Archive for January, 2011

Shostakovich, Piano Trio No. 2 in e minor, Op. 67

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Piano Trio No. 2 in e minor, Op. 67, 1944

Despite his prodigious cycle of 15 string quartets, Shostakovich wrote sparingly for other chamber music ensembles: a cello sonata, violin sonata, piano quintet and two piano trios. His first piano trio was a single movement composition from 1923 written when Shostakovich was only 17. A student work, it is far out shadowed by the mature second piano trio, a substantial four-movement work offering the full range of Shostakovich’s artistry and emotional intensity particularly as expressed so intimately in his “private” chamber music. In a kind of tradition following Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, Shostakovich created an elegiac trio in memory of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a brilliant musicologist and critic who died suddenly of a heart attack while still a relatively young man. Written in the summer of 1944 in the midst of WWII, the trio, like many of Shostakovich’s works, seems to comment more broadly on the tenor of the times suggesting an elegy for the tragic victims of war in general. (more…)

Beethoven, Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (for string quartet)

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

Grosse Fuge (The Grand Fugue), Op. 133, 1825

At the largely unsuccessful premiere of the original String Quartet, Op. 130 during Beethoven’s lifetime, the audience, in typical fashion, demanded an encore of two middle movements. A disgruntled Beethoven supposedly exclaimed, “And why didn’t they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!” As mentioned earlier, Beethoven and his publisher agreed to remove the fugue substituting an alternate finale. The fugue was eventually published in 1827 as an entirely separate work bearing the opus number 133 and the title Grosse Fuge (Grand Fugue). The audience members at the premiere were apparently not the only “cattle” with regards to this monumental piece of music. Reactions from personages of high musical cultivation over time have yielded such responses as “repellent”, “incomprehensible, like Chinese”, “a confusion of Babel” and so forth. Quite a different reaction came from Igor Stravinsky who famously remarked about the Grosse Fuge, “[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Recall that Beethoven wrote this fugue in 1825. (more…)

Beethoven, String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, 1825, revised, 1826

Beethoven’s last string quartets were composed during the final years of his life between 1824 and 1826. The project began in 1822 with a commission from Russian Prince Nicholas Galitzin, an amateur cellist who requested “one, two or three” string quartets. Once Beethoven began work in earnest, he turned out not one, two or three, but five massive string quartets that ultimately become six separate works known simply and profoundly as “Beethoven’s Late Quartets” in accordance with division of his artistry into three phases, early, middle and late. For decades, these quartets were regarded by most as strange, difficult, anomalous, quite possibly the work of a once great composer now degenerated into a deafness and insanity. (Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann thought differently). It was not until the 20th century that the late quartets became widely regarded as profound and transcendent masterworks worthy of entering and if not becoming the apex of the traditional repertoire. (more…)

Schubert, String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, Op. 161, D. 887

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Franz Schubert, 1797-1828

String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, Op. 161, D. 887, 1826

Franz SchubertFranz Schubert wrote chamber music all his short but prodigious life, writing the first of twenty string quartets when he was only fifteen years old. Given his life of only thirty-one years, it may seem incredible to speak of a “late” period, but Schubert’s music went through a dramatic transformation around the time he turned twenty-four. In 1820, Schubert composed his famous Quartettsatz in C minor, a complete first movement for an otherwise uncompleted string quartet. Henceforth known as his String Quartet No. 12, the magnificent Quartettsatz (“string quartet movement or piece”) inaugurates a period of new maturity featuring several cardinal aspects of Schubert’s style that would dominate the remaining quartets in ever expanding power and scope. Chief among these traits is a dichotomous pairing of restless angst and lyrical sublimity. It is as if Schubert and his music became positively transfixed by the stark polarity between dark and light, an unresolved juxtaposition of agony and ecstasy. (more…)