Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Bortkiewicz - Sonata for Violin and Piano In G Minor Op 26

Sergei Bortkiewicz was born in the town of Karkhov, Ukraine in 1877, and died in Vienna, his adopted home, in 1952. His music is an amalgamation of the compositional styles of Russian and German composers. He was no advocate of the tremendous changes going on in music of the first half of the 20th century, as he continued to compose in the musical traditions he grew up with. His music has been disparagingly compared to Rachmaninoff's as something akin, but inferior. But  Bortkiewicz was no imitator. He developed his own style which showed his imagination as well as a strong lyrical side to his music that sometimes also looked back with nostalgia on a musical world whose style was no longer on the cutting edge of modernity. 

He faced many depravations in his life, and combined with a meticulous method of composing resulted in but 74 opus numbers, with the vast majority of his compositions being for piano solo. He did write 3 piano concertos, a concerto for violin, and one for cello, two symphonies and a symphonic poem, lieder, and a handful of chamber works. 

He wrote 3 works for violin and piano, with the Sonata In G Minor being his only violin sonata. He composed it in Vienna, and premiered it at the Hague with himself on the piano and his countryman Frank Smit on the violin in 1923.  

I. Sostenuto - Allegro dramatico - The sonata begins with wistful music played by the solo piano.  

The violin enters gently, and continues in the same mood with the piano in an extended introduction, until the violin changes to allegro dramatico with a theme that emerges from the introduction. 
The music proceeds in dramatic fashion until it reaches another theme that is marked Un poco meno mosso, which means a little less movement, a slight slowing of the tempo. After this theme, the music becomes more powerful with another section that brings the exposition to an end. The violin tremolos segue to the first theme being developed as the tremolos move to the piano. The third section of the exposition contributes to the music leading back to the first theme and the recapitulation. The coda slowly begins after a climax by the piano, and the music winds down as the piano plays softly as the violin holds a low G, the lowest note of the violin.  

II. Andante - The second movement is in C minor and begins with a short, slow introduction by the piano. When the violin enters, it is accompanied by arpeggiated chords in the piano.

Then there is a section where the right hand in the piano plays a theme while the left hand and violin accompany. The violin and piano trade off playing a lyric theme. The violin builds the tension by playing octaves until a section marked agitato is played. The music slowly becomes quiet, and a solo for the violin appears. this leads to the first theme reappearing in a section that leads to a tempo designation of andante lacrimoso, which means tearful. The music slowly makes sits way to the end of the movement. And as in the ending of the 1st movement, the violin utters the low G while the piano ends the movement. 

III. Allegro vivace e con brio - The final movement is in G major. The piano plays the opening as the violin has a pizzicato accompaniment. 

The movement alternates from 5/4 to 4/4 for a few bars. There are other changes in meter as the music takes on the characteristics of folk music. The drama is pretty much gone as the music dances its way to the ending in G major.
Sergei Bortkiewicz

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 8 In C Minor Opus 110

The String Quartet No. 8, Opus 110 was the only major work that Shostakovich composed outside of Russia.  He was in the East German town of Görlitz. It was shortly after he was forced to join the Communist Party in 1960, and he was there to ostensibly work on music for a film to be made jointly by East German film makers about the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Shostakovich was not inspired to write any film music, but he did write this quartet in three days. Shostakovich wrote a letter to a friend about the quartet:

"While there I was provided with ideal working conditions...The good working conditions were fruitful; while there I composed my Eighth Quartet. There was really no point in racking my brains trying to write film music. At the time I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I wrote this quartet which is ideologically suspect and of no use to anyone. I figured that no one would think of composing a work honoring me after I'm dead, so I'd better do it myself. The title page might read "Dedicated to  the composer himself'". 

The quartet is written in 5 movements without pause: 

I. Largo -  Shostakovich went on in the letter to describe the opening theme of the movement:
"The quartet's main theme is taken from my initials - D, S [E-flat in German notation], C, H [B-flat in German notation].
The movement begins with the solo cello, and in turn all the instruments play the theme, giving it a canonic treatment. The instruments continue to play slowly, and in the next few bars all twelve tones in the chromatic scale are played. The harmonic ambiguity is brought to a stop when the home key of C minor finally arrives, and a quote from his first symphony is played. This entire quartet is full of quotations of his own music, something Shostakovich did often in his later works. The movement suddenly shifts to the next:

II. Allegro molto - The start of this movement is in G-sharp minor, a key that sounds odd in relation to the first movement's delvings in C minor. G major, the dominant of C minor would be the classical progression, but Shostakovich opts for an increase in tension and insecurity. 
The 4-note theme makes its appearance in altered form as the music skids, skitters, and screeches, sometimes quite violently. The movement comes to seamless screeching halt as the music shifts tempo and key, and leads to:

III. Allegretto - This movement is in G minor and repurposes the initial 4-note theme into a grotesque dance. Tension is somewhat relieved, but it's still not music of calmness. The music winds down with a violin solo that leads to:

IV. Largo - One instrument plays a drone as the others play 3 sharply articulated notes in rapid succession. The music then enters into the key of C-sharp minor, with the drone and three notes repeated. The music settles into an uneasy calmness as the volume level is brought down, and the momentum slows to a drag. The feeling is of resigned calmness, a marked contrast to the previous three movements. The drone and 3 note motif reappears, and leads seamlessly to the final movement:

V. Largo - Shostakovich has peppered this quartet with many self-quotations, but there are none in this movement save for the 4-note theme that is now given a contrapuntal treatment as the music remains slow, mournful, and quietly ends in C minor. 

Surprisingly, this quartet is one of Shostakovich's most popular. It has been said that all 5 movements are in different shades of darkness and ambiguity. It was a very emotional work for the composer, as he went on in the letter quoted earlier:
The pseudo-tragedy of this quartet is such that, while I was composing it, the tears just kept streaming down like urine after a half-dozen beers. When I got back home, I tried playing it once or twice on the piano,  and each time I started weeping all over again. But this time, not so much from my pseudo-tragedy, but in amazement of its splendid formal structure. Of course, the self satisfaction implicit in that will no doubt soon be followed by my intoxication on feelings of self-criticism.