Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mendelssohn - Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 66

Felix Mendelssohn's life was a busy one from the days of his youthful study of music and art to his adult life as a performer, administrator and composer. The year that his C minor piano trio was composed saw him take a break from his strenuous duties as conductor and music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra. His tremendous workload had taken its toll on his health, which was never to be as robust as before. The death of his beloved sister Fanny in 1847 was the final tragedy he could not overcome. She had died of complications from a stroke, a family medical situation that also took the lives of both of his parents and grandfather. Felix had a series of strokes as well, and died at the age of 38 six months after his sister.

The 2nd piano trio came six years after the Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor, which is more often performed than the 2nd.

I. Allegro energico e con fuoco - The beginning of the first movement starts with a swirl of C minor in the piano:
Mendelssohn's gift for melody was as great (and often greater) than other composers and it is one of the traits for which he is best known. But this opening is not a melody at all, and not much of a theme either. Mendelssohn was one of the musicians that was most involved with the bringing back of J.S. Bach's music to the public in the early 19th century, and this opening is similar to the way Bach created musical feeling by means of harmony without obvious melody. The strings take up the swirl as the piano plays the harmony in block chords. A melody finally begins that is in C minor and is an extension of the harmonies heard in the opening. The music seamlessly segues into what may be thought of as another main theme of the exposition, this time with hints of B-flat major and G minor. The opening motive returns before the exposition seamlessly moves into the development section without being repeated. The recapitulation has the expected modulations of keys in the secondary themes and leads to a coda that turns calm before it erupts in a blast of octaves in the piano and the movement ends in C minor.

II. Andante espressivo - The second movement is a gentle melody in E-flat major that is first heard in the piano. The strings comment upon it, and the melody continues until a section in the minor is heard. The music ebbs and flows, but remains in a graceful humor, even in the more bitter sweet moments in the middle section.

III. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto - A rapid scherzo of the type that Mendelssohn was known for:

If his intensely fast metronome marking of half note equals 88 beats is followed, it is a difficult movement to bring off with the proper lightness. It is quite short and ends before you know it.

IV. Finale: Allegro appassionato -  This movement is a rondo, with the recurring rondo theme solidly in C minor while the various episodes that are played between repeats of the rondo theme differ in character:

One of the episodes sounds somewhat like a chorale that has been described as a chorale tune used by Bach (which indeed he did), a hymn written by Martin Luther titled Herr Gott Dich Loben Wir (Lord God We Praise You), and a melody known as Old Hundredth taken from the association it had with the 100th psalm in the English church that was sung to the words 'Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow'.  Why Mendelssohn used this tune is not known. Some conjecture that it was an affirmation of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity, but he never commented on it. Perhaps he just liked the tune and thought it would be a good fit for his piano trio. This episode returns near the end of the movement, and along with the main theme of the movement returning in C major, the trio ends in a positive mood.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Arriaga - String Quartet No. 3 In E-flat Major

Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (full name Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola) was a Basque/Spanish composer of the early 19th century. He was a child prodigy of tremendous natural abilities and when he was about fifteen years old was sent to the Paris Conservatoire in 1822 for serious study. His teachers, as well as the director of the Conservatoire, Luigi Cherubini, were amazed at his natural talent and ability to learn so quickly.

Arriaga was a hard working young man, and not only kept up with his studies but composed. His output was regretfully but understandably small, as he died a few days before his 20th birthday, possibly from tuberculosis. His list of surviving compositions includes a Symphony In D, and three string quartets that were written when he was sixteen. The quartets are modeled after the examples left by Haydn and Mozart and show Arriaga slowly developing his own voice. The 3rd quartet in E-flat major shows the progress he was making in his musical thought. The three string quartets are the most well known of Arriaga's compositions and are represented on numerous recordings.

I. Allegro -  The quartet begins with all four instruments playing in  unison a motive in E-flat major:
This motive is expanded upon and returns in different keys and is the main focus of the exposition section. Small fragments of other motives are heard until what can be considered as the second theme emerges more than halfway through the exposition:
The exposition is repeated. Since the exposition deals with the initial theme more than others, Arriaga gives balance in the development section by working with the second theme as well as other lesser motives. The recapitulation is as expected with sonata form of the time as the first theme is repeated and the second theme is heard in the home key. 

II. Pastorale - Andantino - In place of a slow movement, Arriaga offers a movement that begins with a gentle accompaniment to a gently rocking tune high in the violin register. The middle section has a segment reminiscent of the storm section of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 'Pastoral' as Arriaga changes to a minor key and uses string tremolos to suggest a storm's high wind and pelting rain. After the agitated middle section, the movement returns to the bucolic music of the beginning.

III. Menuetto - Trio plus lent -  Despite the name, this movement is a Beethovenian scherzo in C minor:
 The trio section is a very short naïve peasant dance in C major:
IV. Presto agitato -  Not typical of music designated presto agitato,  but very attractive music nonetheless. Arriaga played violin in a string quartet when he was ten years old, and his knowledge as a player of the instrument shows in the brilliance of the 1st violin's music.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Beethoven - String Trio In C Minor, Opus 9, No. 3

String trios for violin, viola and cello came about as a form roughly in the last half of the 18th century.  They came from the earlier form of trio sonata for two or three solo instruments plus basso continuo. There were three parts to the earlier trio sonata, even if there were in actuality 3 soloists and continuo, as the continuo played the bass and harmonies and was always included. The continuo was most often a keyboard instrument, but the bass line itself was often doubled by a bass instrument such as the cello. The trio sonata designation came from there being three parts to the work, regardless if there were three, four or sometimes five performers. J.S. Bach and other Baroque composers wrote trio sonatas for organ where the right hand, left hand and pedals each have their own part.

The continuo was slowly done away with when music moved from counterpoint towards a melody with accompaniment. The first string trios were for two violins and cello, with a further development beginning with Haydn of violin, viola and cello.

Beethoven wrote a total of five string trios, all of them early in his career. The first two, Opus 3 and 8, are more in the style of the serenades of Mozart as they are in six and seven movements respectively. It is with the three trios of Opus 9 that Beethoven takes the form with more seriousness. The content of the works themselves and the fact they were written in 4 movements each show that Beethoven did not mean for them to be considered light entertainment as a serenade.

Beethoven wrote the trios of Opus 9 in 1797-1798 at a time when he was the toast of Vienna, mostly for his performances as a virtuoso pianist and improviser. He had been composing since he was still a child with a steady progression quality and artistry in his work. Most of his previous opus numbers involved the piano either as a solo instrument or with string soloists. There were a few other works for strings alone, but it was with the opus 9 trios that saw his ability to write for strings take on the qualities of a master. That they are seldom played anymore has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Perhaps Beethoven himself considered these trios as a warm up to writing string quartets, a form that was viewed at the time (and still is) as the pinnacle of compositional artistry. After Beethoven wrote the six string quartets of opus 18, he never returned to the string trio.

While all three trios are worthy of listening, it is the third one in C minor that shows flashes of the Beethoven to come. The key of C minor is an important one in Beethoven's oeuvre, as some of his most dramatic and innovative music is written in that key.

I. Allegro con spirito - The first movement is in sonata form and Beethoven begins straight away with the three instruments playing a short motive in unison. The 1st theme is in C minor, and is repeated after the first hearing as the cello takes over the theme as the violin plays running 16th notes. The theme is cut short as the violin plays some syncopated chords that lead to the next theme. This 2nd theme is in E-flat major and is simply stated by the violin and cello, while the viola gives a feeling of tension with running staccato 16th notes. Roles are reversed in the repeating of the 2nd theme. There are other fragmentary themes played before the movement closes in the key of E-flat major. The movement is repeated. The development section begins with treatment of one of the lesser themes heard at the end of the exposition. Where the development section ends and the recapitulation begins is blurred by Beethoven's technique of bringing back the main themes of the movement in different instruments amid a bustle of activity. A coda ties up all the ends that Beethoven cares to, and the movement ends in C minor.

II. Andante con espressione- As impassioned as the first movement is, so is the second movement soft and sweet. Beethoven writes in 4 parts in C major in many places in this movement, which gives the music a fullness that belies that there are but three instruments playing. The music sings throughout, and ends quietly in C major.

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace- Beethoven returns to the home key for this tart and  brisk scherzo. With sudden accents and bursts of sound, there is no trace of a minuet. A calm middle section in C major gives contrast. The scherzo returns and ends pianissimo.

IV. Finale: Presto - The tone of the scherzo and 1st movement continues with the finale written in sonata form. Scales, accents and extremes in dynamics give a hectic feel to the music. The trio ends quietly in the key of C major.