Basque Trio

Hello all,

Our music this week is the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, a French composer from the late 19th/early 20th century.

Ravel wrote this work in the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he was raised. He desired that the piano trio be “Basque in coloring,” and – true to his word – he based the initial theme on a folk tune he heard while sitting at his favorite Basque café. He was almost finished with the work when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the French army in August of 1914, where he worked as a medical aide and truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.

The piano trio is a notoriously difficult musical medium to write for. These three instruments – piano, cello, and violin – have such radically different sonorities and sound production capabilities that the composer must work hard to appropriately balance them. The piano’s sound, which is obviously the largest of the three, cannot overwhelm the stringed instruments; the upper registers of the violin cannot overshadow the other two; and both of them are in constant danger of overshadowing the dark, rich tones of the cello. Ravel’s approach to this balancing issue was to use special effects: trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos (slides up and down the fingerboard), and arpeggios. He also made sure to keep the violin and cello lines two octaves apart whenever possible (to highlight their different registers) and usually placed the pianist’s left-hand line directly in the middle of that two-octave stretch. This trio therefore showcases both the distinctive French style and compositional genius of Ravel.

Enjoy!

T

Rubinstein plays Chopin

Hello all,

This week’s music is the first movement of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Each instrument has a composer that defines it. At some point in history, a composer makes such a difference in the repertoire of the instrument that its musicality is forever changed. For the violin, that person is Niccolo Paganini; for the cello, Pablo Casals; for the flute, James Galway; for the French horn, Hermann Baumann. For today’s featured instrument – the piano – that person was Frederic Chopin (although I will accept arguments for Franz Liszt if you feel so inclined). Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretation of his second piano concerto is breathtaking because it captures the romanticism of Chopin while dashing off technical passages with amazing ease.

You will hear only the first of three movements in this concerto. As many of you know, the typical concerto format involves three movements (while the typical sonata has four and symphonies also usually have four). The movement is titled Maestoso, which means (loosely) “in a majestic manner.” This fits with the compositional style that Chopin was experimenting with at the time he wrote this concerto: “stile brilliante.” In the mid-1850s, Chopin and several of his contemporaries began to adopt the bel canto style of Italian composers like Rossini and Bellini. Unlike his predecessors (such as Beethoven), Chopin was not interested in crafting the perfectly balanced concerto. He was instead interested in magnifying the virtuosity of the pianist, and this first movement clearly showcases his quest for soloistic glory.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the third movement of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, performed by the superstar trio of Leonidas Kavakos, Yo Yo Ma, and Emmanuel Ax.

You won’t find a better ensemble than this one. Each of these three musicians is at the top of their respective instrumental fields. Yo Yo Ma rose to fame as a child prodigy and continues to amaze crowds around the world with his bravado and energy. Emmanuel Ax has dominated the world of the piano since winning the Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1974. Leonidas Kavakos, one of the most versatile musicians and conductors alive today, has been atop the violin world since his victory at the Sibelius and Paganini competitions in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The three of them have been touring the world for several years now, playing the best of the piano trio repertoire to packed audiences around the globe.

The second piano trio of Brahms was composed at the height of his compositional maturity. By this point in his career, he had overcome the massive shadow that Beethoven cast on all who followed him. He was now writing music with the comfort of a well-established reputation behind him, and this confidence comes through in his music. The third movement of the C Major trio exudes confidence while also combining elements of Romanticism and Classicism into a cohesive whole. There are strands of Mendelssohn in the dark emotionality of the movement, but there are also playful sections that remind the listener of Beethoven’s lighter moods.

Enjoy!

T

Four Hands

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Fantasia in F Minor for four hands by Franz Schubert, performed by Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen.

The Jussen brothers provide a fantastic rendition of this well-known work. They achieved international stardom at a very young age and have since toured the world together, performing piano duos like this one to packed audiences. Legendary British conductor Sir Neville Marriner commented after conducting one of their performances: “It’s like driving a pair of BMW’s. This is not just two good pianists playing together. They sense each other’s most small, individual little bit of interpretation.”   

Fantasia in F Minor for four hands was written only a few months before Schubert died. It is one of his most complete and beautiful works. Unlike most other piano duos, which were originally composed for a larger ensemble and then adapted to the four-handed context, this duo was written specifically for two pianists.

You will hear four distinct movements. The first movement is all about lyricism. Delightfully light and airy Schubert-ian melodies grace the top line, and dense but rolling figures are featured in the bottom line. The second movement, which was inspired by Paganini’s second violin concerto (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLOciQwraZg), contains an atmosphere of virtuosic turbulence. The third movement contrasts the agitation of the second movement with a brightness and liveliness that is more of what one might expect of Schubert. The fourth movement, which has been called “the most remarkable cadence in the whole of Schubert’s work,” harkens back to Bach and uses a fugue format to recapitulate all three of the previous themes.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #22 – Nocturne

Hello all,

The twenty-second installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Nocturne in E-Flat Major by Frederic Chopin, performed by Valentina Lisitsa.

Any list of greatest hits would be incomplete without one of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. They are one of the centerpieces of the piano repertoire. The Nocturne you will hear today is the second of the Opus 9 Nocturnes that were written in 1830 (when Chopin was only twenty years old). It is widely regarded as Chopin’s most famous composition.

The opening melody, which is one of the most famous lines in the piano repertoire, is repeated three times during the Nocturne. Listen for the elaborate decorations that Chopin adds to it each time it returns. You may also notice a somewhat hesitant feel to the music. This is a result of rubato, a stylistic marking that gives the performer the freedom to stretch the tempo in their interpretation of the music. When combined with the captivating sweetness of the melody and the rolling sonority of the bass line, this lilting pace gives the piece a peaceful, almost waltz-like quality.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #16 – Moonlight Sonata

Hello all,

The sixteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the famous Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Moonlight Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most widely-known pieces, right up there with the Ninth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. He wrote it in 1801 while working as a teacher and court musician for a Hungarian baron. Most people assume that, with a name like “Moonlight Sonata,” this piece was meant to reflect a moon-lit stroll with a lover. However, Beethoven’s journal entries suggest that it was actually a memorial for a dear friend of his who had passed away around that time.

There are three movements in the sonata. Here’s what to listen for:

First is Adagio Sostenuto, which contains the famous Beethoven melody that we all know. Listen for the base line that reverberates throughout the entire movement. It provides a solemn grounding force that carries the melody through its many different permutations.

Second, you’ll hear the Allegretto. This movement could not be more different than the first movement. Think of this part as less of an individual movement and more of an emotional reprieve that Beethoven inserted between the first and third movements.

Third is the Presto Agitato, which starts at 9:14. This movement is the storm that so many Beethoven works are famous for. Listen for two themes – first, a theme composed of flying arpeggios, and second, a more lyrical melody that is reminiscent of the first movement.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #9 – The Trout

Hello all,

This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music. We will hear the Piano Quintet in A Major by Franz Schubert, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. It is performed by the principal string members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (the first chair members of each string section – violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, violist Mate Szucs, cellist Bruno Delepelaire, and double bassist Matthew McDonald) with Yannick Rafalimanana on piano.

The Trout Quintet is one of the most widely performed pieces of chamber music in all of classical music. Along with the Mendelssohn octet and a few other mainstays, it is featured at nearly every chamber music festival in the world.

Schubert wrote the Trout Quintet while on vacation in the Austrian alps. The fact that he was overwhelmed by the “inconceivable” beauty of the mountains is clearly evident in the joyous, even rapturous lyricism of the piece. Albert Einstein, himself an amateur violinist who loved chamber music, wrote that “we cannot help but love” the Trout Quintet. It is Schubert at his carefree best, with no hint of the somber colors that he began to explore after contracting syphilis in his later years.

It is important to note that this is chamber music. In other words, the Trout Quintet was not meant to be performed in a concert hall. It was meant to be performed in a living room or some other intimate setting for friends and family. This has significant implications not just for how the quintet is to be performed but also how it is to be heard.  

A few comments on each of the four movements:

  • The first movement is unforgettable. Listen for the main theme at 1:53.
  • The second movement has two parts – see if you can tell them apart.
  • The third movement, a Scherzo, turns the second movement’s two parts on their head, reverses their order, and doubles their speed.
  • The fourth movement is the most important. It is a set of variations on the tune of Die Forelle, or in German, “The Trout.” Die Forelle was a short song written by Schubert in 1817 for soprano and piano. He created this song by setting to music the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart about a trout being caught by a fisherman.
  • The Quintet finishes with an Allegro that revisits the Die Forelle theme a few times.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 – #2: Alla Turca

Hello all,

Welcome to the second installment to our new series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music of All Time! Today we will be hearing Daniel Barenboim play Mozart’s piano sonata No. 11 in A Major. All three movements of this sonata are beautiful, but the third movement (starting at 18:50), called Rondo Alla Turca, is by far the most popular.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The first movement is an Andante grazioso (which translates roughly to “walking gracefully”) based on a simple 8-measure theme that you will hear at the very opening of the movement. The rest of the movement is a series of variations on that theme. Listen to the various ways that Mozart uses running passages, chords, and rhythmic patterns to create variation!
  • The second movement is a two-for-one deal! Mozart includes a minuet and a trio in this movement. It begins just after minute 13. Listen for the switch between the two sub-movements.
  • The third movement – the famous Alla Turca movement – is one of Mozart’s best-known pieces. It translates roughly to “Turkish March” or “Turkish Rondo.” At the time he composed it, Mozart (along with most of northern Europe) was infatuated with Turkish music. Listen for the march-like section at around 19:30 that imitates the drums of the traveling Turkish Janissary bands that performed throughout Europe’s major cities during Mozart’s time.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 – #1: Archduke

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the famous “Archduke” trio by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed in this 1970 recording by the superstar ensemble of Eugene Istomin on the piano, Isaac Stern on the violin, and Leonard Rose on the cello.

As stated in our tagline, the goal of This Week’s Music is to “make classical accessible.” So often, classical music can seem like a distant or un-relatable genre of music. The hope is that through these weekly messages, classical music will become more tangible and understandable.

One of the components of this learning process is the eventual knowledge of what pieces of music are central to the repertoire. Although there are thousands of hours of amazing classical music, some compositions stand out as the greatest of all time. That is why our next series, which begins today, is titled “The 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.” The goal is to share with you the pieces that I believe are foundation of the genre. At best, you’ll fall in love with some of the greatest music of all time; at worst, you’ll be able to sound cultured at a cocktail party.

I’m sure I will miss a few. With any “Top 10”-type list, personal opinion is bound to play a significant role. However, I welcome suggestions as we go through this series! Let me know if there is a piece that you feel should be included in the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.

This week’s selection, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, definitely belongs in this list. Even Beethoven himself, when looking back over his compositions, said that it was his best work. As you can probably tell, it was dedicated to Beethoven’s employer at the time, Archduke Rudolph.

The Archduke Trio is all about balance. It is perhaps the only trio in which all three voices are perfectly balanced. In many piano trios, the piano plays a more solo role, with the stringed instruments along for the ride. Beethoven, however, was able to achieve a near-perfect balance of the three. This balance is also evident the compositional ability itself – the harmonic and dynamic contours of the Archduke Trio are likewise perfectly balanced. Even the structure of the four movements contain a lovely balance of emotions, spanning from cheerful to moody and everything in between. Beethoven left no stone unturned.

The Archduke Trio also holds a significant place in the history of music. Until Beethoven composed this trio in 1810, composers had not utilized the form very often. Beethoven’s success with the trio format encouraged other composers to try it. You may remember that we listened to Mendelssohn’s piano trios recently, both of which were inspired by Beethoven’s pioneering of the trio format (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/07/12/new-series-mendelssohn-piano-trios/).

Enjoy!

T

Spring Sonata

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.

As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas, however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).

A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms). Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but certainly not subtle (as in Bach).

The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.

Enjoy!

T