Undiscovered Grieg

Sunday, December 30, 2018 at 7:00PM

UNR Nightingale Concert Hall

Clarke: Piano Trio in E-flat minor (1921, 25 minutes)

Program Notes by Chris Morrison

Composer and violist Rebecca Clarke was the first female member of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and one of Britain’s first female professional orchestral players. She subsequently performed as a solo violist and in chamber ensembles. Her music, much of it centered on the viola, was mostly written in the 1920s and the period 1939-42.

In 1919, Clarke’s Viola Sonata, perhaps her most famous work, was runner-up in a composition competition sponsored by her neighbor, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Two years later she entered the same competition with her Piano Trio, and again came in second. All three movements of the Trio share a melody, the insistent piano theme that opens the first movement. After this idea moves to the cello and is developed, a second, calmer theme arises in the piano. That recurring idea also leads off the slow movement in the violin, taking on the feeling of a folk song as the movement progresses. Both of the main ideas from the first movement recur in the powerful third.

Grieg: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 (1877-78, 34 minutes)

From 1874 into 1877, Grieg was overwhelmed with teaching and conducting duties, as well as the completion of major compositions like his famous music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. In the summer of 1877, he and his wife Nina headed for the countryside, settling first at a farm in the Hardanger country of western Norway, then moving to a guesthouse in the nearby village of Lofthus. Grieg wrote his Quartet in a small log hut he had built there specifically for composing. (The hut now serves as a Grieg museum.) He thought highly of his new work, writing that “It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written.”

All four movements are tied together by the use of a melody from Grieg’s song “Spillemaend” (“Fiddlers,” Op 25/1), a phrase from which, tonic to seventh below to fifth below, is also familiar from the opening of his Piano Concerto. This music is heard throughout the first movement, both in the dramatic slow introduction and in the fiery main body. The succeeding Romanze features rich harmonies, including many double-stops from the ensemble. The “Fiddlers” theme can be heard in the more passionate outbursts of that movement, as well as at the beginning of the Intermezzo. The motif travels through the quartet, from violin down to cello, in the opening of the Finale, which Grieg called a saltarello, a vigorous Italian dance.

C.P.E. Bach: Quartet in D major, Wq. 94 (1788, 15 minutes)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the fifth child, and second surviving son, of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bridging the Baroque era of his father and the succeeding Classical and Romantic eras, C.P.E. served as court musician for Frederick the Great of Prussia for over two decades, then in 1768 succeeded his godfather Telemann as music director in Hamburg. His musical style, known as empfindsamer Stil or “sensitive style,” was marked by mercurial changes in tempo and mood. Composed in the last year of his life, the three quartets, Wq. 93-95, were perhaps Bach’s last instrumental works. The first movement of the D major Quartet is charming, with stately dotted rhythms. A brief move into the minor leads into the calm second movement, with its interesting harmonic turns. Among the surprises in the playful finale are several Generalpausen, unexpected rests for the ensemble, and an amusingly abrupt ending.

Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 87 (1889, 34 minutes)

Dvořák’s first Piano Quartet (in D major, Op. 23) was written in 1875. Because of his subsequent fame, even Dvořák’s early works were very much in demand. Simrock, who became Dvořák’s publisher on the recommendation of Johannes Brahms, was given the opportunity to publish all of Dvořák’s new works, and other firms vied for the earlier compositions. The first Piano Quartet was published in 1880 by the Schlesinger firm, and a few years later Simrock requested of Dvořák both a new piano quartet and a second set of the highly successful Slavonic Dances. The Dances appeared in 1887, but there was still no quartet. Simrock wrote to Dvořák in mid 1888, “I should like to have from you a piano quartet – and you promised it to me a long time ago! What’s the matter with it?” Finally, in July 1889, Dvořák started the Quartet in E-flat major, completing it in just a few weeks.

The first movement begins with an assertive idea that turns up in many guises as the music progresses. The movement is melodically rich, with a series of broad, flowing ideas and just a few shadows cast by minor key interludes. Equally profligate melodically, the lovely second movement only erupts passionately on a couple of occasions, otherwise maintaining a peaceful, sustained atmosphere. The third movement is dominated by a sweet, genial minuet theme with a hint of folk song about it. And the finale is aggressive, with small hints of menace quickly dispelled by more playful music.