Program notes: Zerweck/valkov recital

Cui, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op.84

Cèsar Cui (1835-1918) was born in Vilnius, Imperial Russia (now part of Lithuania). He received a good education, part of which were his studies with Stanisław Moniuszko, who was an early Russian quasi-nationalist composer. However, Cui’s family was practical, and allowing Cesar to pursue the career of a composer was out of the question. Thus, he entered St. Petersburg’s Chief Engineering School at the age of sixteen. After further education in military engineer, he joined the Russian Army and became a successful teacher of military fortifications. rising to the rank of General.

In his spare time, Cui became a composer and music critic. He was a fairly prolific and specialized in opera. However, he also composed many short piano pieces in the “salon” tradition. Much of his music is notable for its Russian character. This came naturally, largely because he was a member of “The Five” (or, “Mighty Five”) who actively tried to establish a Russian nationalistic style of concert music. His compatriots in this group were Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Cui composed the Violin Sonata between 1860 and 1870, but it was not published until 1911. The first of three movements, Allegro, begins with two lyrical themes that have a “Schumannesque” style. A third theme begins in that style but soon turns to more original interplay between violin and piano. This develops one or two portions drawn from those two themes. Then, in a more relaxed tempo, the Schumannesque lyricism we heard at the opening resumes, becomes more agitated, and then completes the movement.

Marked Andante non troppo, the flavor of the central movement’s opening section is more purposely “Russian” in the manner of a folk song. The central section that follows is slightly faster and (again) more like Schumannesque Romanticism. When the first section returns, it brings with it, again, the sadness of many Russian folk songs. However, Cui is brief and the music tastefully forms a coda to the whole movement.

The sonata’s Allegro requires a sense of perpetual motion from the violin in the opening section. Next, Cui turns to Russian flavor for more lyrical thematic material. A transition ensues, involves interplay between violin and piano. This leads to a reprise of the opening section, which is suddenly cut short by a second digression. This turns out to be the conclusion of the sonata, reminiscent of this movement’s opening but with more “fireworks.” This music completes the extraordinary stylistic unity of the entire work.

Beethoven, Violin Sonata no. 6 in A Major (Op. 30, no. 1)

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed a set of three violin sonatas, which he dedicated to Tsar Alexander of Russia. The following year Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria, brought out the sonatas as Opus 30, but the composer neither heard nor received anything from the Tsar. Years later, Beethoven composed a polonaise and presented it personally to Tsarina Elizabeth. On learning that her husband had forgotten to reward Beethoven for the earlier dedication, the empress promptly gave him 100 ducats.

Although the A Major Sonata is not Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata, its opening movement begins with a pastoral quality. The second part of the exposition then moves in the direction of popular Italian comic opera, even to a quickness and comic concluding material. By serious contrast, the development section treats the first theme in canon, later becoming dramatic. In concluding the movement, Beethoven projects a feeling of gentle courtesy.

The extended second movement continues the bucolic spirit of the first through a contemplative main theme. This theme later recurs twice, and in between, Beethoven places differentiated sections that grow into tragic episodes. The first of these is in minor with the violin exploring the dotted rhythms of the main theme’s piano part. The second episode is part declamatory and part gliding, using triplet rhythm. The triplets continue as a varied accompaniment to the last return of the principal theme.

Beethoven originally intended the final movement of this sonata to be part of the “Kreutzer” Sonata (Op. 47). Based on a cheerful theme, the movement unfolds as a set of six “character” variations. The first is a moto perpetuo dialogue between the instruments. The second features the violin in nearly continuous even notes. Variation 3 has the piano’s left hand providing a fast, running foundation for canon-like interchanges between the right hand and the violin. Variation 4 is a study in chordal multiple stops for the violin with improvisatory-style comments from the piano. The minore variation comes next: a serious essay in 18th-century counterpoint, leading to a transition that explores remote harmonic areas. The final variation is a country dance in 6/8 time. The coda recalls the comic opera flavor of the first movement to cap the sonata with good humor.

Shostakovich, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134

The single violin sonata by Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was an emblem of deep friendship for another musician: violinist David Oistrakh.  Shostakovich wrote the work in 1968 for Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, and the following year the dedicatee premiered it with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano. The sonata comes from the same year as the Twelfth String Quartet, and the two works share much of the same musical language.  It is a somewhat eclectic language that utilizes 12-tone “rows” without actually employing 12-tone techniques.

In the first movement, an Andante, much of the piano part consists of a single line performed in octaves.  That is the way the work begins: as a thematic tone row exposed in a wide, sweeping arc.  This theme is soon heard also in the violin.  Contrasting sections follow, rhythmic at first, and then an eerie tranquillo. All themes are reiterated in abbreviated form, but a new, somewhat “expressionistic” element is eventually added in the violin: tremolo double stops bowed at the bridge.

The second movement is a scherzo written in the manner of Shostakovich’s early sardonic, incisive style. Both the violin and piano parts are technically demanding, and the movement is a display of virtuosity. The constant build of momentum is suddenly cut short by the abrupt ending of the movement.

Following a largo introduction, the finale unfolds as a broad set of variations on a passacaglia-like theme that is stated by the violin playing pizzicato. The piano and violin pass the theme back and forth, sometimes disguising it with ornamentation.  The climactic moment is reached when, after the variation for piano solo, when we hear an extensive violin cadenza.  As the work winds down, snatches of the “eerie” section of the first movement reappear, and the final notes from the violin are the earlier “expressionistic” ones.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2023

All Shostakovich Program notes

Shostakovich/Auerbach: 24 Preludes for Piano, Op. 34

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1979) composed his Twenty-four Preludes for piano between December 1932 and March 1933. The work emulated The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in the idea of 24 keyboard preludes covering each of the major and minor keys.*

The 26-year-old Shostakovich infused his preludes with a broad palette of emotions and gestures. Some of the preludes maintain one consistent emotion (or attitude) throughout. Others may unexpectedly change emotional expression suddenly.

These sharp turns were to become hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style, and in some ways they mirrored his life under the Communist regime. For example, frequently, he and other prominent Russian composers were periodically denounced by the government’s news services for some (usually imagined) infraction of governmental fine-arts policy. The most (in-)famous of these was his 1948 censure (alongside Prokofiev and others) for “formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies” — whatever the authorities imagined those to be. At other times, just as predictably, he would be lauded, often receiving some honor or prize. One of his highest honors was an appointment to membership in the Supreme Soviet in 1962.

The Preludes are short essays. However, they also became the proving ground for content that we can hear in Shostakovich’s mature symphonies, concertos, and chamber works.

*Shostakovich differed from Bach in the matter of organization, that is, the order of keys — major and minor. The First Prelude (and Fugue) in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I) is in the key of C major and so is that of Shostakovich’s first Prelude. However, Bach then follows each major key with its parallel minor (e.g., C Major and C minor). He then proceeds to the next higher key on the keyboard, (C-sharp Major and C-sharp Minor, etc.), completing the whole series in the key of B Minor.

Shostakovich organized his 24 Preludes by following each major key with its relative minor key, that is, the minor key with the same number of sharps or flats required to play correctly in that key (e.g., C Major and A Minor — no sharps or flats). Then, he proceeds to the pair of keys requiring one sharp: G Major and E Minor. The next pair requires two sharps (D Major and B Minor), etc. Following the six-sharp pair, the composer switches to six flats (E-flat minor) for Preludes no. 15 and 16, then works his way back to one flat (F Major and D minor) for Preludes 23 and 24. Another point of interest is that Bach composed a sequel: the WTC (Book II), and Shostakovich composed his sequel, 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, in 1950-51.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022

About Lera Auerbach (arranger of the Shostakovich Preludes heard today)

A renaissance artist for modern times, Lera Auerbach is a widely recognized conductor, pianist, and composer. She is also a published poet and an exhibited visual artist. All of her work is interconnected as part of a cohesive and comprehensive artistic worldview.

Lera Auerbach has become one of today’s most sought after and exciting creative voices. Her performances and music are featured in the world’s leading stages – from Vienna’s Musikverein and London’s Royal Albert Hall to New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.

Auerbach is equally prolific in literature and the visual arts. She incorporates these forms into her professional creative process, often simultaneously expressing ideas visually, in words, and through music. She has published three books of poetry in Russian, and her first English-language book, Excess of Being – in which she explores the rare form of aphorisms. Her next book, an illustrated work for children, A is for Oboe, will be published by Penguin Random House in the fall of 2021. Auerbach has been drawing and painting all her life as part of her creative process. Her visual art is exhibited regularly, included in private collections, and is represented by leading galleries.

Lera Auerbach holds multiple degrees from the Juilliard School in New York and Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, selected her in 2007 as a Young Global Leader and since 2014 she serves as a Cultural Leader.  Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski publishes her work, and recordings are available on Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Alpha Classics, BIS, Cedille, and many other labels.

-LeraAuerbach.com

Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147

Shostakovich was a pianist, not a string player. Yet he clearly valued above all that vocal quality in string instruments that allowed them to stand as surrogates for the composer’s personal voice in quartet, concerto, or sonata, evoking public debate or private soliloquy.

Malcolm MacDonald

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the 20th century’s musical geniuses and probably the most successful Russian composer of the Stalin era. Yes, he had occasional doctrinal scuffles with the Communist regime (which alternately praised or condemned him). Yet he nonetheless became quite prolific, composing 9 operas, 40 film scores, 15 symphonies, and 15 string quartets.

He was a “workaholic,” composing the Viola Sonata’s first two movements in ten days during early July 1975 and the third in two days later that month. Soon after that, he entered the hospital. Evidently, everyone knew this would be the composer’s final hospitalization. So, his publisher rushed the sonata’s typesetting, and on August 9, 1975, the day of his death, the composer was proof-reading his final work.

In the first movement, the most important thing to notice is that Shostakovich was composing in “free atonality.” that is, in no traditional key. We hear this in the viola’s pizzicato introduction, which is joined by the piano, playing “plucky” notes in counterpoint to the viola. The music broadens, and, on an equal footing, viola and piano present a lengthy dramatic outburst. The texture changes when the viola etches out melodies in tremolo (rapid, repeated bowing on each note) in a long statement. Eventually, the music turns back to an echo of the movement’s opening, ending in a calm mood.

As a “cure” for the first movement’s seriousness, the central movement is a true scherzo (“joke”). It is a comic fast waltz, but frequently turns into a raucous march. If the first movement was often atonal (in no particular key), the scherzo counterbalances it in several places by placing the viola in one key and the piano in another key: “bi-tonality” for comic effect. In the central section, viola and piano reverse jobs: the piano hammers out a melody while the viola attempts an accompaniment as loud as the piano. This exchange recurs in the reprise of fragments from the first section. Eventually, the individual functions of melody and accompaniment become blurred, and a return of the comic march does not help. The ending comically leaves these matters unresolved.

With the third movement, Adagio, we arrive at the sonata’s poignant center of gravity. It begins with an unaccompanied cantilena from the viola. When the piano enters (also unaccompanied), we may “get” the music’s true direction. According to Fjodor Druzhinin, the Sonata’s dedicatee, Shostakovich composed this movement in memory of Beethoven. Now the piano proves it with the repeated three-note pattern closely reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (Op. 27, no. 2). This three-note figure will recur many times in the course of the Adagio, always in the piano (Beethoven’s instrument). As the movement progresses, we hear a further reference to that famous, touching piece of music: a repeated note (dah-dee-daaah). The Adagio’s steady flow is later interrupted only by a declamatory cadenza from the viola (unaccompanied), but the piano joins in again. Gradually, the composer leads us thunderously back to a “Moonlight” piano accompaniment to support a flowing viola line. During the final minute, the viola-piano dialogue unravels softly. Thus, we have the touching ending of the Viola Sonata — and of the beloved composer’s life.

Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67

The E Minor Piano Trio by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) belongs to the same period as his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the Eighth Quartet. These works share not only a World War II genesis but certain emotional characteristics as well. Anxiety, tension, and tragedy are moods associated with wartime, which critics have also identified in these works.

The Piano Trio has, in addition, a more personal side. In February 1944, the composer’s very close friend Ivan Sollertinsky died suddenly of a heart attack. Within days, Shostakovich began composing the Piano Trio No. 2, dedicating it to the memory of Sollertinsky. Between that time and early August, when he completed the second movement, Russian troops had liberated Nazi death camps at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek. The shattering reality of the Holocaust began to be revealed with that news, and Shostakovich, who had been extremely sympathetic toward Soviet Jews since at least the late 1930s, was deeply grieved.

Thus, the tragic significance of the piano trio took a turn at the midpoint, becoming an elegy for the murdered Jews of the Holocaust. Shostakovich consciously emulated Jewish style music in the trio, especially the final movement. When the work was premiered in November 1944 (with the composer at the piano), the audience was profoundly moved. One listener reported, “The music left a devastating impression. People cried openly. By audience demand, the last ‘Jewish’ part of the Trio had to be repeated.”

At the opening of the work, the violin and cello parts play in exchanged ranges, producing an unusual tone quality. Each voices an elegiac, modal theme. The piano’s low entry with the theme leads to discussion among the instruments, which evolves into a second section containing more energetic material. Some of this is cheerful — often to the point of banality. The movement winds down to a quiet ending.

The second movement is a scherzo with all the verve and stomping of a Beethoven work. Violin and cello often chase each other, but cooperating closely at other times, with the piano set off aurally. The movement shows, harmonically, the “classical” side of the composer’s aesthetic palette.

Heavy piano chords at the opening of the third movement immediately cast a funereal mood. A taut, emotional dialogue between violin and cello follows, set against the somber background of chords from the piano. Shostakovich here gives the listener a glimpse into the wrenching agony he was feeling.

The finale follows directly, carrying the listener into the trio’s famous “Jewish” theme. About Jewish music, Shostakovich said: 

I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it; it is multifaceted; it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears.

Dmitry Shostakovich

However, here the melody’s treatment is eerie, possibly even menacing, as in a danse macabre. This may have been prompted by a story the composer received of SS guards making their victims dance beside their own graves. A series of variants on the theme proceeds, punctuated by sardonic cadences and some new material also informed by Jewish musical tradition. About the halfway point, the dance reaches a crazed pitch, only to be released in a passionate outpouring. A brief but lush development follows, capped by a return of the Jewish theme in the piano. The elegiac chords from the third movement now return, combined with bits of the Jewish theme, to form a coda that lays the E Minor Piano Trio peacefully to rest.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022

All rights reserved

Program notes: innocence lost

Shostakovich: String quartet no. 8, op. 110

The intimate chamber idiom has its share of composers’ personal mottos and autobiographical references. Still, it is rare to glimpse into any composer’s memories as clearly as in the Eighth String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). This work contains a musical motto intended to symbolize his name, which is stated in the opening measures and reworked into each succeeding movement. Resembling J.S. Bach’s motto, B-A-C-H (B-flat, A, C, B), the Shostakovich notes are D, E-flat (Es in German), C, B-natural (H in German). Together, this sequence suggests “D. Sch.,” a German mnemonic of the composer’s initials. Still more autobiographical are the musical quotations from the composer’s earlier works and other familiar melodies, with possible references to the sounds of WW II bombers and gunfire. The words of Shostakovich’s closest biographers and of the composer himself can best complete our introduction to this quartet of 1960: 

He worked on the score in Dresden. . . . The beautiful city of Dresden had been swept off the face of the earth in a single night, but was rising again from the ruins, all of which stirred old feelings seemingly locked in his past. It is not without cause that he dedicated the Eighth Quartet . . . to the memory of the victims of Nazism and war. . . . Written in no more than three days, as if poured from the depths of the artist’s soul, the quartet is autobiographical. . . . In the course of the quartet’s five continuous movements, themes from various compositions make their appearance 

. . . from the opening subject of the First Symphony, which is interwoven with the Largo of the first movement, to the motifs from the movement entitled “Eternal Memory” in the Eleventh Symphony. 

Dmitri and Ludmilla Sollertinsky, Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich

When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism.” You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”

And there is also the Jewish theme from the Piano Trio in this quartet. I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears.

Solomon Volkov, ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

Schubert: STring quartet in A minor, d.804

After Schubert had put aside his “Unfinished” Symphony in 1822, he did not give up the idea being a symphonist. On the contrary, he had grand plans for what would become the “Great” C Major Symphony, but he felt that he needed more seasoning in the instrumental domain. As a result, he turned his attention to chamber music, writing three string quartets and the Octet. After completing the Quartet in A Minor and the Quartet in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”) in March 1824, he wrote to his friend, Leopold Kupelweiser, “I have written two quartets . . . and an octet, and I intend to write another quartet. In this manner, I want to pave the way to a grand symphony.” Although Schubert completed all three quartets, the A Minor was the only one in the trilogy to be published during his lifetime.

The first movement begins like one of Schubert’s songs: with a brief introduction (in fact, a little uneasy, like “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) leading to an exquisite lyrical melody. Following a vigorous transition, the second theme is, likewise, song-like. The development reveals some wonderfully colorful key explorations before settling down to a recapitulation that turns unexpectedly to the major mode for the second theme.

For the Andante’s main theme, Schubert borrows his own Entr’Acte music from Rosamunde. This he treats in a series of variations that cover a subtle variety of moods.

Alfred Einstein called the Menuetto movement “the germ or kernel of the A Minor Quartet,” also pointing out that it is a Ländler and not a minuet. In addition, it opens with a direct quotation from Schubert’s 1819 setting of Schiller’s ode, “The Gods of Greece.” If this quartet “is ‘about’ disenchantment and the loss of innocence,” as biographer John Reed asserts, then this movement, with its wistful pre-Brahms melancholy, epitomizes the work.

The rondo finale, set in A major, dispels some of that melancholy with its rustic flavor. But Einstein describes it as appearing “in the same Hungarian disguise which Schubert was to use again in Die Winterreise in an exactly similar sense: outwardly exuberant and chevaleresque, but . . . without any real consolation….” Nevertheless, the impetuousness and rhythmic verve of the finale does much to redirect the quartet’s previous moodiness onto a more positive course.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021. All rights reserved.