November 24 — 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Duo for Violin and Viola in B-flat major, K. 424
Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 65
Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25
Ida Levin, violin
Marcus Thompson, viola
Raman Ramakrishnan, cello
Benjamin Hochman, piano
BCMS opens its rehearsal (free to the public) on Saturday, November 23 at 4:00 p.m. at the New School of Music in Cambridge. The musicians will rehearse part of the concert program with informal introduction of the music, and host a short Q&A session after the rehearsal. To attend, please RSVP here.
The program opens with the second of two duos originally presented as part of a larger set composed by Michael Haydn to the Archbishop Colloredo, who never noticed the difference. Best known for his operatic works, Britten composed no chamber music for nearly a decade. It was his friendship with the great cellist Rostropovich that prompted his return to chamber music with this Sonata, the first in a series composed with Rostropovich in mind. Of the three Brahms quartets for piano and strings, the energetic G minor is the most popular. Upon its premiere in 1862, Brahms was declared “Beethoven’s heir!” and the Viennese public immediately took to the handsome young man.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Duo in B-flat major for Violin and Viola, K. 424 (1783)
There is an interesting story associated with this Duo for Violin and Viola. In 1783, two years after Mozart left Salzburg for Vienna, he returned on a long-promised visit to that city – a visit fraught with family tension over Wolfgang’s marriage to Constanze Weber. While Mozart was in Salzburg his friend Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother, became ill. Unfortunately, Michael owed a series of six duos to Archbishop Colloredo, the same imperious patron from whom Mozart had parted angrily and bitterly two years earlier. (One of Mozart’s fears was that an angry Colloredo would have him arrested on his return to Salzburg.) Michael had written only four of the six duos, and Colloredo threatened to withhold his salary until he received all of the works that he had commissioned. According to two of Haydn’s pupils, Mozart decided to help his friend by writing the two Duos for Violin and Viola, K.423/ 424, thereby completing Michael’s set. “If we wish,” as Maynard Solomon wryly noted, “we can imagine Mozart’s amusement at the thought of the archbishop unwittingly enjoying the music of his former concertmaster.” Still, there’s no hiding who the actual composer was; Mozart’s distinctive musical voice is unmistakable.
The Duo in B-flat Major is a good example of how Mozart took a familiar form and made it his own. Duets for combinations of stringed instruments were popular in Mozart’s time, and both Joseph and Michael Haydn had composed several of them. But in their duos, the viola often had little more than an obbligato role. Mozart, though, treated the viola as an equal in the musical conversation. As was his wont in every genre he approached, he took the duet form to a new level, exhibiting what Alfred Einstein called “a freshness, a humor, and an appropriateness for the instruments that make these works unique of their kind.” What is fascinating about the B-flat major Duo is what Mozart was able to accomplish with just two instruments: through colorful harmonies, characteristically limpid melodies, and bold counterpoint, he gives the work a surprising richness and heft. At times it’s almost like listening to a quartet, not a duet.
The first movement begins with a solemn adagio; Einstein hears it as “a witticism…in the most pompous symphonic style.” Intentionally pompous or not, the opening mood is quickly transformed by the gracious and airy allegro that follows. The relatively short second movement is a gentle dance, with the violin’s chromatic lyricism harmonically enriched by the viola’s double stops. Mozart’s contrapuntal deftness is on display in the charming and virtuosic last movement, a theme and variations whose pleasures include an abundance of wit and a sparkling allegro coda.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 (1861)
In 1861, Brahms moved out of his family’s cramped house in Hamburg and into his own rooms in the suburb of Hamm. Brahms luxuriated in his sunny new quarters, where he worked productively during the day and happily enjoyed relaxing musical evenings with his new neighbors. The setting apparently inspired him, and masterful works flowed from him over the next two years. The first of his important Hamm compositions were a pair of piano quartets, Op. 25 in G minor and Op. 26 in A major. With these two quartets, Brahms entered a significant new stage in his development. Yet the G minor Quartet did not entirely please his friends Clara Schumann and Josef Joachim, who took issue with the first movement. Clara complained about Brahms’s choice of keys (“Too little in G minor and too much in D major”) and about the looseness with which he dealt with sonata form. As Jan Swafford summed up their reaction, “They were not yet accustomed to the dialectic Johannes had begun with tradition.” Unlike 19th-century purists who insisted on adherence to an abstract form, Brahms knew that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had not been bound by rigid principles. As Clara wrote in her journal a few months later, “An interesting conversation with Johannes about form. How the old masters had the freest form, while modern compositions move within the stiffest and most narrow limits, He himself emulates the older generation.”
It is worth noting Clara’s reaction because her uneasiness was shared by many listeners. That uneasiness derived largely from the way in which Brahms blurs the expected transitions from section to section in the first movement. Instead of the traditional, expected repeat of the exposition, he writes a short restatement of the first bars of the movement before moving directly into an intense, extended development section. Adding to Clara’s discomfort, Brahms blurs the start of the recapitulation, another change that would have confused his listeners. Along with this characteristically unorthodox treatment of form, though, there is an equally characteristic melodic expressiveness that gives a Brahmsian lushness to this powerful movement.
Brahms originally called the second movement a Scherzo – it is in scherzo form, complete with a trio — but Clara apparently suggested that the title Intermezzo would be more appropriate, given the movement’s slower tempos and tuneful grace. In the romantically expressive third movement Brahms combines two very different ideas: a melodious theme flanked by a dotted-rhythm march. While the first movement may have puzzled listeners, the last – a breathless Gypsy-style rondo – “was obviously intended to bring the house down, and it did,” as Brahms’s biographer Ivor Keys noted. Clara, who premiered the Quartet in Hamburg in 1861, wrote in her diary, “The last movement took the audience by storm.” Joachim, who had dedicated his own “Hungarian” Violin Concerto to Brahms, wrote to his friend, “You have beaten me on my own turf.” A year later, the musicians who performed the Quartet with Brahms in Vienna added their own accolade: At the end of a rehearsal, the first violinist leapt up and proclaimed, “This is Beethoven’s heir!”
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Cello Sonata in C major. Op. 65 (1961)
This has been a banner year for Benjamin Britten. To mark the centennial of his birth, he is being celebrated around the world as one of the great musical voices of his time. What is striking about his prolific output is not just the range of his works, but the variety of his intended audiences: he composed both for virtuosos and for amateurs, and especially for children. (Chances are good that you or someone you know grew up listening to The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.) Britten always followed his own road. At a time when serialism and other avant garde techniques were considered benchmarks of a composer’s worth, he rooted his works in tonality, drawing on centuries of musical tradition. A pacifist, during World War II he briefly left England for the United States and then, homesick, returned home and spent the rest of the war as a conscientious objector. His humanism was a driving force in both his music and his personal life.
Britten first achieved international celebrity with his 1945 opera Peter Grimes. The next year, he and his lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears, moved to Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast. There, in 1948, they founded the Aldeburgh Festival, an annual festival that remains a highlight of British musical life. In 1960, Britten was introduced by Shostakovich to the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who asked Britten to compose a sonata for him. Britten agreed, and the two premiered the Cello Sonata at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival. It was the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration. Britten would go on to write the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra and three unaccompanied cello suites for Rostropovich, and from 1978 to 1991 Rostropovich would serve as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival.
The Cello Sonata is a work of many moods. (Reportedly Rostropovich’s wife saw it as a portrait of her husband.) Britten follows Classical sonata form, except for the march that he adds as a fifth movement. Rostropovich described the first movement as “a conversation of capricious change of mood, a conversation embracing not words but a whole world of intermingled feelings attached to every note.” Britten begins the dialogue with the cello playing a brief motif of rising and falling whole and half steps, set against a scale pattern, in thirds, from the piano. These patterns are repeated throughout the sonata. Next comes a more agitated section, followed by a second theme in which the cello and the piano move in opposite directions; a development section that rises in intensity; and a final tranquil return of the main theme. Of the second movement, Britten wrote to Rostropovich, “The pizzicato movement will amuse you”; and amuse this fleeting, mysterious Scherzo does. It is followed by a deeply expressive elegy, and then by a march so freakish that the Britten scholar Peter Evans wonders whether it was “conceived as a tribute to the musical satire of Rostropovich’s compatriots, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.” The perpetual-motion last movement thrillingly concludes a terrific work that Rostropovich praised as an “expressive and profound dramatic composition.”