CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Tuesday, April 2, 2013 | 7:30 PM

Jonathan Biss
Elias String Quartet

Zankel Hall
“What I feel for Schumann goes beyond love and admiration," says Jonathan Biss. “The intensity of his passion for music, and his will to use music as a poetic and personal, yet fully realized and deeply expressive language strike me as the highest aims imaginable for a musician.” On this program, part of his season-long focus on Mozart, Janáček, and Schumann, Biss joins members of the Elias String Quartet for Schumann’s Piano Quartet.

The contemporary work on this program is part of My Time, My Music.
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The Program

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493

About the Composer


On June 3, 1786—one month after the triumphant premiere in Vienna of Le nozze di Figaro—Mozart put the finishing touches on the second of his two great quartets for piano and strings. Its predecessor, in the characteristically "tragic" key of G minor, had been criticized by the publisher as excessively difficult to play, and hence to sell to the music-buying public. Franz Anton Hoffmeister reportedly advised the composer to "write in a more popular vein, otherwise I shan't be able to publish and pay for any more of your works." Mozart is said to have retorted, "In that case, I shan't earn any more and shall starve, but I don't care."


About the Work


Despite its sunnier disposition, K. 493 makes no more concession to amateur-grade technique than the G-Minor Quartet, at least as far as the keyboard part is concerned. The two outer movements-marked Allegro and Allegretto, respectively-sport long stretches of bracing duple-time passagework designed to show off the pianist's accuracy and agility. (That pianist was, of course, Mozart himself.) To be sure, Mozart was fully capable of composing "in a more popular vein." But the piano quartet was a new genre, one that he virtually invented. Understandably, Mozart was keen to explore its potential free of commercial constraints. In no time, K. 493 became all the rage in Europe's fashionable salons.


A Closer Listen


Departing from the conventional 18th-century continuo model, Mozart makes the pianist a full-fledged partner in the ensemble. Much of the keyboard writing is mercilessly exposed, the lack of harmonic "filler" giving the music an extra measure of transparency. The middle movement, a tenderly lyrical, triple-time Larghetto in the subdominant key of A-flat major, provides a subtle contrast of both meter and mood. Mozart's biographer Hermann Abert rightly called it "the work's crowning glory … a movement of an indescribable interiority of emotion." As so often in Mozart, the deeply satisfying unity of the E-flat-Major Quartet is not merely a matter of thematic and harmonic relationships. It expresses itself at every level of the composition, down to such niceties as the recurring interval of a descending sixth (listen for it at the very beginning, when it is introduced by the piano and violin in the first movement's beguiling countersubject), and the chromatic inflections and decorative turns that impart color and bounce to the melodic line.


—Harry Haskell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

LEOŠ JANÁČEK
String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters"

About the Composer


Long after the successful premiere of his opera Jenůfa in 1904, Janáček remained little known outside his native Moravia. His modest fame rested largely on his accomplishments as a teacher, organist, and musical folklorist. Not until a revised version of Jenůfa was staged in Prague in 1916 did his fame begin to spread. Janáček was already moving away from the late-Romantic ethos of his early works to the distinctive sound world of his maturity, characterized by epigrammatic terseness, abrupt changes of mood and atmosphere, and irregular, speech-like rhythms. In the last decade of his life, his passionate but platonic affair with the much younger Kamila Stösslová sparked a white-hot blaze of compositional activity. Janáček immortalized his muse in such masterpieces as the operas Kát'a Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair, as well as the Second String Quartet of 1928, his last major work.


About the Work


According to Janáček, the Second Quartet, initially called "Love Letters," was almost graphic in its depiction of his relationship with Stösslová ("Here they kissed; here they longed for one another," and so on). Subsequently, he had second thoughts about exposing their affair to public gaze, declaring, "I won't deliver my feelings to the tender mercies of fools." Thinly disguised under a new subtitle, "Intimate Letters," the original impulse remained unchanged. The composer told Stösslová that the quartet was "written in fire," whereas earlier pieces had been written "only in hot ash." In another letter, he made his intentions even more explicit: "You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses—no, really of mine. But the softness of your lips. Those notes of mine kiss all of you."


A Closer Listen


The fire that blazes and smolders throughout Janáček's Second Quartet is not the impetuous ardor of youth, but the desperate passion of an old man for whom love is a matter of life and death. By the composer's own account, the first movement records his initial impressions of Stösslová: The main theme, harmonized in sweet-sounding sixths, recurs throughout the movement-and again in the second and fourth-with almost obsessive intensity. These passionate outpourings are tempered by a persistent undercurrent of foreboding, as expressed by the ghostly countermelody played sul ponticello ("on the bridge") by the viola and cello at the very beginning. It's as if Janáček knows his happiness can't last. (In fact, he died only a few months after completing the quartet.) The complexity of his emotions is mirrored in the music's abrupt shifts of mood and meter, and in the multilayered textures recalling those of Dvořák. The last movement, with its fitful dance rhythms, is almost Mahlerian in its blend of sentimentality and angst, culminating in a savage salvo of trills just before the end, a harrowing passage in which Janáček bares his soul.


—Harry Haskell

 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

TIMOTHY ANDRES
Piano Quintet

About the Composer


In his late 20s, California-born and Yale-educated Timothy Andres already has an impressive clutch of commissions under his belt. Like many other composers of his generation, he moves with ease between past and present. He has "recomposed" Mozart's "Coronation" Piano Concerto, fleshing out the incomplete left-hand part in a decidedly un-Mozartean vein, and written a companion suite to Schumann's Kreisleriana, cheekily titled It takes a long time to become a good composer. Some of his works explicitly recall earlier styles and genres, such as Retro Music, a fractured evocation of 19th-century four-hand piano waltzes, and an orchestral paraphrase on music by Brian Eno. As a pianist, Andres frequently performs his own music, some of which can be heard on his Nonesuch debut album Shy and Mighty.


About the Work


Jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall, San Francisco Performances, Wigmore Hall in London, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Andres's Piano Quintet received its premiere (by tonight's performers) on March 29 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. The Piano Quintet is almost unique among his rapidly growing body of works in lacking a programmatic title. This does not necessarily suggest, however, that the music is any more abstract, or any less playfully allusive, than his earlier works. Indeed, the titles of the five movements suggest that more than purely musical processes are at work. "Pyramid Scheme," for example, is laid out in the score in a succession of interlocking triangle-shaped lines that may reflect Andres's interest in graphic design.


A Closer Listen


In common with John Adams—a composer with whom Andres is sometimes compared—Andres writes unmistakably contemporary yet engagingly accessible music that is typically built on repetitive patterns. In the quintet's first movement, "Canons and Fables," each instrument introduces the lively melody in turn, as in a classical fugue, but in progressively longer note values. "Boulder Pushing" uses tremolos, ponticello bowing, harmonics, and other effects to create a slow-moving sonic mass underlaid by churning figurations in the piano. In the third movement, "Teneramente" ("Tenderly"), the piano belatedly joins the strings' chorale-like dirge, treading out a simple ascending scale that swells inexorably from the depths of the keyboard. In "Lenticular Postcard," the piano line bounces along in mirror motion, creating an aural image of a biconvex lens and paving the way for the musical "optics" of "Pyramid Scheme."


—Harry Haskell

 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

ROBERT SCHUMANN
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47

About the Composer


"I am at the height of my powers and must make use of my youth while it lasts," Schumann confided to his diary in September 1842. Despite its ups and downs—the composer had begun to complain of worrisome bouts of despondency and depression—his 32nd year had truly been an annus mirabilis in terms of chamber music. A surge of creativity had already produced, in quick succession, the three string quartets of Op. 41. Schumann was deeply immersed in his Op. 44 Piano Quintet, and before the year was out, he would finish both the Piano Quartet, Op. 47, and the Op. 88 Phantasiestücke for piano trio.


About the Work


In preparation for resuming the chamber music project he had set aside several years earlier, Schumann had steeped himself in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Like them, he found the discipline of writing chamber music for strings, with and without piano, both challenging and liberating. Deliberately distancing himself from the literary models that had inspired much of his earlier programmatic music, he concentrated instead on structural clarity and the craft of composition. It's no coincidence that both the Piano Quartet and its cousin, the Piano Quintet (also in E-flat major), feature elaborate fugal finales that recall material presented earlier.


A Closer Listen


Schumann's command of thematic transformation is evident in his handling of the gently sighing four-note figure that the strings play at the outset of the Op. 47 Quartet. It generates much of the thematic material for the first movement and resurfaces throughout the quartet in various guises. (Keeping track of the family resemblance among themes is one of the pleasures of listening to Schumann's music.) The Mendelssohnian Scherzo, in G minor, contrasts a torrent of driving eighth notes with two trio interludes of a sweeter, more relaxed disposition. The tenderly yearning theme of the Andante cantabile—again derived from the embryonic four-note figure—is one of Schumann's most inspired melodies. The slow movement ends with a rumination on a group of three notes, which Schumann deftly transforms into the three staccato chords that set the fugal machine in motion in the athletic Finale.


—Harry Haskell

 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Lead support for Carnegie Hall commissions is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Funding for the Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This performance is part of Chamber Sessions III.

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