Music for a Sunday Afternoon

Featuring James Ehnes

Program

ROSSINI, String Sonata No. 4 in B-flat major (14 minutes)
I. Allegro vivace
II. Andantino
III. Allegretto 

Jessica Linnebach, violin
Yosuke Kawasaki, violin
Rachel Mercer, cello
Joel Quarrington, bass

- - -
PROKOFIEV
, Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56 (14 minutes)
I. Andante cantabile
II. Allegro
III. Commodo (quasi allegretto)
IV. Allegro con brio

James Ehnes, violin
Yosuke Kawasaki, violin

- - - INTERMISSION - - -

DVOŘÁK, String Quintet in G major, Op. 77 (35 minutes)
I. Allegro con fuoco
II. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (Trio: L’istesso tempo, quasi allegretto)
III. Poco andante 
IV. Finale: Allegro assai

James Ehnes, violin
Jessica Linnebach, violin
Jethro Marks, viola
Rachel Mercer, cello
Joel Quarrington, bass


Rossini

String Sonata No. 4 in B-flat major

Born in Pesaro, February 29, 1792
Died in Paris, November 13, 1868

We’ve all heard amazing tales of what prodigies like Mozart, Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns accomplished as mere children. Rossini too belongs in this company. The fluent and delightful work that opens this afternoon’s program was composed by a boy of twelve. It is the fourth of a set of six sonatas for strings, all written in the space of just three days while Rossini was visiting a friend in Ravenna. To top things off, Rossini played second violin in the first performances.

The original title in Italian was sonate a quattro, meaning simply “sonatas in four parts.” But these four parts are unconventional in that they are not for the usual string quartet (first and second violins, viola, cello), but for violins, cello and double bass. Furthermore, the double bass part is completely independent of the cello line, a most uncommon practice at the time, and it frequently has brief solos to play. Why double bass? Because that was the instrument played by Rossini’s host in Ravenna where he composed the works.

Until around 1940, these sonatas were presumed to have been lost, though they survived in transcriptions for standard string quartet and wind quartet. But then the original manuscripts were discovered by the composer Alfredo Casella in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. No one had any idea how they got there. These pieces have entered the repertoire of numerous performing ensembles, and hold pride of place as Rossini’s earliest surviving compositions still played with any frequency. 

The monothematic first movement alternates between passages of sweet lyricism that might have come from an operatic aria and rapid figuration suitable only for instrumental execution. Note the solos for double bass on several occasions. The slow movement shows remarkable depth of feeling for a 12-year old. Though nominally in G minor, the music makes several excursions into remote keys. Good cheer returns for the third movement, which bounces along merrily to the polka rhythm.

Program notes by Robert Markow

PROKOFIEV

Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56

Born in Sontsovka (today Krasnoye Selo), department of Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine, April 27, 1891
Died in Moscow, March 5, 1953

This sonata was one of the last works Prokofiev wrote during his 16-year sojourn in the west (1918–1934, when he lived in the United States and Europe). He composed the sonata in 1932 for an organization in Paris called Tritone, also known as the Society for the Advancement of Modern Chamber Music (Milhaud, Poulenc and Honegger were among the other composers involved in this venture). The first performances in both Paris and Moscow in late 1932 were received with indifference, but the sonata has now entered the repertoire of duo-violinists as one of their prize compositions. “The extraordinary fresh­ness of the imagery, the dynamics full of life and vigour, the inventiveness, and the astonishing variety of expressive sequences cannot help but captivate both performer and listener,” wrote the composer’s son, Sviatoslav.  

The opening movement’s heading of Andante cantabile (moderate tempo in a singing manner) emphasizes the singing quality of the two instruments. A single lyrical theme slowly unfolds, develops, rises to a climax and subsides in the upper reaches of both instruments. Both parts are treated equally, as they are throughout the entire sonata; there is no sense of “first” and “second” violin, or of principal and accompaniment. In fact, one of the most remarkable features of this sonata is the nearly total absence of anything resembling “accompaniment” in either part. 

The second movement is as aggressive and extroverted as the first was tender and meditative. Both violins engage in some rather virtuosic writing, which incorporates rhythmic complexities and multiple stops. The third movement returns to the quiet introspection of the first (Prokofiev indicates the optional use of mutes here), and the finale is again exuberant, full of technical challenges and imbued with the spirit of wild abandon indicative of some Russian folk dance. Just before the rush to the finish Prokofiev brings back the sonata’s opening theme for one last appearance, softly and dolcissimo (very sweetly) in the upper range of the first violin.

Program notes by Robert Markow

DVOŘÁK

String Quintet in G major, Op. 77

Born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia (now Nelahozeves, Czech Republic), September 8, 1841
Died in Prague, May 1, 1904

The repertoire of chamber music is not lacking in string quintets, but the one on this program is unique in that it is the only work by a famous composer of the first rank for two violins, viola, cello and double bass. Why there should be such a paucity of music for this combination – which, after all, represents the standard components of a symphony orchestra’s string section – is puzzling, to say the least. Dvořák’s example proves its effectiveness. (Some other composers to use this combination of strings include Max Reger, John Harbison and Tobias Picker; Schubert’s highly popular Trout Quintet includes a double bass, but there is a piano rather than a second violin.)

Perhaps a very practical matter – the necessity of carting a bulky double bass around – has inhibited composers from writing for what is otherwise a highly mobile ensemble of two violins, two violas and a cello; or two violins, a viola and two cellos. Lending at least some credence to this hypothesis is the fact that Dvořák’s Quintet has fared far better on disc than in live performance.

Chamber music was central to Dvořák’s output. In both quality and quantity, there are no other composers of the nineteenth century save Beethoven and Brahms who can compare with him in both respects. Dvořák’s first published work was a string quintet (two violins, two violas, cello), begun in 1861 shortly after he had graduated from the Organ School in Prague, and he wrote one more work for this ensemble at the height of his career, during his American sojourn in 1893.

Dvořák wrote the wonderfully glowing Quintet, Op. 77 in 1875, the year that also saw the creation of the opera Vanda, the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major (Op. 21), the Piano Quartet No. 1 in D major (Op. 23) and the Serenade for Strings in E major (Op. 44). Why the inordinately high opus number? The Quintet originally contained five movements, and it was played as such at its first performance in Prague on March 18, 1876. Dvořák later removed the second movement, an Intermezzo borrowed from the Andante religioso section of an unpublished string quartet in E minor, written five years previously. The Quintet was not published until 1888, by which time the publisher Simrock felt that the work should bear the opus number 77. Dvořák protested, arguing that its correct chronological designation should be 18, but Simrock prevailed. On the rare occasions that the Quintet is performed in the original five-movement format, it is identified as Op. 18. (The original Intermezzo movement was revised and published independently as the Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40.)

Listeners will immediately discern the fuller, richer sonority imparted by the inclusion of a double bass. In giving the true bass voice to this instrument, Dvořák frees the cello to fill in the middle range with the viola. It is tempting to regard the resultant texture as a three-layered affair, with the two violins as one unit, viola and cello as another, and the double bass as a third. Yet Dvořák often uses the four upper voices as a complete unit in itself, working them into constantly varied combinations and leaving the double bass alone as an independent foundation. The strategy only adds to the fascination of this atypical quintet.  

The first movement is in the expected sonata form, but with two oddities. The first subject consists of little more than a repeated one-bar motif, yet it is one of the Quintet’s most memorable elements – and something quintessentially Dvořákian. The second subject is in F major, a most unlikely choice of key for a work based in G major, although this of course detracts not a whit from the lovely, genial character of the music. Both subjects prominently employ a triplet figure as a rhythmic identification mark.

The Scherzo is in a minor tonality (E), yet few listeners would describe it as anything but buoyant and joyful. The central Trio section offers contrast in key, texture and mood.

The rapturous Poco andante looks forward to some of the great slow movements found in Dvořák’s later compositions. The broadly flowing outer sections frame a central passage that Dvořák scholar Otakar Šourek has described as “of exceptional ardour and beauty of expression.”

The rondo-form Finale returns to the high spirits of the first movement. Its opening subject follows the same melodic outline as that of the Scherzo, but to a different rhythm. The mood through­out is boisterous, and the Quintet rushes headlong to a deliriously happy conclusion.

Program notes by Robert Markow


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