Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms – there is simply no better way to open the season. Artistic Directors, Sharon Robinson and Jaime Laredo perform with New York Philharmonic Principal, Cynthia Phelps, Linton favorite, Bella Hristova, and the legendary Peter Serkin.
The music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms has become required reading for all classical music lovers. This seems only natural when considering the sheer volume of masterpieces the three composers produced. Yet each followed unique career paths, and made compositional choices throughout his career that helped change the face of music, and cement his legacy as one of the most influential masters in history.
Today’s program features characteristic examples of these decisions for each composer. Each work being performed either demonstrates a deviation from the norms of its day or a unique compositional decision that has helped cement it in the classical canon.
J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Violin Sonata in A major, BWV 1015
Bach composed his set of six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019) during his final years in Cöthen, between 1720 and 1723, before moving to Leipzig. Musically, the sonatas reflect the work of the composer at the height of his art, yet this set deviated from traditions of the time in a way that is not readily apparent when listening. The common practice for Baroque sonatas was to compose a solo instrumental part along with an accompanying figured bass for keyboard. This often resulted in a fully-realized solo line with the improvised realization of the figured bass serving as a secondary accompaniment. In this set of sonatas, however, Bach chose to fully compose both the violin and harpsichord parts, resulting in a much more equal weighting between the parts and allowing each instrument to present distinct and complementary melodic lines. This compositional choice echoed the future of the sonata form, and resulted in a balanced partnership between the instruments much more akin to what we hear today.
BWV 1015 is similar to the rest of the sonatas in the set in many ways, and in fact carries a virtually identical structure and movement layout to the sonata that precedes it. Yet the shape and content of this sonata are unique among the set and lend the work its own uniquely serious and noble character. Perhaps because of the three important lines, rather than one accompanied by two, in even the quietest moments there is a certain degree of richness provided by the complexities. Presenting the theme in three equally-weighted voices, presented as if in fugue, helps put Bach’s craftsmanship on full display.
The sonata opens with a liquid 6/8 melody which Bach treats as a subject for imitation in the opening bars. Within just a few measures, the movement has become a cascade of inviting sixteenth-note gestures in three voices. The Allegro assai second movement is a semi-fugal vessel in three sections (ABA’). Its subject is exuberantly arched and a subsidiary strain pits leggiero eighth-note arpeggios in the violin against brilliantly scalloped sixteenths in the harpsichord right-hand. The third movement is a strict two-voice canon, with bass accompaniment, from start to finish. But for all its academic contrivance, it is as rich and songful as one might ever hope. The Presto finale is twofold. An opening fugal subject gives way a new idea derived from a secondary theme at the start of the second half. Only at the very end does the original subject return, in flashy, stretto fashion.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Trio for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 3
By the beginning of the 19th century, the string trio as a genre had been largely supplanted by the string quartet. In that sense, Beethoven was relatively late to the party. He composed his Trio for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 3, his first foray into the genre, in 1794, and only published three trios during his career. Yet despite this limited output his final trio, Op. 9 is held up with Mozart’s Divertimento as a pinnacle of the genre. Op. 3, then, can be seen as an interesting insight into things to come. Beethoven remains largely a classicist in this piece, but still presents a richly syncopated opening theme, excursions into distant keys, and dramatic uses of silence throughout the trio that foreshadow both his later style, and the new direction he would take the string trio as a genre.
The first movement, an Allegro con brio in sonata form, is arguably the most interesting of the entire trio. A lengthy, adventurous transition modulates to the dominant for a sweeping secondary theme, at which point Beethoven thins the texture to a duet between the violin and cello. After one of the most extended development sections of Beethoven’s early works, the recapitulation resolves all of the secondary material to the tonic.
The Andante second movement is based on a tiny four-note motif which Beethoven expands to form the rhythmic and melodic basis for the entire movement. Each of the three instruments spends equal time presenting the central phrase as Beethoven’s orchestration weaves the four notes into a delicate interplay between each musician.
The first Minuet is brief, while the attendant Trio, in E-flat minor, is developmentally expansive. The central Adagio, in A-flat major, showcases the young composer at his most lyrically expansive as the cello and violin take turns performing accompanying material, creating imaginative interplay between the three instruments. More expansive than the first, the second Minuet contains an agitated Trio in C minor, both halves of which are built around the same motif.
The finale, a blazing Rondo in 2/4, contains slightly varied returns of the main theme alternating with episodes that explore distant harmonies and offer contrasting rhythms. The final movement’s highly contrapuntal structure bears witness to Beethoven’s thorough study of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier during his early career.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Quintet for Piano & Strings in F minor, Op. 34
Johannes Brahms was nothing if not thorough. Some of his most beloved works came about only through tireless rounds of planning, editing, re-writing and re-orchestration. It should be no surprise, then, that his Quintet for Piano & Strings in F minor, Op. 34 is both considered one of the composer’s finest chamber works, and is the third orchestration of the material that Brahms completed before final publication. The work began life in 1861 as a string quintet with two cellos. Brahms eventually destroyed this version and rescored it as a sonata for two pianos. With the feedback from several performances and the advice of his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, Brahms finally settled on the present version for piano quintet that he published in 1865.
The opening Allegro is an epic all on its own. It begins with a dramatic unison that presents the primary theme. The first eight measures lay the groundwork for the entire movement and provide the bulk of the thematic material which Brahms spins into a compelling narrative through his gift for thematic variation.
The Andante couldn’t be more different. Gentle, swaying, simple, and bright, it is a quiet intermezzo of the most romantic character. Absent are the rhythmic tumult and the contrapuntal imbroglio of the opening movement. Instead, there is the limpid grace of the piano with the restrained accompaniment of the strings.
Brahms changes direction again in the Scherzo. It opens with a brooding, suspenseful, even sinister character that rumbles into a forceful march with a syncopated undercurrent that wells up into a fugato. A lyrical trio only serves to emphasize the forceful character that dominates the rest of the movement.
Brahms begins the Finale with a formless shadow. It is an incredible dramatic device, particularly when presented in contrast with the Scherzo. The cello introduces a simple, animated theme based on a sequence of repeated three-note cells. The sectional rondo form juxtaposes a series of episodes that alternate between the main theme, a tender plea recalling the opening shadow and occasional moments of genuine repose that swiftly pass into smoldering tension. Brahms then resolves these contradictory forces in a final rushing coda that combines his materials using ingenious transformations to channel the force of the entire movement into a breathtaking, definitive conclusion.