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Robert Schumann

Fairy-Tale Pictures for Viola and Piano

Maiya Papach, viola
Jeremy Denk, piano

“Schumann may not be so much a composer of pieces as he is of visions–visions breaking through obscurity–and the heartbreaking vision in the fourth movement of the Märchenbilder is of a lullaby. Schumann does not simply express something through the medium of a genre; he’s not content just to fill the vessel; he does not write “a lullaby”; he writes into the lullaby. He writes music–how do I put this?–about the cluster of emotions surrounding a lullaby.” —from Jeremy Denk’s blog, Think Denk

In 1850, the Schumann family moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf, where Robert began his new post as municipal music director. Not long after the move, Clara noted her husband’s “highly nervous, irritable, excited mood,” the first sign of his final decline toward insanity. He still experienced intervals of intense creative focus, as in the first months of 1851, when he produced orchestral overtures, song settings, choral compositions, and one of the treasures of his chamber music repertoire, Märchenbilder (Pictures from Fairyland) for viola (or violin) and piano. He dedicated the score to the accomplished violinist Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, then the concertmaster of his Düsseldorf orchestra, but the real intention of these colorful miniatures was that they would be accessible to the broader market for published music, especially amateurs who played chamber music at home.

Schumann did not specify publicly which fairy tales he had in mind, but he was making a nod to the tradition of German storytelling, like the tales collected earlier in the century by the Brothers Grimm. The longest and richest of the Fairy Tale Pictures is the last, marked “Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck” (“Slowly, with melancholy expression”). The viola and piano harmonize for long, lovely melodies in the outer sections, while a central passage uses a recurring, slurred motive in the viola as a supple accompanying texture.

Aaron Grad ©2016

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Piano Concerto No. 23

Jeremy Denk, director and piano

Following his arrival in Vienna in 1781, Mozart established himself as the preeminent keyboard virtuoso in the capital. He launched a series of subscription concerts featuring his own music, and he kept his audiences enthralled by debuting new piano concertos at a rapid clip, including a dozen concertos between 1784 and 1786. Mozart entered the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major into his catalog of completed compositions on March 2, 1786, and he probably debuted it at one of the three concerts he presented that spring.

The opening Allegro movement of the A-major concerto grants the woodwinds unusual prominence and independence, starting with unaccompanied phrases in the introductory tutti and continuing in the conversational development section. Brief hints of minor-key urgency arise, including several measures in F-sharp minor, foreshadowing the key center of the heavy-hearted Adagio that comes next. The depth of that minor-key pathos makes the sparkling entrance of the finale all the more blinding, launching a peppy rondo that is as much a workout for the orchestra as it is for the soloist.

Aaron Grad ©2016

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György Kurtág

Homage à R. Sch. for Clarinet, Viola and Piano

Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet
Hyobi Sim, viola
Jeremy Denk, piano

Born in Romania to Hungarian parents, György Kurtág moved in 1946 to Budapest, where he followed a musical path blazed earlier in the century by Béla Bartók. It was not until 1957, during a year of study in Paris, that Kurtág encountered the modern styles that had failed to penetrate the “iron curtain.” He took lessons from Messiaen and Milhaud, and he also transcribed many of Webern’s scores, gleaning that composer’s gifts of concision while mostly rejecting the underlying twelve-tone orthodoxy.

Hommage à R. Sch. captures the distilled, aphoristic approach that Kurtág absorbed from Webern, even truncating the name of its inspiration, Robert Schumann, in the title. First sketched in the 1970s and completed in 1990, the trio for clarinet, viola and piano matches the instrumentation of one of Schumann’s late chamber music masterpieces, Märchenerzählungen (Opus 132).

The first five movements are all miniatures lasting less than a minute, and each references an aspect of Schumann. “Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler’s Curious Pirouettes” introduces a fictional composer created by E.T.A. Hoffman, who inspired Schumann’s early piano cycle Kreisleriana (Opus 16). The slurred, spinning figures exchanged among the trio give voice to the “curious pirouettes” promised by the movement heading.

The second movement comes with the heading, "E.*: The Closed Circle …," in which “E” is a reference to Eusebius, the alter ego who represented Schumann’s tender and introverted side. The next movement brings in his foil, Florestan (a stand-in for Schumann’s passionate, outgoing side) whose lips quiver painfully, the title tells us.

The Hungarian title of the very short fourth movement comes from a poem Kurtág had previously set by the poet Attila József. The fifth movement, In the Night, uses the same heading as a movement from another of Schumann’s early piano collections, Fantasiestücke (Opus 12).

The finale, longer than the five preceding movements combined, bears the title, Farewell (Master Raro discovers Guillaume de Machaut). Master Raro was another of Schumann’s personalities, a rational thinker who balanced the opposite poles of Florestan and Eusebius. This orderly, contrapuntal music presents Kurtág channeling Schumann channeling Master Raro channeling Machaut, a pioneering French composer from the fourteenth century. The final thud of a bass drum breaks this intricate spell.

Aaron Grad ©2016

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Franz Schubert

Symphony No. 2

While working full-time as a teaching assistant, taking compositions lessons twice a week, and playing viola in a student orchestra, the 17-year-old Franz Schubert managed to write new music at an astonishing rate that averaged at least 65 measures of music every single day. His efforts that year included his Symphony No. 2, which at most might have received a reading from a student orchestra. Not a note of his music had reached the public yet, and during his entire short life he never managed to secure a single performance of any symphony.

As a student composer in Vienna, Schubert could not help but be engulfed by the towering achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (who had by then debuted eight of his nine symphonies). Like Beethoven before him, Schubert used the instrumentation and general outline of Haydn’s final London symphonies as a point of entry. In Schubert’s Symphony No. 2, the instrumentation, slow introduction and the use of a minuet third movement instead of a Beethovenian scherzo all point to Haydn’s influence. One particular trick found all over Haydn’s symphonies comes in the Allegro vivace body of Schubert’s first movement, when the main theme enters in the strings at a pianissimo dynamic before being repeated fortissimo by the full orchestra.

The Andante second movement takes the form of a theme and variations, with a simple and song-like theme that adds a playful extra measure in its second half. The climactic fourth variation moves to C minor, which returns as the surprising key center for the Menuetto. Before the finale launches, four introductory measures bridge the harmonic distance back to the home key of B-flat major. Then, like horses on the hunt, the orchestra gallops off at a Presto tempo.

— © Aaron Grad

Aaron Grad ©2016

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

MacArthur Fellow and SPCO Artistic Partner Jeremy Denk leads from the keyboard on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Denk also joins SPCO violists Maiya Papach and Hyobi Sim for two chamber works, one written by Robert Schumann and the other inspired by him. SPCO musicians lead a performance of Schubert’s Second Symphony, one of the composer’s quintessential early works, written when he was just 18 years old.


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