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

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

The Beautiful Soul Program Notes

Clara Schumann, Three Romances, Op. 22

One of the most celebrated pianists of the 1800s was Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896). Women concert soloists were somewhat rare during her early lifetime, but she won her fame by her dazzling yet heartfelt performances. Her father Friedrich was her teacher not only for the piano but also in the rudiments of composition, which she worked at joyfully from an early age.

A lodger at the Wieck household (and also a student of Friedrich) during the 1830s was Robert Schumann. Clara and Robert fell in love and wished to marry. However, Clara’s father exercised his right (under German law at that time) as Clara’s “owner,” and refused to give his consent. Clara and Robert took him to court over the matter in 1840 and won. They were married that year. The Schumanns had eight children, but Clara continued to perform, teach, and compose as much as her time allowed. Robert found employment at first in Leipzig, then in Dresden, and finally in Dusseldorf

Robert suffered from what is now believed to have been Manic-Depressive Disorder. It worsened in the early 1850s. In 1854, he attempted suicide and was placed in a sanatorium until his death in 1856. From that period until near the end of her life, Clara Schumann worked unceasingly to support her children. Performances and tours took first consideration, including concertos (notably her own piano concerto) and recitals   ̶  both solo and duo. One of her closest collaborators was Josef Joachim, perhaps the most celebrated violinists of his day.

Clara composed very little after her husband’s death, and the Three Romances, Op. 22, written between 1853 and 1855, was one of her last works. She dedicated the set to Joachim, who wrote to her, calling them “a sheer delight to play, marvelous and heavenly.”

In Clara’s century, the “romance” was a genre of “character piece,” a short instrumental piece conveying one or more moods or emotions. In the Op. 22 romances, Clara does not identify such specifics in the first two, but merely gives us generic tempo markings (Andante molto and Allegretto). For the final Romance, however, the tempo marking is Leidenschaftlich Schnell: “Passionately fast.”

  1. Andante Molto. A wistful beginning and ending frames a more fervent center, painted with broad strokes. The piano part is amazing for its dual role of accompaniment to the violin and soloist with engaging melodic ideas. 
  2. Allegretto. There is a certain coyness to the opening theme. It becomes playful like a game between the violin and the piano. When the “coy” theme returns it brings more earnestness with it.
  3. Leidenschaftlich Schnell. Long intense lines in the violin are accompanied by a virtuosic piano part. The central section has something of a drawing room quality in its “proper” demeanor. A return to the passion of the opening becomes tame and sweet for a sketch of the violin and piano interlocked in a sweet, intimate adieu.

Dohnányi, Serenade in C Major, Op. 10

Ernst von Dohnányi (18771960) is considered to be among the finest Hungarian composers between Liszt and Bartók. He conducted a brilliant career in Europe and the U.S., first as a pianist and later as a composer and conductor. At times, he was also a musical administrator (Director, Budapest Academy) and a rugged individualist whose popularity was sometimes only temporary. Dohnányi was not a prolific composer, and he produced only nine published chamber works. The earliest of these owe a great deal to the influence of Brahms, whom he knew, and who arranged the Vienna premiere of Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1.

The Serenade is Dohnányi’s only work for string trio, but it is a masterful one. In it we can hear the beginning of the composer’s most mature handling of harmony, exotic scales, and unusual key combinations. There are also some humorous surprises in this work. Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) pointed out that the first movement march ends “by three meditative murmurs of its first bar followed by a figure like a sneeze.” The Romanza incorporates effects that evoke the feeling of Spanish or Hungarian scale modes. The third movement is a scherzo but is worked out in fugal style, with the theme of the trio eventually combining with the main theme in a double fugue. The work is rounded out by a witty rondo finale with “its mocking vein and its indignant end with the trio of the opening march.” (Tovey)

Dohnányi’s Serenade is a serenade in the classical tradition of Mozart, as seen outwardly in its beginning and ending march rhythms. However, there is an inward connection with Mozart as well: a sensitive balance between formal purity and dramatic purpose. As Tovey puts it, “There is no stroke of form without its dramatic value, and no stroke of drama that does not serve to complete the form.”

Brahms, Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) often explored new compositional territory with a pair of works rather than singly. The first two symphonies, string quartets, and string sextets came into existence in this way. Although Brahms had worked on movements for one piano quartet as early as the 1850s (eventually becoming Op. 60), his first completed essays in this medium stemmed from 1861-62 in the form of the G Minor and A Major Piano Quartets. These run somewhat parallel to the first two symphonies by Brahms: the stormy minor-key antecedent work giving way to a sunny optimism in a major-key consequent work. Brahms sent both finished quartets to Josef Joachim for criticism (and help with the string parts), and the violinist was quite enthusiastic about them: “I have gotten to like the A major quartet more and more. The tone of tenderness is well contrasted with sparkling life.” A few of Joachim’s further remarks about the quartet are illuminating:

Your second sections flow splendidly and show a wealth of contrapuntal device. The first A major movement is an especially good example. This movement, so full of lyricism as to suggest the influence of Schubert, also contains its share of fairly strict, imitative counterpoint. The development section also contains an experimental group of three variations on the main theme, which moves into the remote key of C minor. 

The wonderful Poco Adagio with its ambiguous passion is a nocturnal movement beginning and ending with muted strings. The “shadowing” of the piano’s melody at the beginning is reminiscent of Schumann, while the key pattern appears to be influenced deeply by Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. The ending of the movement is an elaborate variation on its opening. 

The Scherzo is a well-rounded whole. It reminds one a good deal of the later Beethoven; the structure is so compact as well as the turn of the melody. Amiable as its overall mood is, this movement does come remarkably close to the spirit of Beethoven. The main section attempts to accomplish a small sonata form, and the minor-key trio strives to be unified with the main section by borrowing the rhythm of the main theme for its own secondary thematic idea. 

The finale is a refreshing complement to the preceding movements. With its plethora of themes it seems to sprawl at times into what Beethoven might have called an “unbuttoned” state. However, frequently enough, Brahms buttons up the movement with tight, asymmetrical rhythms and periodic returns to the main rondo theme. The movement is capped by a final animato coda, the sound of which verges on the symphonic. 

Prism Program Notes

Prism Program Notes

Penderecki: String Trio

Surely Krysztof Penderecki (1933- ) is one of the most significant composers of “New Music” since 1950. In 1960, his style turned from serialism à la Boulez toward an entirely personal direction that became known as “sound mass music.” Among the composer’s first works expressing the new style was his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima composed in 1960 for 52 string instruments. The following year, Penderecki received the UNESCO Prize for the work. Soon his international reputation became enhanced through the success of the St. Luke Passion (1963-1965). These two works have remained among Penderecki’s best known music.

Although in the full flush of his career he focused on music for large forces (e.g., opera, oratorio, and large orchestra), Penderecki’s catalog shows a sprinkling of chamber music, which flourished briefly in the 1990s. The String Trio of 1990-91 is one of the fruits of that period. Although the work is very dissonant in places, its clarity of sound and of form owes much to the music of the Classical Giants: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Penderecki has said as much: “Logic. You must have exposition, you must have development … nobody can do anything better.”

The number three also figures significantly in this work. (Its connection to the performing trio is obvious, of course.) Analyst Kenneth Woods has explained this idea clearly:

The screamingly dissonant chords that launch the work (heard three times) are a combination of three triads [chord entities]: G major, G sharp minor and B flat diminished. These chords preface three cadenzas, which introduce three strongly differentiated musical personae – the morose viola, the mercurial cello and the volcanic violin.

Although the String Trio is cast in two movements of several minutes each, the first contains seven different tempos. Three of these are the cadenzas mentioned above.

The Vivace second movement is mostly a fugue in which the composer emphasizes a two-note idea: the minor third (on a piano, the notes would be three keys apart). The intellectual fugal sections alternate with “dramatic unisons and solo episodes” [Woods]. Elements of a gloomily animated wit are worked into the mix, leading to an ending both instrumentally and intellectually complex and challenging.

Franҫaix: String Trio in C Major

Jean Franҫaix (1912-1997) was something of a prodigy who fulfilled his promise with numerous later works. He had composed his first piano piece at the age of six. Later, his father, a conservatory director trained him thoroughly in piano and sent him to Paris to complete his education at the Conservatoire. There, he received a first prize in piano and studied composition privately with Nadia Boulanger. From the 1930s, he was an active composer, writing music with wit, irony, and at times even mischievousness. His style shows the distinct influences of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Poulenc, yet there is a freshness about many of his works that has become synonymous with his name.

Franҫaix composed his String Trio in 1933, and it is an excellent example of his personal brand of neo-classicism. In the first movement, the spiccato perpetual motion is more important than melodic ideas, although there is one lyrical moment. Nicolas Slonimsky has pointed out that the viola part contains a concealed reference to Bach’s name spelled backward (H [B-natural], C, A, B-flat): a humorous reference to the “back-to-Bach” crusade of the 1930s.

The Scherzo is actually a mock waltz, but it follows the Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo classical form. Offset rhythms in the cello and occasional accent shifts in the viola add to the caricature. The Trio section tries humorously to be pompous.

Somewhat Satie-like, the Andante spins out a languid violin melody over a repetitive harmonic accompaniment. There follow two mutations, one an eloquent cello echo and the other a warm viola solo.

The final Rondo is a galloping polka built on a square-phrased main theme. The middle section brings back the satirical quality of the first two movements. At last, Franҫaix pours forth a mock apotheosis, but this disappears into a brief, puckish coda.

Mozart:Divertimento in E-flat for String Trio, K. 563

The year was 1788, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was entering the saddest period of his life. His music being out of favor with the Viennese public and having only a tiny regular income, he went into debt. In June, he began to borrow money regularly from his brother in Freemasonry, the well-to-do merchant Michael Puchberg. Frequently, from that time until April 1791, Mozart would beg money from this always-generous friend, making blue-sky promises of repayment once his fortunes in music improved. Mozart’s lodge-brother probably never expected to see his money again.

Puchberg was not entirely without recompense, however. In September 1788, Mozart dedicated to him something unique in his output: his only complete work for string trio. It ran six movements, including two minuets: a divertimento. Mozart must have been proud of the E-flat Divertimento, for he performed it in Dresden in 1789 (on his way to Berlin), and again in Vienna a year later. Divertimentos were usually light-hearted, but Mozart sometimes violated that tradition. As it turns out, the first half of this work has a serious tone, while the latter half is blithe.

We may be astonished by the plethora of musical ideas in the first movement’s exposition. However, in the development, Mozart chooses to focus on a motive from the second theme group for serious contrapuntal treatment.

The gradually swelling passion of the Adagio falls outside the realm of divertimento tradition. Its development goes far afield harmonically before returning to the home key for an elaboration of each theme.

In the first Menuetto, Mozart’s theme features cross accents of 2+2+2 beats within the space of 3+3 beats. Development is again the watchword, as ideas grow in the second portion. The Trio section stresses equality among the three string parts in the form of alternating solos.

The Andante now places us squarely in the traditional divertimento domain. Here is a carefree, walking theme. The following variations become progressively more decorative or rhythmically dense until the quasi-Baroque minore variation. Bursting back into the major mode, Mozart now demands non-stop passagework from the players until the music unwinds in the coda.

Truly entertaining, the second Menuetto has some comic overtones. Both Trios are in Ländler rhythm (forerunner of the waltz) and flavored with the spirit of the Viennese public dancing parties for which Mozart wrote his German Dances.

The final Allegro balances the seriousness of the opening movement with a complete relaxation of mood. The recurrent main theme is a playful peasant dance capped by a little drumming fanfare. Even the semi-serious counterpoint in the middle section is not long lived. As a coda, the little fanfare takes over, bringing to an end what Alfred Einstein termed “the finest, most perfect trio ever heard.”

Notes by Michael Fink, 2019

Review – Virtuosity

Virtuosity Program Notes

Weinberg, Capriccio for String Quartet, Op. 11

Surely, Russia’s best known modern composers were Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. However, a third composer from their era, previously little known in the West, is now a rising star: Mieczław (Moisey) Weinberg (1919-1996).

Weinberg was a child of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of 12, he entered the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied the piano but also began composing. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Weinberg fled (on foot) to Minsk (Belarus), where he studied composition at the conservatory for two years before relocating in Tashkent. There he married and also met Shostakovich, with whom he formed a close lifelong friendship. Weinberg wrote, “It was as if I had been born anew…. Although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” After the war, the Weinbergs and Shostakoviches moved to Moscow, where they became next-door neighbors. Beginning in 1948, several composers, including Weinberg, were black-listed by Stalin’s regime, and in February 1953, he was jailed. Shostakovich wrote a letter on his behalf to an official he knew, and that must have delayed Weinberg’s inevitable execution. Stalin himself died the following month, and Weinberg was soon released.

Weinberg was extremely prolific with over 150 opus numbers, including 25 symphonies, seven operas, film scores, and a vast amount of chamber music. Concerning his musical style, biographer Lyudmilla D. Nikitina writes:

Weinberg’s compositional style is influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók, and Mahler; his works are often based on a program, largely autobiographical in nature, and they reflect on the fate of the composer and of humanity in general…. For all the importance of … the programmatic nature of many works and the occasional Slavic and Jewish thematic materials, his music has an absolute — even abstract — quality, with similar themes able to assume varied semantic hues in given environments

In the Capriccio, Weinberg’s stylistic debt to Shostakovich is apparent from the outset. The backdrop of the entire composition is a sardonic waltz, frequently punctuated by changes in meter that upset the waltz character of the music. Melodies are slightly wild (reflecting influences of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev). At the piece’s center comes a string of more primitive accompanied melodies (the waltz’s “Trio”?) Then the music returns to the lighter sardonic attitude of the opening to round out this very fun piece.

Arensky, String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11

About the biography of Anton Arensky (1861-1906), one writer states:

The circumstances of Arensky’s life read like the pages of a Dostoyevskian Russian novel — a brilliant talent, fostered under the tutelage of the great Rimsky-Korsakov, degenerating into a life of drinking, gambling, and dissolution, leading to oblivion and death in a Finnish sanatorium, aged 45.

Not only was Arensky’s musical training prestigious, but so was his teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students, he could number Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere. From Moscow, Arensky went on to direct the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg, retiring in 1901 with a generous pension. Unfortunately, his alcoholism and gambling addiction led to a rapid decline and an early death. Of him, his Moscow Conservatory colleague Tchaikovsky remarked, “Arensky is a man of remarkable gifts, but morbidly nervous and lacking in firmness, and altogether a strange man.”

Arensky composed his String Quartet No.1 in 1888, and it was already the work of a masterful composer. Yet, the overall plan and in the forms of individual movements he chose show a somewhat student –like adherence to Classical Period ideals. For example, the first movement uses a repeated exposition and a conventionally worked-out development. Nevertheless, the musical experience is fresh and engaging.

Beginning hymn-like, the second movement then unfolds into a multi-voiced lyrical essay. In a sense, we are hearing a “song without words,” such as made famous by Mendelssohn. This becomes a drawn-out coda to the whole movement.

Think of it as either a fast waltz or a slow scherzo, the third movement is full of wit as well as academic (but sincere) counterpoint. The movement’s ending is especially warm and witty.

Philip Ying of the Ying String Quartet offers this insightful description of the last movement:

A Russian element makes its appearance in the Finale, with its variations on a Russian theme. These bring their surprises, not least in the traditional folk texture suggested by the plucked accompaniment in one variation and the later fragmentation of the theme, before a cadenza and the return of the theme in a mood of mounting excitement, leading to an emphatic and vigorous conclusion.

Tchaikovsky, Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50

Chamber music, according to the books, is the most classic of musical media. We read terms like “purity of style,” “objective,” “music for music’s sake,” etc. It is true that most chamber-music composers have adhered to classical forms, yet the intimate character of chamber music allows the composer much personal latitude. This “personal” side seems almost paradoxical, especially when taken to the extreme of being biographical or autobiographical, as happens with much of the late 19th and 20th century chamber music that we hear.

The Tchaikovsky Trio — the only one he wrote — “deals with” Nikolay Rubinstein, and Tchaikovsky’s reaction to his sudden death in 1881. Nikolay Rubinstein, brother of Anton, was Director of the Moscow Conservatory. The Trio is dedicated “à la memoire d’un grand Artiste,” and although the first of its two movements is titled “Pezzo elegiaco,” the work is not so much a sincere tombeau to his friend as it is a representation of Tchaikovsky’s emotional reaction to his death. The composer wrote to his brother, Modest, “To my shame, I must admit that I was suffering not so much from a sense of fearful, irretrievable loss as from the dread of seeing poor Rubinstein’s body.” The year before, Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, had asked for a piano trio, but Tchaikovsky declined because he did not think the combination was an acceptable setting for the piano. Now he would write a Trio in which the piano is so predominant that at times it obscures the violin and cello lines.

We shall not indulge in an analysis of the trio, but the second movement deserves some comment. It is a set of variations and finale on a Russian folk tune. Since for many years Tchaikovsky would allow the Piano Trio to be performed only in private, the supposed “program” of this movement was not generally known. This raised some skepticism, and one critic wrote:

The variations of the Trio figure a representation of the episodes of Nikolay Grigorievich’s [Rubinstein’s] life. . . . How amusing! To compose music without the slightest desire to represent something and suddenly to discover that it represents this or that, it is what Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme must have felt when he learned that he had been speaking in prose all his life.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019

Complexity Program Notes

Complexity Program Notes

Beethoven: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3

Of the six quartets in Op. 18, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the G Major Quartet first chronologically. However, he then spent much time revising it. In musical sketchbooks from 1798-99, Beethoven extensively and laboriously worked out four of the quartets. The earliest is the D Major, making it his first completed mature string quartet.

As in his Symphony No. 1 (from the same general period), Beethoven introduces musical uncertainty right from the first notes, and that sets the tone for the entire first movement. In the graceful first theme group, instead of comfortably establishing the home key, the composer gives us a plethora of notes ornamental to the underlying harmony. Classically, the second theme group should be in the key of A major, but Beethoven takes us to the “wrong” key of C major for the first part, then jerks us into A major with two or three assertive chords. In the development section, he goes even further by clothing much of his thematic material in unaccustomed minor keys. What might be an otherwise routine recapitulation is spiced considerably by splashes of the minor mode and remote keys, notably E-flat (!) only moments before the movement’s ending.

Maintaining character, Beethoven leaps into the key of B-flat major for the Andante movement. The music begins in a serene mood, then runs a gamut of emotions that show Beethoven writing from the heart (rather than by form) with remarkable maturity. Against the music’s pulsating continuity, the individual instruments often take on special characteristics, becoming almost like players in a drama.

Again foreshadowing the First Symphony, the Allegro third movement is a true Beethoven scherzo — essentially a minuet at breakneck speed. The high spirits in the outer sections contrast with the Trio, where the violins conduct a whirlwind dialog in the minor mode.

In the finale, Beethoven whips up the scherzo’s joviality into a frothy lather of triplet notes and jabbing accents. As in the first movement, the underlying harmonies run far afield at times. Despite this Presto’s near-perpetual motion, a few definite themes emerge, notably an idea that reminded one annotator of the “Mexican Hat Dance.” However, Beethoven — always full of surprises — ends this otherwise boisterous and bombastic movement with the quietest of low whispers.

 

Beethoven: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 “Serioso”

Between 1806, when Beethoven finished his three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, and 1810, when he dashed off the “Serioso” Quartet in one month, the composer wrote little chamber music. A cello sonata (Op. 69), two piano trios (Op. 70), and the Op. 74 string quartet are the tally. During this time, he was deeply occupied with such matters as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the last two piano concertos, to name only a few of the projects. Personal problems involving, finances, health, deafness, love, and family life also beset the composer at the time. We are not surprised, then, that he was at turns despondent and angry, and that he should express these feelings in his most intimate medium, the string quartet. Of the “Serioso” quartet, analyst/philosopher Joseph Kerman writes:

. . . This is first and foremost a problematic work which thrusts in the direction of eccentricity and self-absorption. But Beethoven at his most quirky is Beethoven possessed. In this quartet, and in none of the others so far, he evokes that almost tangible sense of the artist assaulting a daemon of his own fancying. . . .

The F-minor Quartet is not a pretty piece, but it is terribly strong — and perhaps rather terrible. . . . The piece stands aloof, preoccupied with its radical private war on every fiber of rhetoric and feeling that Beethoven knew or could invent. Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension.

Kerman uses the word “concentration,” and we might paraphrase that with the word “compression.” For the individual movements of this quartet are among the shortest Beethoven ever wrote in this medium. And just as air heats up when compressed, so does Beethoven’s music. The first movement, for example is dominated by the opening five-note motive. Though he does introduce other ideas, this brusque idea recurs often, virtually etching itself on our ears. The form of the movement, too, is compressed. Ignoring the usually obligatory repeat of the exposition, Beethoven plunges into a compressed development after just one hearing. Then, the recapitulation is a compressed version of the already terse exposition. Finally, the coda concentrates on the five-note motive, gradually grinding it down dynamically from a pounding fortissimo to a whispering pianissimo.

Beethoven named this quartet “Serioso” himself, and nowhere in it is the description more apt than the second movement. With melancholy concentration, the composer introduces a fully harmonic opening paragraph. We find no prettiness here, nor in the middle section, which starts as a fugato on a new idea. This dissolves into a wispy episode. Then another fugue begins on a new theme, but now the first fugato theme joins in: a double fugue! (The careful listener will also hear the original theme occasionally turned upside down.) After a reprise of the opening paragraph, the music becomes quiet, only to be shaken by the forcible opening of the third movement. The movement would be the “scherzo” (scherzo = joke), but this music is no laughing matter. In Beethoven, anger and determination are often indistinguishable, and this is one of those times. The recurring Trio section offers some emotional relief, but the persistent main idea always hammers away afterward.

The brief Larghetto introduction to the finale bespeaks tragic introspection, but it leads to music that comes off like a quick waltz. This not a merry waltz, however, but a passionate and driving one, much like the breathless finale to the “Appasionata” piano sonata (also in F minor, incidentally). By contrast, the major mode coda at the very end could be taken as some kind of joke on Beethoven’s part. Having been dubbed a “comic-opera” ending, it is almost as if Beethoven thought, “Whoops, we’d better give them a happy ending.” Whether we take the music this way or, more nobly, as proof of the composer’s belief in an indomitable human spirit, we come out with positive feelings.

 

Beethoven: String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127

The string quartets and Grosse fuge of Opp. 127-135 were the last music penned by Beethoven, and if the early and middle works of Beethoven were often misunderstood in their day, the final ones were a complete enigma. The unusual qualities of these works were so alien to early audiences that many listeners ridiculously considered the quartets to be either the absent-minded doodling of a once-great master in his dotage or the work of a man so totally deaf and out of touch with musical sound, that he could no longer distinguish consonance from dissonance — even on paper!

The truth of the matter is that the last quartets are transcendental. They transcend the standards of form, harmony, and chamber technique as they were known at that time. A mystical quality also pervades the quartets, which Aldous Huxley used symbolically in his novel, Point Counter Point. Then there is the matter of technical difficulty. Never a composer to compromise, Beethoven’s grand visions infused his last quartets with a multitude of transcendental difficulties in rhythm, ensemble playing, and pure endurance.

Beethoven opened this final chapter of composition with the E-flat String Quartet. When he received the commission in 1824, about 14 years had passed since he had composed a quartet, the F Minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”). The new work was very different, however, and unique for its songlike qualities. One writer has even called it “a kind of Lyric Suite [by Alban Berg] before its time.”

The material and extremely plastic structure of the opening movement certainly support that idea. Introductory material recurs during the movement, and there is a free flow between themes and chief sections.

Following an unusual harmonic opening, the slow movement proves to be the extended lyrical centerpiece of the entire quartet. Here is a set of six variations on a long-lined theme, luxuriant in harmony yet vibrant in its rhythms and variety of ideas.

The Scherzo is similarly a full-length essay, but one dominated by the puckish, four-note motive announced in the cello at its beginning. The Presto Trio section literally skims along, and Beethoven brings back a taste of it as part of the coda.

The finale recalls much of the singing Allegro quality of the first movement and its structure is every bit as compact. A lucid modification of rondo form, the movement finally melts into the sweep of triplets that drive the final coda to a brilliant close.

 

Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2018