Exquisite Beginnings
Notes on the Program

June 16, 2022

Let’s begin by saying that “Exquisite Beginnings,” the title of the opening program of ChamberFest Cleveland’s 2022 season, is no exaggeration. Each of the three works is a bona fide masterpiece. They span three centuries, allowing us to experience a variety of styles and expressive worlds in about 75 minutes of sublime music. And at least one aspect of the program stands out beyond creative prowess: All of the composers were virtuoso pianists who often practiced what they preached in concert when they weren’t busy with staff paper and writing utensil.

Mozart — again, no exaggeration — was a very busy musician throughout his all-too-brief life. He was playing difficult keyboard pieces at four and composing soon thereafter. With his sister, Nannerl, also a piano prodigy, he toured Europe, appearing before royalty and meeting well-known composers. As he developed his compositional voice, Mozart embraced a spectrum of genres, excelling in them all, from chamber music and symphonies to operas, sacred works, and more.

His 18 sonatas for solo piano reflect both the wizardry of his performance gifts and the imagination with which he crafted so many delightful, poetic, and penetrating keyboard narratives. In 1788, at the age of 32 (less than three years before his death at 35), he wrote the Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 545. He referred to it “as a little Piano Sonata for beginners,” although the music — later given the nicknames ‘Sonata facile” and “Sonata semplice” — is far more challenging than it looks. The three movements, while free of strenuous chordal writing, abound in surprising changes of character and harmony. With its famous, endearing opening theme, the first movement is a dizzying burst of contrasting materials and digital feats that no beginner could hope to tame. The second movement sings with operatic grace as it ventures through light and dark regions. Mozart the imp appears in the third movement, which is at turns playful and taxing.

If not for beginners, the sonata is an ideal vehicle for pianists (of any age) hoping to make progress. In 11 compact minutes, the music touches on all sorts of crucial keyboard techniques, and it led one virtuoso pianist-composer, Edvard Grieg, to connect the 18th and 19th centuries with the version for two pianos being performed here. Grieg’s contribution is not an arrangement, since the first pianist plays Mozart verbatim, but an accompaniment. As the Norwegian composer wrote, “The work was intended in the first instance for teaching purposes but by chance found its way into the concert hall, where the whole thing sounded surprisingly good.”

It does, especially when performers allow the interplay of Classical and Romantic elements to speak with natural finesse. Grieg basically added the second part to help a student maintain steady rhythm and clear sense of structure. The accompaniment subtly alternates echoes of the original material with thematic and harmonic commentary that expands the music’s horizons in entrancing ways.

In his own, striking manner, George Walker had Mozart-like musical abilities that manifested themselves early in life and blossomed over many decades. Born in 1922 into a family of pianists, he started piano at five, graduated from high school at 14 and the Oberlin Conservatory at 18, and studied piano, chamber music, and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music. His composition lessons at Curtis with Rosario Scalero, who also taught Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, gave Walker a rigorous sense of form and harmonic purpose, which can be discerned in his Sonata for Cello and Piano.

By the time he wrote the concise sonata in 1957, Walker had absorbed a vast number of musical styles. The cello sonata melds a number of these influences in a three-movement work of potent and affecting individuality. The first movement, in sonata form, simmers with rhythmic energy and romantic vibrancy, the relationship between instruments taut and flexible. The brooding second movement features a canon between cello and piano, while in the third movement “the fugal exposition gives way to a jazz-like section that uses syncopated figures over an ostinato bass in the piano,” wrote the composer on his website. He also referred to this technique as “boogie-woogie bass.”

The American cellist Seth Parker Woods summed up the work’s appeal: “For the cellist looking for rhapsodic writing, technical challenges with octaves, multiple challenges with bow color and stroke, and playful interplay between the cello and piano, this is a work of profound interest and importance.” It is also a piece that will intrigue any pianist looking for a healthy challenge.

The piano part in Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26, confirms the composer’s keyboard expertise, though he already had established his imposing credentials by performing his monumental Piano Concerto No. 1, at age 25, three years before the quartet’s 1862 premiere. Both works are expansive — about 45 minutes in length — and highly disparate. The A major quartet, while full of drama, shows Brahms in what might be termed his most Schubertian frame of mind. The piano and strings (violin, viola, cello) constantly engage in genial and tender conversation, the moments of ebullience balanced by poetry that is trademark Brahms.

The evocation of Schubert can be heard at the outset of the first movement (Allegro non troppo) — “four piano-alone measures that float in gentle triplets and regular eighth notes, met by cello at the fifth measure with an important, frequently present scale figure,” as Orrin Howard described the music. “This benign lyricism is soon to rouse the piano to a powerful outburst that gives the main theme a taut, muscular profile.” The movement continues along these contrasting lines in a generous unfolding and transformation of the themes.

Restraint and mystery pervade the slow movement (Poco adagio), one of those ardent Brahms creations in which the instruments speak to one another with utmost warmth. When they arrive at the third movement (Scherzo. Poco allegro), the piano and strings sweep along on light feet, as if waltzing, until the central section inspires them to kick up their fiery heels. The fourth movement (Finale. Allegro) finds Brahms in fervent Gypsy mode, as he would be in many pieces he wrote with roots in Hungarian folk material.

Op. 26 wasn’t Brahms’ only entry in the genre. He wrote an Op. 25 piano quartet in 1861 and an Op. 60 in 1875. And pianists are fortunate that Brahms arranged Op. 25 and 26 for piano four-hands. In every format, needless to say, the music is exquisite.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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