Vadim Gluzman, violin & leader
Julian Rhee, violin
The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur, LLP
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Septet, Op. 20 in E flat
Instrumentation: Scored for violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn
Duration: 40 minutes
The 18th century, and in particular, 18th century Vienna, was awash in serenades and divertimentos, light music intended, as the latter term suggests— as a “diversion”. Such music was featured as entertainment in all sorts of venues, from the ballroom of the nobility and upper classes to the out of doors of the common folk. By its very nature, the genre offered a foil to more serious symphonies, along with more freedom to the composer, who could incorporate whatever combinations of instruments and movement types struck his—or much less common—her fancy. Beethoven scored his E-flat Septet for seven instruments, a choice that reflected the essence of the classical symphony—a representation of strings, winds and brass—without the orchestral size or usual doublings. Within this setting he then placed particular emphasis on the violin and clarinet.
Beethoven’s Op. 20 was, like Mozart’s works of a similar nature (and whose models proved inspiration to Beethoven’s own) entertainment through and through. That it sprang from a rather idyllic period of the composer’s life no doubt helps to account for its popular atmosphere. Though in 1799, the year of its composition, Beethoven was still regarded as an up-and-coming composer (his First Symphony would follow a year later, and the first string quartets appear a year after that), he had established himself among the foremost of Europe’s piano virtuosi, numbered members of the nobility among his piano class, was purchasing fashionable clothes and learning to dance and had no inkling of the devastating deafness that would begin to surface only a year or so later.
Beethoven’s Septet is thus youthful in spirit yet delivered up by the hand of a master. And while its six movements may appear random, they actually reveal a logical architecture. At the work’s emotional core are the Adagio cantabile and the Theme and Variations, the latter which Beethoven marks Andante (a casual walking tempo). The Adagio amply illustrates that Beethoven—whose obsession would soon swing toward rhythm and the manipulation of small melodic motives—could spin out melodies with the best of them when so inspired, while the Theme and Variations showcases Beethoven’s seeming limitless powers of invention. He would return to this scheme time and time again throughout his life, in nearly every genre he composed.
Whereas a formal symphony would have embraced either a courtly minuet or a faster-paced scherzo, the serenade setting allowed Beethoven to include examples of both; the latter is ushered in with the French horn’s hunting call while the relaxed trio at its center brings the cello to center stage. The first and last movements confirm the composition’s overall key of E flat and themselves offer similar architectures, each opening with a slow introduction before moving on to more spirited tempos. Take note of the mock seriousness of the March that belies the finale’s playfulness (marked Presto). Towards the movement’s end, Beethoven cleverly switches into orchestral mode, or at least gives the impression of having composed a concerto, first providing the violin with a formal cadenza and then wrapping things up almost symphonically, brilliantly leaving us with the impression that we have been listening to an orchestra all along!
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998): Concerto Grosso No. 1
Scored for two solo violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and string orchestra
Duration: 30 minutes
Among the challenges faced by modern composers is how to create an engaging piece of music that doesn’t rely on memorable melodies, the generating factor of a great deal of music up until the last century or so. The start of the 20th century witnessed the musical bushwacking of figures like Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, composers who abandoned age-old techniques in search of new ways of doing things. That charge was subsequently taken up by many who followed, among them American John Cage and the Russian-born, Viennese-and-Moscow-trained Alfred Schnittke. While Schnittke’s years in the Austrian capital cemented his connection to his musical past, he nevertheless developed one of the modern world’s most sophisticated and eclectic musical minds, as amply illustrated by the work performed tonight, the Concerto Grosso No. 1 from 1976-77.
The idea for the composition was sparked by two violinists, Gidon Kremer and Tatiana Grindenko, but the music’s true spiritual inspiration springs from composers like John Cage, a musical maverick whose innovations included breaking free of the tyranny of the barline and questioning the whole concept of “what is music”. Of course, the harpsichord and the concerto grosso genre, an ensemble work that pitted two or more soloists against a larger ensemble, were both products of the Baroque, both of which soon fell out of fashion. In his Concerto Grosso No. 1 Schnittke incorporates both, along with a few noticeable Baroque musical gestures and movement types, though it is Schnittke’s eclectic language that is arguably most compelling to our modern sensibilities. These include the use of the prepared piano heard at the start (coins inserted into the piano’s upper register lend it its otherworldly timbre), sonic bursts of explosive dissonance and occasional aleatoric gestures (moments left to chance), suggestive of the innovations of John Cage and, more recently, Krzysztof Penderecki.
The thirty-minute score opens with a sombre and sparse Preludio, introducing us to Schnittke’s challenging yet always arresting musical language. This moves directly into the Toccata, a Baroque composition designed to display the performer’s dexterity. The throwback language of the start quickly gives way to rapid give and take among the ensemble and frolicking freneticism exuded by the solo violins. The Recitativo’s iciness provides a perfect foil to the activity that preceded it, characterized by the juxtaposition of Schnittke’s chordal writing for the entire ensemble and the bracing dialogue of the soloists. This unsustainable intensity then segues directly into a cadenza for the two violins, a call and response exchange that includes demanding arco and pizzicato—playing with and without the bow, respectively—and improvisational passagework. A flourish of harpsichord arpeggios ushers in the Rondo, whose opening rapid, four-note gesture serves as the movement’s recurring refrain. It will be set off by a host of other ideas, including no less than a seductive Tango! The Rondo’s explosive drive eventually gives way to shocking E major/C sharp minor chords played by the soloists, an example of what Schnittke deemed “polystylism”. This abrupt shift sets up the return of the mysterious “church bells” of the opening and the concluding Postludio, as the sustained strings dissolve into the ether.
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 was among the works that helped launch Schnittke’s reputation in the West and though plagued by poor health, the composer managed to write some of the most significant works of our time and for some of the era’s foremost performers (Gidon Kremer and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, to name but two). This included the composition of nine symphonies, by which time he was so ill that his manuscript was all but illegible. If the “nine symphonies” model—as established by Beethoven and followed up by Schubert, Dvorak and Mahler, among others—is any indication of greatness, then Schnittke certainly deserves his place in the composers’ pantheon. And while you may not go out whistling tunes from the Concerto Grosso as you might with Beethoven’s Septet, you nevertheless will have experienced one of the most powerful and captivating works of the last half century.
(C) Marc Moskovitz