Bartók: Contrasts (1938, 17 minutes)

The idea for Contrasts was a “brainstorm,” as he described it, of famed violinist Joseph Szigeti, who asked Bartók for something they could play with clarinetist Benny Goodman. Szigeti sent Bartók some of Goodman’s jazz recordings so that he could have the clarinetist’s style in mind as he composed. The first movement is a “Verbunkos,” a traditional Hungarian military “Recruiting Dance.” Opening with march-like music including violin pizzicati (apparently inspired by the “Blues” movement of Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata), a contrasting idea subsequently appears and is developed before the initial idea returns in a much more fragmented form. The clarinet is also given an opportunity for a solo cadenza. Titled “Relaxation,” the second movement is another example of Bartók’s “night music,” in which mysterious and peaceful interludes coexist. Commentators have remarked on the gamelan-like percussive quality of the piano writing here. The work concludes with a “Fast Dance” in which the clarinetist switches from an A to a B-flat clarinet, and the violinist deliberately detunes the violin in imitation of a village fiddler. After a gentler central section – in an asymmetric 13/8 rhythm derived from Bulgarian folk music – the violinist has its opportunity for a cadenza before a virtuosic, rather comedic, conclusion.

Grieg: Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 36 (1882-83, 28 minutes)

After a period of illness and conducting duties, Grieg was, as he described it in a letter, “spiritually and bodily unwell,” and thought he might give up composing altogether “because I satisfy myself less and less.” Grieg’s Sonata, his only work for cello and piano, emerged from this period. In it one hears reminiscences of his Piano Concerto in A minor; around the time of this Sonata Grieg was trying, unsuccessfully, to write a second piano concerto, and perhaps the Sonata, in the same key as his famous Concerto, was something of a return to familiar ground for him. Dedicated to his brother John, an amateur cellist, the Sonata was premiered by cellist Julius Klengel (teacher of John Grieg as well as, later, famous cellists like Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky), accompanied by Grieg, in Leipzig on October 27, 1883.

One commentator refers aptly to the Sonata’s “urgent and energetic dramatic thrust, as well as voluptuous, satiny songfulness.” The first movement features two contrasting melodies, one dramatic and agitated, one warm and serene. Just at the end of the development of these themes, the cello has a short solo cadenza before the movement’s ominous conclusion. An innocently pretty melody opens the second movement, although the mood turns much darker as the music progresses. Grieg here makes reference to an earlier composition, a march from his incidental music for Sigurd Jorsalfar. Toward the end that opening theme returns, builds to a climax, and then calms again as the cello concludes with a quiet arpeggiated pizzicato chord. After a short introduction for the cello, the final movement launches into a lively, rustic Norwegian dance. Those dance rhythms pervade the movement, with short contrasting episodes by turns songful and passionate. At the end the tempo increases as the cello ascends, holding its final note and the piano plays its concluding scales and chords.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 41 (1875, 30 minutes)

Saint-Saëns was a prolific composer who wrote in all the genres, from opera to symphony to concerto to church music to songs and chamber music. He was also a prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatory at age 12, a brilliant pianist who toured all over the world, one of the finest organists of his day, and a gifted amateur poet, playwright, archaeologist, astronomer, and geologist.

“I like nothing better than chamber music,” he once confided to a friend. And he produced a steady stream of such works during his long and productive life: his first, a violin sonata, was composed at age 7, and he even produced three woodwind sonatas in 1921, the year of his death at age 86. The first of his two piano quartets was completed in 1853, when he was eighteen. The other is the more ambitious B-flat major Quartet, Op. 41, which was given its premiere in March 1875 with Saint-Saëns at the piano and a string trio led by no less a virtuoso than Pablo de Sarasate. In cyclical form (where melodies recur in several movements of a work), the Quartet begins with a majestic Allegretto based on two melodies, one lively, moving between the piano and strings, the other more lyrical. The slow movement opens with piano, then moves to a chorale-like theme in the strings, both of which are developed contrapuntally. Unusual rhythms mark the playful third movement, and the finale features returns of melodies from the first and second movements.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison