New Series – Mendelssohn Piano Trios

Hello all,

Our music for this week marks the start of a new (and very brief) series on Mendelssohn’s two piano trios. Today we will hear the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, performed by Andreas Rohn on the violin, Sebastian Klinger on the cello, and international superstar Lang Lang on the piano.

The first piano trio is regarded as one of Mendelssohn’s two or three greatest works, alongside his violin concerto and his string Octet (which, you may remember, we listened to a few weeks ago: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/01/19/mendelssohn-octet/).

The first movement, Molto allegro ed agitato, opens with an unforgettable cello line. This is one of those rare lines of music that feel as though you’ve always known them. The instruments pass this theme around until the introduction of the second theme, which is in A Major (as opposed to the opening key of D Minor). As you can imagine, this is a much brighter melody that the violin is largely responsible for. Mendelssohn does a fantastic job of using the natural strengths of the instruments to his advantage, and these two themes are a perfect example of that: for the somber D Minor line, he uses the dark, deep tones of the cello, and for the bright A Major line, he uses the light, airy tones of the violin.

The second movement is, in my opinion, the most beautiful melody Mendelssohn wrote. The opening piano solo is simply sublime.

The third movement is a fast, light scherzo written in sonata form. Like the second movement, the piano begins with the theme. However, the violin and cello soon take over and turn it into a more lyrical middle section before the piano rushes it to end the movement.

The fourth and final movement is the closest Mendelssohn could get (being a pianist himself) to a piano concerto. Watch Lang Lang’s hands closely – his performance is astounding. At the very end of the piece, listen for the harmonic shift to the bright key of D Major that resolves the tension of D Minor that has been holding the listener captive for all four movements.

Enjoy!

T

P.S.A. – I will be out of the country on vacation through July 28, so we will miss at least one, maybe two weeks of music. I’ll be back the first week of August with the second piano trio!

Twinkle Twinkle

Hello all,

Our music for today is the famous “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” variations for solo piano by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart wrote these variations somewhere around the year 1780 as an exercise for young pianists. The melody that we now know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” first appeared in 1761, when Mozart was in his late teens. There are twelve variations on the initial C Major theme. Here is a brief summary of each of them:

  • Variation 1: The right hand performs the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
  • Variation 2: The two hands switch jobs.
  • Variation 3: The right hand performs the melody in a triplet figure.
  • Variation 4: They switch again.
  • Variation 5: The right hand presents the melody in an off-beat pattern.
  • Variation 6: The right hand plays a chord-heavy version of the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
  • Variation 7: The melody is heard in running scale patterns in the right hand.
  • Variation 8: The melody is presented in C minor (parallel minor of C major) and there is imitation between the left and right hands.
  • Variation 9: The melody is performed staccato (short, sharp notes).
  • Variation 10: The left hand plays the melody with the right hand embellishing with sixteenth notes (just like variation #2).
  • Variation 11: The tempo slows and the right hand performs the melody in a singing style.
  • Variation 12: Both hands compete in a race to the finish.

Enjoy!

T

Duet #4

Hello all,

To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.

Enjoy!

T

The Duet #3 – Brahms Double Concerto

Hello all,

Our series on famous duets continues with the Double Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter* on the violin and Maximilian Hornung on the cello.

In my opinion, the most amazing thing about this concerto is that Brahms didn’t play a single stringed instrument. He was a pianist. While this certainly makes Brahms’ compositional ability even more impressive,** it is helpful to know that he was very strongly motivated to compose a piece that included a violin part. Brahms’ friendship with virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (who had premiered Brahms’ monumental violin concerto) had recently become strained after Brahms testified on behalf of Joachim’s wife in a divorce proceeding. Historians believe that Brahms wrote the Double Concerto as a reconciliation gift for his friend.

The Double Concerto is jam-packed with dense and complex melodies. Brahms does a masterful job of balancing the rich colors of the cello with the bright colors of the violin, and the two become, in his hands, a unified voice. There is a certain harmonic glow about this piece that is characteristic of Brahms’ later years. This is particular evident in the lovely second movement, which begins at 18:51 and soars to new heights of color through a unison melody shared by the two solo instruments.

Enjoy!

T

*Those of you who know my unabashed trepidations about the artistry of Anne-Sophie Mutter may be surprised by the choice of this video. However, I must give credit where credit is due. While Mutter may not be my choice for Beethoven or Mozart, her ultra-Romantic style is absolutely perfect for playing Brahms. I think she does an incredible job of capturing the rich core of this powerful violin part.

**Brahms himself was concerned about his lack of experience writing for stringed instruments. He wrote a letter to Clara Schumann expressing doubt about his ability to properly write a double concerto, and it was her encouraging reply that motivated him to continue composing.  

The Duet #2 – Petite Suite

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the great duets in the classical music repertoire, we turn this week to Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite, performed by Christoph Eschenbach and Lang Lang.

Petite Suite is written for one piano and four hands. Debussy premiered it himself, in collaboration with fellow French musician Jacques Durand. There are four movements (not all of which are present in this performance, unfortunately) that evenly feature both pianists.

You will notice that the piece is quite simple and not technically difficult; Debussy is reported to have intended it for an amateur piano-lesson-type audience. It is particularly interesting to note that he wrote this piece shortly after being told by his Paris Conservatory piano instructor that he should focus on composition because he would never make a good pianist.

One of the things that I find most interesting about this composition is its historically anomalous nature. Debussy was a late Romantic-era composer, closely preceded by colleagues who wrote thundering symphonies (Brahms) and soaring concerti (Tchaikovsky). It is therefore curious to experience the simplicity and – as one critic put it – “delightful plainness” of the Petite Suite.

Enjoy!

T

New Series – The Duet

Hello all,

Today marks the start of a new series! We will be working through some of the most famous duets in the history of music, starting with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing the Duo des Fleurs (Flower Duet) by Leo Delibes.

Delibes is best known for this duet, which is part of his 1883 opera Lakme. It is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and is from the part of the opera in which the main character Lakme and her servant Mallika are picking flowers together by a river. (There is another famous opera in which two female characters sing a duet while picking flowers together – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – but Delibes never confirmed the possibility of a connection).

It is worth noting the caliber of the singers in the video, both of whom are world-class. In particular, Anna Netrebko is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She performs regularly at the Met, Vienna Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, and Royal Opera House.

The lyrics are as follows:

“Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
With the roses entwined together
On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning
Let us descend together!

Gently floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.

Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
Ah! calling us
Together!”

Enjoy!

T

Kavakos plays Shostakovich

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.

As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.

The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.

The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.

Enjoy!

T  

Free, but Happy

Hello all,

Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.

“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.

This third movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the definition of Romantic-era lyricism.

Enjoy!

T

The Year 1905

Hello all,

Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.

The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.

This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.

The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #5 – Chichester Psalms

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.

Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.

As with many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation for composing the Psalms.

“For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”

Unlike most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words, the piece is “the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also adamant that the Psalms be sung in the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.

Here’s a quick rundown of things to listen for:

  • First movement: This movement is based on Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly, this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an almost unheard-of meter.
  • Second movement: listen for the boy soprano solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
  • Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued chorus without instrumentation.

Enjoy!

T