One Source

In the course of time the distance between sources diminishes. Beethoven, for instance, did not need to study all that Mozart studied–Mozart, not all that Handel–Handel, not all that Palestrina–because they had already absorbed the knowledge of their predecessors. But there is one source which inexhaustibly provides new ideas–Johann Sebastian Bach.”
- Florestan, aka Robert Schumann

Our second concert this season is also the second of three on the theme ‘Various Variations’ in great music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We began with Bach’s thirty Goldberg Variations (c.1741), the largest set in history at its time, and continue with one of Beethoven’s earliest efforts, and the only one for string trio, the Serenade in D Major, Op 8 (1795-97). Before writing sixteen string quartets Beethoven wrote five string trios (Op. 3, 8, and 9) for violin, viola and cello– following the example of Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563 (1788). In one of its central movements, Mozart writes variations, both plain and virtuosic, on a simple tune. Beethoven was later to write transcendent variation movements in many of his string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies, as well as the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli (1819-1823) for solo piano, Op. 120, said by Tovey to the be the greatest ever written for keyboard.

As writer, composer and eminent pianist, Robert Schumann would have been well aware of the history he was absorbing and shaping in his cultivation and championing of the independent miniature as a new form in which to write music. Stringing together sets of short pieces to allow fantasy to take flight, or to tell a poetic story in song or tone, was to become his signature. In the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 (1849) “Schumann’s refined technique of lyrical recall…makes for a delicate tracery of fleeting allusions, half-remembered ideas.” “The close relationship among the three pieces…is further underscored by the attacca indications linking each of the movements and, more important, by a web of thematic connections.” (Schuman scholar and avid chamber musician, John Davario.) For Schumann, the writer, the set of abstract variations on a theme became the vehicle for narrative and reminiscence.

In each of these sets, whether by Bach, Beethoven or Schumann, the return of the theme at the end, in its original, untested form, is a strong indication of the importance of memory and reminiscence. “In Memory of a Great Artist,” the subtitle of Piano Trio in A minor (1882) by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, reflection upon the character, virtuosity, and artistry of a particular person, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is the motivation for composing this elegiac work.

Enjoy!

At home with the Goldberg Variations

Pianist Randall Hodgkinson has in recent seasons been on his own personal quest of re-discovering the Goldberg Variations, performing them in the solo piano arrangement on a faculty recital at the New England Conservatory of Music, on the radio in WGBH’s Fraser Studio and at various concert venues throughout New England. Recently he made a video from his living room to take us on a tour through the masterpiece.

Re-Discovering Bach

Our Thirty-Second BCMS Season begins with a program consisting of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio. It is a program that highlights the simple act of rediscovery we each experience on hearing again a work or composer whose work we thought we knew. This program contains many such levels of re-discovery. First and foremost may be in the pairing of the two composers: Mendelssohn is credited most for re-introducing to the public the music of Bach eighty years after his death.

Pianist Randall Hodgkinson has in recent seasons been on his own personal quest of re-discovering the Goldberg Variations, performing them in the solo piano arrangement on a faculty recital at the New England Conservatory of Music, on the radio in WGBH’s Fraser Studio and at various concert venues throughout New England. Originally written for harpsichord with two manuals or keyboards, any pianist who wants to play them on piano will first have to arrange how to avoid collision of the two hands when the score asks him/her to play in rapid succession the same notes in the same registers.

In our twenty-seventh season BCMS programmed an arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for string trio by the noted violinist, Dimitry Sitkovetsky. On hearing this arrangement and the one for solo piano played on the same program at a Montreal Chamber Music Festival concert, the inevitable question arose about how these two arrangements played by alternating successive groups of variations between piano and strings might work. Last Spring Randy and I had the opportunity to find out in a performance at Holycross College with violinist Carol Lieberman and cellist Jan Mueller-Szewars. The combination and contrast of colors was revelatory–as much about how to rediscover and enjoy the intricacies of the work as about how to play Bach authentically–with none of us playing the original instrument! Bach was known for making arrangements and alternate versions of his own works as well as those of others for different instruments.

Even though they were the largest collection of variations on a single theme at the time, the Goldberg Variations were not the first nor last to use the theme that occurs in the bass. With thirty variations in which to explore every mood and psychological state you can find elsewhere in his entire corpus, from the most exalted spiritual to deep depression to raucous mockery, Bach is not done yet. The presence of twelve canons on the same theme written to follow the Goldberg Variations shows his imagination and skill to be inexhaustible.

Three firsts come last in BCMS Season Thirty-one

Our last program of the thirty-first season concludes with three great virtuosic works—by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Françaix—that allow us to collaborate with instruments beyond those played by our member musicians. Each of these works brings a new sonic dimension to our chamber music playing and is to be played for the first time on our BCMS series.

The Quintet for violin, two violas, violoncello and horn, K.407 (1782) by Mozart is a curiosity composed for a virtuoso who was also a family friend. The quintet combines an instrument most associated with the outdoors with a quartet of strings commonly played in an intimate interior setting. Where they meet is in the character of the music, which combines the outgoing nature of the horn concerto (Mozart wrote six!) and the warmth and intimacy of his two viola quintets (of which he also wrote six!). With the traditional quartet transformed by the use of two violas instead of two violins and the horn and violas sharing the same register, the result is a sonic shift giving greater importance to the interior colors.

The Sextet for piano, violin, two violas and bass by Felix Mendelssohn (1824) was composed by the fifteen year old to dazzle family and friends with his virtuosity at one of their bi-monthly Sunday salons in Berlin. It is Mozartean in character and color—using two violas like the viola quintets, and the bass as in the early piano concertos. These works place on display the comparable precocity of each composer who, coincidentally, had each met Goethe as a young child.

The Octet for string quartet, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn by Jean Françaix (1972) was written to be the opener for the Schubert Octet on a concert presented in Vienna and led by Willi Boskovsky, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1936 to 1979 and the long-standing conductor of the Vienna New Year’s Concert. The Françaix Octet captures all the charm of the by-gone waltz era of the Strauss family, much of which is still on display in concerts in Vienna at the turn of each year, while commanding a wit and virtuosity not usually heard in that music. We offer it as a start to a pleasant summer.

Willi Boskovsky with the Vienna Octet performing the Schubert Octet

Enjoy!

“What’s Past is Prologue” or “After it, follow it, follow the Gleam.”

“What’s Past is Prologue”   –Shakespeare

“After it, follow it, follow the Gleam.”  –Tennyson

Our April program contains three works, including one premiere, that each owes existence to a shining example from the past.

Beethoven’s Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major (1796) is his own arrangement of the Quintet for Piano and Winds he wrote at age 26. In its original form it is his response to Mozart’s glorious Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452 (1784), the one Mozart referred to in a letter to his father as “the best thing I have written in my life.”

For me one of the most enduring aural images is of the way in which Beethoven turns a tiny rivulet into a mighty stream. Over the course of the first movement he gradually converts a little detail of a two-handed scale in the piano into a mighty roar that dominates the sonic landscape. In that sense he frequently converts background into foreground and, through this arrangement, allows us to experience his craft from many perspectives with completely different colors.

We are delighted that George Tsontakis (b.1951) is the composer our musicians have selected to write the first piece commissioned by our new BCMS Commissioning Club. He has chosen to honor the artistic life and output of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (also known as El Greco), a fellow Greek, on the four hundredth anniversary of his death April 7, 1614. The piece, entitled Portraits by El Greco (Book I), is a collection of Tsontakis’s impressions of a number of paintings by the artist, depicting his adopted hometown and deeply experienced spiritual mysteries. The work is scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano. Our world premiere performance will be accompanied by visual projections of the paintings.

Concluding our concert will be the String Quintet in A major, Op. 39 (1892) by Alexander Glazunov, which he wrote at age 27. It is scored for string quartet plus cello, a combination that might easily bring to mind the sonorities of the Schubert Two Cello Quintet, its most famous predecessor. Like Schubert, Glazunov is able to defy gravity and explore the lighter side of the tonal spectrum despite increasing the number of lower instruments. He does this by creating opportunities for cello solos with full quartet accompaniment, and by the clever use of harmonics and pizzicato. Charming, indeed.

Enjoy!

MT

¡Olé, Ja ja, C’est vrai!!!

The Turina Piano Quartet, Beethoven’s early Viola Quintet and the later of the two Fauré Piano Quintets present three alternative yet affirmative ways in which a composer’s chamber music can project the inner life and evoke cultural atmosphere that mark place and time.

Although written in Paris after exposure to the music of Debussy, Turina’s Piano Quartet is steeped in nostalgic folk elements from his native Seville. Its three untitled movements sound more like programmatic scenes of a culture rich in Moorish architecture, plaintive and improvised song with guitar accompaniment, flapping skirts swaying to undulating rhythms—all painted in the most vivid colors.

Although published after the six great string trios and six early string quartets, in this quintet Beethoven’s voice suggests more of an orchestral reduction than a work conceived for chamber forces. He may have been wondering how to use all those violas (!) even after Mozart’s six splendid examples. The giveaway is in the use of tremolos in the last movement.

I’ve come to believe that Fauré’s Piano Quintet in C minor, his last work for chamber ensemble, is a work of religious (Catholic) mysticism in the way that we might think of the music of Bruckner: in search of higher truth. Without clearly defined sections, or background and foreground and long climbs from valleys to peaks and back, I find that my appreciation of this work related to its hypnotic appeal.

Enjoy.

MT

Simple Gifts

Each of the works on our February 2014 program blossoms from the iconic arrangement, albeit in different ways, of four simple tones. The Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Violin and Viola is a set of virtuoso variations, above a bass tune from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor, HWV 432, by the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen whose 100th anniversary we observe this season. The tune starts with g – e♭ – f – B♭, the same note intervals chimed by great clocks like Big Ben, and continues with e♭ – c – d – D – G. From there embellishments spread throughout both parts in equal measure.

The Mozart Divertimento in E-flat major for String Trio, arguably the first such effort for this combination in history, also begins with an iconic four-note theme played in descending hushed unisons and octaves at the start of the piece: e♭ – B♭ – G – E♭ before breaking into a harmonized texture. These four notes, in fact, form a simple arpeggio.

The Smetana Piano Trio in Gm Op. 15 is iconic in its own right as the impassioned tribute from a loving father for his daughter lost to illness. The sense of tragedy is captured from the start with the solo violin playing what amounts to a chromatic descent D, C♯, C, B at the start of its long and far-reaching melody.

That mighty trees can from small acorns grow is as true in art as in life.

Enjoy.

Marcus

Tidings of ‘comfort and joy’ in music of Brahms and Taneyev

That BCMS has performed music by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) more than any other composer may speak to the comfort and completeness it evokes fulfilling the ideals of the German Romantic spirit, whether the sense of life as journey from home– through nature–to final rest, or the bittersweet recollection of love found, and lost.

Music by Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), the man often referred to as the Russian Brahms, is among the least familiar to BCMS audiences in part because it arrived late to our repertoire midway through our history at a time when his music was being re-discovered and revisited worldwide. My first encounter was at the Sitka (Alaska) Summer Music Festival where I played for more than thirty years. Taneyev’s music was especially welcome by audiences in a town that had once been the North American Russian capital. It is from there that interest, particularly in the chamber music, spread east to the rest of us.

Sergey Taneyev at piano

Sergey Taneyev at the piano

We have chosen to pair great chamber works by these two great composers in two winter concerts at MIT (December and January) to enjoy their differences as much as marvel at what they display in common. Besides their obvious physical resemblances and contemporaneous careers, these composers were each products of musical families, great pianists (Taneyev debuted in Brahms’s D minor Concerto), protégés and colleagues of great older composers (Schumann, Tchaikovsky). Each believed in the power of his native folk music and in the need for mastering contrapuntal techniques of the past as the basis for creating new music of artistic significance. Like Brahms, who stood alone writing in classical forms his contemporaries relegated to the past, Taneyev remains a singular figure for abandoning indigenous Russian musical tradition and nationalism in favor of more abstract concepts.

When asked earlier this year to create a playlist of Russian music for a colleague, particularly music that displayed Russian bells, after Tchaikovky’s 1812 Overture my thoughts turned immediately to the conclusion of Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30. A more exuberant and joyous conclusion marked by the chiming of imaginary church bells is difficult to find in all of Russian music!

Taneyev’s Piano Quintet was premiered in Moscow in 1911 and last played by BCMS in 1997. (By then I had already performed it a decade before in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tashkent. Members of the Taneyev String Quartet attended our first concert.)

His String Quintet (with two cellos) Op. 14 in G (1904) was performed by BCMS in 2000. The performance of its companion piece, String Quintet (with two violas) Op. 16 (1905) in C will close our January concert as a Boston Premiere!

Enjoy!

Marcus

…getting by with a little help from our friends…

This November we present three major works that became even more notable for owing their very existence and subsequent popularity to great friendships. Mozart’s Duo in Bb for Violin and Viola K. 424 (1783) is the second of two he composed to complete a pending commission for an ailing friend, Michael Haydn, brother of Franz Joseph. Michael had composed four of six, in the keys of C, D, E, and F before becoming too ill to complete the last two. Mozart chose the keys of G and Bb, taking particular pride in being able to write in the style of Haydn in order to remain undetected as the true composer by their common patron. The Duos were never published by Haydn, nor were the final two revealed to be by Mozart until 1793, two years after his death.

Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Opus 65 (1961) by Benjamin Britten will be played for the first time in the BCMS series as our observance of the 100th Anniversary of his birth. It is the first of five compositions focused on the cello resulting from a chance meeting of Rostropovich and Britten. The sonata marks the return of Britten to purely instrumental music after a break of nearly thirty years. It is also an occasion for exploration of special effects and techniques on the cello including many from important repertoire of the past. Notice how the first movement ends with the same rising arpeggio (in harmonics tracing the overtone series) that closes the first movement of the Ravel Piano Trio!)

Piano Quartet in G minor by Johannes Brahms is the first of three and owes its final form to the influence and advice of Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim among others. The quartet was performed publicly for the first time on November 16, 1861 by Clara Schumann. Shortly after her diary entry says “The Quartet only partially satisfies me; there is too little unity in the first movement, and the emotion of the Adagio is too forced, without really carrying me away. But, I love the Allegretto in C minor and the last movement.” Brahms made his Viennese debut with the work on November 16, 1862 at the piano with friends from the Hellmesberger Quartet and was encouraged to give a follow up concert with his second piano quartet played earlier this year in our Hamel Summer series. The third Brahms Piano Quartet will be heard this season in the second concert of our MIT Series in January, 2014.

We thank you for your support and friendship.

Enjoy.

Marcus

Youth and Age

“…[the] first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” Matthew 19:30”

Our thirty-first BCMS season begins with the programming of three works that are among the first and lasts of their kind by three masterful composers: The latest of Mozart’s three A major sonatas for violin and piano, K. 526 (1787), Schubert’s last and perhaps greatest Fantasie for Piano Four Hands in F minor, D. 940 (1828), and William Walton’s first chamber music piece, the Piano Quartet in D minor (1918-1919).

The program combines the masterful products of youth and age even as we welcome to our roster of BCMS Member Musicians three extraordinary young colleagues whose artistry we have come to enjoy in recent seasons. Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, violinist/violist Yura Lee and violist Dimitri Murrath will each be heard in their new roles performing throughout the coming season.

For the Mozart Sonata and the Walton Piano Quartet this concert will be the first performances by BCMS, if not a first in the region for the Walton! The Schubert Fantasie was last performed in our series in March 1992 by Randall Hodgkinson and Christopher O’Reilly. This performance marks the first time our familiar team of Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson will perform this great work.

Enjoy!

Marcus