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The riveting Jonathan Biss and Brentano String Quartet explore the late works of four different composers in an innovative program, pairing pieces for solo piano and string quartet.
"I don't remember a more inspirational performance…[Biss] is a huge talent." —The Baltimore Sun
"Exhilarating…this intensely physical quartet is defined by passion." —The New York Times
About the sponsor
THE HOWARD FAMILY CONCERT
A member of Shriver Hall Concert Series's Board of Directors from 1987 to 2012, Dr. J. Woodford Howard, Jr. is the Thomas P. Stran Professor Emeritus of Political Science at The Johns Hopkins University. At SHCS, Dr. Howard, or "Woody," was for many years Chair of the Music Committee. In his capacity as Chair, Woody used his encyclopedic knowledge of chamber music to help select artists and repertoire. Mrs. Howard has also assumed an active role in volunteering for many SHCS projects. The Howard Family concert, established in 2001 by Woody and Jane, with their daughter and son-in-law, Elaine and Jeffrey Christ, is designated for performances by string quartets.
Jonathan Biss shares his talent, passion, and intellectual curiosity with music lovers in the concert hall and beyond. Over nearly two decades, he has forged relationships with the New York Philharmonic; the Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Philharmonia orchestras; the Boston, Chicago, and Swedish Radio symphony orchestras; and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Budapest Festival, and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras, among many others.
This season Biss continues his latest Beethoven project, Beethoven/5, for which the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has co-commissioned five composers to write new piano concertos, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s. The five-year plan began last season, with Biss premiering Timo Andres’s The Blind Banister, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, which Biss plays with the New York Philharmonic this spring. He recently premiered Sally Beamish’s concerto, and concertos by Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw, and Brett Dean follow in the next three years.
In 2016-17 Biss examines, both in performance and academically, the concept of a composer’s “late style,” and has assembled programs for solo piano and in collaboration with the Brentano Quartet and Mark Padmore, which he will play at Carnegie Hall, London’s Barbican Centre, and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, among other venues. He published a Kindle Single on the topic last month.
Biss has a noted recording career, receiving recognition from NPR Music and Diapason d’Or de l’année and Edison awards. In 2017 he releases the sixth disc of his cycle of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas.
Biss studied at Indiana University and the Curtis Institute of Music, where he joined the faculty in 2010. He led the first massive open online course (MOOC) offered by a conservatory, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, which has reached more than 150,000 people in 185 countries. His bestselling eBook, Beethoven’s Shadow, published in 2011, was the first Kindle Single written by a classical musician. His website is jonathanbiss.com.
Brentano String Quartet
Since its inception in 1992, the Brentano String Quartet has appeared throughout the world to popular and critical acclaim. “Passionate, uninhibited and spellbinding,” raves The Independent (London); The New York Times extols its “luxuriously warm sound [and] yearning lyricism.”
Since 2014, the Brentano Quartet has served as Artists-in Residence at Yale University. The Quartet also currently serves as the collaborative ensemble for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Formerly, they were Artists-in-Residence at Princeton University.
The Quartet has performed in the world’s most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall in New York; the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; the Konzerthaus in Vienna; Suntory Hall in Tokyo; and the Sydney Opera House. The Quartet had its first European tour in 1997, and was honored in the U.K. with the Royal Philharmonic Award for Most Outstanding Debut.
The Brentano Quartet is known for especially imaginative projects combining old and new music. Among the Quartet’s latest collaborations with contemporary composers is a new work by Steven Mackey, “One Red Rose,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Other recent commissions include a piano quintet by Vijay Iyer, a work by Eric Moe, and a new viola quintet by Felipe Lara. In 2012, the Quartet provided the central music for the acclaimed independent film A Late Quartet.
The Quartet has worked closely with other important composers of our time, among them Bruce Adolphe, Elliott Carter, György Kurtág, Chou Wen-chung, and Charles Wuorinen. The Quartet has also been privileged to collaborate with such artists as soprano Jessye Norman and pianists Jonathan Biss, Richard Goode, and Mitsuko Uchida. The Quartet is named for Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars consider to be Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” the intended recipient of his famous love confession. The Quartet’s website is brentanoquartet.com.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Art of the Fugue (Selections)View Notes
Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue) was Johann Sebastian Bach’s last masterpiece; his biographer Karl Geiringer calls it “one of the truly great creations of the human mind.” With its 14 fugues (one of them incomplete) and four canons it is both a textbook of all the contrapuntal possibilities to be derived from one potent theme in D minor and a profound musical experience for both performers and listeners. Besides systematically presenting the various fugal techniques, its individual numbers carry us through worlds of distinctive, highly varied moods and colors.
Already within his lifetime, Bach was renowned as the master of contrapuntal music and specifically the fugue form. Cognoscenti including King Friedrich of Saxony clamored to hear him improvise fugues at the keyboard. The Art of the Fugue—a title Bach probably didn’t give the work himself (he actually used the learned Latin term contrapunctus or counterpoint rather than fugue throughout)—was probably largely composed during the early 1740s. However, in the last years of his life, Bach returned to it frequently, revising it for publication and adding new fugues and canons to make it a comprehensive final statement. Despite the fact that he was losing his eyesight, he launched a formidable final fugue, which would utilize an astounding four subject themes together. His death from a stroke after an unsuccessful eye operation on July 28, 1750 left this fugue uncompleted.
His musician sons, led by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, undertook getting the manuscript in order and published it posthumously in May 1751. However, Bach’s death not only left the final quadruple fugue incomplete, but the exact order of the work’s individual components undetermined. Another question also remained unresolved: for which instrument or instruments did Bach intend this massive work? Many scholars believe it was designed for Bach’s own instruments of harpsichord or organ, but some sections cannot be played by a single keyboard player. String quartets like the Brentano have adopted the work most effectively, and this writer has even heard it played successfully by a saxophone quartet. Bach himself was always very flexible about having his music played by whatever suitable forces were available.
The word "fugue" is derived from the Latin verbs fugare and fugere, meaning “to chase” or “to flee.” And that’s exactly what our ears hear in this form in which the various imitative entrances of the subject theme seem to race after each other. For The Art of the Fugue, Bach created a fairly simple subject in D minor with a strong profile opening with a leap that makes it easily recognizable in all its appearances even if it is given upside down or “inverted.” Transitional episodes in the fugue form between the sections of imitative subject entrances give a sense of relaxation and contraction between the moments of maximum contrapuntal excitement.
The successive fugues follow a textbook-like progression of fugal techniques of increasing complexity. Bach created four “simple” fugues containing only one subject, three counter-fugues in which the subject is partnered with its inverted form, four fugues with multiple subjects (all derived from the core theme) used simultaneously, and two pairs of “mirror” fugues in which the second fugue is an exact reversed or mirror image of the first. Sometimes we also hear the fugue theme sped up (diminution) or slowed down (augmentation). The four canons do not follow the fugue form, but instead are contrapuntal pieces for two voices chasing each other in imitation, using many of the same devices.
John Stone tells us that many Baroque theorists—and perhaps Bach himself— saw the fugue as “an adequate human representation of the harmonia mundi (the ancient notion of musical spheres or a divine music created by the revolutions of the heavenly bodies).” Certainly, in its mathematical and expressive perfection, The Art of the Fugue is music that seems to touch realms beyond human existence.
György Kurtág (b. 1926)
Selections from Játékok, Vol. VII for PianoView Notes
György Kurtág's Játékok is a fascinating compilation of piano works, now running to eight volumes, that began as an educational project to provide music for children learning to play the piano and has continued to this day as an expression of this unique composer's aesthetic. It therefore bears a strong relationship to, without in any way sounding like, Bartók's famous piano miniatures Mikrokosmos.
Born in Lugoj, Romania in 1926, the now 90-year-old Kurtág is regarded with his friend and, in his own words, “spiritual mentor” György Ligeti as one of Hungary's leading creative voices. He trained at Budapest's renowned Liszt Academy and during 1957–58 studied in Paris with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. Although both these composers had an influence on him, it was Anton Webern's spare music—which he first really discovered in Paris—that most shaped his developing style. Kurtág did not become an orthodox serial composer, but he was most attracted to Webern's extreme concision and purity of expression. Economy of means became his obsession, and his scores were always written for very small forces—most often a soloist or a duo. As Péter Halász has written, Kurtág posed himself the question: “How is it possible to elevate a work to its highest level of expression using the simplest compositional devices?”
By the early 1970s, Kurtág—by then a three-time winner of Hungary's prestigious Erkel Prize—found himself in a creative drought. In 1973, this came to an end when an unusual project was presented to him: “A piano teacher by the name of Marianne Teöke asked me to write a few pieces for her collection of pedagogic pieces…Within a short space of time, I had written almost 200 pieces. Before this, I had written nothing for three years.”
Thus Játékok (Games) came into being. Over the years Kurtág has continued to add steadily to the collection, which now includes eight volumes of short pieces for solo piano, with several for duo-piano as well. Initially, the pieces were conceived to help novice pianists feel comfortable with the instrument and with the vocabulary of contemporary music. But they gradually become more musically sophisticated, so many professional artists like Jonathan Biss have added them to their repertoire.
Biss has chosen six pieces from Volume VII, published in 2003. These later volumes have become a kind of musical diary of Kurtág’s day-to-day musical obsessions, as well as containing tributes to many professional colleagues and personal friends. We’ll hear three homages to composers he has admired. Honoring the great Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, the delicate, ethereal “Un brin de bruyère” (A Twig of Heather) epitomizes Kurtág’s ability to draw profundity out of simplicity with its mostly single notes floating over sustained pedaling. The enigmatic “…and once again: Shadow-Play” juxtaposes jagged lightening-like flashes against dark chordal clouds. “Hommage à Farkas Ferenc 90” salutes his revered composition teacher at the Liszt Academy, Farkas Ferenc, on his 90th birthday. “Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass” is a slow, beautiful meditation on the very familiar Alberti bass pattern, which we usually hear played rapidly and continuously as a song-accompaniment figure. “All’ongherese,” an intense little piece in “Hungarian style,” salutes the 60th birthday of Austrian composer Gösta Neuwirth. In a belated musical birthday card to his friend Nuria, widely spaced notes coalesce into haunting melody.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94View Notes
Composed in the penultimate year of his life when he was slowly dying of heart disease, Benjamin Britten’s Third String Quartet was his last major work and one of his greatest instrumental pieces. A stroke had left Britten so incapacitated he could barely set down the notes. Nevertheless, he wanted to compose a final quartet for the Amadeus Quartet he loved, and in October and November of 1975, he wrote this profound and serious work: a summation of his own creative life and philosophy as well as a tribute to the music of others he admired. Chief among them was the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who had become a close friend and who had died just a few months before.
This quartet was written at Britten’s home in Aldeburgh, England and in his beloved Venice, the setting for his final opera Death in Venice, based on the famous novella by Thomas Mann. In its magnificent fifth and final movement, subtitled “La Serenissima” for that city, Britten quotes themes from this opera. He seems to have identified with Aschenbach, the novella’s central character, whom Mann had partially based on another composer, Gustav Mahler.
In the opening movement, “Duets,” we hear the lapping of the water of Venice’s canals (as pointed out by Britten scholar Peter Evans) in the gently undulating duet between the second violin and viola. The clash of dissonant seconds between their parts disturbingly colors the entire movement, even as the duet is passed to first violin and cello. Evans describes the middle section, in which tremolos and vigorous chords provide strong contrast, as more a “dramatic interlude” than a development. The ending is hauntingly beautiful.
In “Ostinato,” an angular and relentless four-beat pattern drives the scherzo. In its middle trio section, the ostinato fades into a delicate pizzicato, and the music becomes warmly lyrical and consonant.
Movement three, “Solo,” pays tribute to the first violinist of the Amadeus Quartet, Norbert Brainin, and his ability to sing in the instrument’s most challenging high register. Britten biographer Michael Kennedy suggests another tribute here as well: to the beautifully mournful adagios Shostakovich wrote. At midpoint, the first violin launches a virtuosic cadenza over fountains of arpeggios in the other instruments. Luminous harmonics color the serene close.
The second scherzo, the very brief “Burlesque,” salutes Shostakovich’s harshly sardonic scherzo style. Its trio section, a crazed waltz, gains added bite from the second violin’s clattering col legno (striking the strings with the wood of the bow) and eeriness from the viola’s glassy behind-the-bridge playing.
In the finale’s opening “Recitative,” the first movement’s clashing seconds return, then the music explores a series of quotations from Death in Venice: the cello singing the barcarolle theme of Aschenbach’s gondola journeys, the second violin the theme of his longing. Then begins the last of Britten’s great passacaglias: a form he used powerfully throughout his career. Here the cello’s passacaglia theme was inspired by the bells of a Venetian church. Above the repeating pattern, each of the instruments in turn sings a grave yet consoling melody in the key of E major, associated with Aschenbach. With this achingly beautiful music, Britten sums up a lifetime of music-making and closes with a question about the future.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111View Notes
Ludwig van Beethoven’s sequence of 32 piano sonatas came to a glorious conclusion early in 1822 with the Sonata in C minor, Op. 111. In the words of Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood, it “gives every sign of being a self-consciously final statement.” After creating it, Beethoven set aside composing for the instrument that had occupied so much of his attention for three decades and turned to writing the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets as well as completing the Missa solemnis.
Along with the previous two piano sonatas of Opp. 109 and 110, the C-minor sonata was commissioned by Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger. However, like many of Beethoven’s greatest and most challenging works—among them, the Missa solemnis, the Große Fuge, and the “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata—it was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron and pupil, the avid amateur musician Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Rather than the customary three or four movements, in the C-minor sonata, Beethoven opted for just two. But what all-encompassing movements they are! “Once again,” writes Barry Cooper, “Beethoven sets up a direct contrast—between stormy and gentle, fast and slow, C minor and C major; even, according to some, between Earth and Heaven.” After the sublime second-movement Arietta, nothing further needs to be said.
The first movement opens with an unsettling, slow introduction marked Maestoso. A downward melodic leap outlines a diminished-seventh interval, which is then reinforced by that most dramatic harmony of the era, the diminished seventh chord. All this is further intensified by the jagged rhythms. Though the dynamic softens to pianissimo, these rhythms and the dissonance persist disturbingly until this section closes, hovering over a rumbling in the bass.
A crescendo and an acceleration then release the main Allegro con brio ed appassionato section in sonata form. It opens with a fierce, Beethovenian three-note motive, played in harsh octaves, that will be the movement’s signature. This eventually spawns a full theme with a striving, assertive character; Lockwood tells us Beethoven had two conscious models for this theme noted in his sketchbooks: the fugue subject in the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem and another fugal subject in his teacher Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 20, No. 5. But still more, the motive generates torrents of rapid runs in both hands. A slower, more poetic passage takes the place of a second theme.
Those fugal origins of his principal theme inspired Beethoven to incorporate fugal passages in the dramatic but fairly brief development section. The closing coda calms the mood and brightens the key from C minor to C major, preparing the way for the second movement.
Arietta, the theme-and-variations second movement, seems to leave all the stress and struggle of earthly life behind and move into a transcendental, timeless space beyond human existence. The theme itself is of sublime simplicity and beauty; however, rhythmically it is most unusual, with a metrical marking of 9/16. In the four variations that follow, it will grow stranger still as Beethoven progressively subdivides the beat into smaller and smaller units leading to ecstatic textures that Maynard Solomon describes as “a shimmering sonic barrier that blurs any distinction between rapid movement and the depths of stasis.” The fourth variation floats between a grounded low register and a glittering, airborne high register.
Throughout this procession of accelerating rhythmic figures, the harmonic motion has remained essentially static in C major. Now, however, under a marvelously prolonged trill, Beethoven begins to explore other keys before returning to C major for a final radiant reprise of his Arietta theme over an accompaniment of fervent excitement. The trills, more disembodied than ever, return in the highest register as Beethoven brings his most visionary evocation of another world to a quiet, spellbound close.
NOTES BY JANET E. BEDELL, © 2016