The first concert of the new Subscription Series for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was given by one of Britain’s leading string quartets, The Doric. A regular audience member commented that Monday’s was the best quartet performance he had ever heard. Many in the audience specifically acclaimed the Doric’s performance of the first piece in their programme, Benjamin Britten’s Quartet no. 1 in D op. 25.
Cellist John Myerscough mentioned the sense of broad sweeping landscapes projected by this music. This was certainly true of the first movement. The land and seascapes around Lowestoft and Aldeburgh where Britten lived and worked brought to life these windswept panoramas. Throughout the work, but especially in this movement, the cello provided the solid core of the music while the other instruments at the top of their range were like the winds swirling around that well-founded cello core. In the following Scherzo, light bouncing rhythms were punctuated by startling stabbing motifs.
Calm prevailed in the third movement. There was delicious playing especially from first violin, Alex Redington. His violin was not muted but his soft tonal quality almost suggested that it was.
The final short movement began with chattering conversation between the instruments. The rhythmic pulse of the music was irresistible. What a fantastic performance, so full of instrumental colour, depth of feeling and excitement. I think if Britten himself had heard this performance even he would have been astonished at just how strikingly colourful his music is in this quartet.
If Britten’s Quartet is austere and windswept, the opening movement of Haydn’s Quartet in A op. 20 no.6 had sunshine galore. The Doric Quartet played with a striking blend of joy and delicacy.
In the second movement, the cello provided a rich steady bass while the others encapsulated Haydn’s direction ‘cantabile’. The Minuetto epitomised the very spirit of the dance followed by a wonderfully light footed finale. As with their performance of the Britten, the Doric’s Haydn was the composer at his very best.
The final piece in the programme was Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E flat op. 44 no. 3. The opening Allegro vivace was tuneful, lissome, energetic, followed by a scherzo that was pure Mendelssohn, lots of notes tumbling forth at top speed in a dazzling precision performance. The slow movement was lustrous in its melodic outpourings and the finale could only be described as stunning with astonishingly virtuosic fingerboard work especially from the cello. I say that because it was he whom I could see clearly from where I was sitting – but the whole ensemble were brilliant.
On every level: technical virtuosity, instrumental colour, interpretation and understanding of the music, yes – just sheer musicality, the Doric Quartet were fabulous. The best quartet performance ever heard? Well, I’m not going to argue with that!
The Carducci String Quartet gave the final concert of the 2016 – 2017 Season for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts. I think everyone who has attended all the concerts will agree that it has been a terrific season and as for me, I think that the Carducci Quartet brought it to a thrilling conclusion with a truly outstanding performance. They gave us a fascinating choice of music, all of it featuring great composers seen in an unusual light, their imaginations striving towards something uniquely different. The Carducci’s playing met every point of interest head on and delivered it in luminous detail to the audience.
They began with Haydn’s Quartet in D Major op. 20 no. 4. The opening movement starts with a motif whose four repeated notes make it instantly recognizable as it runs throughout the whole movement in a variety of different keys and formats. This makes Haydn’s shaping of the music amazingly transparent and the Carducci’s playing underlined this clarity so well.
The second movement in the minor key had a gentle sadness to it expressed initially with touching delicacy by the players. It is in fact a series of variations with delicious playing from the cello and then a touch of brightness from the first violin.
The Menuetto with its folksy gypsy flavour was something new for Haydn and here again, in the trio section, Emma Denton’s lovely cello playing was special.
Matthew Denton on first violin led the chase that Haydn gives his players in the finale which had the Quartet players scampering headlong towards an exciting conclusion.
The Quartet no. 11 in f minor, op. 122 by Shostakovich was unusual in its episodic construction. Although played just by the four players of the string quartet it seemed to have a symphonic breadth and it contained so many of the different forms and moods that this composer achieves in his symphonies. The Scherzo had the threatening quality of the Marches like those in the Fifth Symphony and there were moments of lovely introspection and sadness as well as its moments of angry explosion. The Carducci gave us sweepingly sad and beautiful melodic playing and towards the end, the muted playing was particularly appealing. The first violin injected movement and brightness to the conclusion of the work. The Carducci had led us on an intriguing journey through the startling contrasts of the composer’s very different musical landscapes.
Before they moved over to the dark side of the force (I’m joking) Schoenberg and Webern composed some rather luscious late romantic music and Webern’s Langsamer Satz is one such piece. There were some fascinating details in this music such as the use of pizzicato on the various instruments – it starts on the cello arising out of its rhythmic backing and the piece in facts ends with a single pluck from the cello. There was also a splendid moment where a melodic surge ran seamlessly across the four players as if a strobe light had swung across them. This was a fine performance of just the sort of music I really like and wish I could compose but can’t.
Beethoven’s Quartet in f minor op. 95 was in some ways the most unusual of all the pieces in tonight’s concert. It is almost schizophrenic in the way it combines intensity, urgency, storminess and even violence of mood with a certain sweetness and gentleness. Somehow, in this performance anyway, moments of storminess also had undercurrents of gentle sweetness and vice versa. The Carducci had achieved something amazing in being able to project these combined feelings.
I loved the complexities of the fugato in the second movement where so many emotions were touched upon. There was a jauntiness at the opening of the third movement but as it progressed storm and softness were contrasted yet bound together too. The finale opened with a sensation of deep sadness and then suddenly everything was merriment and sunshine – so different from the opening of the work. This really was the most amazingly advanced and sophisticated music and it received a performance that was totally worthy of it from the Carducci Quartet.
Another season is over for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts. A summer of gardening and mowing of lawns beckons before a new concert season begins on Monday 9th October with a visit from the Doric Quartet.
Before that the AGM for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts will take place in Craigiebuckler Church at 7.30 pm on Wednesday 14th June. If you are a member please come along and give us your support and opinions. You will be warmly welcome!
Quartet in D op. 20 no. 4 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Un poco adagio affettuoso
Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese
It is generally accepted that the six op. 20 quartets, written in 1772, constitute a turning point in the history of the medium. Rosemary Hughes writes: “Here the string quartet texture is finally achieved, however capable it may still be of further refinement or expansion.” Immediately apparent is the equality of the part-writing, and each quartet shows Haydn’s inventiveness and experimentation. In addition, the D major quartet shows a wide emotional range. It begins in a rather sombre introspective mood, contrasted with more flamboyant triplets. The development teases with a couple of false starts to the recapitulation. The serious-minded slow movement is a lovely theme with variations, in D minor. In the first, the second violin and viola have their chance to shine, while in the second the cello takes the spotlight, before the first violin takes over again in the third. The fourth goes far beyond the standard variation pattern, the repetition of the theme becoming extended almost into a development section. The jolly minuet draws on the cross-rhythms of the gypsy music with which Haydn would have been familiar from his childhood close to the Hungarian border. In contrast, the trio is a straightforward but delightful cello solo. The exuberant last movement is full of jokes, from the opening effervescence of the first violin, to the nose-thumbing little fanfares, chirpy comments from the second violin and cheeky dialogue between the parts.
Last ACMC Performance: the Finzi Quartet – December2009
Quartet no. 11 in F minor, op. 122 Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Introduction: Andantino – Scherzo: Allegretto -
Recitative: Adagio – Étude: Allegro – Humoresque: Allegro -
Elegy: Adagio – Finale: Moderato
The eleventh quartet was written in 1966, and dedicated to Vasily Sherinsky, the second violin of the Beethoven Quartet, who had edited Shostakovich’s first 10 quartets and had recently died. The sombre mood is apparent from the wandering opening melody, played by the first violin alone, but with the cello entry comes the motif that ties together the seven brief movements, played continuously, and said to reflect the different facets of Sherinsky’s playing. The scherzo seems wooden, its mechanical fugal entries, with their upward slides, dissolving into a single viola line. This leads into the angry recitative, where a harsh motif is set against the cello motif. The rushing semi-quavers of the étude contrast with the sustained notes of the lower instruments. Then, in the humoresque, the second violin’s insistent quavers are set against a mournful chorale. The elegy which follows is the heart of the piece, a funeral march leading to a long-held bass note, with the first violin mourning above. The finale broods reminiscently over the scherzo motifs, before the first violin holds a long high note, while the lower instruments bemoan their fate.
First ACMC Performance
Langsamer Satz Webern (1883 – 1945)
Webern is well known as one of the founders, with Schönberg, of the 12-tone so-called Second Viennese School. However, the Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) is a youthful piece, written in 1905, well before the invention of the 12-tone technique, and rooted rather in post-Brahmsian romanticism. It was inspired by a walking holiday in the Austrian woods, with his fiancée Wilhelmine Mörtl, and reflects Webern’s own words: “To walk like this with my beloved beside me … as free as a lark in the sky. Oh, what splendour … Our love filled the air.”
Last ACMC Perfomance: the Benyounes Quartet – February 2013
Quartet in F minor op. 95 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Allegro con brio
Allegretto ma non troppo
Allegro assai vivace ma serioso
Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato
Beethoven’s eleventh quartet, op. 95, was composed in 1810, a year after op. 74 (the Harp) and four years after the three op. 59 quartets. Haydn had been dead for only a year, and the old friend to whom Beethoven dedicated op. 95, Nicholas Zmeskall, had been the dedicatee of Haydn’s op. 20 quartets some forty years earlier. What is amazing is the development of the string quartet form in such a relatively brief period. The F minor marks a further stage in this development, belonging to Beethoven’s middle period, but with foreshadowings of the great last period quartets which were to come some fifteen years later. Beethoven gave it the subtitle Quartetto Serioso, and the prevailing mood is of passionate intensity, relieved by flashes of tenderness. Mendelssohn considered it the most characteristic thing Beethoven ever wrote. The first movement begins with a terse phrase in unison, including a semiquaver motive that is to have a pervasive influence. The sonata form is much compressed, adding to the sense of urgency, before the brilliant coda. The second movement begins with a pensive falling phrase on the cello, which seems to be derived from the opening phrase of the first movement. There is a wistful fugal episode, which reappears later with a spiky little counter-subject (the notebooks for op. 95 also include Beethoven’s copy of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue). The third movement is ABABA form, with alternations of recklessness and resignation. The final movement begins with a deeply felt slow introduction, leading to the troubled allegretto agitato. But there is still a typical surprise to come, variously described as ‘the error of a genius’, ‘a shout of joy’, and ‘a comic opera finale’. Take your pick!
Last ACMC Performance: the Johnstone Quartet – December 2003
The fifth concert in our current season was a particularly fine one. It was given by the four vital young performers who make up the Piatti Quartet. The first half of their programme consisted of three quite unusual, brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable works. The opening quartet being by Haydn, you might ask me why I consider it unusual. Well it really was. If you were not familiar with it, you might not think many sections of it were by Haydn at all, especially the second movement, marked Adagio. This was Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 20 no. 2. Notable in the opening movement, Moderato, was the breezy chugging rhythmic accompaniment supplied for the other instruments by the viola. This was a feature that punctuated much of this movement. The playing was relaxed and quite delicate switching for the opening of the development section to splendidly lively even fiery playing in this performance. The Piatti Quartet was already beginning to impress.
What followed was the extraordinary second movement, Adagio. It began with powerful unison playing by the whole quartet before moments of delicate orchestral playing punctuated by powerful emphatic chords. Today’s excellent programme note described it as a “darkly imaginative operatic scene without words” and it was that exactly. There were scene changes created by the different string textures, full of dramatic import and even an aria for first violin. Haydn was surely bringing something new and unexpected into string quartet composition.
The Menuetto was quite bright and breezy with something of an open air feel to it in the Piatti’s performance. There was a sense of the scene being clouded over in the trio section moving to the minor mode.
The finale was a masterful four subject fugue much of which was played with a delicious lightness of touch before the conclusion in which the players were obviously rejoicing in the music.
The work that followed opened an even wider vista of string quartet writing before our ears. The Quartet no. 1 by Joseph Phibbs was a special commission from the young composer by the Piatti Quartet. Although officially in five movements, many of these are further sub-divided with four duos for different combinations of instruments interspersed within the movements. None of these was overlong and so did not shatter the idea of string quartet writing. They allowed for an amazingly wide range of colourful blendings of string tone. What struck me above all listening to this piece was the sheer originality of Phibbs’s writing. There was perhaps just a hint of eastern European harmonic textures towards the end of the work but so much of the music did not sound like anything else. It was fresh, tonal and made very attractive and intriguing listening. Every one of the players was given his or her chance to shine. They all made the most of it in this dazzlingly fine performance. Several people in the interval and after the concert asked me about Phibbs. They wanted to know more about him. The Piatti Quartet are to record the work in April. When it is released I will certainly be up for it.
The third work in the first half was also unusual. The Spanish composer, Joaquin Turina was born in Seville in 1882. La Oración del Torero op. 34 was originally composed for a quartet of lutes but the string quartet version works particularly well. The Toreador’s Prayer was inspired by the image of a bullfighter praying alone in the moments before entering the arena. It was very colourful and atmospheric music with the sounds of the arena, the crowds and the music suggested in the middle of the piece before the idea of prayer wins over. The Piatti gave a very luscious performance of this piece with really glossy string playing – something that was carried over into the second half of their performance.
The Quartet in c minor by Brahms, op 51 no. 2 presents Brahms writing at his most harmonically rich. What emerged in this performance was the way in which the perfectly well-balanced ensemble playing of the Piatti Quartet put across this music so beautifully. I had already been impressed by the viola player in the Haydn Quartet but in the first movement of the Brahms his energetic scurrying that underlined the rhythm was delicious and later on in the movement Brahms gives him the chance to lead off the glossy melodic tunes as well. The dark chording of the second movement was wonderfully well balanced and here the cellist was given her chance to shine – and indeed she did. The third movement featured attractive solos played by cello and viola and of course first violin. The music had the rhythmic wafts of a summer breeze. The Finale once again had Brahms delivering his most generous harmonic writing with the Piatti Quartet’s sumptuous ensemble playing rising magnificently to the occasion, topping off a performance that was satisfying in every respect.
Quartet in C op. 20 no. 2 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Fuga a quattro soggetti
The six quartets op. 20, composed in 1771, are known collectively as the Sun Quartets, from the sunburst engraved on their cover page, but were indeed the sunrise of Haydn’s unique and great development of the string quartet. They also foreshadow many of the effects which Beethoven was later to use: the contrasts between unison and polyphonic passages; free-form, deeply expressive slow movements; and even fugal last movements. One brilliant innovation, right at the start of the first movement of the second quartet, is the liberation of the cello from a basso continuo role, as it states the theme in a singing tenor, and throughout the quartet enriches the texture. The darkly imaginative “operatic-scene-without-words” of the adagio in C minor leads directly to the hesitant, syncopated minuet, whose wistful trio is also in the minor. The final fugue with four subjects is a masterpiece of concentrated discussion between the instruments, marked sempre sotto voce, until the triumphant forte conclusion.
Last ACMC Performance: the Elias Quartet, November 2011
Quartet no. 1 (2014) Joseph Phibbs (1974 – )
Andante e dolce
Andante (Canto I) – Con forza
Duo 1 (Violin II and Cello): Tranquillo
Duo 2 (Violin I and Viola): In the style of a folk melody
Andante (Canto II) – Più mosso – Duo 3 (Violin I and Violin II)
Duo 4 (Viola and Cello): Adagio – Grave (Canto III)
This work, lasting around 23 minutes, comprises five main movements, the first being perhaps the most simple: soft, widely-spaced chords support a series of melodic phrases in the first violin which grow in intensity as the movement unfolds, with all four instruments coming to the fore during the coda. The second movement opens with the first of three versions of a lamenting melody (or canto) in the viola, before a fast and abrasive scherzo begins, the middle section contrasting with more lyrical passages. A slow duo for violin and cello follows, giving way to a lively pizzicato third movement. A second duo, for viola and violin, features a folk-like melody, before the fourth movement (opening with a soft reprise of the viola canto) presents an agitated fugato which builds in intensity before dovetailing into a frenetic duo for two violins. The fourth duo, for viola and cello, follows: a soft, funereal chorale forming the final reprise of the viola’s canto. The last movement, a vocalise, recalls the opening movement by way of its simple chordal accompaniment, each instrument now assigned a melodic phrase. The work’s structure as a whole could be seen as interweaving three layers: five main movements; four duos, each drawing on a different combination of players; and three short cantos, each of which presents the same viola melody in a different guise. It was commissioned for the Piatti Quartet with funds generously granted by the Britten-Pears Foundation, RVW Trust, and a private benefactor.
First ACMC Performance
La Oración del Torero op. 34 Turina (1882 – 1949)
Joaquin Turina was born in Seville, but studied with D’Indy in Paris, where he got to know both Debussy and Ravel. However, he is best known for the Andalusian influence in his music, including this brief, one-movement quartet, the Toreador’s Prayer, published in 1926 and written originally for a quartet of lutes. According to Turina himself, the piece was inspired by the image of a bullfighter praying alone in the moments before he enters the arena. The gentle opening builds to a loud march, before calming to a glowing, quiet end.
Last ACMC Performance: the Denis East Quartet, January 1960
Quartet in C minor op. 51 no. 1 Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Romanze - poco adagio
Allegretto molto moderato e comodo
Brahms is reputed to have sketched and discarded a score of quartets before allowing the publication in 1873 of the two which comprise op. 51. These had a long gestation period – he had probably begun work on them in 1863, writing to his publisher in 1869: ”I am sorry, but I must ask you to be patient… It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six lovely quartets, so I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done”.
The first movement of the C minor quartet is full of a sense of urgency, dominated by a rising dotted theme. The dark-toned Romanze is built on a similar rhythm to very different effect, with the spot-light falling on the cello. The whimsical Allegretto takes the place of a scherzo. It is in duple time, with a contrasting trio section in triple time and in the major key. The stormy last movement, built again on a dotted theme very reminiscent of the first movement, brings the quartet to a powerful climax.
Last ACMC Performance: the Auer Quartet, October 2000
Monday evening’s concert, the fourth in the current series presented by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was something of an exciting new musical exploit for both promoters and audience. Concert pianist and seasoned musicologist Susan Tomes had chosen works by Debussy and Beethoven all receiving their first ACMC performances. Before performing the works in full, she gave wide ranging introductions illustrated by well chosen musical examples touching on many different aspects of the works.
For the first half of the concert she had chosen the three pieces that make up Debussy’s Images I: première série pour piano à deux mains. These are Reflets dans l’eau, Hommage à Rameau and Mouvement.
Susan Tomes began by talking about her studies of these pieces in France with the Lithuanian born French pianist Vladislas (Vlado) Perlemutter. She recalled a certain degree of annoyance she felt when Perlemutter had marked the fingerings for these pieces all over her score in red ink. Debussy himself is reported as having said that every pianist needs to work at discovering which fingerings are best for their own particular hands. However she remembered Perlemutter’s requirements for perfect accuracy in playing which had to be allied to the kind of touch which belied the fact that the piano is a percussion instrument that plays using hammers. When Susan Tomes came to give her performances, her fluency and fluidity in playing certainly lived up to every requirement that Perlemutter had demanded of her.
Susan explained the ways in which Debussy’s discovery of the Javanese Gamelan orchestras which he had heard at the Paris Exhibition between 1889 and 1900 were imported into this music. I was familiar with this idea but what was new to me was the way in which the various sections of the Gamelan worked regarding pitch and speed and how Debussy had incorporated these layered effects into his music. She explained how the ideas of “the golden mean” had been incorporated into the music and then she continued by demonstrating how aspects of Rameau’s operatic music had been incorporated into the second piece and how the keyboard music of Couperin was startlingly close to what Debussy had created in the third piece, Mouvement.
When she came to play the three pieces together, Susan Tomes captured the affinity that the pieces have with one another as well as the contrasts between them. This was a splendidly well balanced performance in this respect. In her talk, Susan had stressed the visual influences that Debussy invests in his music. This was brilliantly revealed in her performance of Reflets dans l’eau. The thematic reversals that Debussy uses to give the effect of reflections in the water became beautifully clear in Susan’s meltingly liquid performance. The lively fingerwork in the third piece fulfilled Debussy’s requirements perfectly: Animated (with a whimsical yet precise lightness). These words suggest that Debussy would like this music to be played with a delicate seasoning of humour. Susan Tomes captured that idea to perfection in her delightfully spicy performance.
The work which Susan Tomes had chosen for the second half of the concert could not have been more different. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Major op.109 is an unusual work. Its structure is not like any of his other sonatas. Susan began by playing two of the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. The spirit of these pieces matched something of that which emerges from the Sonata.
Susan explained some of the background to the Sonata. There was the fact that the composer was profoundly deaf when he composed the work. At this time Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis. The previous Sonata Op. 106 was the famous Hammerklavier and the next two opus numbers were Op. 107 – Ten National Airs with Variations and Op. 108 – Twenty-five Scottish Songs. At this time too, Beethoven was studying J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With well chosen examples, Susan Tomes demonstrated how these musical sources had influenced this Sonata especially the six variations that make up the third and final movement. She also explained the way in which the second movement is closely linked to the first in such a way that some performers have treated the Sonata as being a work in just two movements.
The opening movement has been described as “ a free and original approach to the traditional sonata movement”. The structure relies on contrasts of fast/slow, loud/soft, major/minor. Susan Tomes drew our attention to this by saying that Beethoven shifts from one idea to another without any preparation or explanation.
Her performance of the Sonata captured all of these astonishing contrasts. The variations were particularly delightful bringing out Beethoven’s imaginative handling of melody.
The audience reaction after the performance was enthusiastically positive. Not only had we enjoyed Susan’s superbly colourful and nuanced playing, especially in the three Debussy pieces, but we had learned a lot about the music and achieved a much closer understanding of what its two composers were trying to say to us.
The Kapten Piano Trio was formed in 2011 at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where they were chosen as Young Artists in Residence. The pianist Kristi Kapten comes from Estonia, violinist Rachel Spencer from West Yorkshire and the cellist Duncan Strachan is from the West Highlands of Scotland via St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. Their concert on Monday, the third in the series promoted by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was up to the standard of every concert in the series so far – in fact it was exceptional.
The performance began with Mozart’s Piano Trio in G Major K564. What was instantly apparent was the amazingly light and fluent piano playing of Kristi Kapten. Her hands seemed to just float over the keys. Rachel Spencer’s violin playing brought a special brightness to the blend and in this piece Duncan Strachan’s cello added marvellous light touches especially in this opening movement.
The piano was certainly the star of the second movement, a theme and variations. It most often led off not just the theme itself but several of the variations too. The strings topped it off nicely and had their moments especially the warm cello.
The finale, Allegretto, was a kind of skipping dance with the piano leading once again and with the cello having a starring role in both of the last two movements.
Ravel’s Piano Trio in a minor is a marvellous piece with so many contrasting themes and textures. The opening movement began with an ethereal blend of instruments. It then changed to a lively mood followed by a dreamy passage. There were so many changes of mood in this movement, moments of sumptuousness, explosions then quietness and the Kapten Trio captured all such sensations beautifully.
The second movement marked assez vif was not just fast it was splendidly pointed too in this performance. The programme note refers to the orchestral intensity of the music in the final movement but in this second movement Ravel’s writing also has an orchestral quality about it. He was you will remember an expert in the art of orchestration – Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for instance.
The third movement Passacaille marked très large had Spanish overtones something that seemed to interest Ravel. This music had a passionate darkness starting with deep playing from piano and cello. The violin brought in a ray of sunshine before the music darkened to end the movement as it had begun.
The final movement had a decided oriental touch to it and the lovely transparent playing of the Kapten trio brought out that feeling to perfection.
If their performance of the two works in the first half was exceptional, the second half went way beyond that. This was Schubert’s magnificent Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat Op. 100 D929. Duncan Strachan introduced it as a truly monumental work and that indeed it was.
The opening movement is in sonata form but the development section is very much in the romantic tradition more like a set of expansive variations. The piano part was amazing as played by Kristi Kapten. Descending scales on both hands were perfectly synchronised. Much of the piano writing was reminiscent of the piano parts for Schubert’s songs. Twice at least I was reminded of Erlkönig
The second movement has one of Schubert’s loveliest tunes for piano and cello. I had a version of it in a piano book when I was a young boy
The Scherzando was certainly perky, cheeky even and I loved the way in which Duncan Strachan communicated with Rachel Spencer in putting this music across with a smile.
The final movement was magnificent with virtuoso playing from every member of the Trio. The return of the song theme from the second movement on cello really hit the spot in this fabulous performance.
Piano Trio in G K56 Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Theme and Variations: Andante
In the year 1788, when he was 32, Mozart composed his last three great symphonies, including the “Jupiter”, K551. In the same year he also completed his last three piano trios, of which K564 in G major is the second. Perhaps originally conceived as a piano sonata, with the violin and cello parts added later, it is straightforwardly delightful, tuneful and polished. It does though show evidence of experimentation both in the growing importance of the violin and cello parts, and in its proportions, as the middle movement is longer than both the other two.
After an attention-grabbing chord, the first movement opens with the piano playing above long-held notes on the other instruments, but they soon take over, especially in the second subject, and just listen to the cello in the recapitulation. The slow movement is a set of six variations on a simple theme, first heard on the piano. The variations follow a familiar form, with the strings playing the theme, and then the cello in a moment of glory. They then move to the minor, before the jolly last variation and its charming coda. The final movement is a lilting rondo in 6/8 time, with some delicious chromatic touches.
Last ACMC Performance: the Mondrian Piano Trio – January 1986
Piano Trio in A minor Ravel (1875 – 1937)
Pantoum: assez vif
Passacaille: très large
Ravel wrote little chamber music, and this, his only trio, is in many ways his most successful work for the genre. Completed in some haste in the early months of the first world war, it draws on the techniques developed in the string quartet of 1902, for example the use of tremulando, pizzicato and harmonics. The first movement is in 8/8 time, but the bars are subdivided into groups of 3-3-2 or 3-2-3, giving a lilting quality said to be derived from the folk-song of his Basque homeland. The second movement pantoum refers to a complex Malay verse form, where two distinct ideas are alternated and developed. Ravel and his contemporaries had been heavily influenced by the vogue for oriental culture which followed the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. A central trio section introduces a broader melody, which contrasts with the development of the two pantoum themes, a brief staccato motif, and a surging three-bar phrase. The third movement is a slow Spanish dance on a ground theme. This is given out first as a single line deep in the bass of the piano, before being passed to the cello, then the violin, rising in pitch and dynamic to a climax, before sinking down to end as it began. The final movement is mainly in 5/4 time, and begins with a further oriental flavour. The main theme is repeated several times, in passages of almost orchestral intensity, interspersed with more gentle moments before the final frantic fortissimo.
Last ACMC Performance: the Fujita Piano Trio – December 2005
Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat op. 100 D929 Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Andante con moto
Scherzando: Allegro moderato
Schubert wrote two piano trios in the last years of his brief life. While the B flat trio (played for us in 2008 by the Kungsbacka Trio), was never performed in public during his lifetime, tonight’s E flat trio was part of the first and only all-Schubert concert given in Vienna on 26 March 1828, shortly before his death on 19 November. It was published by Probst in Leipzig in October 1828, and was the first of Schubert’s works to attract the attention of a foreign publisher. Schumann was very taken with it, describing it as “an angry meteor…which blazed forth and outshone everything in the musical atmosphere”, and considering it to be “more spirited, masculine and with a dramatic tone”, in comparison to the B flat trio which was “passive, lyrical and feminine”.
The first movement opens with a rousing unison, while the second subject is typically Schubertian, with quiet repeated notes on the piano and strings. After a development which pushes the boundaries of sonata form, slipping from key to key with a hint of threat, comes the recapitulation, rounded by a coda. The second movement is said to be based on a Swedish folk-song, The Sun has Set, which Schubert had heard recently at the house of a friend. It has a sombre, march-like accompaniment, and moments of lyrical sweetness. The scherzo, marked sempre piano, begins with the strings and piano in canon, and is followed by a foot-stamping trio. Schubert cut 99 bars from the last movement when he sent it to the publisher, and some have thought that even so it suffers from what Schumann called “Schubert’s heavenly length”. The perky theme in 6/8, like the last movement of the double cello quintet, is reminiscent of Viennese cafés. It is set against more mysterious sections in 2/4 time, and then in a stroke of genius the cello recalls the Swedish song of the second movement, giving stylistic unity to the piece. Schubert wrote: “This work is dedicated to nobody, save those who find pleasure in it. That is the most profitable dedication.” I must agree!
Last ACMC Performance:the Frankel/Pauk/Kirschbaum Piano Trio – December 1984
The Van Kuijk String Quartet from Paris were in Aberdeen recently. They played in Aberdeen Salvation Army Citadel on Thursday 13th October to give the second of four concerts for the Lunchbreak Series in collaboration with BBC Radio 3. They gave a fine performance of Haydn’s String Quartet op.76, no.4, “The Sunrise”. In particular I remember their beautifully transparent and well controlled pianissimo playing. In the second part of that concert they were joined by pianist Peter Limonov in the Quintet in f minor by Brahms.
Monday’s performance for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts opened with a stunningly beautiful performance of the Quartet in e minor by Smetana. The opening movement is marked “appassionata” and that is exactly what we got from the Van Kuijk Quartet’s viola player as he introduced the opening theme. This was a theme that ran throughout the movement but it appeared in so many guises, happy, wistful or even tragic. Our quartet brought out all those moods in their playing and once again I heard the loveliest pianissimo playing from them. I enjoyed the cello’s delicate pizzicato ending to the movement. The excellent programme note told us that Smetana “was known everywhere as an enthusiastic dancer”. That came out in several guises in the second movement. Sometimes there was lusty playing suggesting outdoor country dancing and then glittering harmonies from the upper instruments conjured up an aristocratic ballroom scene.
The warm playing of the cellist opened the third movement full of seductive romance and then the finale, fast and full of intensity yet light and airy too, recalled the earlier dance movement. Suddenly the first violin played the high sustained harmonic E that represented the tinnitus from which Smetana suffered announcing his impending deafness. Actually the medical notes referred to his hearing a chord in A flat major. This changed the mood of the piece which ended once again with the most delicate pizzicato.
The Smetana Quartet came across as a dazzlingly colourful performance and so in a quite different way did the next group of short pieces. These were Six Moments Musicaux op.44 by György Kurtág. Although born in Romania he is sometimes referred to as a Hungarian composer and should really be called Kurtág György since the Hungarians put their surnames first.
Second violin player Silvain Favre-Bulle introduced these pieces and suggested the influence of Webern. However while Webern’s pieces are totally abstract, Kurtág’s are more expressionist in their impact. The Van Kuijk Quartet certainly gave us an amazingly expressive performance of all six pieces. After the razor sharp playing of the opening Invocatio, Footfalls lived up to its title. It could almost have been the background to a cartoon film of a figure trying to sneak across the screen unobserved. The Capriccio was marvellous tip-toe music while the fourth movement In Memoriam Sebök György carried the proper charge of mourning. This was followed by …rappel des oiseaux with perfectly played bird-like harmonics and then Les Adieux featuring the Quartet’s most astonishingly beautiful pianissimo playing. The sheer transparency of all these pieces made them, though unashamedly contemporary, into the most acceptable even delightful listening.
What was the real highlight of the concert? Was it the marvellous Smetana or was it the Van Kuijk’s stunningly powerful and colourful performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat op.127?
The players went sweeping into Beethoven’s opening statement, swaying with the music as they played. They delivered the opening movement with the most impressive variety of string textures. There was fiery energy but passages of amazing delicacy too.
The second movement was so rich in its variations. It was an amazing journey across so many different musical landscapes before it came to its peaceful conclusion.
The Scherzo went fast but instead of a slower trio section which we might have expected, Beethoven went faster still. The precision playing by the Van Kuijk players easily took care of that. The finale did indeed have that Haydnesque jollity which our programme note promised and the ethereal ending was there too. I don’t think I have previously heard so many of the details of Beethoven’s music given so much careful attention and then projected with so much conviction and absolute precision. The players were reacting in detail to everything their fellow musicians were doing – reading their minds as it were – and that is proper quartet playing.
In a letter to his close friend the Czech musicologist Josef Srb, Smetana explained his first quartet, written in 1876, thus:
“I had no intention of writing any quartet according to the customary formulas. For me, the design of each composition depends on its subject. And so this quartet brought about by itself such form as it possesses. I wanted to represent in sound the course of my life.
First movement: Love of art in my youth, my romantic mood, the unspoken longing for something which I could not name or imagine clearly, and also a warning as it were of my future misery….. the fatal high-pitched whistling in my ear which in 1874 announced my deafness.
Second movement: Like a polka, bringing reminders of the happy times of my youth, when as a composer I strewed the young world with dance pieces and was known everywhere as an enthusiastic dancer. Trio: meno vivo, D flat major … in this section I depicted in sound reminders of the aristocratic circles in which I lived.
Third movement: Largo sostenuto, recalling the happiness of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife.
Fourth movement: Knowledge of how to make use of the elements of national music, joy at the outcome of following this path, until the ominous interruption and catastrophe, the beginning of deafness; a glance towards the sad future, then comes a brief sign of improvement, but at the thought of the beginnings of my career, nevertheless sadness.”
Last ACMC Performance: the Belcea Quartet – October 2002
The great contemporary composer György Kurtág was born in Romania, though he began his studies at the Academy of Music in Budapest. This, his fourth work for string quartet, was written between 1999 and 2005. Its title is reminiscent of Schubert, little moments that stand alone rather than being part of a whole sonata. The six brief movements last only about 14 minutes, but cover a wide range of moods and sonorities. The first is short and raw, with a central section marked ppp. This is followed by the more sonorous, spooky Footfalls, and the bouncy syncopations of Capriccio. The fourth movement is the heart of the piece, written for the Hungarian-born pianist, who became a Professor at Indiana University, in a sustained dirge. Then there is a memory of bird-song, full of chirping harmonics. The final piece is marked in the manner of Janáček, and indeed reminds one of his quartet Intimate Letters, though here in miniature.
First ACMC Performance
After the composition of the quartet op. 95 in 1810, Beethoven suffered a decade of crippling financial and personal difficulties, and his output was limited to a handful of sonatas. Although still beset with many problems, in 1822 his creative vigour returned triumphantly in the ninth symphony and the Missa Solemnis. In the same year a commission from the Russian Prince Galitzin for “two or three quartets”, provided the stimulus to return to the form. So it was that, in spite of plans for more large-scale works, the remaining years of his life were devoted to the quartet medium. Thus we have the series of five great works that have become the touchstone of the chamber repertoire, stretching the form to extremes, and yet expressing the deepest of human sentiments.
The first of these works, op. 127, was completed in 1824. It is the most “normal” in structure, with a conventional four-movement form, and perhaps the most accessible. The maestoso opening – a brief six bars – has been likened to the illuminated capital letter at the start of a paragraph. With the flourish of a trill, it dissolves into the deceptively simple allegro theme. The maestoso appears again at the start and in the middle of the development, but then, by stroke of genius, the recapitulation slips in without it, leading to a gentle coda. The adagio is a series of variations, the introspective theme being introduced by the gradual building-up of harmony. The variations distil the essence of the theme in a variety of subtle elaborations in rhythm and texture. There is a more urgent andante with a perky staccato accompaniment, other sections in mysteriously remote keys, and in the last variation running semi-quavers that come to an abrupt halt before the final reflective coda.
The scherzo is dominated by a hopping, dotted theme, but varied by cross-rhythms, silences, and bars in 2/4 rather than 3/4. The trio section, presto, goes like the wind, reappearing briefly at the end of the movement. The finale seems Haydnesque in character, with moments of foot-stamping jollity. But it is then succeeded by an amazing coda, where garlands of triplet scales decorate a completely new and ethereal version of the theme.
Last ACMC Performance: the Heath Quartet – January 2011