Praised as an “artist of warmth and insight,” Anna Polonsky performs with members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this vibrant program of works for winds, strings and piano.
Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)
Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, & Piano
Although largely self-taught, Poulenc established himself as a composer skilled at crafting colorful, lively, tuneful and energetic music. His reputation earned him a place among the group of French composers known as “Les Six” who set out to create a new music separate from the dominance of Germanic Romanticism, the intellectualism of Schoenberg, and the traditional French association with Impressionism. While comparatively conservative, Poulenc’s music stands out as Neo-Classicism at its best by infusing familiar 18th-century styles with playful novelty that is distinctly 20th-century. The result is music that is playful, beautiful, and undeniably fun.
The Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano was composed in Cannes in 1926 and dedicated to legendary composer Manuel de Falla. Formally, the piece is in the spirit of an 18th-century divertissement and Poulenc’s light and witty melodies combine and contrast the double reeds with the percussive quality of the piano. Throughout the trio, Poulenc nods to other composers as he playfully demonstrates his great fondness for chamber music and the master works that preceded him.
The opening Presto, patterned after a particular Haydn allegro, presents a compact caricature of contrasting sections that pits meticulous technical passages against seemingly tongue-in-cheek pratfalls. This gives way to an Andante movement that Poulenc himself described as “sweet and melancholic.” Here melodies suggest the grace of Mozart while the alluring shifts in tonality throughout firmly plant the second movement in the 20thcentury. The closing Rondo’s refrain begins as a near perfect quote of a well-known Beethoven melody before taking a sharp left turn into Poulenc’s own distinctive language. Light and lively throughout, the final movement draws the trio to an energetic close.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791
Quartet for Oboe & Strings in F Major
At this point in music history it seems almost redundant to reflect on Mozart’s biography, so it is perhaps best to instead focus briefly on the historical development of the oboe. The oboe of Mozart’s time was essentially the same as the modern instrument, but it lacked the elaborate mechanical keying apparatus of modern instruments and instead had mostly open finger-holes, much like a recorder. This late 18th-century oboe was an agile, expressive and fully chromatic instrument in competent hands, but even so, Mozart’s quartet demanded the skill of a true virtuoso. Equal parts hauntingly melodic and blisteringly technical, the piece is a substantial challenge even on the modern instrument.
While still employed by Salzburg’s Archibishop of Colloredo, Mozart took leave to travel to Munich and compose his opera Idomeneo. While there, he renewed his acquaintance with the Munich orchestra’s virtuoso oboist Friedrich Ramm and Mozart ultimately composed the quartet for Ramm in 1781. Seemingly half chamber work and half concerto, the quartet provided ample opportunity to showcase Ramm’s abilities on the instrument and endures as a testament to Mozart’s gift for writing idiomatically to highlight the capabilities of a given instrument.
The quartet comprises three movements in a traditional fast – slow – fast pattern after the manner of a sonata or concerto rather than the four-movement design of string quartet or symphony. Mozart’s opening Allegro begins with a jaunty theme for oboe that dominates the movement. The graceful development of this sonata-form movement leads to a quiet close. The central Adagio is brief but intense. The strings open with a grieving gesture before the oboe quietly enters high above them. Mozart gives the oboe long and sustained melodic lines in this movement and–near the close–even offers the oboist the opportunity for a brief cadenza. The quartet closes with a dancing rondo theme first heard in the oboe and quickly picked up by the violin. The movement draws to a conclusion as the bustling rondo gives way to steady eighth notes and the oboe rises to a concluding high F.
Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
Quartet for Piano & Strings in D Major
Dvořák composed his first piano quartet in 1875 at age 34 over the course of just eighteen days. At that time, Dvořák enjoyed a strong local reputation but was relatively unknown internationally, and was still a few years away from his Slavonic Dances which would make him famous. Dvořák was also first and foremost a string player, and his compositions for piano had been relatively limited. Yet here we have the work of an extremely gifted young composer. Within a few measures of the opening, one can recognize Dvořák’s distinctive musical personality – his gift for lyricism and color is on full display, and his melodies already suggest the folk-like modal simplicity that would define his later works.
The opening Allegro moderato presents a sonata form that unfolds gradually. Its main theme boasts a wealth of motifs and beautiful melodies. A somewhat unsubstantial development gives way to an equally rich second theme before the movement’s two main themes are combined grandioso in the coda. The central Andantino is a somber and melancholy theme and variations. Here the variations provide the ideal outlet for a young Dvořák’s imagination and skill to be put on full display as melodies are inverted, tonalities shift rapidly, and the full range of textures offered by the ensemble are explored.
If Dvořák’s youth shows at any point in the quartet, it is most noticeable in the finale. The movement opens with what initially seems to be a conventional rondo with a moderate triple meter and light, easygoing theme. Yet this quickly gives way to increasingly complex episodes that increase the dramatic tension throughout. Dvořák seems intent on over-emphasizing the scherzando in the movement’s title as these dramatic episodes are juxtaposed with quasi-humorous strong offbeat accents, rhythmic displacements and disintegrations seemingly aimed at giving the movement a rustic flair. All of this is then sprinkled throughout with deft use of rapid scale passages and Dvořák’s uncanny gift for ensemble color. The result is an effective enough finale, but one which certainly lacks polish, and fails to hint at the true master Dvořák would later become.