May 14 & 15, 2017

1617 Stravinsky’s Tale & Bartók’s Contrasts

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Artists

Anthony McGill, clarinet
Bella Hristova, violin
Michael McHale, piano
 

Program

Beethoven

Stravinsky

Poulenc

Bartók

Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23

The Soldier's Tale

Sonata for Clarinet & Piano

Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, & Piano


Clarinetist, Anthony McGill, violinist, Bella Hristova, and pianist, Michael McHale join forces in this diverse program. Don’t miss the grand finale as these stellar musicians will end the season with dramatic style and extraordinary artistry.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Demarre McGill and Timothy Lees are unable to perform these concerts, and the program has been revised from the original.


PROGRAM NOTES:

Beethoven – Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23

Beethoven’s violin sonatas were met with mixed reviews in his lifetime, and have failed to achieve the near legendary status of his string quartets and piano sonatas in the classical canon. Yet they are still Beethoven, and though less lauded, they display the mastery of craft that defined his most beloved works. Though not the virtuoso he became on the keyboard, Beethoven was an accomplished violinist, and displays a profound understanding of the instrument’s capabilities in his sonatas. One is left to wonder if he had not abandoned the form early in his career – all but his final sonata were composed before the Eroica –  if we would not too have a long list of violin sonatas considered true masterpieces of the form.

Composed in 1800, Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin & Piano in A Minor, Op. 23 displays the composer’s penchant for abandoning traditional forms. Not only is the opening Presto aggressively faster that one would expect, it immediately soars into nearly a minute of turbulent triplets before settling into the smoothly flowing theme. Further playing with sonata form, Beethoven introduces new material during the exposition rather than reshaping earlier themes, and plays with the expected harmonic structure by reintroducing his main theme in C Major rather than A Minor. The overall effect is a movement that presents a musical romp where violin and piano share the spotlight equally in a way that is distinctly Beethoven.

Beethoven dispenses with the traditional pair of middle movements, replacing them with a kind of hybrid Andante and Scherzo in A major. Both whimsical and melancholy, the movement presents a call and response between violin and piano that plays out through recurring fugal passages. Most unconventional of all is the finale, which combines three sharply contrasting themes in an episodic structure that is tightly knit yet full of unexpected twists and turns. A rising central theme returns throughout the finale, interspersed with material from the second movement.


Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale
 

As originally conceived, Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du soldat) is a theatrical work “to be read, played, and danced” by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments. Based on the Russian folk tale The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, Stravinsky and Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz told the parable of a soldier who trades his fiddle to the devil in return for magically unlimited economic gain.

The story goes something like this. The devil, in disguise, trades a magic book for a soldier’s fiddle. The soldier loses the riches he has acquired through his new magic, but by getting the devil drunk he manages to retrieve his fiddle. With the fiddle’s help the soldier cures a princess whose illness has defied the skills of all physicians. The soldier and the princess marry, and the soldier drives the devil away by playing until he falls into convulsions. In spite of having been warned not to do so, the soldier is convinced by his wife to visit his home village. The devil is waiting for him there, and the moment the soldier steps across the town line and into the devil’s domain he is carried off.

The economic realities of World War I made it nearly impossible to present the full-scale work throughout Europe. As a solution, Stravinsky and Ramuz conceived a reduced version in 1919 that could be toured through small Swiss villages. Designed to be performed in virtually any space, this version required only a handful of musicians and actors. The story was also simplified in this French-language version, returning to its rustic, Faustian roots by telling the story of a fiddling soldier who makes a bargain with the devil for his violin.

The trio version of the work for violin, clarinet, and piano was dedicated to Swiss financier Werner Reinhart who bankrolled the 1919 version of the work and helped Stravinsky present the new version throughout Switzerland. This iteration comprises five movement from the original suite, yet retains the characteristic wit and humor that defined the original work. The violin is guttural and raw, while the clarinet seems to have an erratic will of its own, often breaking in at “inappropriate” moments and interrupting the violin. The piano acts as a combination of the rhythm section and a piano in a “honky tonk” bar. The rhythms are always shifting and changing, and the music incorporates elements of jazz, Viennese waltz, and ragtime.


Poulenc – Sonata for Clarinet & Piano

A native Parisian, Poulenc was born in 1899 at the dawn of modernism and emerged as a young, brash composer in the artistically fantastic 1920’s. With five other French contemporaries as kindred bohemian spirits, Poulenc formed an artistic society if not a sort of “school” calling themselves the Nouveaux Jeunes but, from a journalist’s label, ultimately known as the Groupe des Six. Musically defined by a common aesthetic, Le Six reacted against the excesses of 19th century Romanticism and instead tended to draw inspiration from the popular songs from the French Music Hall and jazz.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was one of the last works Poulenc completed. Commissioned by Benny Goodman and completed in 1962, the work was meant to be premiered by Goodman with the composer on piano. After Poulenc died of a sudden heart attack on January 30, 1963, the work was published posthumously and premiered on April 10, 1963 with Leonard Bernstein accompanying Goodman.

The work’s structure differs somewhat from the fast-slow-fast pattern of a traditional sonata in that the first movement is itself split into three sections in the pattern fast-slow-fast. It bears the somewhat paradoxical subtitle “Allegro tristamente” and accordingly, the piece is always in motion, but proceeds with a sense of grieving. This opening movement encompasses both the cheeky clarinet introduction and the wide-ranging main theme, as well as the exquisite, nostalgia-tinged central section.

The second movement, “Romanza,” is both clearer in its melodic makeup and more cathartic, perhaps, in its emotional expression. The clarinet melody is simple and somber throughout, but is elaborately embroidered in a few places, as if losing composure. Two particularly poignant examples are the sixty-fourth note runs near the beginning, and the trembling half-step figure that appears at the beginning and end. The finale finds Poulenc at his most rambunctious – from percussive piano passages and impetuous clarinet commentary at the outset to the impertinent ending flourish – the mixture of serious and silly presented throughout well represents Poulenc’s oeuvre as a whole.


Bartók – Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, & Piano

Bartók’s name as a composer is inseparable from the folk melodies he employed throughout this career. It should come as no surprise, then, that each movement of this work is based on a different folk melody or dance as these helped define his musical style. Yet in 1938, when this work was composed, one musical element that was distinctly not Bartók was the chamber wind. Up to this point in his career, he had never composed chamber music that included a wind instrument. So, when faced with the challenge of blending the disparate tones of the clarinet, violin, and de regeur piano for the first time in his career, Bartók opted to capitalize on the instruments’ differences, and aptly named the result Contrasts.

Commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman and violinist Joseph Szigeti, Contrasts received its premier at Carnegie Hall in 1939. Knowing that he was composing for renowned virtuosos, Bartók exploited the full range of possibilities for both the clarinet and violin. The clarinetist is called on to perform on both the A and B-flat instrument. Yet while this type of doubling is not uncommon, Bartók also called for a very unusual doubling from the violinist – using one instrument tuned traditionally, and one tuned to G-sharp, D, A, and E-flat. This scordatura tuning to a pair of diminished fifths produces a truly diabolical effect when employed.

Contrasts’ first movement is a Verbunkos, which was literally a recruiting dance executed by a group from the hussar regiments to entice young Hungarian boys into military service. Its swaggering rhythms and insinuating melodies call for true virtuosic displays – multiple stops, tremolos, wide ranging arpeggios for the violin; rapid scales and arpeggios, shifts of register arid, at the end of the Verbunkos, a demanding cadenza, for the clarinet. The Sebes (the last movement) is a fast dance that the boys improvise before signing on. In the matter of contrasts throughout the work, they emanate as much from the rhapsodic, quixotic shifts of temperament as from the differing timbres of the instruments.

These two military dances are contrasted in the Lento middle movement (Pihenö rest). It conjures that mysterious kind of night atmosphere at which Bartók was an incomparable master. This is a world of dense black, of things stalking and of frightening movement. The scordatura opening of the final movement is no less darkly evocative than the slow movement, but ultimately dynamism and barbaric energy, insinuating syncopation and rhapsodic temperament, as well as a violin cadenza, endow the music with a blazing, in contrast to a frightening, intensity.

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Poulenc Clarinet Sonata, 3rd movement