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Linton celebrates the extraordinary string talents of the Queen City with CSO principals and CCM’s Ariel Quartet in this program featuring Mendelssohn’s remarkable Octet. This rare event promises to be a grand season finale.
We are grateful to Stefani Collins Matsuo who has graciously agreed to perform this program, stepping in for Timothy Lees.
György Kurtág (1926 – ) – Hommage à Mihály András, 12 Microludes
Despite the length of György Kurtág’s musical career, his output as a composer is relatively small – including only fifty numbered works to date. Of these, the bulk of his works are chamber music, and he has demonstrated himself to be a meticulous master of chamber forms. The Hommage à Mihály András was completed in 1978 and was the first string quartet Kurtág had written since 1959.
The work is organized as a set of twelve ‘microludes’ – many under one minute in duration, and none lasting more than a few minutes. This dense, concise organization is characteristic of Kurtág, and speaks to the influence Viennese modernist composers had on his compositional style. Despite the dedication to his contemporary Mihály András in the work’s title, Kurtág perhaps owes more to Anton Webern whose music heavily influenced Kurtág, and who produced some similarly pithy works throughout his career.
It can be difficult to describe the twelve microludes, and perhaps that is the point. In some ways the movements serve as in-depth explorations of musical ideas – specific ostinato patterns, chorales, etc. Yet it can just as easily be argued that the entire piece is about atmosphere – each microlude lending to an overall mood rather than any coherent musical narrative. In either case, this is dense and serious music. It rewards close listening and allows each listener to find their own musical anchors as they experience the work as a whole.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – Quintet for Strings in C Major, Op. 29, Storm
Although arguably the best-known composer of all time, Beethoven’s output for string quintet was relatively limited. Scored for a string quartet with an additional viola, the Quintet for Strings, Op. 29 is his only full-scale, original composition in the string quintet genre. His other quintets are all derived directly from earlier works – the Op. 4 is an extensively adapted reworking of his earlier Octet for Winds, and the Op. 104 is an arrangement of an earlier piano trio. Yet the relatively rarity of this quintet in Beethoven’s oeuvre is only part of why it is noteworthy. It is often pointed to as a bridge between the composer’s first and second stylistic periods with the first two movements representing Beethoven’s earlier, optimistic classicism, while the latter two movements take on a darker, sterner, and more serious mood.
In the opening Allegro, Beethoven’s musical ideas flow effortlessly through the mold of a classic sonata form. The energetic opening subject gives way to a sense of repose in the second, and neither ever seem threatened by anything in the development. The Adagio molto espressione presents a beautifully lyrical theme whose warmth is only enhanced by Beethoven’s masterful counterpoint.
The third movement Scherzo maintains the optimistic mood and upbeat demeanor of the first two, but it is also more robust and insistent throughout. Its main theme is presented across a single measure and repeated throughout the movement to a point of obsessive energy that foreshadows later scherzos that define Beethoven’s style. The finale seems the most ahead of its time, with Beethoven’s subtle counterpoint looking ahead to his later styles. The structure is unusual – consisting of three themes and a short coda at the end of the exposition. The following development section gives way to a fourth theme before the work closes with a brilliant coda. Without doubt this is music on a level of profundity rarely found in Beethoven’s scores up to that time.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) – Octet for Strings in E-flat Major
Let us first address the elephant in the room. Mendelssohn composed this octet when he was only sixteen years old. Here a precocious young prodigy proves himself not only a remarkably facile composer, but a true pioneer. His masterful combination of two string quartets embraces a genre untouched by many of his predecessors, and his ability to combine the voices of this instrumentation remains largely unmatched.
Not merely a doubled quartet, the piece is a true octet in which counterpoint, texturing, and harmonic complexity are every bit as sophisticated as in any symphony. In this sense the octet stands not only as one of the signature examples of Mendelssohn’s genius in his teenage years – the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream being another notable example – but it bridges the gap between his early focus on chamber composition and his later career as a symphonist.
The piece begins with a graceful Allegro that soars with the first violin then proceeds to a dreamy second movement Andante. The third movement scherzo tip-toes through a mysterious theme that is chamber-like in its transparent texture, but truly symphonic in its scope and size. Here, Mendelsohn fully employs the weight of all eight voices, giving the octet its most orchestral textures. The final movement opens with a bustling fugue that eventually explodes into a vigorous romp which drives unceasingly to the octet’s exuberant finale.