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PROGRAM NOTES: István Várdai, cello & Julien Quentin, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, Opus 99 (1886)
Allegro vivace
Adagio affettuoso
Allegro passionato
Allegro molto

Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

Brahms was frequently inspired to write for a particular instrument by a particular virtuoso player. He wrote much of his violin music with Joseph Joachim in mind, and late in life he wrote a series of works for clarinet after being impressed with the playing of Richard Mühlfeld. It was his association with the Austrian cellist Robert Hausmann (1852-1909) that led to the composition of Brahms’ second and final cello sonata. Brahms heard Hausmann perform his Cello Sonata in E Minor in Vienna in March 1885 and was so taken with Hausmann’s playing that he wanted to write a new work specifically for him. But Brahms, then in the process of composing his Fourth Symphony, could not begin such a work immediately. It was not until the summer of 1886, which Brahms spent at Hofstetten on Lake Thun in Switzerland, that he could finally set to work on the sonata.

When he returned to Vienna in the fall, he brought the manuscript with him, and he and Hausmann gave the work several private hearings before it had its first public performance in Vienna on November 24, 1886. Brahms himself was a virtuoso pianist, but he had the unfortunate habit of grunting and snorting as he played. His friend Elizabeth von Herzogenberg referred gently to this when she wrote of her enthusiasm for the sonata: So far I have been most thrilled by the first movement. It is so masterly in its compression, so torrentlike in its progress, so terse in the development, while the extension of the first subject on its return comes as the greatest surprise. I don’t need to tell you how we enjoyed the soft, melodious Adagio, particularly the exquisite return to F sharp major, which sounds so beautiful. I should like to hear you play the essentially vigorous Scherzo. Indeed, I always hear you snorting and puffing away at it–for no one else will ever play it just to my mind. It must be agitated without being hurried, legato in spite of its unrest and impetus.

Those who claim that Brahms never wrote true chamber music have some of their most convincing evidence in this cello sonata, for this is music conceived on a grand scale–muscular, passionate, striving. The first movement is marked Allegro vivace, and from its first moments one senses music straining to break through the limits imposed by just two instruments. If the tremolandi beginning suggests the scope of symphonic music, the rising-and-falling shape of the cello’s opening theme recalls the rising-and-falling shape of the opening movement of the composer’s just-completed Fourth Symphony. The first movement is in sonata form, and the vigorous opening theme is heard in various guises throughout the movement. Its quiet and stately reappearance in the piano just before the coda is a masterstroke.

Brahms specifies that the Adagio be played affettuoso–“with affection”–yet for all its melting songfulness, this is a serious movement, full of surprises. Brahms moves to the distant key of F-sharp major for this movement and then to the equally unexpected F minor for the second subject. He uses pizzicato, a sound not typical of his string writing, for extended periods and sometimes has the piano mirror that sound with its accompaniment. And he builds his themes on something close to echo effects, with one instrument seeming to trail the other’s statement. It is imaginative writing–and often very beautiful. With the third movement, Allegro passionato, the music returns to the mood of the first, for it begins and ends with a great rush of energy. Between the scherzo sections comes a haunting trio featuring some of Brahms’ most sensitive writing for the cello. In the felicitous words of American composer Daniel Gregory Mason, “throughout this movement there are few of those places, unhappily frequent in most music for the cello, that sound so difficult that you wish, with Dr. Johnson, they were impossible.”

The Allegro molto is by far the shortest movement of the sonata, and after the driving power of the first and third movements, the finale seems almost lightweight, an afterthought to the sound and fury that have preceded it. Its main theme, possibly of folk origin, rocks along happily throughout and–in another of Brahms’ many successful small touches in this sonata–is played pizzicato just before the final cadence.

Song without Words in D Major, Opus 109 (1829/1845)

Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg
Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig

Between 1830 and 1845 Mendelssohn composed a number of short pieces for piano that he called Lieder ohne Worte: “Songs without Words.” That title makes clear that the impulse in this music is fundamentally lyric: a singing melody, usually in the right hand, is supported by a relatively straightforward accompaniment in the left, and many of these pieces are easy enough to suggest that Mendelssohn intended them for the growing number of amateur pianists in the first part of the nineteenth century. But many of them are frankly virtuosic, so difficult that they remain beyond the reach of all but the most talented amateur pianists. All these pieces, though, show Mendelssohn’s virtues–appealing melodies, a nice sense of form, rhythmic vitality, and polished writing for the piano–and they became vastly popular in the nineteenth century.

The Lieder ohne Worte have appeared in arrangements for many instruments, but the Song without Words in D Major, Opus 109 was conceived by Mendelssohn himself for cello and piano. He appears to have composed it in the fall of 1845, shortly after the première of his Violin Concerto, but he had not published it at the time of his death sixteen months later–it was published after his death and assigned the opus number 109 at that time. This brief piece is in the three-part form that Mendelssohn favored in his Lieder: the opening section is indeed song-like in its appealing lyricism, while the middle section is impetuous. Mendelssohn makes a particularly beautiful return to the opening material, and the music draws to a quiet close.

Albumblatt (1836)


Albumblatt means “album-leaf,” and in music it denotes a short work, usually of intimate character and often conceived as a composition so brief that it might be written on a single page of someone’s album (Beethoven’s Für Elise is sometimes considered an albumblatt). The form was popular during the nineteenth century (a time when some people actually had personal albums), but it has pretty much vanished over the last hundred years. Mendelssohn wrote several works he titled Albumblatt, and listeners will find this gentle music much in the manner of the Song without Words just performed on this program. Mendelssohn marks it Assai tranquillo (“very tranquil”), though the minor tonality gives this music a dark and wistful expressive range.

Rondo in G Minor, Opus 94 (1893)

Born September 8, 1841, Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague

The year 1891 brought momentous changes for Dvoŕák. He turned 50 that September and found himself much honored: he received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Cambridge that year, but more importantly he concluded negotiations with Jeannette Thurber to go to America and take on the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City the following year. Dvoŕák knew that his life was about to be transformed and that he would have to be gone from his homeland for years, and so–during the winter and spring of 1892–he embarked on a lengthy farewell tour of concerts through Bohemia and Moravia. The centerpiece of this tour was Dvoŕák’s recently-completed “Dumky” Trio: with violinist Ferdinand Lachner and cellist Hanus Wihan, he performed it more than forty times.

But Dvoŕák realized that he needed music to play with each of those two string players individually, and so he quickly composed some new music (and arranged some old) for them. One of the new pieces was the Rondo in G Minor for cello and piano, which Dvoŕák began on Christmas Day 1891 and finished the following day; the composer and Wihan gave the first performance (almost before the ink had dried) on January 6, 1892, while on tour in Kladno. Two years later, Dvoŕák arranged the piano part for orchestra, and the Rondo has actually become better-known today in its orchestral version.

Wihan appears to have been an extraordinary cellist. Dvoŕák wrote the “Dumky” Trio for him, and in 1895 would write his Cello Concerto–easily the greatest ever composed for that instrument–with Wihan’s skills particularly in mind. The Rondo in G Minor is a much more modest work, but pleasing in its own way. It moves from a fairly straightforward treatment of the rondo tune at the opening through some unexpected and imaginative extensions as the work proceeds.

Vocalise, Opus 34, No. 14 (1912)

Born April 1, 1873, Novgorod
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills

Rachmaninoff wrote so much bravura piano music and so many dramatic orchestral works that one tends to overlook his greatest strength as a composer–an incredible lyric gift best evident in his more than seventy songs and numerous choral works. Vocalise dates from the summer of 1912, which Rachmaninoff spent at Ivanovka, his family’s country estate. There he completed a cycle of fourteen songs, tailoring each to the talents of an individual Russian singer he knew. The last of the fourteen–dedicated to soprano Antonina Nezhdanova, a member of the Moscow Grand Opera–was wordless: the soprano was simply to sing the melodic line over piano accompaniment. The song proved popular, and a few years later–at the suggestion of conductor Serge Koussevitzky–Rachmaninoff arranged Vocalise for string orchestra. Vocalise has haunted performers as well as listeners: in addition to the original versions for voice and for orchestra, the current catalog lists transcriptions for cello, piano, and saxophone.

It is easy to understand this music’s appeal. Vocalise offers Rachmaninoff’s most bittersweet lyricism, suffused with a dark, elegiac quality–this music was, in fact, performed at the memorial service following Rachmaninoff’s own death.

Suite Italienne for Cello and Piano (arr. Piatigorsky) (1932)

Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971, New York City

In the years after World War I, Stravinsky found himself at an impasse as a composer, unwilling to return to the grand manner of the “Russian” ballets that had made him famous, but unsure how to proceed. Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, suggested a ballet based on themes by the Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736) and showed him some of Pergolesi’s music. Stravinsky was entranced. Over the next year he composed a ballet with song in eighteen parts, based on themes from Pergolesi’s operas and instrumental music (though subsequent research has shown that not all these themes were written by Pergolesi). Stravinsky kept Pergolesi’s melodic and bass lines, but supplied his own harmony and brought to this music his incredible rhythmic vitality. First produced in Paris on May 15, 1920, with sets by Picasso and choreography by Massine, Pulcinella was a great success.

Over the next few years Stravinsky made several arrangements for instrumental duos of excerpts from Pulcinella. First was a Suite for Violin and Piano based on themes from the ballet, which he made in 1925. Next came an arrangement of different excerpts for cello and piano, made in 1932 by the composer and Gregor Piatigorsky; this version was the first be called Suite Italienne. The following year, Stravinsky and violinist Samuel Dushkin made an arrangement of excerpts for violin and piano and called it Suite Italienne as well. (Somewhat later, Jascha Heifetz and Piatigorsky made an arrangement for violin and cello, which they also called Suite Italienne.)

The cello and piano version of Suite Italienne is in six movements. It opens with a jaunty Introduzione (the ballet’s Overture), followed by a lyric Serenata, based on an aria from Pergolesi’s opera Il Flaminio. The Aria is a transcription of the bass aria “Con questo parolina” from Pulcinella, while the blistering Tarantella rushes to a surprising and sudden ending. The concluding section is in two parts: a slow Minuetto full of complex double-stops leads without pause to the exciting Finale.

Humoresque, Opus 5 (1967)

Born March 27, 1927, Baku, Azerbaijan
Died April 27, 2007, Moscow

We remember Mstislav Rostropovich as one of the greatest of cellists, but he was also a gifted conductor and–like many virtuosos from years past–a composer. Though not a prolific composer, he did write for his own instrument, and his best-known work is the brief Humoresque, which has been recorded many times. A humoresque is a musical term without precise meaning–that title refers to a piece with a playful character rather than denoting a specific musical form.

Rostropovich’s Humoresque is a brilliant composition, a showpiece for virtuoso cellist. Only two minutes long, it is essentially a blistering perpetual motion that puts a cellist through a range of techniques: much of the Humoresque is set in the cello’s high positions (sometimes at the very top of the instrument’s range), and it requires rapid arpeggios, double-stops, glissandos, and quick leaps across the fingerboard. The Humoresque is an exhilarating piece for cellists (and for audiences), and after a cadenza-like flourish it concludes with a pair of resounding pizzicato strokes.