Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zarębski - Piano Quintet In G Minor, Opus 34

The musical world has had its share of composers who have died young. A short list of the most famous and influential: Franz Schubert at 31, Wolfgang Mozart at 35, Georges Bizet at 37, George Gershwin at 38, and Frederic Chopin at 39. There are many others who are less well known, and the Polish pianist and composer Juliusz Zarębski falls into this category as he died in 1885 at the age of 31.

Zarębski was a child prodigy with his mother being his first piano teacher. When he was sixteen he went to Vienna to study. After a few years he then moved to St. Petersburg to continue his studies and ended up in Rome as a student (and friend) of Franz Liszt.  He began his career as a virtuoso performer in 1874 and performed in many major cities in Europe. In 1883 he retired from performing due to tuberculosis, and devoted the remaining two years of his life to teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and to composition.

Most of his compositions are for the piano, but in 1885 he composed the piano quintet, the musical masterpiece of his young life. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Although written in 1885 and dedicated to Liszt, the quintet was not published until 1931 in Poland. The first movement begins with the solo piano playing softly as the strings enter slowly. Although Zarębski was a piano virtuoso of the highest order, his writing for the instrument in the quintet is as a partnership between all five instruments  There are two main themes in the movement, with other secondary fragments of melody that Zarębski blends together into a flowing, passionate opening movement. The development section takes them to far afield keys distant from the home key of G minor. The recapitulation ends with a powerful coda.

II. Adagio - The second movement opens quietly with muted strings and quiet piano in an impressionistic tonal ambiguity. The first theme in B-flat major emerges in the low register of the first violin as the rest of the strings slowly join the piano accompaniment. This theme is expanded upon by the strings. The tonality shift to G major as the piano ushers in the second theme in the strings. This second theme is an offshoot of material in the first movement. The themes return in a development section of passion mixed with delicacy. The recapitulation of the main theme grows ever more passionate until the tonal vagueness of the introduction to the movement returns. The main theme is gently heard one more time, and the movement ends quietly.

III. Scherzo - The scherzo crackles with energy and continues Zarębski's wide modulations to far-off keys. The movement begins in C minor with rhythmic figures in the strings. The piano enters in octaves and adds to the rhythmic energy. The first of two trios shifts to G-flat major as the piano repeats a G-flat major figure throughout as the strings play a folk - like melody. The scherzo returns and leads to the second trio, which shifts to G major as the trio theme is repeated in the piano to string accompaniment. String harmonics add to the charm of the trio. As the trio seems to be winding down, the theme undergoes a short fugal treatment. The music becomes expressive in a section just before the return of the trio theme and the scherzo.

IV. Finale - Zarębski introduces the final movement with a repeat of the scherzo theme in the piano, which is a surprise to the ear. Zarębski was a late Romantic musician that knew his Liszt and Franck well, for the quintet is a cyclical work with this introduction being the most obvious example of that. After a section of trying to find its way, the music settles into another folk-like melody. This theme grows more impressive until it yields to material from the first movement. Emotions and moods change throughout the rest of the movement as snippets of new and old material are blended together. The first theme of the first movement returns in the coda and Zarębski's treatment of it results in an exuberant ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Violin Sonata No. 1 In D Minor, Opus 75

In 1884 Saint-Saëns went on a concert tour with the violinist Martin Marsick, and perhaps that was the inspiration for the composition of his first violin sonata.  Saint-Saëns had written sonatas for the instrument in his youth, but this is the first one of his maturity.  The sonata was dedicated to Marsick.

The work is in 4 movements, but Saint-Saëns pairs them up in 2 sections as he was later to do with the movements of his 3rd Symphony so that there is only one pause between the second and third movements.

I. Allegro agitato - The first movement is in sonata form, with the first theme being a restless of shifting meters between 6/8 and 9/8 time:
The second theme is more lyrical for contrast. The development puts the first theme through some added tension before the piano and violin have a dialogue in counterpoint. The second theme is also expanded upon by key changes but basically retains its form. The recapitulation adds even more restlessness and tension to the first theme.  The second theme returns with a light, effervescent accompaniment. The second movement begins without pause.

II. Adagio -  The second movement is a tender conversation between the two instruments. The violin has the melody in the beginning, but the roles are reversed a little later in the movement. Towards the end of the movement, the music becomes more decorated. The movement is all style and grace the moves with a sweet gentleness until it ends in the key it began in, E-flat major.

III. Allegro moderato -  This movement is a gentle scherzo in G minor. There is a feeling of the music being a little off balance due to the many subtle 5-bar phrases Saint-Saëns uses. In its own way, this movement is as gentle as the preceding adagio, and is a good contrast for the finale, which begins without pause.

IV. Allegro molto - Saint-Saëns had run-throughs of the sonata with two different violinists. The first had much trouble with the final movement, as did Marsick himself. But Marsick handled the difficulties as he and Saint-Saëns gave the premiere of the work after its publication. The metronome marking for the movement is quarter note = 168 beats per minute, with a flurry of sixteenth notes that makes the tempo even more difficult. Below are the first three lines of the violin part that in performance are over in a matter of a few seconds:
Saint-Saëns himself remarked to his publisher that it would be called “the hippogriffsonata”, because only a mythical creature would be able to master the final movement. Towards the end of the movement there is a brief return of the second theme of the first movement. It's not only the rapid sixteenth notes that are the difficulty of this movement. There are double and quadruple stops for the soloist as well as notes written in the extreme upper range of the violin. And the piano part is no easy task either. Saint-Saëns himself called this a 'concert sonata', and it became a popular work with violinists and pianists. The movement ends with a flourish in the key of D major.

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