CMF 2021 - Concert 3
Shostakovich - 7 romances on poems by Alex. Blok op.127
Frank Bridge - 3 songs for Voice, Viola, and Piano
Beethoven - 32 piano variations on an original theme in c minor
Faure - Piano quartet Nr.1 c minor, op.15
7 romances on poems by Alex. Blok op.127
Early in 1967, Shostakovich was asked by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya to write them a ‘vocalise’ they could perform together. He responded by setting Alexander Blok’s beautiful early love-poem, ‘Ophelia’s Song’. In a sudden rush of creativity over the next 3 days (and fired, he said, by a stiff shot of brandy), he then immediately set another early Blok poem for voice and piano for himself to perform with Vishnevskaya and then another for violin and voice to draw in a third friend, David Oistrakh. In the third and fourth songs he combined cello and piano, then violin and piano, in the sixth the violin and cello together and only in the final seventh song, a hymn to music, is the soprano at last accompanied by the complete piano trio.
The result is an extraordinarily intense sequence: sweet and deeply personal meditations about love, intimacy, friendship and the power of art, all surrounded and threatened by prophetic intimations of disaster and the darkness of the night (nearly every poem is a nocturne). This most unusual work is one of Shostakovich’s greatest tributes to some of the closest musical friendships of his life.
I. Song of Ophelia (Moderato)
II. Gamayun, the Bird of Prophecy (Adagio)
III. We Were Together (Allegretto)
IV. Gloom Enwraps the Sleeping City (Largo)
V. The Storm (Allegro)
VI. Secret Signs (Largo)
VII. Music (Largo)
3 songs for Voice, Viola, and Piano
An English composer and violinist, influenced by late Romanticism and Impressionism, Frank Bridge is best known as the composition teacher and mentor of Benjamin Britten. An active musician himself, a member of renowned string quartets of the first half of the twentieth century, he devoted himself from an early age to chamber music and especially to the string repertoire, composing works for small ensembles of various combinations.
Naturally, the viola occupies a prominent place in his works as an instrument that not only supports but also carries the basic melody. A typical example of this preference is The Three Songs in Poetry by Matthew Arnold, Heinrich Heine and Percy Shelley, which, in a way, could be considered a lyrical study of the relationship between the viola and the human voice. Like Brahms, Bridge treats the viola and the human voice equally in the rendering of poetic images and focuses on the relationship between them, limiting the piano to a more discreet, accompanying role.
Only in the first song the piano plays an essential role in the emergence of poetic speech through a denser rhythmic and harmonic writing and the marriage of the viola with the voice sculpts the sound architecture through tender duets. In the third song the supporting movement of the piano with constant sixteen notes reminds Debussy’s impressionistic mood but restless dialogues as well and lastly, in the second song the wide range of dynamics, through the interaction of the voice with the viola, intensifies the dramatic character of the poem.
I. Far, far from each other (Andante Moderato)
II. Where is it that our soul doth go? (Adagio ma non troppo)
III. Music when soft voices die (Andante Moderato)
32 piano variations on an original theme in c minor
Beethoven’s most overt pianistic homage to the Baroque, the 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor, date from the end of 1806 (the year of the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, the fourth symphony and the violin concerto) and were published the following year without dedication or opus number.
The variations are an elaborate take on the traditional chaconne, a ceremonial triple-time dance over a ground bass that was popularized at the court of Louis XIV. (Bach’s monumental D minor violin ciaconna and Handel’s G major chaconne are famous examples, though it is doubtful that Beethoven would have known either.) Again, the music may have originated in the composer’s famous extemporizations.
The stern eight-bar theme, with its emphasis on the second beat of the bar (a characteristic of the chaconne, played up by Beethoven), is underpinned by a chromatically falling lamento bass. Most of the variations adhere more closely to the theme’s harmonic pattern than its melodic outline, and seem designed to showcase a wide range of keyboard techniques and textures—not least the leggiermente staccato semiquavers, first in the right hand, then in the left, then in both simultaneously, in variations 1-3. Variations 7-9 explore more Romantic sonorities, while Nos 10 and 11 erupt in a torrent of demisemiquavers, a real test of the player’s virtuosity.
The music is moody, or stormy, or melancholy; there is little light even in the brief major-key section (Variations 12-16). The work requires considerable virtuosity, with each variation presenting a different technical challenge so that it almost seems like a set of etudes. However, it is the sometimes violent emotional content that dominates. In the extended final variation the music at last finds its way into song, but it is a somber song which fades away with two quiet chords at the end.
Piano quartet Nr.1 c minor, op.15
The Piano Quartet No. 1 in c minor, Op. 15 begins the series of larger ensemble works. Written between 1876-79 and revised with a new finale in 1883, it falls early in the composer’s catalogue of chamber music. The composition was perhaps slowed down by a degree of turmoil in the composer’s personal life.
During the 1870s Fauré was a regular attendee at the salon of the famous mezzo-soprano and composer Pauline Viardot, and in the course of his visits there, he fell in love with her daughter, Marianne. After five years of semi-formal flirtation the two became engaged in July 1877. It seems, however, that Fauré’s passion was unreciprocated, for Marianne broke off the engagement within four months, leaving the 32-year-old composer temporarily heartsick.
It was during the later stages of this frustrating relationship that Fauré began work on his First Piano Quartet. However, despite the dark C minor tonality, there is little sense of personal tragedy in this music. As with the other outstanding masterpiece of this ‘first period’, intensity of feeling is balanced by a concern for elegance and formal lucidity, showing clearly that the composer remained unaffected by Wagner’s influencing spell. Along with the traditional clarity, poetry and restraint of the French tradition preceding it, Fauré's music sounds refreshingly and presciently modern. As Fauré himself remarked to the composer Florent Schmitt: “To express that which is within you with sincerity, in the clearest and most perfect manner, would seem to me the ultimate goal of art.”
I. Allegro molto moderato
II. Scherzo, Allegro vivo
IV. Allegro molto