Review: Beethoven250

Review: Beethoven250

It would be hard to imagine two more compatible musical partners than Mr. Zerweck and Mr. Valkov – compatible with each other and with Beethoven. Both revealed themselves to be fearless, ferocious musicians – at times, even frightening. They could be sweet and gentle when the composer insisted, but with a loosening of the reins they could rip your throat out. In a good way, of course.”

Read the rest of Mike Greenberg’s review of our Beethoven250 program here: http://incidentlight.com/Music%20reviews/camerata-zerweck-valkov-olmos-ensemble-soli-200221.html

Program Notes: Blueprint

Program Notes: Blueprint

Schnittke, Third String Quartet (1983)

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent contemporary composers. Born in Engels on the Volga, Schnittke studied at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1950s under Golubev and Rakov. From 1962 until 1972 he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Since that time, Schnittke composed free-lance, occasionally teaching abroad. Schnittke’s style has been influenced by composers as diverse as Carl Orff and Luigi Nono. He has produced a sizeable oeuvre including symphonies, chamber works, choral music, and four violin concertos which have been championed by Gidon Kremer.

The Third String Quartet was commissioned by the Mannheim Gesellschaft für Musik and composed during the summer of 1983. The Eder Quartet premiered it in Mannheim in May 1984. The work exemplifies Schnittke’s current concern to reconcile tradition and historical awareness with modern musical language and procedures. To this end, the quartet begins as three quotations from historical contexts: (1) a cadence from a Stabat Mater by Orlandus Lassus, (2) the principal theme from Beethoven’s Grosse fuge, Op. 133, and (3) the note sequence D, E-flat, C, B-natural, which Shostakovich used in a few works as a motto of his own name (in German spelling: D, Es, C, H, suggesting the abbreviation, D. Sch).

In the first movement, Schnittke keeps these fragments quite distinct, commenting on each and exploring their implications. The balance between consonance and dissonance and between tonality and non-tonality is a delicate one maintained masterfully throughout these explorations.

The second movement (Agitato) proceeds without a pause. In it, Schnittke begins to transform the thematic material, injecting more of himself into the music and with more immediacy than before. The contrast between emotionally charged rhythmic passages with those that seem to suspend the music in time is particularly striking.

Again without pause, the last movement (Pesante) pounds forth with its opening stamping chords. Fragmentary, cryptic references to the historical themes are sometimes perceptible, but the emphasis falls on Schnittke’s style and what it has learned from the precedent masters that the composer has chosen to inform his work.

Shaw, Blueprint (2016) 

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. Shaw has studied at Princeton, Rice, and Yale Universities.

Shaw most often composes for a particular artist or ensemble, crafting her music to a degree on aspects of the artist/ensemble revealed through personal encounters. Blueprint was composed for the Aizuri Quartet, which played its world premiere in April 2016 at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA). The title of this seven-minute work uses that quartet’s name as a springboard for Blueprint. However, the work also relates closely to an early string quartet by Beethoven. As Shaw explains:

The Aizuri Quartet’s name comes from “aizuri-e,” a style of Japanese woodblock printing that primarily uses a blue ink. In the 1820s, artists in Japan began to import a particular blue pigment known as “Prussian blue.” . . . The story of aizuri-e is one of innovation, migration, transformation, craft, and beauty. Blueprint, composed for the incredible Aizuri Quartet, takes its title from this beautiful blue woodblock printing tradition as well as from that familiar standard architectural representation of a proposed structure: the blueprint. This piece began its life as a harmonic reduction — a kind of floor plan — of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 [“La Malinconia”]. As a violinist and violist, I have played this piece many times, in performance and in joyous late-night reading sessions with musician friends. . . . Chamber music is ultimately about conversation without words. We talk to each other with our dynamics and articulations, and we try to give voice to the composers whose music has inspired us to gather in the same room and play music. Blueprint is also a conversation — with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the “father” of the string quartet), and with the joys and malinconia of his Op. 18, No. 6.

Beethoven, Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, no. 1

The six works of Op. 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1798-1800), Beethoven had many occasions to experiment with the medium and to hear his music when the ink was barely dry. He regularly attended the quartet sessions of Prince Lichnowsky and Emmanuel Förster, a composer who exerted a degree of influence upon young Beethoven. There, a group of musicians was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the F Major Quartet second in the series, but he placed it at the head of the set because of its size and impressiveness. This work stems from 1799, and Beethoven dedicated its initial version to his friend, Karl Amenda. Two years later, the composer revised it with the statement, “I have just learned how to write quartets properly.”

The most impressive feature of the first movement is its initial “turn” motive. Beethoven intensively experimented with different versions of this idea, covering no fewer than 16 pages in his sketch books. At last, he devised a motive that music scholar Joseph Kerman says “behaves like a coiled spring, ready to shoot off in all directions. . . .” Although this motive dominates the movement with its 104 occurrences, there is a rich abundance of other thematic ideas. Kerman states that the movement’s mood “owes much to the perilous effort of holding all this material together.”

Beethoven did not give “names” to much of his music, but he occasionally had some extra-musical idea in mind. At the end of one sketch of this quartet’s Adagio, Beethoven wrote, “les deriers soupirs,” “the last breaths.” Reportedly, he interpreted this to his friend, Amenda, with the words, “I thought of the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet.” Broad theatrical emotion is rampant throughout the movement, but especially in the development, which romanticizes its themes as no quartet ever had before.

The size and emotional range of the Scherzo are slight in comparison with the preceding movements. However, as a witty respite, it works well. In the Trio section, a “limping” motive, adds a humorous touch.

Beethoven inherited from Haydn two responsibilities for the finales to early works such as this: They must be effervescent, and they must be sharply rhythmic or dance-like. The finale to the F Major Quartet fills both requirements — and then some. To balance the magnitude of the first movement, Beethoven here provides a lengthy sonata-rondo form with well-contrasted themes. The verve and directed energy of this finale provide an appropriate finish to a monumental accomplishment in chamber music.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019

Review: Beethoven250

Program Notes: Beethoven250

Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2

When Beethoven’s first set of three violin sonatas (Op. 12) went on sale at the end of 1798, the musical world of Vienna was no more ready for them than it had been for his other music. A review of the sonatas written in June 1799 makes such statements as:

After having looked through these strange sonatas, overladen with difficulties . . . [I] felt . . . exhausted and without having had any pleasure. . . . Bizarre . . . Learned, learned and always learned — and nothing natural, no song . . . a striving for strange modulations. . . .

If Herr v. B. wished to deny himself a bit more and follow the course of nature he might, with his talent and industry, do a great deal for an instrument [the piano] which he seems to have so wonderfully under his control.

Such bad press obviously did not deter Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) from his vision. In all, he composed ten violin sonatas spread over his first and second style-periods, including the famous “Kreutzer” Sonata (Op. 47). The last violin sonata was composed in 1812 and published as Op. 96.

 “Effervescence” is the word for the A Major Sonata’s first movement. Only momentarily does Beethoven depart from the tripping-skipping of the first and second themes. In the exposition, the only “serious” departure comes after those themes — a momentary catching of the breath before the composer whirls off in a new direction. In the brief development, Beethoven maximizes his small collection of ideas, and in the recapitulation, he extends them in a post-development that flies into a new key before a final landing in A major and a delightful coda.

“Dialogue” would be a good descriptor for the Andante. Interchanges of similar phrases between piano and violin characterize the lyrical outer sections. In the center, however, the two instruments become more closely entwined. Nineteenth-century writer Friederich Niecks commented that “the charm of the movement lies in its simplicity and naiveté and in the truth of its tender, plaintive accents.”

“Scherzo” might have been Beethoven’s appellation for the final movement, had he chosen that form. It has all the good-humored flavor of the best of Beethoven’s scherzos, and the composer himself used the word piacevole (pleasing) in the tempo marking. Following tradition, the movement is a rondo that presents the sunniest of themes, appropriately completing this “feel-good” sonata.

Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)

It may be altogether too glib to say that Beethoven anticipated or pioneered every major musical development of the Romantic age that followed him. Yet, when listening to his aptly nicknamed “Spring” Sonata, the notion is tempting. Here, in a nutshell, Beethoven presents a pre-echo of the heartfelt spirit, naivety, and boldness of Mendelssohn and Schumann — as well as elements of their melodic and harmonic vocabulary.

The first movement is particularly illustrative. In its opening, we have the innocent freshness of a Mendelssohn, heard in melodious themes given first to the violin and then answered by the piano. A short development leads to the unprepared and surprising recapitulation. Now, the harmonic color of the principal themes is tinged with the pathos of experience, but the spirit of pure joy returns in the sumptuous coda.

The Adagio is more comparable to Schumann in its harmonic richness and full, pianistic textures. However, chamber music authority W.W. Cobbett maintains that the opening theme of this five-part form “seems to have escaped from some opera by Mozart.”

The very brief Scherzo movement turns again to a Mendelssohn-like spirit. Its elfin violin elody. However, it is accompanied by offset piano rhythms that could have come only from Beethoven’s pen.

Over the rondo finale, the big-hearted Schumannesque spirit hovers again, although there are occasional winks in the direction of Mozart. In contrast with the opening movement, the piano is usually the leader and the violin the follower in presenting new themes. One Beethovenian feature in the harmonic plan is a false recapitulation in the key of D major, which then slips deftly back into F major for the concluding sections.

Beethoven composed the “Spring” Sonata in 1800 or 1801 and published it in the latter year alongside the Op. 23 Violin Sonata (no. 4). Much of the youth, vigor, and studied innocence of the “Spring” Sonata may be attributed to the early period in which the work was written. This was the time of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata for piano and the First Symphony, but a time before he fully realized (or admitted) his loss of hearing. Thus, with this sonata we might imagine Beethoven standing at the brink of the future. It is also easy to imagine this happening on a bright, sunlit day with a spring breeze wafting through the young master’s hair.

Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”)

It seemed that entirely new impulses, new possibilities, were revealed to me in myself, such as I had not dreamed of before. Such works should be played only in grave, significant conditions, and only then when certain deeds corresponding to such music are to be accomplished.

These are not the words of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) nor of Kreutzer, but rather of Tolstoy’s tragic hero in the novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, where a performance of this sonata drives him over the edge of insanity, and he kills his wife. Fantastic as that notion seems, it is imaginable through the unrestraint of the first movement and the excitement of the last. However, none of that was Beethoven’s intention. He composed the “Kreutzer” Sonata in 1802-1803 just ahead of the “Eroica” Symphony. This was a turning point in Beethoven’s style, the entry into his “Heroic Decade,” to use Maynard Solomon’s expression.

This violin sonata was the longest written to date, just as the Third Symphony would be the longest of its genre yet heard. And, just as Beethoven changed the dedication of his symphony, he re-directed the dedication of the sonata. Originally, Beethoven wrote the work for George Bridgetower, with whom he premiered the music in 1803. However, the two subsequently fought over the attentions of a woman. Beethoven then used the sonata as a political tool for his proposed (but never accomplished) move to Paris by dedicating it to the French virtuoso, Rodolphe Kreutzer. Ironically, Kreutzer never performed the sonata, finding it, in the words of Berlioz, “outrageously unintelligible.”

Although that was an exaggeration, many violinists have found the first movement to be awkward. Another feature that may have put off Kreutzer is the equal prominence of the piano. In the sketches, Beethoven made the notation, “in a very concertante style, somewhat like a concerto.” But it is a concertante for both violin and piano: a concerto without orchestra.

Beethoven begins with the only slow introduction among the ten violin sonatas, and he periodically returns to Adagio in the course of the first movement. “Feverish,” “fiery,” and “passionate” are terms often applied to the Presto that follows. Beethoven seems to have created a contest for superiority between the two instruments, and only in the heat of the development section do they achieve true parity.

The theme and variations in the second movement are a complete contrast. Here, Beethoven reminds us that violin sonatas were originally salon or drawing-room music. The theme and first two variations follow that idea; however, the fourth (in the minor mode) is music of somber introspection. A final decorative variation and quiet coda round out the movement.

In his haste to complete this sonata for its premiere, Beethoven used for his last movement the discarded finale from the Violin Sonata, Op. 30, no. 1 (which it would have overbalanced). This galloping tarantella puts the sonata into a whirl that balances the first movement in length and emotional values. Slowing only occasionally, the motion of this music is relentless, driving breathlessly to a tempestuous finish

Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

Camerata San Antonio is one violin short of a string quartet this fall for a worthy reason: Violinist Matthew Zerweck is taking paternity leave. In compensation, the remaining members have been able to explore some of the literature for string trio, with side trips to two and four in the company of frequent collaborator, pianist Viktor Valkov. For the Nov. 15 concert, Camerata visited an unaccustomed venue, the intimate recital hall in the Palo Alto College performing arts center. The space proved acoustically dry but left nothing unheard – including the occasional loud expulsion of breath by which cellist Ken Freudigman telegraphed some especially important turn in the music. The towering finale, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A, had an especially generous number of those. The first half took less-traveled roads to Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for violin and piano and Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. The eminent violinist Joseph Joachim was the thread connecting all three composers: He collaborated closely with both Clara Schumann and Brahms, and he invited Dohnanyi to teach at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, of which the violinist was director. 

Clara Schumann was one of Europe’s most celebrated pianists in the middle decades of the 19th century. She composed a good deal of music – much of it for her own solo and chamber music performances – in her 20s. After a five-year hiatus, she had a burst of activity in 1853, the year she met Brahms and the year of the Three Romances. Her husband, Robert Schumann, was committed to a mental institution the following year, and Clara became the sole support of seven children, including a newborn boy. Those circumstances dictated that she concentrate on her lucrative concert career and set composition aside. 

That’s our loss. On the evidence of the Three Romances, Clara Schumann was a composer of considerable merit. The whole set flies by in only 10 minutes or so, but a lot of music is packed into that slender frame. The violin is given generally long-lined, declarative melodies that sustain interest by avoiding the obvious. The piano part, considerably busier, invites billowing dynamics and sculpted phrasing. The two parts are distinct, even opposite personalities in earnest conversation – for which the cool reserve of violinist Anastasia Parker and the heated passion of Mr. Valkov were well suited. 

Dohnanyi’s Serenade is so immediately engaging that it’s easy not to notice how expertly it is crafted. Dohnanyi composed this five-movement work in 1902, when he was in his mid-20s, and in some ways it looks back to the Romanticism of Brahms. But the energetic, intricately wrought counterpoint – especially in the fugal Scherzo and bustling Rondo – and the fresh harmonies contain at least a hint of the new century. Mr. Freudigman put plenty of snap into the occasional Hungarian folk tropes, violist Emily Freudigman spun lovely melody to open the Romanza, and Ms. Parker was especially effective in the disconsolate Theme and Variations, the emotional center of the Serenade. 

Brahms was a young man of 28 or 29 in 1861 when he completed his second piano quartet, a chamber work that is symphonic in both duration (about 50 minutes) and ambition. The allegro movements that open and close the work seem steeped in testosterone, the Scherzo has a restive undercurrent, and even the sweet Poco adagio is agitated by rocking eighth-note figures that seem prepared at any moment to spring into action. The performance was big, bold, and muscular – words that often come to mind when Mr. Valkov is involved in chamber music. Those traits were amplified by the physical circumstances: The seven-foot Steinway B Mr. Valkov was playing might not have been enough piano for a big concert hall, but it was possibly too much piano for Palo Alto’s little recital hall. At times the piano overwhelmed the strings in volume, but the pianist’s in-the-bones Romanticism was the driving force in a compelling performance.  

Coda: Technical difficulties kept me from posting a timely review of Camerata’s October concert, with three works for string trios performed by Ms. Parker, Ms. Freudigman, and Mr. Freudigman in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall. They opened with Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Trio of 1990-91, music that is less self-consciously avant-garde than the clouds of dissonance that characterized much of his music from the late 1950s and 1960s, but no less startling. The first of its two movements was the more remarkable, with extended solo cadenzas of widely different character for each of the instruments – all played with conviction. Jean Francaix’s String Trio in C of 1933 was at the opposite pole – three brief witty, jaunty, cheeky movements and one wistful, lyrical Andante. A warm, affectionate account of Mozart’s grand Divertimento in E-flat, one of his longest works, closed the concert.

Read Mike Greenberg’s review at incidentlight.com

Review – Virtuosity

Review – Virtuosity

The first half of Camerata’s program, in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall, featured string quartets by two composers from off the beaten path. The first-rate musicians were violinist Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker, violist Emily Freudigman, and cellist Ken Freudigman.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and became a friend of Shostakovich, has been gaining notice in recent years. He is probably best known for his powerful Holocaust opera The Passenger, whose planned 1968 premiere was scuttled by Soviet authorities; performed for the first time in 2006 in a Moscow semi-staging, it has since received several important productions, including its US premiere at Houston Grand Opera. His brief Capriccio, Op. 11, for string quartet, was composed in 1943. This charming, lyrical music bears some superficial resemblance to Shostakovich, but deep down it is neoclassical, almost Haydnesque, but with modern harmonies that recall Richard Strauss. 

Anton Arensky was a tragic figure, showing brilliant talent when he was young, but soon trapped by addictions to alcohol and gambling. He died in 1906 at age 45. His String Quartet No. 1 of 1888 reveals a master of harmony, a fertile musical imagination. and – like the Weinberg piece, a debt to Haydn. Of its four movements, the second, marked Andante sostenuto, is especially interesting for a sweetly lyrical but grounded sentimentality, rather like a film by Ozu. Metaphorical sparks flew from Mr. Zerweck’s violin in the fourth movement, Variations on a Russian Theme.

Pianist Viktor Valkov joined Mr. Zerweck and Mr. Freudigman in the concert’s final work, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor. The performance was big and fearless in every way. Individually and as an ensemble, these guys left nothing on the table.  

Read the entire review by Mike Greenberg at incidentlight.com