January 24, 2016

Celebrating Brahms Fest

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Artists

Anna Polonsky, piano
Jonathan Gunn, clarinet
Elizabeth Freimuth, French horn
Timothy Lees, violin

Program

Beethoven
Sonata for Piano in F-sharp Major
Brahms
Sonata for Clarient & Piano in F Minor
Brahms
Trio for Piano, Violin & Horn in E-flat Major

Acclaimed as "... a chamber musician of exceptional refinement" by the New York Times, pianist Anna Polonsky performs with CSO principals Jonathan Gunn, Elizabeth Freimuth, and Timothy Lees in this program celebrating the CSO's Brahms Fest.

Program Notes

Today’s program presents a study in retirement and return to form for two undisputed masters. While the opening sonata by Beethoven represents his return to a form which he had seemingly mastered and left behind for other projects, the two works by Brahms appeared on opposite ends of breaks in his career - one from chamber music, and one a retirement from composition altogether. The Trio for Piano, Violin & Horn in E-flat Major - a product of one of the most difficult periods in the composer’s life - was the last chamber work Brahms composed for eight years. Conversely, the Sonata for Clarinet & Piano in F Minor was the work that drew Brahms out of retirement in 1894. Collectively, these works represent the power of inspiration to not only help composers work through grief at the height of their talent, but to bring artists back to forms, styles, and crafts in which they believed they had nothing else to say.

Beethoven, Sonata for Piano No. 24 in F-sharp Major (1810)

The turn of the 19th Century marked the composition of two of Beethoven’s most impressive piano sonatas. Yet after composing both the Waldstein and Appassionata from 1804-1805, the composer seemingly lost interest in the form, and took a hiatus from the piano sonata that lasted the remainder of the decade. In 1809 he wrote to his publisher, “I don’t like to concern myself with solo piano sonatas, but I do promise you some.” In February 1810, he fulfilled that promise with three separate works, including today’s work, Sonata for Piano No. 24 in F-sharp Major.

Yet despite the composer’s seemingly flippant attitude towards the work, this sonata is unmistakably the product of a skilled master. This short, intimate work is comprised of only two movements, but is filled with thematic and textural contrasts, and remains technically demanding enough to challenge skilled performers. Dedicated to Countess Therese Brunsvik, the entire work features a light texture that stands in stark contrast to the Appassionata that preceded it. Some have described the work’s main theme as a musical description of Therese. Others have called the piece as a whole a musical love letter to the countess. Whether either of these is true remains a mystery, but this intimate, light, and technically brilliant work remains, by any interpretation, distinctly Beethoven.

Brahms, Sonata for Clarinet & Piano in F Minor (1894)

After walking away from composition, it was the clarinet that inspired Brahms to come out of retirement. In January 1891 he made a trip to Meiningen for an arts festival and was captivated by performances of the Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 1 and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. The results of this encounter were his Clarinet Sonatas nos. 1 & 2, the last chamber pieces he wrote before his death, which are considered two of the great masterpieces of the clarinet repertoire.

The first sonata in F minor is a carefully planned four-movement structure. A dark and atmospheric first movement is balanced by an exuberant and extroverted major-key finale. The first movement is a concise, but thematically rich sonata form, with no less than four distinct ideas in the exposition and an intense, dramatic development section. The “sostenuto” coda is a glorious inspiration. The song-like slow movement and the rustic Austrian Ländler that serves as an intermezzo (it is not really a scherzo) are both in the relative major key of A-flat. Having used the four-flat signature for these three movements, Brahms feels freed to turn to the home major key for his rondo finale, something he had never done in a minor-key chamber work.

Brahms, Trio for Piano, Violin & Horn in E-flat Major (1865)

Composed in 1865, the Trio for Piano, Violin & Horn in E-flat Major was the last chamber work Brahms composed for the next eight years. The work commemorates the death of the composer’s mother Christiane, which had occurred earlier that year. Musically, the prospect of coping with this topic expresses itself in a range of emotional contrast that is one of the trio’s most striking features.

Brahms chose to compose the work for the natural horn despite the fact that the valve horn was becoming more common by that time. This decision allowed him to play on the sounds of horn calls traditionally associated with that instrument’s unique timbre to evoke imagery of nature calls and the hunt. Yet despite this somewhat old fashioned compositional choice, structurally and historically this work was truly cutting edge. The work’s structure itself became a point of controversy as the first movement is not in sonata form. Instrumentally, the combination of the horn, violin, and piano was an innovation at the time but has since inspired a number of works for the same ensemble, including Hommage à Brahms by György Ligeti, composed in 1982.

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Brahms Trio for Piano, Violin, and Horn