Performance Saturday, February 23, 2013 | 8 PM

Magdalena Kožená
Yefim Bronfman

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The New York Times has called Magdalena Kožená “a true lyric mezzo-soprano voice, with dusky colorings that stem from her low register yet carry through into her shimmering high notes.” She’s joined on this program by the incomparable Yefim Bronfman.

The contemporary work on this program is part of My Time, My Music.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

Detskaya (The Nursery)

Of the five composers who made up the Russian nationalist circle known as "The Mighty Handful," Modest Mussorgsky was the most revolutionary. He cared nothing for correct German forms and harmonic practices, or beautiful sounds and sensuous scoring. Instead, he fell in love with the Russian language as it was spoken by the common people and sought to translate it vividly into music. As he wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov, "No matter who is speaking (nor what he says), my mind is already working to find the musical statement for such speech."

And nowhere—not even in his operas—did Mussorgsky achieve this goal more fully than in his cycle of children's songs The Nursery, or Detskaya in the original Russian. Written to his own texts between 1868 and 1872, they show his uncanny ability to enter completely into a child's world and reproduce exactly the way he talks and thinks. Mussorgsky had an extraordinary rapport with children. Vladimir Stasov's niece Varvara fondly remembered his visits with her and her siblings when they were little: "He did not 'pretend' with us, did not talk in that unnatural way in which grown-ups usually talk with children ... We talked to him with complete freedom, as with an equal." She believed that some of the stories related in The Nursery must have been based on their conversations.

Composed in 1868 before he began writing Boris Godunov, the first song, "With Nanny," is the most experimental of the seven, especially for the period in which it was written. Mussorgsky breaks all the rules of "proper" Russian art song to capture the child's impulsive speech and whims as he pesters his nurse for a bedtime story. The rhythmic meter constantly changes from one measure to the next to imitate the child's headlong patter, and the harmonies are extremely eccentric.

The remaining songs were written in 1870 and 1872, after the first version of Boris Godunov. The second song, "In the Corner," is a dramatic little scene between the nurse and the child Misha in which each is sharply characterized. The whirling ostinato in the piano portrays the nurse's anger to which the child at first responds plaintively with a wailing motive similar to the Simpleton's in Boris. But then he gains confidence and boldly lashes out at her.

"The Beetle" and "The Cat Sailor" are vivid animal stories told exactly as a child would. The furious piano part of the first captures the child's excitement, fear, and confusion, and the song ends with the bewildered question: "What is 'dead'?" In the second song, the piano intricately chases the vocal line and enhances the mischief of the story.

"With the Doll," an endearing lullaby to the little girl's doll, is followed by "Going to Sleep," in which the steady pace and repetitiveness of the phrases embody the rote-like nature of the child's prayers: an endless litany of names for whom she asks God's blessing.

In "On the Hobbyhorse," the most brilliant piano accompaniment in the cycle portrays the fury of the boy's ride, only temporarily yielding to the mother's gentle comforting when the child injures his foot. Comments Mussorgsky biographer David Brown: "Nowhere ... does Mussorgsky more consummately catch into music a stretch of vigorous, breathless, highly detailed activity than in his projection of the boy's reckless ride, or its disastrous conclusion."

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Three Mélodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound

Iconoclastic poet Ezra Pound was profoundly inspired by Chinese verse and Japanese Noh theater. Though he did not actually know Chinese, he became renowned for his "translations" from ancient Chinese verse: for working from rough English versions and intuitively capturing the essence of the original poems. Marc-André Dalbavie, one of the finest and most innovative of today's composers, has chosen the poem "The Unmoving Cloud" from Pound's 1915 collection Cathay for a set of three songs for Magdalena Kožená, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Shriver Hall Concert Series, and Carolina Performing Arts.

Known as a proponent of "spectralism," Dalbavie has been concerned with how an audience perceives sounds rather than simply notes, and with exploring instrumental timbres and new ways of mixing them. He has also conceived music for particular spaces and even experimented with how the performers are positioned vis-a-vis the audience. These songs, however, play with timbre in a more modest way because Dalbavie here is scrupulous about focusing attention on Pound's poetry.

The original for Pound's three-part poem was written by T'ao Yuan-Ming (CE 365–427). In it, all of nature—the clouds, the rain, the trees, and the birds—take on human qualities. The mood is one very close to Pound's concerns: the constant down tow of depression and self-imposed isolation. Dalbavie has chosen to transpose the second and third sections of the poem, making the second section in which the speaker ultimately drowns his loneliness in wine into his final Melody.

"Melody I" sets the scene and the mood. The piano's descending figures echo the falling of the rain; soft, bell-like high chords add a touch of chinoiserie. The spareness of the accompaniment throws emphasis on the singer's words, which are presented simply and clearly.

In "Melody II," the continuous shimmering web of fast piano figurations and the higher range for the singer reflect the sounds of the birds. Stella Katherine Bonnie believes that the birds' words represent Pound's thoughts about the difficulties of translation.

"Melody III" finally becomes more expansive as the speaker embraces his loneliness and celebrates it with his "new cask of wine." The piano lines now ascend, the tempo eventually speeds up, and the singer erupts in a climactic cadenza that crests to a high B-natural.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Histoires naturelles

When Jules Renard published the prose poems about animals he called Histoires naturelles in 1895 (a spoof on the Comte de Buffon's 44-volume scholarly treatise of the same name from the 18th century), he wrote: "Histoires naturelles—Buffon described animals in order to give pleasure to men. As for me, I would wish to be pleasing to the animals themselves. If they were able to read my miniature Histoires naturelles, I should wish that it would make them smile." Renard gave his animals human characteristics and observed them—and the human types they represented—with droll wisdom.

These poems certainly made Ravel smile, and in 1906, he chose five of them—portraits of four birds and a cricket—to set to music. At this time, he was the most controversial composer in France—in a recent scandal he'd been denied the Paris Conservatoire's Prix de Rome for his heterodoxy—and his Histoires naturelles added fuel to the debate. The audience at the set's first performance in Paris on January 12, 1907, was mostly scandalized by its flouting of the classical rules for setting the French language to music. Instead, Ravel had set the poems as colloquial speech-song. As he explained, "My author's text demanded a particular kind of musical declamation from me, closely related to the inflection of the French language."

In time, however, the Histoires naturelles were recognized for the masterful, innovative songs they are: from the Peacock's vainglorious strutting like an avian Sun King in a Baroque French overture to the Guinea-Fowl's wild shrieks and furious attacks on the other residents of the barnyard.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Songs, Op. 38

Like many Russian artists, Sergei Rachmaninoff was given to black moods when his faith in his talent collapsed and he was unable to compose. One such period of depression struck early in 1916, causing him to check into a sanatorium in the Caucasus. His friend, Russian poet Marietta Shaginyan, visited him there in May and was deeply disturbed to find him in tears and unable to do any creative work. Trying to help, she gave him copies of poems by contemporary Russian symbolist poets that might be suitable for songs. Within weeks, Rachmaninoff had shaken off his depression and had selected the verse that would become his last songs, Op. 38.

And there was another woman visiting that May who also assisted in the composer's new song project. She was Nina Koshetz, a 22-year-old soprano whom Rachmaninoff had befriended the previous year. He decided to write these songs for her high and delicate voice; the two premiered the cycle in Moscow on October 24, 1916.

Previously, the composer had been very conservative in his choice of song texts. Shaginyan, however, had chosen verse by the French-inspired symbolist poets fashionable in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and now for the first time, he engaged imaginatively with their allusive language with its emphasis on the sensuous sounds of words. Such verse transformed his musical style: These songs do not sound very Russian, but instead much closer to French Impressionism.

The first song, "In My Garden at Night," is set to verse by Armenian poet Avetik Isahakyan, translated by Alexander Blok. Rachmaninoff especially liked Isahakyan's musical feeling for nature. The weeping willow is a traditional symbol of a woman's tears.

Using verse by Andrey Bely, "To Her" is a love song that is both sensuous and deeply melancholy. The singer waits in the magical atmosphere of night for her lover, who does not come. Everything grows out of the piano's yearning five-note figure at the beginning.

An exquisite ode to a humble flower, "Daisies" uses a poem by Igor Severyanin. The piano's rhapsodic song dominates this piece, with the singer offering a counter-melody.

The lightest of the songs is the fourth, "The Rat-Catcher," to a poem by Valery Bryusov. Like the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin, a young man uses his pipe to lure a shepherdess out for a tryst. The sound of his pipe echoes throughout both the vocal and piano lines.

Using words by Fyodor Sologub, "A Dream" explores the mysterious nature of dreams, carrying us irresistibly wherever they will. In this entranced song, the piano part rings like tiny bells; bells were an obsession for Rachmaninoff throughout his career.

The most famous of the Russian symbolists, Konstantin Balmont wrote the poem for the final song, "The Quest." Lured by a woman's enigmatic smile, the singer calls to her to join him in an enchanted mountain world, but hears only the echo of his cries in response. The piano superbly describes the singer's changing psychological state from eager rapture to desperation and ultimately closes on an unresolved dissonant chord as the lover is left unsatisfied.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Dedinské scény (Village Scenes), BB87a

Though Béla Bartók wrote very few original art songs, his many folksong arrangements frequently rise to the level of concert lieder in their intricacy and creativity. Of course, the collection and transcription of authentic folk melodies from Hungary and adjacent lands consumed much of his early career and helped shape his unique compositional voice. Although much of this work was an effort to document traditional music before it was lost forever, sometimes the songs provided material for a new and richer treatment.

Such is the case of the five songs known as Dedinské scény (Village Scenes), or Dorfszenen in German. Bartók collected their melodies in 1915–1916 from the Zólyom county of northern Hungary where the Slovakian language is spoken. In 1924, he used them to create a little portrait of Slovakian peasant life, focusing on a rural wedding. (Just the year before, Bartók had divorced his first wife to marry his young piano student Ditta Pásztory.)

The set opens and closes with more general scenes, "Haymaking" and "Lads' Dance," respectively; the three wedding songs are "At the Bride's," "Wedding," and "Lullaby" (Bartók's second son had just been born). In 1926, the composer also arranged three of the songs for women's chorus and chamber orchestra.

In a 1931 lecture, Bartók described two basic approaches to arranging folksongs. "In one case, accompaniment, introductory, and concluding phrases are of secondary importance, and they only serve as an ornamental setting for the precious stone: the folk melody. In the second case, the melody serves as a 'motto,' while that which is built around it is of real importance." For Village Scenes, he took the second approach, for here the folk melodies are treated with great freedom, new melodic material is added, and the piano parts are not mere accompaniments, but equal with the voice. In the third and fourth songs, he combined two different Slovakian melodies within each.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Lead support for Carnegie Hall commissions is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Jean-Marie and Elizabeth Eveillard in support of the 2012-2013 season.
This performance is part of Great Artists II, and Vocal Trio.

Part of