Three Studies from Couperin
Les tours de passé-passe
L’âme en peine
Born in London, Thomas Adès is one of today’s most distinguished composers. His operas, The Tempest and Powder Her Face have both been featured at the Metropolitan Opera, a venue noted for its parsimony towards contemporary composers. The Exterminating Angel premiered at Salzburg this year. Adès is also a performing pianist and conductor, who has appeared with the most prestigious orchestras around the world. His orchestral work, America, A Prophecy (1999) was eerily prescient.
François Couperin (le Grand) belonged to a family of musicians and composers popular during the reigns of Louis XIV and XV. Most of their works were for clavecin, the French term for harpsichord. The plucking mechanism of the harpsichord precludes gradual variations in dynamics, one of the reasons that the piano grew so quickly in popularity.
In Three Studies from Couperin, Adès recasts Couperin’s harpsichord works emphasizing rapid, subtle variations in timbre and dynamics – exactly the opposite of the sonority of the original instrument for which they were written. Virtually every note is played sforzando, and frequently successive notes within a single melodic line are played in relay, handed off from instrument to another with subtly different timbres. Adès has selected source pieces with melodies of the utmost simplicity, as if trying to prevent the listener from being distracted by a tune.
In the second of Adès’ pieces, Les tours de passe-passe (the slight-of-hand), Adès also gives a modern harmonic underpinning to the melody, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. It is also the most dramatic of the three, gradually building in complex sonorities and dynamics.
The titles of short works of the French Baroque were often coded to represent individuals at court and now mean little or nothing to us. The title of the third of Adès pieces, Lâme en peine (The Soul in Pain), however, lends itself nicely to the sighing effect of the continual sforzandi.
Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364
For Violin, Viola and Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
In January 1779 Mozart reluctantly returned to Salzburg after a disastrous two-year trip to Germany and Paris. Not only did he fail in obtaining a court appointment, but private commissions were also few and far between. The most severe blow during his Paris sojourn, however, was the sudden death of his mother, who was accompanying him.
One of the works that Mozart composed shortly after his return was the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola. The sinfonia concertante is a cross between a symphony and a concerto, a form popular in the second half of the eighteenth century that Mozart encountered on his travels. Like his contemporaries, he seldom composed large works without a commission, but we have no surviving record of this work’s genesis, who commissioned it or who premiered it. Perhaps he wrote it for his father Leopold as violinist and himself as violist. Subsequently it may have formed part of the portfolio he carried with him to Vienna in 1781when he tried to establish his career as a freelance composer and performer in the Empire’s capital.
The Sinfonia concertante, which is more of a formal double concerto than a symphony, may have also been an experiment in the writing of a double concerto since the Concerto for Two Pianos also in E-flat, K. 365, follows it by only one Koechel number. Both concertos are elegant creations with moments of breathtaking beauty.
The violin and viola parts weave in and out of each other in a way that harks back to Bach’s Double Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. At other times the two soloists chase each other in the same way as the two pianos in the Concerto in E-flat. In all three movements the solo parts are often anticipated or echoed by a pair of oboes.
Now one of Mozart’s most beloved works, its premiere in the USA, nearly 80 years after it was composed, was not a success. The critic of the New York Times wrote: “On the whole we would prefer death to a repetition of this production. The wearisome scale passages on the little fiddle, repeated ad nauseam on the bigger one, were simply maddening.”
The reason the first movement consumes nearly 15 minutes is because of Mozart’s seemingly inexhaustible stream of melodies. The orchestra’s exposition comprises three, and then Mozart provides the soloists with a whole new set. The sound of the violin emerging out of the little oboe cadence pattern is one of those minor strokes of genius that we often take for granted in Mozart. Just before the end, there’s an exquisite cadenza.
The poignancy of the cadenza sets the mood for the melancholy Andante. It is this movement that the sinuous interplay of the two soloists comes to the fore. Here we encounter fewer melodies, but rather an emotional journey of a single theme, the soloists discuss its fate in a serious dialogue, occasionally coming to an agreement.
The Finale shakes off the last vestiges of melancholy in a light-hearted rondo that may have been the feature that irked the New York critic. There is quite a bit of repetition, especially since the rondo has four themes, each stated twice every time. The multi-themed episode is also repeated – along with internal repetitions as well. It took a Beethoven to really endow finales with heft.
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Orch. Leopold Stokowski
Johann Sebastian Bach
Composed in 1707, the Passacaglia and Fugue is Bach’s only work of this type, and was modeled on a passacaglia and fugue in D minor by Buxtehude, but exceeded it, as Bach scholar Christoph Wolff writes: “in absolute control over compositional principles, musical form, figurative material, fugal devices and harmonic strategies.” This work by a young genius who felt he still had something to learn from an old master illustrates why Bach is a household name and Buxtehude isn’t.
The Passacaglia consists of 20 variations over an eight-measure ground, followed by a fugue derived from the same ground. It is the only one of Bach’s works to use the term “passacaglia,” as distinguished from the “chaconne,” the distinction being between a closed melody that ends in the tonic, versus an open melody that cadences on the dominant and “propels” the music into yet another iteration of the ground.
The ground supplies both a melody and determines a harmonic structure for the work. Bach insists that the ground always be audible no matter what goes on around it in the other voices And although most of the repetitions keep the ground in the bass, Bach sometimes inverts the scheme, placing the ground in the highest voice or in the middle.
The Fugue is a true tour de force as it employs a new subject while retaining the passacaglia ground. Fugues, however, are by nature modulating pieces, and restricting the fugue to the identical harmonic pattern throughout would have been monotonous and work against the nature of the beast.
Conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was also an accomplished organist, and arranged or orchestrated some 37 of Bach’s works. The best known of these is the Toccata and Fugue BWV 565, which made its way in 1940 into Walt Disney’s Fantasia. His orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue was one of his first, premiered in 1922.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart’s final three symphonies, nos. 39, 40 and 41, were written over a two-month period in 1788, probably as part of a portfolio of new works destined for a series of summer concerts in Vienna. Unfortunately, we lack any information as to whether the concerts actually took place, much less about their reception. At this point his career was already in decline despite the success of his two great operas Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro written in collaboration with his brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. That is not to say that Mozart’s music was somehow denigrated or considered no longer pleasing; his published scores were selling briskly and his music was being performed all over Europe. It was almost as if there was a surfeit of Mozart – that he was too well known. And although he was in desperate need of funds to support his lifestyle, his legendary productivity faltered as well.
The opening theme of Symphony No. 40, with its hushed, nervous introductory upbeat in the violas, sets the tone of urgency and anxiety that pervades the entire work. The second movement Andante is the only movement in a major key. But while it begins serenely enough, it, too, turns dark and intense in the course of its development.
Even the Minuet, usually the most lightweight movement in a Classical symphony, retains the original key and is characterized by a series of phrases ending on successively higher and higher notes, ratcheting up the emotional tension. Restatements of the theme in imitative counterpoint pile on top of each other in their agitation. The Trio, at least, provides an emotional break, however slight.
The theme of the finale is a musical portrayal of hysteria, a shrill arpeggio ending in a sighing appoggiatura, followed by a pounding motive in the orchestra that closes with an echo of the sigh in the lower register. Despite a lyrical second theme, the movement is in constant nervous motion. Finally, Mozart subverts the custom of ending symphonies in minor keys in the major, and stays in G minor to the end. Even Tchaikovsky concluded his morose Fifth Symphony in triumph.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn