Music for a Sunday Afternoon

Featuring John Storgårds

Saint-Saëns

Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs, Op. 79 for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano

Born in Paris, October 9, 1835
Died in Algiers, December 16, 1921

The career of Camille Saint‑Saëns was one of the most astonishing in the entire history of music. He possessed perfect pitch, perfect memory and superb virtuosic abilities as a pianist and organist. He was the first notable composer to write film music. He was writing his first pieces while still a child of five, and more than eight decades later, was still turning out music “as naturally as a tree produces apples,” as he put it. In addition to music, he pursued interests in mathematics, astronomy, geology and archaeology on a scholarly level.

Another of Saint‑Saëns’ interests was travel. From his native France he ventured as far afield as San Francisco in one direction and Singapore in the other. Nearer to home, he had a fondness for North Africa (he died in Algiers), and he concertized from one end of Europe (London) to the other (St. Petersburg). On his second visit to Russia in 1887, Saint‑Saëns’ traveling companions included star performers from France of the flute (Paul Taffanel), oboe (Ernest Gillet) and clarinet (Paul Turban). Before setting out on this journey, which also included concert appearances in Denmark, Saint‑Saëns wrote the Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for this trio of winds plus piano. The Tsarina to whom he dedicated the work, Marie Feodorovna, happened to be a Danish princess as well. 

The eleven-minute work is laid out in the form of two sets of variations, the first on a Russian tune (played first by the flute in D minor), the second on a Danish tune (oboe, F major), plus an introduction. All four instruments share equally in the amiable melodic ideas and flashes of virtuosity.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Albert Roussel

Divertissement for piano and wind quintet, Op. 6

Born in Tourcoing, April 5, 1869
Died in Royan, August 23, 1937

Albert Roussel came late to music. Like Rimsky‑Korsakov, he served in his country’s navy, resigning in 1894 at the age of 25 to follow his natural predilection for music. His studies lasted a dozen years, most of them spent as a student of Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. From d’Indy, Roussel acquired his sense of solid, logical musical architecture, and a thorough grounding in theoretical matters. Stylistically he is difficult to classify. Depending on the piece, one can find in his music neoclassic forms and balanced textures, impressionistic elements, sensuous orchestral sonorities, oriental scales and rhythms, and such modernistic techniques as polytonality and polyrhythms. The Divertissement displays the traditional Gallic qualities of elegance, polish, balance and proportion in equal measure. And is it by accident or design that it is the composer’s opus 6, written in 1906 for six players and lasting a bit over six minutes?

The union of piano with woodwind quintet has seldom been explored in the annals of composition. Aside from Poulenc, the only composer many concertgoers are likely to recognize for such repertoire is Vincent d’Indy. Musical cognoscenti might also know of Hans Huber, Gordon Jacob, Joseph Jongen, Paul Juon, Ludwig Thuille (like Roussel, his sextet is an Op. 6), and Louise Farrenc, whose contribution from 1852 might well be the first of its kind. 

Roussel’s Divertissement is a simple rondo with a peppy, lively main subject alternating with two contrasting lyrical ideas (ABACA), the first of these introduced by the oboe in languid tones, the other by the horn. The five wind instruments are all accorded solos, and play as well in a constantly changing variety of combinations.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Poulenc

Sextet for piano and wind quintet

Born in Paris, January 7, 1899
Died in Paris, January 30, 1963

In the 1920s, Poulenc joined company with five other Parisian composers – Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre – who called themselves the Nouveaux jeunes. In 1920, a newspaper article referred to them as Les Six, and by that name they have been known ever since. They called for avoidance of the vague Impressionism of Debussy, the chromatic mysticism of Franck and the surging romanticism of Richard Strauss and Mahler. Instead, their music reflected a return to the classic French traits of economy and clarity, the influence of jazz and French music-hall style, and the lighthearted banter that flourishes among friends out for an evening in the Montmartre.

Poulenc wrote his Sextet between 1930 and 1932, and revised it in 1938–1939. It is a substantial composition, one of the longest of his chamber works. It has not only become one of the mainstays of the twentieth century repertoire for small ensembles, but it is by far the best-known example of a work for the combination of piano and wind quintet. Like most of Poulenc’s chamber works, the Sextet is in three movements. The first is a lively Allegro that bubbles over with saucy themes and tongue-in-cheek good humour. The central section contains a new idea to a slow, languid tempo. It is here that we find the expressively devout, reflective side of Poulenc’s style. An interesting situation presents itself harmonically at the beginning of the recapitulation: whereas the exposition began in the key of A, this material returns in the key of D for the winds while the piano accompaniment remains in A – an excellent example of what music theorists call non-functional harmony. The second movement is a charming divertissement with a perky middle section. The third movement, a rondo, concludes with an extended postlude which further develops the languid theme of the first movement’s central section.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Enescu

Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

Born in Liveni-Virnav (today George Enescu), near Dorohoi, Romania, August 19, 1881
Died in Paris, May 4, 1955

Most concertgoers tend to think of George Enescu as the composer of a famous Romanian Rhapsody (actually, he wrote two) and leave it at that. However, Romania’s most outstanding composer was also one of the twentieth century’s most unfairly neglected musical geniuses. He was a virtuoso violinist, a conductor, a teacher, a pianist, an administrator, and a tireless champion of music in Romania. His centenary in 1981 went largely ignored outside his native country, but so highly respected is he in Romania that there is a festival, a museum, a composer’s prize, a violin competition, a symphony orchestra, and even a village (his birthplace) named after him. 

George Enescu (commonly Gallicized to Georges Enesco) was a prodigiously talented boy. He began violin studies at the age of four and composition at five. He was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at seven and heard a concert of his own works at sixteen. Professional studies were undertaken principally in Vienna and Paris. The latter was to become Enescu’s adopted city, where he remained for most of his professional life.

His Octet is one of the most extraordinary works in the entire chamber music repertoire. For a start, look at the instrumentation. There exist string octets by other composers, of course, but aside from Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, how many can you name by well-known figures? The only full-length octets for four violins, two violas and two cellos by composers most concertgoers are likely to recognize are by Reinhold Glière and Darius Milhaud. Max Bruch’s Octet almost qualifies, but in his work the second cello is replaced by a double bass. Louis Spohr wrote three double string quartets, but that’s not quite the same thing as an octet. And then there are Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet – quick little pieces that are over in just a few minutes. That leaves Enescu’s Octet which, after Mendelssohn’s, is the best-known work of its kind.

Then there is the length. Few chamber music compositions last more than half an hour; Enescu’s Octet lasts close to 40 minutes. Dynamic markings are often at the extreme ends of the range: few chamber works until well into the twentieth century include the performance directions fff or pppp, as does Enescu’s Octet. Next consider the key. The title informs us this is to be a work “in C major,” yet the music sounds much more like C minor than major, and after just a few minutes veers off into other keys, most quite foreign to C major and does not return to C until the last movement nearly half an hour later. In any case, though, much of the writing is so chromatic that the sense of a tonal centre is largely absent anywhere in the Octet. Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the age at which Enescu wrote this Octet – just nineteen – not much more than Mendelssohn when he wrote his at sixteen. It is a fully accomplished work of distinctive demeanour – no student exercise this.

Although ostensibly in four movements, the Octet is performed without pauses, each movement forming part of a grand, overall sonata-form structure. The first movement, containing no fewer than six of the Octet’s nine themes, corresponds to the exposition; the second is a scherzo-like movement serving as a development section and marked to be played très fougueux (fiery, passionate); the third is the slow interlude (“a sort of nocturne,” in the composer’s words); and the finale serves as the recapitulation that weaves together the thematic threads of the Octet to a distorted waltz rhythm.

Enescu dedicated the Octet to his counterpoint teacher, André Gédalge, and indeed, there is counterpoint galore in this work. In addition, textures are often dense, of almost symphonic proportions at times. The Octet opens with a propulsive rhythmic energy that remains throughout most of the work. Throbbing tremolos and polyrhythms (several rhythms going simultaneously) are also features of the Octet. The date of the first performance is unconfirmed, but it was probably December 18, 1909 at a “Soirées d’art” concert in Paris.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Program

SAINT-SAËNS, Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs, Op. 79
(11 minutes)
Joanna G’froerer, flute
Charles Hamann, oboe
Kimball Sykes, clarinet
David Jalbert, piano

- - - - - -

ROUSSEL, Divertissement, Op. 6
(7 minutes)
Joanna G’froerer, flute
Charles Hamann, oboe
Kimball Sykes, clarinet
Christopher Millard, bassoon
Lawrence Vine, horn
David Jalbert, piano

POULENC, Sextet for piano and wind quintet  
(18 minutes)
I.    Allegro vivace
II.    Divertissement: Andantino
III.    Finale: Prestissimo

Joanna G’froerer, flute
Charles Hamann, oboe
Kimball Sykes, clarinet
Christopher Millard, bassoon
Lawrence Vine, horn
David Jalbert, piano

- - - INTERMISSION - - -

ENESCU, Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7  
(35 minutes)    
Très modéré –
Très fougueux –
Lentement –
Mouvement de valse bien rythmée

(All played without pause)

John Storgårds, violin
Carissa Klopoushak, violin
Jeremy Mastrangelo, violin
Yosuke Kawasaki, violin
Jethro Marks, viola
Paul Casey, viola
Rachel Mercer, cello
Leah Wyber, cello


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