Kodály: Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7 (1914, 26 minutes)

One of Hungary’s most important composers, Zoltán Kodály also helped set standards in the field of ethnomusicology, and his teaching method, including textbooks and a considerable amount of music written specially for children, has been embraced worldwide. As a scholar and teacher at Budapest’s Academy of Music, he exercised a great influence on future generations of Hungarian musicians. Kodály and his compatriot Béla Bartók made many trips into the Hungarian countryside, collecting and recording folk music (the program for folk music research begun by Kodály and Bartók eventually resulted in the collection and analysis of over 100,000 folk songs from all over central and eastern Europe).

Many of his chamber music compositions date from the years of World War I. They all betray to some extent his interest in folk music, even though the war had brought his collecting trips to a temporary end. The Duo for violin and cello was written right at the start of the War, but wasn’t premiered until May 7, 1918. The themes of the first movement, in a conventional sonata form, have the contours and gestures, as well as the modal flavor, of folk music. Kodály opens the second movement with the cello, his own instrument, which is soon joined by the violin in a passionate song that turns into a double fugue. The third movement’s dramatic slow opening, the rhythms of which sound as much like speech as they do song, leads into fast paced music resembling a lively child’s folksong with a repeating ostinato accompaniment.

Mozart: Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370/368b (1781, 15 minutes)

In late 1780, Mozart made his way to Munich to meet with Elector Karl Theodor, who had commissioned the opera Idomeneo on which Mozart was working. While there, Mozart also saw his old friend Friedrich Ramm, the principal oboist in the Munich orchestra, who requested that Mozart write a work to show off both Ramm’s talents and the recent improvements that had been made in the way the oboe itself was constructed.

The Oboe Quartet’s first movement is largely based on one rather decorative theme played by the oboe over the strings, which occasionally imitate the oboe’s phrases. Later the tune switches to the first violin, with the oboe playing countermelodies. A short contrapuntal episode starts the brief development, followed by a more elaborate version of the opening music. The plaintive, yearning quality of the oboe’s tone is highlighted in the short, somber second movement. The clouds disperse, however, for the playful finale with its dance-like rhythms, including one famous spot where the oboe plays in common, or 4/4, time against the 6/8 of the strings. That tension is relieved by the return of the major key for the work’s cheerful conclusion.

Brahms: Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8 (1854 rev. 1889, 38 minutes)

The initial version of the B major Trio dates from Brahms’s twenty-first year, and was his first published chamber work. This was the very time in which he had met and become close friends of Robert and Clara Schumann. Mere weeks after the conclusion of the Trio, Robert Schumann tried to drown himself in the Rhine, leading to his being institutionalized for the remainder of his life. Some 35 years later, near the end of his composing career, Brahms revisited the Trio, shortening it fairly substantially and revising three of its movements. He wrote humorously, “I didn’t provide it with a new wig, just combed and arranged its hair a little,” This Trio is thus the only work of the composer to exist in two published versions, although it is the later one that is much more often performed nowadays.

Unusually, the Trio starts in a major key and ends in the minor. The first movement opens with a lovely, expansive theme in the cello that gradually builds in intensity. The second theme, lyrical and tender, is presented by the strings in unison. A short motive that serves as a transition between the two melodies actually becomes the basis for much of the subsequent development section. The second movement, by turns dramatic and mysterious, alternates powerful rhythms and more delicate passages. Opening with a chord-based theme in the piano, joined by delicate accompaniment from the strings, the introspective slow movement also features a central section dominated by a poignant melody introduced in the cello. The agitated first theme of the final movement, with its dotted rhythm, is chromatic and has some tonal ambiguity. The following theme in the piano seems, to some, to allude to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” of all things. After a short recollection of the first movement, the work comes to a fiery conclusion.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison