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PROGRAM NOTES: Han Bin Yoon, cello

by Eric Bromberger

Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris

Near the end of his life Debussy planned a cycle of six sonatas for various combinations of instruments. He completed only the first three: for cello and piano (1915), flute, viola, and harp (1915), and violin and piano (1917). Projected–but never written–were sonatas for oboe, horn, and harpsichord; for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and piano; and a final sonata that would have included all the instruments from the five earlier sonatas.

This was not a happy period in the composer’s life. He was suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill him, and World War I was raging across Europe–Paris was actually being shelled on the day the composer died there. The three sonatas that Debussy completed have never achieved the popularity of his earlier works. Audiences have found them abstract in form, severe in expression, and Debussy himself deprecated them with the self-irony that marked his painful final years. Of the Violin Sonata he said: “This sonata will be interesting from a documentary viewpoint and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”

But this music has a power all its own, and listeners who put aside their preconceptions about what Debussy should sound like (and about what a sonata should be) will find the music moving and–in its austere way–painfully beautiful. One of the most impressive things about the Cello Sonata is its concentration: it lasts less than twelve minutes. Further intensifying this music’s severity is Debussy’s refusal to develop–or even to use–themes in a traditional sense: this is music not of fully-developed themes but of thematic fragments appearing in various forms and shapes. The opening movement, Prologue–Lent, is only 51 measures long, but Debussy alters the tempo every few measures: the score is saturated with tempo changes and performance instructions. The piano’s opening three-measure phrase recurs throughout, contrasting with the cello’s agitato passages in the center section. At the end, the cello winds gradually into its highest register and concludes hauntingly on the interval of a perfect fifth, played in harmonics.

The second and third movements are performed without pause. The second is marked Sérénade, but this is unlike any serenade one has heard before: there is nothing lyric about this song. The cello snaps out grumbling pizzicatos (Debussy considered calling this movement Pierrot Angry at the Moon), and when the cello is finally given a bowed passage, it is marked ironique. The finale–Animé–opens with abrupt pizzicatos. As in the first movement, there are frequent changes of tempo, a continuing refusal to announce or develop themes in traditional senses, sudden changes of mood (the performer is instructed to play the brief lyric section at the movement’s center con morbidezza, which means “gently”), explosive pizzicatos. Such a description makes the sonata sound fierce, abstract, even mocking. But beneath the surface austerity of this sonata lies music of haunting emotional power.

Fantasiestücke, Opus 73

ROBERT SCHUMANN
Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany

The Fantasiestücke (or Fantasy Pieces, a title denoting short and expressive pieces without specified form) were originally written for clarinet and piano; Schumann later made arrangements for cello and for violin. This music was composed with incredible speed, being completed in two days: February 11-12, 1849. This was the period of revolution throughout Germany and all of Europe, and Schumann was alternately fired with revolutionary passion and appalled by the breakdown in order–in May of 1849, he and his wife fled Dresden to escape the unrest. Perhaps some of the fervor of this period makes itself felt in the Fantasiestücke; perhaps not. In any case, one should be careful of taking the free-form aspect of fantasies too seriously here–as he often did in his chamber works, Schumann makes subtle links (in this case, rhythmic links) between the movements.

The first movement (“Tender and with expression”) features a soaring cello melody and comes to a quiet close. In the second (“Lively, happy”), the instruments take turns leading. In the outer sections, the piano leads and is joined in mid-phrase by the cello; in the center section the cello dominates. The final piece (“Quick and with fire”) opens with a violent outburst from the cello, which quickly turns lyric. The gentle middle section–haunting, dark, yearning–is Schumann at his finest.

Variations on a Theme of Rossini

BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ
Born December 8, 1890, Polička, Czech Republic
Died August 28, 1950, Liestal, Switzerland

Bohuslav Martinů fled Paris in the face of the Nazi invasion and made his way to the United States, arriving here on March 31, 1941. The composer, who spoke no English when he arrived, faced the daunting task of establishing himself in this strange new environment, but he settled into a home on Long Island and soon began to compose the magnificent sequence of symphonies that would help make his reputation in the United States. The Variations on a Theme of Rossini was one of the first works Martinů wrote in the United States. He composed it in October 1942 for Gregor Piatigorsky–it was the first in a series of works for cello and piano that Martinů planned to write for the great Russian cellist. Unfortunately, this was the only one of the projected series that Martinů completed, but Piatigorsky was very pleased with it: he gave the première on May 1, 1943, and continued to perform it thereafter. In gratitude, Martinů dedicated the Variations to Piatigorsky.

The tune used in these variations has a complex history. The original theme comes from “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Rossini’s opera Moses in Egypt, first performed in 1818 (though in fact “Dal tuo stellato soglio”–the prayer of the Israelites to part the Red Sea–was added to the opera by Rossini for its revival the following year). Niccolo Paganini used that theme almost immediately as the basis for his Variations on One String, and for his starting point Martinů appears to have used Paganini’s version of that theme rather than Rossini’s original. In any case, the brief Variations on a Theme of Rossini is a true virtuoso work. It opens with a great flourish before cello and piano announce Rossini’s theme, a sharply-inflected little tune in D major, and four variations follow. Most of these are fast and extroverted, which makes the lovely third–a wistful, syncopated, minor-key Andante–all the more effective. The final variation leads to a very fast coda and a grand restatement of the theme.

Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” for Pianoforte and Cello, WoO46

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Mozart’s The Magic Flute had been premiered only fourteen months before Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792, and–like so many others–the young composer soon fell under its spell: it remained his favorite Mozart opera throughout his life, and in fact he much preferred it to The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. So great was this affection that Beethoven twice turned to The Magic Flute for themes on which to write variations. In 1796 he wrote Twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” for cello and piano, and in 1801–at the same time he was writing the “Moonlight” Sonata–Beethoven came back to the opera and composed a set of variations for cello and piano on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen.”

In the opera, “Bei Männern” comes near the end of Act I when Pamina and Papageno sing a love-duet: its first lines are “A man who feels the pangs of loving, He will not lack a gentle heart.” The duet is built on a graceful and flowing melody in 6/8; Beethoven preserves its original key of E-flat major but changes Mozart’s marking Andantino to Andante. In a nice touch, Beethoven has the piano take Pamino’s initial statement, and the cello enters with Papageno’s answer; both statements are already slightly varied from Mozart’s original version in the opera. There follow seven brief variations. The emphasis here is on melodiousness and grace rather than virtuosity, and Beethoven’s variations sparkle with some of the glowing spirit and fun of Mozart’s opera.

Sonata in A Major for Cello and Piano

CÉSAR FRANCK
Born December 10, 1822, Liege
Died November 8, 1890, Paris

This cello sonata is an arrangement, made shortly after Franck’s death, of his Violin Sonata in A Major, originally composed in 1886. This sonata is one of the finest examples of Franck’s use of cyclic form, a technique he had adapted from his friend Franz Liszt, in which themes from one movement are transformed and used over subsequent movements. The Sonata in A Major is a particularly ingenious instance of this technique: virtually the entire work is derived from the quiet and unassuming opening of the first movement, which then evolves endlessly across the sonata. Even when a new theme seems to arrive, it will gradually be revealed as a subtle variant of one already heard.

The piano’s quiet fragmented chords at the beginning of the Allegretto ben moderato suggest a theme-shape that the cello takes over as it enters: this will be the thematic cell of the entire sonata. The piano has a more animated second subject (it takes on the shape of the germinal theme as its proceeds), but the gently-rocking cello figure from the opening dominates this movement, and Franck reminds the performers constantly to play molto dolce, sempre dolce, dolcissimo.

The mood changes completely at the fiery second movement, marked passionato, and some critics have gone so far as to claim that this Allegro is the true first movement and that the opening Allegretto should be regarded as an introduction to this movement. In any case, this movement contrasts its blazing opening with more lyric episodes, and listeners will detect the original theme-shape flowing through some of these.

The Recitativo–Fantasia is the most original movement in the sonata. The piano’s quiet introduction seems at first a re-visiting of the germinal theme, though it is–ingeniously–a variant of the passionato opening of the second movement. The cello makes its entrance with an improvisation-like passage (this is the fantasia of the title), and the entire movement is quite free in both structure and expression: moments of whimsy alternate with passionate outbursts.

After the expressive freedom of the third movement, the finale restores order with pristine clarity: it is a canon in octaves, with one voice following the other at the interval of a measure. The stately canon theme, marked dolce cantabile, is a direct descendant of the sonata’s opening theme, and as this movement proceeds it recalls thematic material from earlier movements. Gradually, the music takes on unexpected power and drives to a massive coda and a thunderous close.

meridia