Saturday, May 25, 2013

Beethoven - Cello Sonata No. 3 In A Major

Beethoven followed in the footsteps of Mozart and Haydn, the two giants of late 18th century music and composed in most of the forms they used. As with many creative artists, he used forms and conventions as blueprints for his own ideas and transformed  the traditional forms of expression into something very personal. So it is that having a set of guidelines and rules doesn't stifle creativity for those who have the spark of creative genius within them, but can actually enhance their artistry.

Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein
Beethoven was the first major composer to write sonatas for solo cello and piano,  and his 5 sonatas for cello are important additions to the literature. The third cello sonata in A major was written in 1808, a period of intense compositional activity that saw the creation of many of Beethoven's most well-known pieces such as the 5th Symphony and the Violin Concerto.  It was dedicated to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, an amateur cellist, close friend of Beethoven, and one of a group of music lovers that paid Beethoven an annual fee to entice him to stay in Vienna.  Beethoven probably dedicated this sonata to him out of gratitude.

The sonata is in three movements:
I. Allegro ma non tanto - The sonata opens with the primary theme stated by the cello alone. The cello holds the final note of the theme as the piano restates it. Beethoven expands the usual number of themes heard in a movement written in sonata form by the addition of two contrasting secondary themes. In the development section, the primary theme is varied and contrasted with the other themes and the mood changes abruptly and often. The recapitulation begins with the original theme played by the cello but unlike the opening it is accompanied by the piano. There is a short coda, and the movement ends forte.

II. Scherzo : Allegro molto - This is the only scherzo found in the cello sonatas, and the theme begins on the upbeat. The syncopated theme continues throughout the scherzo, including the trio section.
Beethoven repeats the trio of this scherzo when the usual form calls for playing it only once. He did this in other scherzos of this period as well.  
III. Adagio cantabile, Allegro vivace - This sonata has no separate slow movement save for the short Adagio cantabile that opens the finale. It acts as a contrast to the previously heard nervous scherzo and the joyous final movement. It is in sonata form with a jaunty first theme and a more lyrical second theme. The development section gives the players the opportunity of lending their virtuosity to musical expression that covers the ranges of both instruments. The themes progress to the end, and after many excursions afield, the work ends solidly in A major.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 2 in E Minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an immensely gifted pianist and fine orchestral conductor, but he thought of himself first and foremost as a composer. In his earlier years while still in Russia, he composed most of his 45 opus numbered works. With the political and cultural upheaval brought about by the Russian Revolution of 1917,  Rachmaninoff lost his livelihood (his family were members of the bourgeoisie) and fled the country, never to return.

From 1917 until his death in 1943, Rachmaninoff was constantly on tour in Europe and the United States as pianist and conductor to provide for his family and had little time or inclination to compose. He composed only six more opus numbers during those years.  His prodigious memory was legendary, along with his singing piano tone, quiet demeanor at the keyboard, and his huge hands. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century.

His success as a composer came while he was still a student. His one-act opera Aleko was written in 1892 and was such a success that the Bolshoi Theater agreed to perform it.  The Symphony No. 2 was written in 1906-07 and was first performed in 1908 at St. Petersburg with the composer conducting.

The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Largo, Allegro moderato - The symphony begins with a slow introduction with the low strings stating the main motif that will appear in various forms in all four of the movements. This motif dominates the introduction and main section of the movement as it begins quietly and slowly and through variations transforms into powerful music played by the full orchestra. The secondary theme of the movement has the strings and woodwinds alternate until the theme ends quietly. The development section begins with a solo violin initially playing the main theme which is again transformed into rapidly moving variants until a passionate climax is reached. The recapitulation begins, the second theme is emphasized in the parallel key of E major. The end of the movement returns to the home key of E minor and brings the opening movement to a resounding close.

II. Allegro molto -  Unlike many symphonic scherzos that are written in three beats to the measure, this one is written in two beats to the measure. It is in the usual scherzo-trio-scherzo form, but the scherzo itself has two contrasting themes, as does the trio. It's a combination of the traditional scherzo with aspects of sonata form also. The second theme of the scherzo itself resembles the main motif of the first movement in motion and rhythm.

III. Adagio - Along with an innate sense of rich orchestration, Rachmaninoff is also well-known for a remarkable gift of melody. One of his best melodies is heard here as the movement begins with the violin and then the main theme of the movement (which itself is related to the main motif of the first movement) is played by the solo clarinet. The movement has two other themes that Rachmaninoff states and then weaves them contrapuntally with the initial theme.

IV. Allegro vivace - The last movement begins brilliantly in E major. The initial theme is interrupted by a secondary theme, after which the initial theme returns. It soon makes way for a broad theme that the orchestra sings at length. A brief reference is made to material from the third movement which leads to the development of themes, a repeat of the themes, and a rousing ending to the work.

Rachmaninoff refers to differing themes within and without movements, all of which are related to the very first motif heard in the low strings in the slow introduction. This gives a structural and aural continuity to the entire work which helps it to be liked and appreciated by experienced concert listeners as well as casual listeners. It's one of the best examples I know of music that just 'sounds' right to many ears. The work of a master musician and composer, one of Rachmaninoff's finest compositions.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Weber - Clarinet Concerto In F Minor

Many composers have written concertos for solo instrument and orchestra with a specific soloist in mind. Sometimes the performer was the composer themselves.  In the beginning of the Romantic era it was the norm for musicians to enter the music scene of the times with their own compositions.  All of the great composer/performers from Beethoven to Brahms and many others were soloists in their own works.

Composers also wrote for performers for instruments besides their own. Such was the case with Weber's Clarinet Concerto in F Minor.  It was written in 1811, a time of transition for the clarinet. Improvements were made to make it more chromatic and flexible, and one of the most well-known of the virtuosos of the improved instrument was Heinrich Bärmann. He played in the court orchestra of Munich from 1807 until he retired in 1834. His son was also a virtuoso on the instrument.  Bärmann exploited the improvements on the instrument and was known for his tone and wide dynamic range.

The concerto is in the traditional three movements:
I. Allegro - The work begins with the cellos and double basses stating the main theme with accompaniment
Heinrich Bärmann
by the violas and violins. After the initial statement of the theme, the full orchestra blurts out a double-forte chord, and the theme is played by the violins. The orchestra sets the stage for the entrance of the clarinet with hushed sounds. The clarinet enters with a different melody. Weber's writing for soloist is in turn brilliant and plaintive, with the orchestra being more than an accompaniment. Changes of key ensue as the main theme is once again stated by the low strings, the clarinet finally utters a sad song as the movement quietly winds down and dies away. Weber's flair for orchestration is evident in this first movement, as well as the entire work. The instruments are as if they were singers in a dramatic scene of an opera.
II. Adagio ma non troppo -  Weber uses three horns in this movement, and has them alone play with the clarinet through some sections. The movement moves from minor agitation to solemn dignity as the clarinet sings its way through the movement.
III. Rondo; Allegretto - The clarinet shows the agility it can have in the hands of a master performer as it dances the lively tune of the finale.

The clarinet is a unique member of the orchestra. It is a single-reed instrument with a cylindrical bore (the bassoon and oboe are double reed instruments with a conical bore.) In the hands of a good musician it can have one of the widest dynamic ranges of any instrument. It has three distinct registers or tone qualities, from the rich, deep and breathy chalumeau register(from the ancestor of the clarinet the chalumeau ) to the bright and clear clarion register (a type of early trumpet with a bright sound)to the brilliant and sometimes piercing altissimo register(Italian for very high).  Weber uses all of these registers and qualities of the instrument in his concerto and it is one of the gems of the repertoire.