Friday, October 26, 2018, 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, October 28, 2018, 2:00 p.m.
Piano Trio in C major
On May 16, 1795, the outstanding London pianist Therese Jansen, a star pupil of Muzio Clementi, married the art dealer Gaetano Bartolozzi. One of the witnesses was the bride’s friend Joseph Haydn. Haydn had already dedicated two piano sonatas to her, the sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:50, and the great one in E-flat major, Hob. XVI:52. This trio and two others, Hob. XV:28 and 29, were composed as a set for her, perhaps as a wedding present.
In these trios Haydn takes full advantage of the musical possibilities of the powerful London pianos of the period as played by a top-flight performer. Compared to most of Haydn’s other trios, the harmonic language is richer, the piano parts are more elaborate, and the cello and the left hand of the piano are more independent of each other.
The trio begins with a brilliant Allegro, worked out at length. The following Andante has a dramatic middle section and an extended conclusion with florid writing for the piano. The finale is a lively contradanse, but Haydn treats the dance tune just as seriously as he does the themes of the other movements.
Serenade in G major
The Bavarian Max Reger was one of the last major figures in the tradition that looked back directly to Bach. Like Bach, Reger was an organist, and much of his work is for organ or piano. He also composed large amounts of church and chamber music, but he avoided the two most grandiose musical genres of the era, the symphony and the opera. Characteristic of his music is its harmonic instability: he rarely stays in the same key for two phrases at a time, giving it a sense of constant motion into new vistas. His partisans consider him the true heir of Brahms, although others find his music wandering and unfocused. The works of Reger that have found the widest audience are generally the ones based on hymns or themes by other composers, which forced him to stay within a more limited harmonic frame.
This serenade was one of Reger’s last works, dating from 1915. The obvious precedent was Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, op. 25, for the same three instruments. The composer who may have been most in Reger’s mind when he was writing this piece, however, was Mozart, of whom he was particularly fond. Instructions such as “grazioso” and even “dolcissimo” appear frequently in the music, and the thematic ideas are rather Mozartean in character, although, in combination with Reger’s harmonic language, they are not quite Mozartean in effect. The first movement has the form of a Mozart opening movement, but the developmental passages are longer and more involved than Mozart would have made them. The slow movement is considerably more dense and learned than anything Mozart would have included in a serenade. The last movement, in jig time, comes closer to the spirit of the earlier composer, though like the first movement it is longer and more harmonically elaborate than the original would have been.
Miguel del Águila
Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, Miguel del Águila pursued advanced study in San Francisco and Vienna before settling in the Los Angeles area. His works, which are often flavored with elements of Latin American folk music, are heard in hundreds of performances annually and are available on dozens of recordings.
Originally the last movement of Águila’s String Quartet No.2 (1988), Presto II was transformed by the composer into a larger independent piece eight years later. The composer calls it “a humorous, ironic and sometimes mocking Latin dance. The introduction has 1920s jazz elements and the following Latin dance is based on a small rhythmic and melodic cell that is repeated constantly in odd irregular meters.”
String Quartet in G minor
Debussy wrote only a small amount of chamber music, but its quality is outstanding. His most important chamber compositions are three sonatas for different instruments from the end of his life and this string quartet, generally considered his first great instrumental work. It was first heard in Paris on December 29, 1893, almost exactly 125 years ago.
Already at the age of 31 Debussy had broken with conventional ideas of harmony, rhythm, and form, and was pulling elements from diverse sources into a new synthesis. Along with the mid-nineteenth century style of his teachers at the Paris Conservatory, he drew on newer music, including that of Wagner; on the music of Mussorgsky with its roots in Russian folk and church music; on the Asian music he had encountered at the Paris World Exposition of 1889; and on medieval and Renaissance music composed before the major-minor system had evolved. Debussy’s harmony shows little concern for the proper resolution of dissonances and avoids the standard chord progressions that serve to define keys in favor of less direct means. His rhythmic patterns, influenced by Asian music,are likewise unconventional: part of the second movement is in 15/8 time. While the forms of the individual movements of this quartet bear some resemblance to the usual ones, their proportions are odd and the sense of progression from one section to the next is weak. Many aspects of this style are commonplace to us, but to a Parisian audience that was still getting used to the music of Fauré it was largely incomprehensible.
This quartet has a traditional four-movement shape, unified by an opening theme that recurs in many transformations, and it even has an opus number (a practice Debussy abandoned thereafter). Beyond that its content is not at all conventional. The chordal opening is in Debussy’s version of the Phrygian mode, beautiful and solemn but little used since the sixteenth century because it does not fit well into the major-minor system. The melody line of the opening recurs many times in the first movement, and three chordal returns of the theme in different guises serve as main structural points. In between come passages that develop the melody and present secondary ideas. Following the last appearance of the theme, the most important secondary idea reappears to round off the movement.
The scherzo begins with plucked G major chords, but when the actual tune begins in the viola it proves to be the opening melody of the first movement speeded up, now half G major and half Phrygian. The tune works its way through the different instruments without settling on either mode. In a contrasting section the first violin takes the lead, but its melody is the same tune in longer notes. Instead of the return of the opening section that one expects in a scherzo, the movement concludes with a passage for plucked strings. Here the tune is decorated but still recognizable, with its rhythm altered to fit the 15/8 time signature.
The slow movement is one of Debussy’s most beautiful creations. The expressive opening section is played on muted strings and at a very low volume until almost the end; instead of being in the Phrygian mode, the music is major if somewhat bluesy. A middle section becomes more agitated. After it subsides, the opening music returns and dies away.
The finale begins with a long passage that shifts by stages from the pace and key of the slow movement to a quick tempo and G Phrygian. In the course of the quick section, hints of the opening theme of the quartet appear, and then the theme returns in several transformations that become less Phrygian and more major in character. The last of them leads into a clear, formal cadence in G major to end the quartet. It may sound to the listener like coming into sunlight after a long, mysterious journey.