passed for Oboe and Orchestra (adapted for oboe and piano)
The Great Depression of the 1930s was an extremely difficult time for Americans. However, one positive aspect of this period was a heightened sense of patriotism. In music, this was expressed in the birth of American Nationalism, in which composers used or adapted American folk music. Two famous examples are Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid ballet (1938) and Roy Harris’s Folk Song Symphony (1939).
Some composers absorbed elements of folk style to the extent that their original melodies seemed like actual folk material. That was the case with Wayne Barlow (1912-1996) when he wrote The Winter’s Passed for oboe and strings. This piece is based on a single original theme, but a theme that contains strong echoes of Appalachian hymns and songs. The opening makes an expressive exposition of the theme — first by the piano, then by the oboe, and finally both instruments in counterpoint. A faster section develops the melody. Then, the plaintive slow tempo returns, reprising the theme in the oboe, then the piano. A modest coda joins the oboe again with the piano for a soft, reflective ending.
Composer Wayne Barlow, together with Howard Hanson and others, helped to put the Eastman School of Music on the map. Educated at Eastman, Barlow taught composition there 1937-1978, eventually chairing the composition department and becoming Graduate Dean. Interestingly, along the way, Barlow’s musical interests shifted toward serial and electronic music — a far cry from The Winter’s Passed.
Hindemith: Oboe Sonata (1938)
The year 1938 was a focal one for Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). It was the year in which his great opera, Mathis der Maler, was premiered. This masterwork represented a new cosmopolitan direction for his musical style. Hindemith was searching for a music syntax and tonal organization that might be a worthy successor to the major-minor system of previous eras. Gradually during the 1930s, Hindemith had evolved his new style, and in 1938 he was in the midst of writing The Craft of Musical Composition, a multi-volume theoretical work that detailed his new discoveries.
The year 1938 was also the time when Hindemith composed his Oboe Sonata. In the course of his career, Hindemith wrote solo sonatas for every instrument in the orchestra, the majority of these works coming from the period 1937-1949. The Oboe Sonata was, therefore, one of the earliest composed and published in the series.
Rhythmic interplay characterize the opening section of the first movement. While the oboe exposes the first theme in 2/4 time, the piano accompaniment continually shifts its metrical accents, giving the impression of 3/8 time. In the transition to the middle section, the meter changes freely and the piano part takes on more significance. A smoother, less rhythmic middle section leads back to an abbreviated reprise of the opening section.
The second (and final) movement alternates between slow and fast sections. The somewhat baroque-style slow opening introduces a lively gigue-like section. A variant of the slow section returns, leading to the final section. This time Hindemith transforms the gigue into a quick concluding fugue, beginning in the piano but soon taken up by the oboe. As the end approaches, the piano recedes into the background leaving the spotlight on the oboe.
Bozza: Fantaisie Pastorale, Op. 37
To international audiences and musicians outside France, Eugène Bozza (1905-1991) is known for a remarkable number of chamber works for woodwind and brass instruments. However, in his native land, he also had a long and successful career as a conductor at the Paris Opéra-Comique and as director of the Ecole Nationale de Musique. His awards and honors included the Légion d’Honneur, in which he was made a Chevalier in 1956.
Musicologist Paul Griffiths has summarized Bozza’s compositional style as displaying “… a high level the qualities characteristic of mid-20th-century French chamber music: melodic fluency, elegance of structure and a consistently sensitive concern for instrumental capabilities.”
The opening Lent might have also been designated misterioso or exotico. The piano having laid down a rumbling introduction, the oboe plays melodies, runs, and flashy ornaments in exotic scales. This extensive middle section finally melts into dreamy impressionism before the movement ends with a reprise of the very beginning.
A true valse triste or gymnopédie, the moderato central movement gives the oboe extensive opportunities for lyrical expression against unusual harmonies in the piano part.
The finale is jolly and scherzando. Bozza gives us some rarely heard oboe figuration and turns of phrase that might re-define the traditional character of the instrument. As in the previous movements, oboe and piano are here tightly connected musically, giving us a clearly drawn 20th-century French composition.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2018
Would someone please round up the members of Camerata San Antonio, lock them up in a room, and not let them out until they’ve recorded the whole damn cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets?
The notion first occurred to me in March of last year, when the foursome delivered a stunning account of the “Great Fugue” in its original context as the final movement of the Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130. Then the first of the three “Rasumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59,No. 1, in F) closed Camerata’s Feb. 18 concert at the University of the Incarnate Word, and the impression was confirmed. Feral and untethered, but also warm and sweet, and always in motion, this was among the most Beethovenian Beethoven performances in my experience, whether live or in recordings.
Read more at incidentlight.com