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Musical powerhouses join forces on the Linton stage for this Sunday-only performance, featuring Schumann’s heroic masterpiece, as well as works displaying the brilliance of Haydn and power of Shostakovich.
*Linton is grateful to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for helping to make possible the appearance of Yefim Bronfman who performs with the CSO on November 30 & December 1, 2019.
Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Quartet for Strings in D Minor, No. 2, Op. 76, “Quinten”
Haydn composed the six quartets that comprise his Opus 76 in the summer of 1797 at age 65 upon returning from his second trip to London. For the aging Haydn, these works came at an important point of transition; he had already composed his last symphony and was gradually moving away from instrumental music entirely. What we hear in this quartet is the work of both a gifted and seasoned composer. It’s nickname, “Quinten,” derives from the rigid construction of the opening movement around the interval of a fifth, but the quartet as a whole presents a masterclass in tonality as Haydn repeatedly achieves his moments of tension throughout through stark opposition of major and minor tonalities.
The opening Allegro is based on a four-note motif constructed from two pairs of descending fifths. This motif saturates the entire movement; recurring over 100 times throughout and serving as the first theme, the counterpoint to the second theme, the initiation of the development, and the baseline of a miniature fugue. Overall, the movement’s tight-knit construction and dark minor tonality give it an unusually stern character which lightens as we transition into the major-key of Haydn’s second movement. Here we get a momentary punctuation of sunlight as both the tempo and texture lighten, and the first violin’s melody easily glides over the rest of the quartet.
Haydn demonstrates his rigorous craftsmanship once again in the third movement with a strict canon. The violins present a theme in octaves which is followed one measure later by the viola and cello. Nicknamed the “Witches’ Canon” the effect of this relentless theme is at times gruff and at others hypnotic. The transition to the trio provides some much-needed levity and sets the stage for Haydn to transition into a barnburner of a finale.
Swift, urgent, and nervous, the final movement demonstrated the grand Classical style perfected by Haydn and Mozart. The first violin enjoys virtuosic prominence as the music travels through exuberant passages. As the final seems to be driving to a minor key close, Haydn ones again plays within tonalities by gracefully shifting to the parallel major for glorious and uplifting finale.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Quartet for Strings in E-flat Major, No. 9, Op. 117
Shostakovich’s relationship with his home country and its government is both well-storied and fraught. He survived Stalin’s regime by virtue of is propaganda film scores, which Stalin himself favored. Yet after Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich seemingly became a loyal party man, officially joining the Communist Party in 1961 and seemingly shedding his youthful reputation as a dissident. Even so, he created a stir within the party once again with his Thirteenth Symphony “Babi Yar” which pulls from controversial texts by Yevtushenko. His E-flat quartet was composed shortly thereafter, and under the scrutiny of party censors. Under these conditions, Shostakovich composed with a new style. Gone were the celebrations of the revolution or patriotic events, and instead his chamber music shifted to the more personal, contemplative tone we hear here.
The quartet is cast in five continuous movements. Movement divisions come less as a matter of form and more from the relationships between harmonies and rhythms across the quartet. The tone throughout is somewhat melancholy, with moments of seeming contentment juxtaposed with more somber moods.
The first movement can be seen as typically Shostakovich. The main theme is calm and serene, yet equally cynical and ominous, punctuated by moments of jaunty and sarcastic passages. The ensuing Adagio has an almost religious air in its solemnity. The Allegretto is the most driving section of the quartet. Witty and rhythmic despite hints of darkness and cynicism, Shostakovich bases the movement on the gallop from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell overture – an excerpt he borrowed frequently throughout his career. The light-hearted third movement is followed by another Adagio, this one of a strange, brooding character, especially in the pizzicato passages in the middle section, where the music seems almost to come to a stop. The final Allegro, the longest movement by far, begins with a rush of energy and returns frequently to material from the preceding Adagio, as well as from other movements.
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Quintet for Piano & Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 44
Schumann’s piano quintet stands as a reminder that all traditions must start somewhere. Today, the piano quintet is a staple of chamber music, seemingly as obvious an ensemble as the piano trio. Yet in 1842, which Schumann composed his quintet, he was the first composer of note to do so. Given that this was truly a new horizon, it is all the more impressive that Schumann created a truly assured work for the ensemble and changed the landscape for chamber music by creating an instrumentation that would be masterfully employed by those composers who followed him.
The Allegro brillante begins dramatically, with a joyous motif that rings in the listener’s ear long after the texture and tone have moved on. The middle section is very dark, foreshadowing the second movement’s funeral march and eventually arriving at a minor-mode version of the first theme.
The second movement begins as a halting funeral march. Choppy phrases give way only briefly to legato piano lines. A carefully restrained cello and violin duet follows, over a blurry accompaniment played by the rest of the ensemble. As the march theme returns, uneasy tension builds until the violin and cello duet returns and the movement closes with a final funeral march.
The third movement Scherzo marks the return of both the tonality and vivacity of the opening movement. Schumann chooses to use two separate trios here, one a lyrical canon and the second a more robust theme. Incessant scales to maintain the movement’s energy, with fiery arpeggios and short, choppy melodies before closing with the Scherzo’s scales once more.
The fourth movement Allegro ma non troppo begins with an accented theme in the piano. Schumann characteristically moves suddenly between different sections, allowing for striking juxtapositions. Schumann closes the quintet by combining the first movement’s main melody with that of the fourth. This stunning imitative section skillfully combines themes and brings the tones of the opening and closing movements together for a compromise that is truly satisfying to the ear.