Sunday, 23 January 2011

Programme Notes

Variations Concertante (Op. 17)  –––––––––  Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

It is well known that Felix Mendelssohn had a musical older sister (Fanny), but he also had a younger sister and an even younger brother, Paul, who followed their father into banking but who played the cello to a good standard as a hobby. Felix dedicating two cello works to him, today's op. 17 and op. 45, a sonata for cello and piano written in1838. (He also named his own son 'Paul', who became a distinguished organic chemist.) Today's opus 17 was composed early in 1829 when Paul was 17 and Felix, aged 20, was on the brink of his first visit to England, and at the same time that he was famously re-introducing the German public to Bach's choral music after its being forgotten for a century. The (French) word concertante signals a virtuosic piece showcasing solo instruments. There is an original theme followed by 8 variations, played without repeats (c.f. Mozart) and flowing seamlessly into one another. The first 7 variations are short; cello has the tune, piano has the tune, piu vivace, con fuoco, then the cello plays pizzicato and the piano seem to go off after two unrelated tunes. This is followed by a tranquil 6th and a minor 7th variation, ending with a little cadenza for the cello. The 8th is much longer, starting with a recapitulation of the tune but that is followed by an accelerando and some florid pianistics; and a quiet ending.


Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano, D. 821   ––  Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

i. Allegro moderato,   ii. Adagio,    iii. Allegretto.

The Viennese guitar maker J.G. Staufer in 1823 invented an instrument he called the 'arpeggione' or 'bowed guitar'. Schubert's friend Schuster bought one and within a year had acquired a facility on the instrument. He urged (there is no evidence of a fee) Schubert to write a sonata for arpeggione and fortepiano that would exploit the instrument's special features; the tone was not as strong as that of a cello, but the six strings (tuned in 4ths and 3rds like a guitar) gave the instrument a wide range, and a facility with arpeggios. The frets minimized vibrato and gave the instrument a viol-like purity of pitch and tone. The sonata (in A minor) was finished in November 1824 (around the time of the "Death and the Maiden" quartet) but not published till 1871. No other work for the instrument survives and within 10 years the arpeggione was forgotten (though there is currently a revival, and contemporary instruments are being made.) However, the popularity of this sonata owes little or nothing to the instrument. It is 'suffering Schubert' at his most lyrical, with his piquant swings from sweet despair to forlorn gaiety. 

++++++++     Interval of 20 minutes     ++++++++

Sonata in F major, Opus 99  ––   Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

i. Allegro vivace, ii. Adagio affettuoso, iii. Allegro passionato, iv. Allegro molto.

This is Brahms' second sonata for cello and piano, written in 1886 after the completion of all 4 symphonies, and with the 53 year-old Brahms in mid career; successful, popular, single, gruff. Like the 3rd symphony completed in 1883, this sonata is in F. Its inspiration was probably the cello playing of Robert Hausmann (cellist in the Joachim quartet). The first movement, in F major and 3/4 time, opens with tremendous energy. The bustling, almost orchestral, piano writing supports wonderfully sustained tunes in the cello. There soon appear Brahms' signature cross-rhythms, and contrasting quieter passages. The second movement, in the (technically) remote key of F sharp (i.e. raised a semitone), opens with the cello providing a pizzicato accompaniment, but eventually it is the sustained lyricism of the cello that sets the tone of the movement; it is less outwardly compelling that the 1st movement, and requires more concentration from the listener. The third movement is essentially a 'Scherzo', opening and closing in F minor but with a central 'Trio' section in F major. The last movement opens sweetly on the cello. The piano imitates, but after a few bars gets distracted by a tempestuous piano subplot. These two elements play off each other energetically; emotion perfectly structured; the height of European romanticism.

(Programme notes compiled by Ian West, from numerous sources.  )

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