Chamber Music Through the Ages

Friday, December 28, 2018 at 7:00PM

South Reno United Methodist Church


Program Notes by Chris Morrison

Beethoven: String Quartet in G major, Op. 18/2 (1798-1800, 25 minutes)

The six Quartets, Op. 18 mark Beethoven’s first efforts in a genre that was important to him throughout his composing career. Dedicated to Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Op. 18 and was one of Beethoven’s most important patrons, the second in the series was perhaps the third in the set to be written.

The first movement is playful, on occasion expressively lyrical. Perhaps because of the graceful way in which the first violin opens the first movement and is answered by the other instruments, the Quartet has come to be known as the “Komplimentier-Quartett,” or “Compliments” Quartet. The second movement holds a surprise: beginning and ending with a sweet, courtly melody largely given to the violin, the tender mood is briefly, suddenly interrupted by a faster section. Beethoven had used the same technique a couple of years earlier in his Serenade, Op. 8, but both may also be a reference to Haydn, Beethoven’s one-time teacher, who does something similar in the Finale of his Quartet, Op. 54/2. In the bright, unpredictable Scherzo, the four instruments toss phrases back and forth. The fourth movement is dominated by a three-note motif, traded between the cello and the rest of the quartet. This phrase recurs in various forms throughout a witty movement that Beethoven described as “unbuttoned.”

Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor (1914, 27 minutes)

Written just before Ravel set aside music to become a nurse’s aide and driver for the French army during World War I, the Trio in A minor is one of the composer’s masterworks. He had been considering writing such a piece for years. But by August of 1914, the War had begun, and Ravel was anxious to enlist in the army as he worked on the Trio “with the sureness and lucidity of a madman.” It was completed in September, and given its first performance in January 1915.

Ravel was born in a French Basque town to a Basque mother, and his devotion to this heritage is evident here. The first movement’s opening theme – tentative, then passionate – is said to be derived from the zortziko, a Basque dance with a 3-2-3 rhythm. This idea is contrasted with a languorous second subject. After a short development dealing mostly with the first theme, both melodies combine in the movement’s magical conclusion. The playful second movement is titled Pantoum, after a Malaysian poetic form of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza are the first and third of the next (a form which Ravel supposedly adapted here). The third movement is a passacaglia, in which a melody in the bass serves as the basis of increasingly elaborate variations. In the passionate Finale, five- and seven-beat patterns alternate, a pattern often found in Basque music. Filled with brilliant arpeggios and virtuoso piano writing, the music builds to a powerful coda.

Vivaldi: Guitar Concerto in D major, RV 93 (1729, 10 minutes)

In 1729, Antonio Vivaldi took a break from his duties at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietá, the hospital and school for foundling children where he taught. He visited Vienna first, then moved on to Prague. There he met Count Johann Joseph von Wrtby, the royal governor of Bohemia. Either Wrtby was a lute player, or he had one in his employ – in either case, Vivaldi wrote three lute works for him, including this Concerto. Its opening Allegro giusto contrasts a sprightly opening theme and a more lyrical idea in the minor mode. In the lovely second movement, the lute spins out its line over sustained violin phrases and pizzicato bass notes. The work concludes with a lively Allegro, with a hint of the tarantella in its 6/8 rhythm.

Brahms: Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87 (1880-82, 30 minutes)

Brahms was the pianist in the first performance of the Trio in C major, on December 29, 1882. He was quite pleased with his composition, writing his publisher “You have not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely have not published its equal in the last ten years.” His friend Clara Schumann, never one to flatter, also found the Op. 87 to be “a splendid work” and “a great musical treat.”

Interestingly, all four movements begin with the violin and cello playing in octaves. The noble stride of the first movement’s opening theme contrasts with the warm, lyrical second theme. Stormy music dominates as the main themes are developed. The passionate main theme of the second movement, which becomes the basis of five variations, betrays Brahms’s love of Hungarian music. One critic fancifully described the third movement as representing “the troubled dreams of one who … has sought distraction in Grimm’s German Mythology, and nodding asleep, is attacked by imps, trolls, nixies, and all the minute genii who infest fire, air, earth and water.” The work ends with a playful but purposeful Finale which, save for one lyric interlude, maintains its momentum to the end.