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PROGRAM NOTES: An Evening With Alisa Weilerstein

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Suite No. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1009
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 30, 1750, Leipzig
Approximate Duration: 21 minutes

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello date from about 1720, when the composer was kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cö then, about thirty miles north of Leipzig. Bach did not play the cello, and it may well be that he wrote these suites for Christian Ferdinand Abel, cellist in the Cöthen orchestra and one of the best cellists in Europe. Abel and Bach became good friends (Bach was the godfather of one of Abel’s sons), and almost certainly the two worked together as these suites were composed: Bach would have asked him what was possible and what was not, what worked and what didn’t, and so on. The result is music for cello that is very idiomatically written but also supremely difficult, and all by itself this music may tell us how high the standard of music-making was in the Cöthen court when Bach was there. Bach’s suites for solo cello remained for years the property of a handful of connoisseurs–they were not published until 1828, over a century after they were written.

Bach understood the term “suite” to mean a collection of dance movements in the basic sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. He added an introductory prelude to all six cello suites, and into each suite he interpolated one extra dance movement between the sarabande and gigue; all movements after the opening prelude are in binary form. These suites have presented performers with a knot of problems because none of Bach’s original manuscripts survives; the only surviving copies were made by Bach’s second wife and one of his students, and– lacking even such basic performance markings as bowings and dynamics–these texts present cellists with innumerable problems of interpretation. In a postscript to his edition of these suites, János Starker notes that one of the pleasures of going to heaven will be that he will finally be able to discuss with Bach himself exactly how the composer wants this music played.

Each of the suites has been admired for different reasons. The Suite No. 3 is notable for its broad, heroic character, which comes in part from Bach’s choice of key: C major allows him to make ample use of the cello’s C-string, and the resonance of this lowest string echoes throughout the suite. The preludes of all the suites have an intentionally “improvisatory” quality: though the music is carefully written out, Bach wishes to create the effect that the performer is creating it on the spot. The Prelude of the Third Suite is built on a virtually non-stop sequence of sixteenth-notes, though at the end a series of declamatory chords draws the music to its climax. The Allemande is an old dance of German origin; that name survives today in square dancing terminology (“Allemando left with the old left hand”); in this movement Bach enlivens the basic pulse with turns, doublestops, and thirty-second-notes. The Courante races past (that title means “running” in French), while the Sarabande is dignified and extremely slow. Many listeners will discover that they already know the first Bourrée, for this graceful dance has been arranged for many other instruments; Bach presents an extended variation of it in the second Bourrée. The concluding Gigue dances quickly on its 3/8 meter; Bach offers the cellist some brisk passagework as well as extended doublestopping in this good-spirited dance.

Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Opus 114
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 25 minutes

In March 1891 Brahms, then almost 58 years old and recently retired as a composer, journeyed to Meiningen in southern Germany. His purpose was pleasure: he wanted to hear the famous ducal orchestra there under its new conductor Fritz Steinbach. Steinbach is remembered even today as one of the most famous of Brahms’ interpreters, but on this trip the composer was much more impressed by another musician. The principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra was a young man named Richard Mühlfeld, and Brahms was captivated by the rich and mellow sound Mühlfeld could draw from his clarinet and by his musical sensitivity. The aging composer would sit for hours listening to Mühlfeld practice, and the result was inevitable: Brahms came out of his short-lived “retirement” and began to write for the clarinet. That summer, at his favorite retreat Bad Ischl in the mountains east of Salzburg, he composed two works for Mühlfeld: a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano and a quintet for clarinet and string quartet (two sonatas for the instrument would follow three summers later). Brahms journeyed back to Meiningen the following November for rehearsals with Mühlfeld and Joseph Joachim’s quartet, and both works received their premières in Berlin on December 12, 1891.

From that instant the Clarinet Quintet has been acclaimed one of Brahms’ greatest works, but the Clarinet Trio has always languished in the shade of the Quintet’s autumnal glow–it remains a connoisseur’s choice rather than a popular favorite. The distinct sonority of the Trio rises from its unusual combination of instruments (one, however, that Beethoven had used), and Brahms makes full use of the rich sound of the cello as well as the mellow sound of Mühlfeld’s clarinet. So smoothly are those sounds intertwined, in fact, that Brahms’ friend Eusebius Mandyczewski wrote to tell the composer that “It is as though the instruments were in love with each other.”

The splendid first movement, marked simply Allegro, begins with the almost stark sound of the solo cello laying out the movement’s noble opening idea, and this theme deserves particular attention. One of the projects Brahms had planned and then abandoned was a Fifth Symphony, and a number of scholars (Sir Donald Francis Tovey among them) believe that the cello theme that opens the Clarinet Trio was originally conceived as the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony. Listeners tantalized by the thought of what such a symphony might have been like may have some sense of that by imagining this noble opening subject played by an entire cello section. This theme grows more animated as it rides over the piano’s spirited triplets, and the chaste second subject restores calm when it too arrives in the cello. The movement is in a generalized sonata form, though the recapitulation is shortened, and it comes to a particularly effective close: Brahms slows the tempo slightly, and clarinet and cello weave delicate strands of sixteenth-notes that answer and swirl around each other and–suddenly and softly–land on the calm final chord.

The Adagio opens with a subdued melody for clarinet that Brahms marks dolce; at a length of only 54 measures, this movement is remarkable for Brahms’ ability to compress his musical experience into so short a span. The Andantino grazioso, in 3/4 meter, hovers on the edge of becoming a waltz; the clarinet’s melody flows and dances gracefully without ever settling firmly into a waltz-rhythm. The finale, a sonata-rondo marked Allegro, offers some of the rhythmic subtlety of Brahms’ late music, and listeners may have trouble deciding whether this movement is in duple or triple meter. Such uncertainty was clearly Brahms’ intention: his opening metric indication 2/4 (6/8) changes frequently, and there are occasional passages in 9/8. The music surges with vitality, but Brahms keeps it anchored firmly in the dark A-minor tonality of the opening movement, and this little-known work closes in the same somber sobriety with which it began.

Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Opus 34
Approximate Duration: 41 minutes

Brahms began work on the music that would eventually become his Piano Quintet in F Minor during the summer of 1862, when he was 29 years old and still living in Hamburg. As first conceived, however, this music was not a piano quintet. Brahms originally composed it as a string quintet– string quartet plus an extra cello–and almost surely he took as a model the great String Quintet in C Major of Schubert, a composer he very much admired. But when Joseph Joachim and colleagues played through the string quintet for the composer, all who heard it felt it unsatisfactory: an ensemble of strings alone could not satisfactorily project the power of this music. So Brahms set out to remedy this–he returned to the score during the winter of 1863-64 and recast it as a sonata for two pianos. Once again the work was judged not wholly successful–it had all the power the music called for, but this version lacked the sustained sonority possible with strings that much of this music seemed to demand. Among those confused by the two-piano version was Clara Schumann, who offered the young composer a completely different suggestion: “Its skillful combinations are interesting throughout, it is masterly from every point of view, but–it is not a sonata, but a work whose ideas you might–and must– scatter, as from a horn of plenty, over an entire orchestra… Please, dear Johannes, for this once take my advice and recast it.”

Recast it Brahms did, but not for orchestra. Instead, during the summer and fall of 1864 he arranged it for piano and string quartet, combining the dramatic impact of the two-piano version with the string sonority of the original quintet. In this form it has come down to us today, one of the masterpieces of Brahms’ early years, and it remains a source of wonder that music that sounds so right in its final version could have been conceived for any other combination of instruments. Clara, who had so much admired her husband’s piano quintet, found Brahms’ example a worthy successor, describing it as “a very special joy to me” (Brahms published the two-piano version as his Opus 34b, and it is occasionally heard in this form, but he destroyed all the parts of the string quintet version).

The Piano Quintet shows the many virtues of the young Brahms–strength, lyricism, ingenuity, nobility–and presents them in music of unusual breadth and power. This is big music: if all the repeats are taken, the Quintet can stretch out to nearly three-quarters of an hour, and there are moments when the sheer sonic heft of a piano and string quartet together makes one understand why Clara thought this music might be most effectively presented by a symphony orchestra.

The Quintet is also remarkable for young Brahms’ skillful evolution of his themes: several of the movements derive much of their material from the simplest of figures, which are then developed ingeniously. The very beginning of the Allegro non troppo is a perfect illustration. In octaves, first violin, cello, and piano present the opening theme, which ranges dramatically across four measures and then comes to a brief pause. Instantly the music seems to explode with vitality above an agitated piano figure. But the piano’s rushing sixteenth-notes are simply a restatement of the opening theme at a much faster tempo, and this compression of material marks the entire movement–that opening theme will reappear in many different forms. A second subject in E major, marked dolce and sung jointly by viola and cello, also spins off a wealth of secondary material, and the extended development leads to a quiet coda, marked poco sostenuto. The tempo quickens as the music powers its way to the resounding chordal close.

In sharp contrast, the Andante, un poco Adagio sings with a quiet charm. The piano’s gently-rocking opening theme, lightly echoed by the strings, gives way to a more animated and flowing middle section before the opening material reappears, now subtly varied. Matters change sharply once again with the C-minor Scherzo, which returns to the dramatic mood of the first movement. The cello’s ominous pizzicato C hammers insistently throughout, and once again Brahms wrings surprising wealth from the simplest of materials: a nervous, stuttering sixteenth-note figure is transformed within seconds into a heroic chorale for massed strings, and later Brahms generates a brief fugal section from this same theme. The trio section breaks free of the darkness of the scherzo and slips into C-major sunlight for an all-too-brief moment of quiet nobility before the music returns to C minor and a da capo repeat.

The finale opens with strings alone, reaching upward in chromatic uncertainty before the Allegro non troppo main theme steps out firmly in the cello. The movement seems at first to be a rondo, but this is a rondo with unexpected features: it offers a second theme, sets the rondo theme in unexpected keys, and transforms the cello’s healthy little opening tune in music of toughness and turbulence.

Clara Schumann, who had received the dedication of her husband’s quintet, was instrumental in the dedication of Brahms’. Princess Anna of Hesse had heard Brahms and Clara perform this music in its version for two pianos and was so taken with it that Brahms dedicated not only that version to the princess but the Piano Quintet as well. When the princess asked Clara what she might send Brahms as a measure of her gratitude, Clara had a ready suggestion. And so Princess Anna sent Brahms a treasure that would remain his prized possession for the rest of his life: Mozart’s manuscript of the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor.