Centennial Celebrations

Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 3:00PM

South Reno United Methodist Church


Program Notes by Chris Morrison

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845, 30 minutes)

Dedicated to composer Louis Spohr, the Trio in C minor was composed during a break in Mendelssohn’s extremely busy schedule. Along with his directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, he was constantly in demand as a conductor and pianist. But he finally managed a hiatus during 1844 and 1845, and composed a number of pieces. The C minor Piano Trio was the last of his chamber works that Mendelssohn saw published before exhaustion and a series of strokes killed him at just thirty-eight.

The opening movement opens with some foreboding as a swirling motion arises from the bass. The darkness is dispelled somewhat by a shapely second theme in the strings, and these two moods are in constant contrast throughout the movement. The piano writing is particularly challenging; an excellent pianist, Mendelssohn probably wrote that part for himself. After the first movement’s drama and instability, calm descends with the gentle, swinging rhythm of the beautiful second movement. The virtuosity of all three players is on display in the third movement, with its fast tempo and intricate interactions between the instruments. As in the first movement, the finale juxtaposes energetic and more reflective passages. Here Mendelssohn employs a version of a sixteenth century Lutheran chorale tune. Intoned initially by the piano, the theme returns in a triumphant major key to conclude the work.

Jongen: Sérénade tendre, Op. 61/1 (1918, 8 minutes)

Joseph Jongen was born in Liège, Belgium, where he was admitted to the Conservatoire as a seven-year-old prodigy. He eventually became a professor there and, after a period in England as a refugee during World War I, at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, where he served as director from 1925 until 1939. Although he wrote much music – his catalog includes 241 works – he is mostly remembered today for his Symphonie Concertante of 1926 for organ and orchestra. During his time in London, he composed two Serenades for string quartet. The first, Sérénade tendre, is in three linked sections: the outer two sweetly melancholic, with pizzicato accompaniment, the central one more propulsive.

Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83 – Allegro molto (1918, 9 minutes)

Known largely for his large-scale orchestral and choral works, Elgar had largely abandoned chamber music until his early sixties, when he settled in a country cottage, Brinkwells, in Sussex and – having overcome a depression brought on by the effects of World War I, the deaths of many friends, and his wife’s ill-health – composed his Piano Quintet, Violin Sonata, and String Quartet in quick succession. Lady Elgar, the composer’s wife, described the Quartet’s finale as “most fiery & sweeps along like galloping of stallions.” Completed on Christmas Eve 1918, the movement is both passionate and vivacious, with ever-evolving textures from the four instruments.

Fauré: Pavane in F-sharp minor, Op. 50 (1887, 7 minutes)

Fauré’s Pavane, which he dismissed as “elegant but not otherwise important,” ultimately became one of his most famous pieces. Like its models from the sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish court, Fauré’s work is slow and stately, in the manner of a processional. It was written for, and dedicated to, Élisabeth de Caraman Chimay, Vicomtesse Greffulhe, an eminence in Parisian society into whose circle Fauré had been admitted. Originally for solo piano, the Pavane was later arranged for orchestra with optional choir.

Brahms: String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 (1890, 30 minutes)

The String Quintet No. 2 was written in the summer of 1890 at Bad Ischl, in the Austrian Alps. Brahms planned for this Quintet to be his last work. In December 1890 he sent his publisher some corrections to the Quintet’s score along with a message: “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.” Fortunately, he didn’t stick to this resolve, as his friendship with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld inspired him to further composition.

Despite its status as a proposed valedictory, there is little mournful or retrospective about the G major Quintet. Brahms’s longtime friend Elizabeth von Herzogenberg remarked, “Reading it was like feeling spring breezes … He who can invent all this must be in a happy frame of mind. It is the work of a man of thirty.” The opening of the first movement comes from sketches Brahms had made for a Fifth Symphony. After the sweeping first theme from the cello over tremolos from the other instruments – perhaps the Fifth Symphony’s opening? – a second waltz-like idea arrives in the violas. Both themes are developed, and when the first theme reappears in the recapitulation, the violin takes the theme into its highest register. Brahms’s favorite stringed instrument, the viola, leads off the transparently-scored theme-and-variations second movement, which moves between major and minor in its four variations. Phrases from the first movement recur in the third; duets from the violins and violas are a highlight of its central section. Hints of the Hungarian czardas bring color and fire to the Finale.