CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Saturday, April 14, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Takács Quartet

Zankel Hall
For its second of two nights at Carnegie Hall, the Takács Quartet presents Janáček’s fascinating “Intimate Letters” quartet, inspired by 700 obsessive love letters the composer wrote to a married woman 37 years his junior, and Britten’s final major work. The evening concludes with Ravel’s only string quartet, the Quartet in F Major, a piece featuring nostalgic melodies dedicated to the composer’s teacher Fauré.
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The Program

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

About the Composer


While vacationing in a Moravian spa town in 1917, Czech composer Leos Janáček met and fell in love with the 25-year-old Kamila Stösslová. She was less than half his age—he was 63—and unlettered. Both were already married. But no matter; the two became devoted correspondents. Their nearly 700 letters document a moving (and chaste) love affair along with the history of Janáček's late music with Kamila as his muse. She inspired the heroines in his operas Kát'a Kabanová and The Makropulos Affair, both of which use the viola d'amore, an unusual instrument the composer associated with his beloved.


About the Work


Instead of the viola d'amore, the instrument linked to Kamila, Janáček gives the standard viola special prominence in this quartet. He described the work to Kamila as a musical depiction of their relationship. "In this work I will always be only with you! … I shall love doing it! You know, don't you, that I know no other world than you!" Thus, the quartet bears the subtitle "Intimate Letters." Whereas other pieces were composed "only in hot ash," he described this quartet as having been "written in fire."


A Closer Listen


At the very opening, the viola plays an intense, nearly inaudible solo, playing on the bridge of the instrument. Group and solo alternate, loud and soft, until a new melody takes flight. The composer described the second movement Adagio as an account of his dream of Kamila giving birth to their son. A gently rocking theme rises, falls, and returns to center; it is passed among the instruments, heard as solos, duets, and accompanied by trills. Eventually a new, dance-like theme appears in the first violin, book-ended by quick, quietly descending figures. The movement ends with the opening, rocking theme played fortissimo, accompanied by the falling flourishes. The third movement piles on brief melodic ideas, but the finale begins with a memorable melody in the first violin. The many changes in tempo and mood reflect the composer's fiery inspiration.


—Elizabeth Bergman

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

BENJAMIN BRITTEN
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94

About the Composer


Upon returning to England in 1942 after three years in the US, Britten determined to make his mark as a composer of operas, a genre in which no English composer since Purcell had excelled. In Peter Grimes, produced in London to wide acclaim in 1945, he crystallized his signature theme of the "deviant" individual in conflict with society. (As a conscientious objector, Britten had been exempted from military service, but he lived in constant fear of persecution for both his pacifism and his homosexuality.) It was the first of a series of theatrical masterpieces—including The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Death in Venice—that revitalized British opera and transformed the reticent composer into a prominent public figure. In his last years, Britten turned increasingly inward, concentrating on the chamber music festival he had founded in Aldeburgh and on his loving relationship with tenor Peter Pears.


About the Work


With its many references to Death in Venice—in particular to music associated with the hopelessly infatuated writer Aschenbach, Britten's putative alter ego—the String Quartet No. 3 has unmistakable autobiographical overtones. Britten began sketching the score in Aldeburgh in October 1975 and finished it a month later in Venice, a city where he had always felt at home. (The last movement of the quartet bears the rubric of the once-powerful Venetian republic, "La serenissima.") Scholar Hans Keller, to whom the quartet is dedicated, went so far as to describe it as a Mozartean exercise in "the instrumental purification of opera." Whether or not Britten intended the work as a musical valediction, it was inevitably received as such when the Amadeus Quartet gave the first performance in Aldeburgh two weeks after the composer's death in 1976.


A Closer Listen


Unlike the traditional three- and four-movement formats that Britten adopted in his earlier quartets, the Third Quartet is cast as a suite-like sequence of five movements. Each alludes, either directly or obliquely, to its operatic precursor. The first movement, "Duets," evokes music associated with Aschenbach's erotic fascination with the beautiful and exotic young Tadzio. The manic, circling motifs of "Ostinato" are the musical image of his obsession, while "Solo" treats the first violin as an isolated protagonist, floating in an emotional space high above the spare linear texture of the accompaniment. "Burlesque," with its lumbering jollity and dancelike midsection, conjures a phantasmagorical vision of the City of Bridges. In the final "Recitative and Passacaglia," echoes of Aschenbach's love motif consort with a lugubrious passacaglia theme (which, according to Britten, was suggested by the tolling of Venetian church bells). Unlike the First Quartet, which closes in a blaze of D major, the Third Quartet leaves us hanging in air, its passions unresolved and unresolvable. 


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

MAURICE RAVEL
String Quartet in F Major

About the Composer


Ravel felt acutely self-conscious about writing his first—and, as it turned out, only—string quartet. Having made his mark in his mid-20s with a small group of brilliantly crafted piano pieces, including the ever-popular Pavane pour une infante défunte and Jeux d'eaux, he found himself being bracketed with Claude Debussy, 13 years his senior, as the shining hope of French music. That comparisons would be drawn to Debussy's celebrated String Quartet of 1893 was as disconcerting as it was inevitable. Perhaps wary of calling attention to Debussy's influence on his music, and eager to burnish his credentials as a member in good standing of the musical establishment, Ravel dedicated the F-Major Quartet to his teacher, Vincent d'Indy, an influential composer of a markedly more conservative and academic disposition.


About the Work


A judicious blend of spontaneity and premeditation is one of the things that gives Ravel's quartet its distinctive fluidity and eloquence. According to his pupil Alexis Roland-Manuel, Ravel mistrusted "the secret powers which governed him unawares" and sought to counterbalance his creative instincts with the criticism of friends. D'Indy, predictably dismayed to see his prize student playing fast and loose with tradition, bluntly pronounced the quartet's highly compressed finale "stunted, badly balanced, in fact, a failure." Debussy, on the other hand, instantly recognized the kindred spark of iconoclastic genius. "In the name of the gods of music, and in mine," he exclaimed, "do not touch a single note of what you have written in your quartet." Ravel heeded this excellent advice, and the work's well-received Paris premiere in March 1904 firmly established him as Debussy's heir apparent.


A Closer Listen


Roland-Manuel characterized the quartet as "the most spontaneous work Ravel has ever written," a description that applies especially to the improvisatory-sounding slow movement, with its freely declamatory outbursts and dreamlike reminiscences of the opening Allegro moderato. Yet Ravel's Classical discipline is equally evident in the first movement's two-theme sonata form and the slightly off-kilter but tightly controlled metrical patterns of the second and fourth movements. As the composer wrote in his autobiography, "My String Quartet represents a conception of musical construction, imperfectly realized no doubt, but set out much more precisely than in my earlier compositions." Like Debussy (and Bartók after him), Ravel experimented with cyclical structure in his quartet, achieving a strong sense of unity among the four movements by means of recurring intervals, melodic shapes, textures, and sonorities.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of A Golden Age of Music, and Chamber Sessions III.

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