The Colour of Sound Programme Notes
Strauss Sextet from Capriccio
Bruce Cymbeline (Asian Premiere)
Tsintsadze Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Tunes for Mandolin and Strings
Dvořák String Quartet in A-flat major, Op. 105
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Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Sextet from Capriccio, Op. 85 (1940–1)
The long-lived German Romantic composer Richard Strauss was naturally drawn to the voice – in life as well as in work, marrying the soprano Pauline de Ahna, who proved a lifelong inspiration. He excelled not only as a song composer, with an output including such sublime utterances as ‘Morgen’ and the Four Last Songs, but as a creator of operas second to none. These ranged from the early ground-breaking works Salome and Elektra, which were followed by the sumptuous Der Rosenkavalier, to the heady late works – such as Daphne and his final opera Capriccio. This last work, written while the Second World War was raging, explored a subject very close to Strauss’s heart: the relationship between words and music in opera. It’s a conversation, if not a downright argument, that had been going on since Monteverdi, creator of the earliest operas, who stated ‘Music first, then words’. It struck a chord, for this phrase, ‘Prima la musica e poi le parole’, became the title of a play by the 18th-century Giovanni Batista Casti. This play was then discovered by Stefan Zweig, Strauss’s sometime librettist, and the composer’s interest was piqued, resulting in Capriccio, in which poetry and music become characters – a poet and a composer – who are rivals in love as well as art. It is down to a countess to choose between them, thus deciding whether it is music or words that are most important.
The opera itself begins with the sextet, which has that gentle yearning sensuality that immediately identifies the composer. In Strauss’s hands, strings speak as vibrantly as the human voice, and the sense of an ever-changing harmonic landscape is beautifully conveyed. This is followed by a dramatic tremolo, a moment of drama, before things calm down again. As we get another soliloquy, there’s a sense of intimacy, as if we’re looking in from the outside on a scene of close-knit domesticity. And again, the way Strauss colours and re-colours the music is endlessly subtle, and the close of the Sextet a miracle of subtle shadings.
David Bruce (born 1970)
David Bruce was born in America but grew up in the UK, and his music is acclaimed not only on either side of the Atlantic, but worldwide. He studied with George Benjamin, Tim Salter and Harrison Birtwistle. Career highlights to date include a new work commissioned for the gala opening of the 2009 season of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, New York; Associate Composer of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in 2013–14; the chamber opera The Firework-Maker’s Daughter for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, followed by, in 2016, a co-commission by the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne for his opera Nothing, premiered in 2016; and Cut the Rug for Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble to mark the ensemble’s 15th anniversary in 2012.
Bruce composed Cymbeline for the mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, to whom the work is dedicated to mark the occasion of his marriage.
David Bruce writes: ‘Cymbeline is a new work for mandolin and string quartet, written specially for mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital. The title is an old Celtic word meaning “Lord of the Sun”. I think the idea of the piece being about the sun emerged out of the colours of the string quartet and the mandolin together. Although I don’t think of myself as a synaesthetic person I kept having a strong sense of the colour gold in the early sketches for the piece. The mandolin itself has always seemed to me to create a “golden” sound, and, when combined with the warmth of the strings, it now seems obvious that I should have been drawn towards something warm and golden.
The sun was one of the first objects of worship and it has been surmised that the idea of a holy trinity (found not just in Christianity, but in numerous earlier religions) relates to the three distinct positions of the sun – sunrise (=father), noon (=son) and sunset (=spirit). Sunrise is “the father of the day”; midday represents the fullness of energy, the son; and sunset is a time for contemplation and reflection – the spirit. To me, these three states represent not just “father, son and spirit” but also perhaps, the reflection upon an action about to happen (sunrise), the action itself (noon) and the reflection on the action that happened (sunset).
Cymbeline accordingly is in three movements, with two contemplative outer ones surrounding an energetic central movement. I see the piece as a contemplation of our relationship with this fiery giver of life, whose significance to us is often overlooked in the modern world, but who still really does rule over us all.’
Sulkhan Fyodorovich Tsintsadze (1925-1991)
Six Miniatures for String Quartet and Mandolin on Georgian Folk Tunes
Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze is best known for his 12 string quartets, which span the length of his compositional life. As a cellist, Tsintsadze had an insider’s affinity for the string quartet as both an ensemble and a genre. He also wrote other works for string quartet, including the three sets of Miniatures during the decade between 1945 and 1955, from which tonight’s selections are drawn.
Tsintsadze’s artful blend of classical and folk elements gives his music vitality and depth, like the music of his colleagues Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, and other composers who also combined folk and classical influences. Unlike some of Bartók’s folk-inflected music, which featured harsh, almost savagely discordant passages, Tsintsadze’s Miniatures feature a directness and accessibility that draws the audience into his delightful Georgian soundscapes.
Shepherds’ Dance has quick, insistent triplets over which there is a lively, enthusiastic dance. A graceful stepping rhythm is established in Suliko and a melody in thirds sings expressively. Indi-Mindi is a title used by Tsintsadze in earlier works. An active introductory section leads to a melancholy melodic section after which the active music returns. Lied (Song) opens with sustained phrases in the accompaniment as the song melody intertwines. Drone notes and repeated patterns establish Satchidao with its melodic turns and insistent rhythms. Dance Tune sets a whirling tempo with its repeated-note phrases and quick triplets.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, Op. 105 (1895)
Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro appassionato
Lento e molto cantabile
Finale: Allegro non tanto
The great Czech composerAntonín Dvořák not only helped to develop a recognisably national style for the music of his homeland, but was also called on to do the same for American classical music when he was appointed Director of the newly established New York Conservatory of Music, arriving in 1892. This period was musically productive from Dvořák, for it was while in New York that he wrote his famous Ninth Symphony, ‘From the New World’, and started his last string quartet, his 14th, finishing it on his return to Prague in 1895.
The composer’s complete mastery of the genre is everywhere apparent. The piece begins with a whispered motif, low in the cello, which is gradually picked up by the other instruments in this slow introduction. In terms of intensity and the sense of the music being moulded before our very ears, Dvořák seems to be channelling late Beethoven. But the way the same motif is transformed in the main part of the movement (Allegro appassionato) into something so sunny and lively is pure Dvořák. So is the way he takes us through a variety of harmonic colours and shadings and fluctuations of tempo, including, about three minutes in, a particularly telling moment (marked Poco sostenuto e tranquillo) at which the music fleetingly luxuriates in its beauty, to uplifting effect. The mood then becomes more troubled, only righting itself at Un poco meno mosso. The frequent shifts in tempo give the whole movement a very organic feel. And, just as matters seem to be winding down to a subdued close, the music gains energy again one more time, ending fortissimo and pesante.
The scherzo contrasts airborne passages with more trenchant writing. As in the first movement, there’s a sense of fluidity here, but it’s achieved differently, with rhythms that often go across the barlines, giving the sense of alternating time signatures that you find in the Bohemian dance, the furiant – a great favourite of Dvořák’s. And again the way that he can transform an idea by changing its context, is abundantly demonstrated – for example, when the opening theme gets smoothed out into a languorous motif marked molto cantabile, presented on first violin, it seems to breathe a completely different air.
Dvořák follows this with one of his most soulful slow movements. The melody of this F major Lento e molto cantabile is introduced by the first violin, with the second providing counterpoint and gently enriching the texture in an almost Brahmsian manner; the role of the second violin is then passed to viola in the answering phrase. But Dvořák is nothing if not egalitarian, for the second violin then takes over the theme, with the first duetting high above it; from these simple devices he builds and develops the musical argument. Then, after a bar’s rest, the cello introduces a throbbing repeated low F in triplets, which in itself is ambiguous – is it major or minor? Yet it sets up an ominous shudder that is borne out by the chromatically edgy melody, in F minor, initially on the first violin but which is then shared around the instruments. This rises to a climax, molto appassionato, then dies down, and the first section returns, though now decorated with a more filigree accompaniment, giving it a sense of playfulness. The mood darkens for a moment, as the cello triplets reappear and there’s a brief reprise of the minor-key theme, but this gives way to a resolution in the sweetest F major.
As the finale sets off, it is again the cello that sounds a note of anxiety but it’s answered by music of sparkling energy in the other three instruments. This is the longest of the four movements, but Dvořák ensures that focus never flags by recolouring his themes on each reappearance and, as in the first movement, ensuring that there’s a sense of flexibility through subtle tempo changes. It forms the most exuberant possible ending to his career as a composer of string quartets.
Programme note by Harriet Smith
Harriet Smith is a writer, editor, and broadcaster. After studies in music and piano at Cambridge University, she worked as deputy editor of Gramophone magazine, editor of BBC Music Magazine and founder-editor of International Piano Quarterly and International Record Review. She is now based in an idyllic spot on the east Kent coast and when not at her desk can be found attempting to tame her garden and taking bracing seaside walks with Freya the dog.
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