may 1/2, 2022
Daniel Phillips, violin
Todd Phillips, violin
Steven Tenenbom, viola
Timothy Eddy, cello
Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet
Clarinet Quintet in A Major, Op. 146
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (with the Grosse Fugue Finale)
Clarinetist Alan Kay and the Orion String Quartet team up for the conclusion of this noteworthy season. The program features a remarkable trio of little works by Stravinsky, a nostalgic quintet by Reger, and Beethoven’s monumental string quartet, known for its sublime Cavatina and performed with the original finale.
*Please note, due to unforeseen circumstances, Anthony McGill’s appearances are being rescheduled to a future season. We are grateful to Alan Kay who has graciously agreed to perform these concerts.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) | Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet
With the outbreak of World War I, Stravinsky left Paris and settled full-time in Switzerland near Lausanne, where he remained until 1920. With the strictures on performance imposed by the War, the composer shifted his focus from the opulent ballets that had established his reputation to smaller works for chamber ensemble. The most successful of these, The Soldier’s Tale, was underwritten by industrialist and talented amateur clarinetist Werner Reinhart. Reinhart continued his relationship with Stravinsky by funding a series of chamber concerts over the following year, and the composer showed his appreciation by composing Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet and dedicating the score to his generous benefactor.
Stravinsky’s inspiration for the Three Pieces for Clarinet was “Characteristic Blues” by Sidney Bechet, the famous New Orleans clarinetist and soprano saxophonist who played with many of the leading early jazz artists and died in France in 1959. All three pieces are written in unconventional meter notations. The first, “Sempre p e molto tranquillo” (always piano and very peaceful), evokes just such a mood despite the fact that only once are there three consecutive measures in the same meter.
The second piece has no title or bar lines but the performer is instructed that the value of a sixteenth note is to remain equal throughout. The piece can be segmented into three sections. The first is a flurry of sextuplets and thirty-second notes that are extremely technically challenging. The second section is quieter and calmer, with the clarinetist playing fast eighth notes in the lower register. The third section is a recapitulation of the first, bringing back the same sextuplet patterns from earlier.
The third piece is inspired by the ragtime from The Soldier’s Tale Suite and is the only one to call for clarinet in B-flat instead of in A. The piece is characterized by rapid syncopation and frequently shifting time signatures, made more complicated by the accents placed on certain notes. The effect of this piece is a breathless combination of a fast dance with constantly shifting pulse and a ragtime-perpetual motion.
Max Reger (1873–1916) | Clarinet Quintet in A Major, Op. 146
Max Reger was a prolific composer who combined technical mastery with a command of harmonic and contrapuntal resources to build on the tradition of the great German composers of the 19th century and expand the bounds of tonality and harmonic exploration. While he is perhaps best known for his contributions to the organ repertoire, Reger wrote an extensive body of chamber music as well as songs, choral works and orchestral compositions. The Clarinet Quintet in A Major was Reger’s final composition—completed just 10 days before his sudden death of a heart attack. When compared to earlier quintets by Mozart and Brahms, Reger seems to make special effort to match the tone of the strings in the clarinet line in order to remain a truly integrated ensemble.
Reger’s Quintet begins quietly, with the marking Moderato ed amabile—moderately, with love. And time and again, in measure after measure, are further exhortations of espressivo and dolce, expressively and sweetly. The first theme is shared between the clarinet and first violin without either instrument taking the lead. Throughout the opening movement, Reger lays the groundwork for what is to come by establishing themes that will return throughout to link all four movements through shared thematic material.
In the second movement, Vivace, the theme resembles that of the first theme of the previous movement. The slow movement, Largo, with its plaintive sighs and dense scoring, is particularly impressive. For the finale, Reger, as did Mozart and Brahms before him, chooses a theme with variations. In this case, there are eight variations. For the most part serenity is maintained throughout this autumnal work.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) | String Quartet No. 13
in B-flat Major, Op. 130
The last three years of Beethoven’s life were predominantly occupied with composing what we now refer to as the late string quartets. For decades these works were regarded as difficult and anomalous—works of borderline madness rather than compositional genius. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the late quartets gained their reputation as some of Beethoven’s greatest masterpieces—expansive works that progress and transcend the genre. In this vein, when taken in context of earlier string quartets, Op. 130 can come off as an incomprehensible departure, but when considered solely on its own merits the work is beautiful, technical and deeply emotional.
Formally, Op. 130 is undeniably odd. Beethoven eschews the traditional four movements in favor of six. Yet the six movements vary wildly in scope—some are remarkably short while the Große Fugue finale is such a significant (and challenging) piece of music that Beethoven and his publishers came to a rare agreement to replace the movement with a simpler finale and mark the Große Fugue as its own work, Op. 133. The sheer scale of the final movement, and how it fits in the broader context of the quartet is a subject on which scholars continue to spill a great deal of ink.
Beethoven opens traditionally with a sonata form. Yet the opening movement’s extremes of unisons against dense polyphony make the music within this structure anything but traditional. The Presto rushes by in only a few minutes, serving as a scherzo that shifts from a breathless opening to a triplet off-beat stomping. The third movement opens with poignant chromatic sighs that give way to a charmingly lighter mood as the viola presents a carefree theme over a jaunty cello line. The fourth movement is a German-styled dance whose blistering speed and rapid, dramatic dynamic shifts lend it a disorienting tone. This effect is exaggerated as the composer divides the theme into single-measure segments that are then spread among the four musicians and presented in the wrong order—bars 1–8 of the opening theme return in the order 8, 7, 6, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4. By this point, the Cavatina comes as a welcome reprieve—a beautifully melodious air set against episodes of throbbing triplet rhythms in the lower instruments.
Then comes the fugue. The overall form of the Große Fugue has been described as a multi-movement work—on the scale of a full symphony—compressed into a single, uninterrupted fugue. The fugue can be viewed in five distinct parts. The first serves as an overture to provide a preview of what is to come through a series of musical snippets that each correspond to the ensuing sections (although oddly in reverse order). Part two introduces the eight-note subject and serves as the fugue proper with chaotically complex counterpoint. In part three, Beethoven transforms the fugue subject into a bright and lyrical repose that stands in stark relief against the blistering material that preceded it. The fugue returns for part four as Beethoven runs the subject through a battery of ingenious transformations. Finally, the fifth and final section presents the type of triumphant finale that is a signature of Beethoven’s earlier work. Here the fugue dissipates and the theme of section three returns to end the Große Fugue (and the entire quartet) on a welcome uplift.