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FROM VIENNA
London Conchord Ensemble

 

 

Artist(s):
London Conchord Ensemble,

BEETHOVEN • BERG • MOZART

SCHOENBERG • J STRAUSS • ZEMLINSKY

 

The London Conchord Ensemble returns to the Music Room at Champs Hill to present a double-disc of music from Vienna including works by Beethoven, Berg, Mozart, Schoenberg, Johann Strauss II and Zemlinksy.

 

The ensemble says of the programming: “When compiling a collection of chamber music from Vienna, the embarrassment of riches makes it hard to find an organisational principle. It would be difficult enough to be representative, let alone comprehensive. So, we have tried to do something different. We have put together two discs, focusing upon mixed chamber music for wind, strings and piano, each of which aims to have an internal logic created by links between composers and pieces.”

 

London Conchord Ensemble is one of Europe’s leading chamber ensembles. Their imaginative programming and charismatic performance style have won them many accolades over the years, and they celebrated their 10th anniversary with a BBC Chamber Music Prom at Cadogan Hall.

 

“The London Conchord Ensemble manifestly relish what Poulenc has to offer, playing with panache, wit and discreet sensitivity in performances that are a constant joy.” (Gramophone on their Poulenc: Complete Chamber Works - Champs Hill CHRCD028)

 

“The London Conchord Ensemble understand [this music] completely, working their magic in the bittersweet sonatas for piano and cello, violin, flute, oboe and clarinet, and romping through ensemble works large and small…” (The Observer on the same disc)

 


 

 


The year 1784 saw Mozart compose no fewer than a half-dozen piano concertos for his subscription concerts in Vienna.  The first of them, K.449, was scored for piano and strings, with oboes and horns ad libitum - in other words, it could be performed as a chamber piece without losing any essential ingredient. This was the manner in which Mozart had written his three previous piano concertos (K.413-415), and he may well have begun work on his new concerto at the same time as those.  Immediately after the E flat concerto, however, came a concerto of a very different kind.  Right from the start of the B flat Concerto K.450 the wind instruments step into the limelight, and the main theme is given out boldly by the oboes and bassoons. In the variation slow movement, strings and winds alternate, so that there are long serenade-like passages scored for piano and wind instruments alone.

   Just a fortnight after the Concerto K.450 Mozart completed a work exclusively concerned with exploring the new-found possibilities of combining piano and wind instruments - the Quintet in E flat major K.452. Mozart proudly told his father that it received “extraordinary applause”, and, moreover, that he regarded it as the best thing he had written so far. One of its striking features is the thoroughness with which the two opposing instrumental forces are merged, with each phrase characteristically being handed over from piano to wind instruments, or vice versa, in mid-stream. It is a manner of writing whose subtlety Beethoven failed to register when he wrote his own quintet for the same forces, Op.16. (When he subsequently rescored the work as a quartet for piano and string trio, Beethoven did adopt Mozart’s more integrated style, but he never revised his original version.) 

  Mozart’s quintet begins with a broad slow introduction whose kinship with the ensuing Allegro is not immediately apparent. However, the horn’s first appearance in the foreground, with a cadential phrase of melting beauty, is followed by a descending scale figure of seven notes given out initially by the bassoon, before it is passed to the horn, clarinet, oboe, and finally the piano; and the identical figure reappears in the Allegro, after the piano has regaled us with a passage in rapid semiquaver triplets.  As for the Allegro’s main theme, it finds Mozart at his most relaxed. Surprisingly, he makes little attempt to increase the tension during the central development section, and there is consequently no perceptible change in mood when the recapitulation sets in.

   The slow movement breathes the atmosphere of a serenade, and it may remind us of the wind serenade in the second act of Così fan tutte.  Nor can we reasonably complain that during the middle stage of its exposition the piano fulfils a purely accompanimental role, when the operatic quartet that unfolds at the same time is of such breathtaking beauty.  The development is largely based on new material, with a broad theme introduced by the horn.  Here, Mozart ventures into remote tonal regions before order is restored with the start of an elaborately varied recapitulation in which scarcely a bar mirrors the pattern of the exposition in scoring.  At the same time, the melodic shape of that earlier operatic ensemble is also radically altered.

  The rondo finale is more straightforward, and it could be said that it takes a step towards the notion of a piano concerto.  It is, however, by no means devoid of subtleties - one of the most notable being the manner in which the central episode is followed by the return not of the rondo theme, but of the material of the first episode. In this way, Mozart reserves the rondo theme itself for a climactic final statement, following an elaborate cadenza.  The last word is left to a coda which brings the work to a close in a spirit of pure opera buffa.

  Mozart entered his Trio K.498 in his running catalogue of works on 5 August 1786.  A few days earlier he had completed a series of twelve short instrumental duos, probably intended for a pair of horns. The manuscript of the third duo contains the remark, “Von Wolfgang Amadé Mozart Wien den 27ten Jullius 1786 untern Kegelscheiben” [whilst playing skittles].  Could it be that the nickname of Kegelstatt, or skittle-alley, by which the Trio K.498 has become widely known, has been applied to the wrong music?  Certainly, it’s easier to imagine Mozart tossing off a simple horn duo while waiting for his turn with the ball, than the profound and highly original trio. Its unusual instrumentation, for the husky tones of clarinet and viola with piano, inspired Schumann, Max Bruch and György Kurtág to try their hand at similarly-scored pieces.

  The overall design of Mozart’s trio, with a central minuet flanked by a slow movement and finale, is one he had already used  - though to very different effect - in two of his piano sonatas (one of them the Turkish Rondo K.331). Unusually for Mozart, the opening movement is based on a single theme, and perhaps this was a factor in his decision not to call for a repeat of its exposition.  In place of such a repeat, four transitional bars leave the music hanging in suspension, after which the development sets out with a startling change of key.  The harmonic elision is of a kind we might more readily expect to find in a late piano trio by Haydn.

  The minuet is quite unlike any other by Mozart, in that not only is there a seamless transition from the end of the trio to the return of the minuet itself, but there is also a coda which resolves the trio’s material by presenting it in the home key.  The notion of writing a coda affording a synthesis of the movement’s two stages is one that was taken up by such later composers as Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. 

  The final rondo (or ‘Rondeaux’, as Mozart’s autograph has it) is notable not only for its splendid theme, but also for a fine episode in the key of C minor which offers one of the great viola solos of the chamber repertoire.  A further memorable episode has the instruments playing in in warmly expressive parallel thirds.

  Among the early works of Beethoven’s maturity are several that follow Mozartian blueprints.  The first of Beethoven’s string trios, Op.3, mirrors the six-movement design of Mozart’s incomparably great trio Divertimento K.563; and the sequence of movements in his A major String Quartet Op.18 No.5 similarly echoes that of Mozart’s quartet in the same key, K.464.  But no chamber work of Beethoven more unabashedly invites comparison with a masterpiece by Mozart than the Quintet Op.16, scored for the same ensemble – piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – as Mozart’s, K.452.  The influence of Mozart’s piece on Beethoven’s Op.16 extends far beyond its instrumentation.  Like Mozart, Beethoven begins with a substantial slow introduction, and his opening movement contains several details which can be traced back to its Mozartian model: the manner in which the start of the central development section continues the musical thought uttered in the exposition’s closing bars; the presence of a false reprise in the subdominant key (A flat), and of a written-out cadenza for the full ensemble in the coda.  All the same, Beethoven’s quintet is far from a slavish imitation - indeed, the contrasts between his work and its model are far more pronounced than their obvious similarities, and its slow movement and finale, in particular, find Beethoven seemingly determined to strike out along wholly different paths.  

  Just as the main theme of Beethoven’s opening movement is a close relative of Tamino’s ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ from Die Zauberflöte, so the ‘hunting’ theme of his finale, with its repeated-note beginning, is strikingly reminiscent of the rondo from another E flat major work by Mozart which makes masterly use of wind instruments – the Piano Concerto K.482. While the theme of Beethoven’s finale remains virtually unaltered throughout, the slow movement finds both its theme and accompaniment elaborately varied on each appearance, until the latter half of the final return is underlain with an intricately ornamented piano part.                 

  At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th Vienna was at the forefront of progressive developments in art, architecture and music. Of the leading composers of the day, Alexander von Zemlinsky is now a comparatively neglected figure, but he was championed by both Mahler and Schoenberg, and his best known work, the Lyric Symphony, was, at least in part, the inspiration behind Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet.  Zemlinsky’s Trio Op.3 was composed in 1897, the year in which Brahms died, and its scoring, for clarinet, cello and piano mirrors that of Brahms’s Trio Op.114.  There are further details in Zemlinsky’s piece that seem to recall the recently-deceased composer: the middle section of its slow movement, with its gipsy-style clarinet part (marked ‘con fantasia’) unfolding against a background of piano tremolos, echoes the parallel moment in Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet Op.115; and the opening movement’s ‘winding’ second subject hints at the opening theme of the second in Brahms’s pair of clarinet sonatas, Op.120.

  All three movements of Zemlinsky’s trio are in the same tonality of D, with the outer sections of the slow movement being in the major, rather than the minor.  The opening Allegro is permeated with a stepwise rising motif of three notes, D-E-F, and the same figure, in an accelerated form, is threaded into the rondo theme of the capricious finale.

  At the time Schoenberg completed his Chamber Symphony Op.9, in 1906, Mahler was working on his massive Eighth Symphony – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”.  Schoenberg’s piece can be described, with greater accuracy, as a symphony of fifteen, and it arose, at least in part, as a reaction against the huge forces being used by composers like Mahler and Strauss.  In the manner in which it condenses the various movements of a symphonic design into a continuous, unified whole, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony stands in the tradition of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, Liszt’s B minor Sonata and the symphonic poems of Strauss; and in the exuberance and swagger of its style, as well as its choice of E major as a fundamental key, Schoenberg’s piece seems to recall Strauss’s Don Juan, in particular.

   In the Chamber Symphony’s formal scheme, the main development section appears between the scherzo and the slow movement, and the finale acts as a free recapitulation. Following the horn-call of the work’s beginning, famously striding upwards in fourths, the impetuously quick opening movement sets forth an abundance of themes – so much so that it appears to have two distinct expositions.  The first of them ends with a long ritardando followed by a varied reprise of the first subject, as though a full-scale repeat were about to unfold.  However, the material of the second exposition is largely new, offering in particular a slow, expressive second subject. A transition leads to the scherzo, after which the development section explores the material of both movements thus far.  A further transition, largely made up of the ascending chain of fourths from the work’s initial bars, paves the way for the slow movement.  The work ends with a recapitulation of ideas mainly drawn from the opening movement, though the slow movement’s theme is also woven into the music’s elaborately contrapuntal fabric.

  The arrangement of the Chamber Symphony recorded here was made by Webern in the early 1920s, in order to provide  Schoenberg with an additional piece to perform when he toured with his Pierrot lunaire ensemble.  Webern’s arrangement is scored for the same group as that famous work: flute, clarinet, viola, cello and piano.  So, too, is Schoenberg’s transcription of Johann Strauss’s ‘Emperor’ Waltz, which he performed in Barcelona in April 1925, at a concert organised by his Catalan former pupil Roberto Gerhard.  Like Brahms before them, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were great admirers of the art of Johann Strauss, and all three made chamber arrangements of waltzes by him.  Several of them were performed on 27 May 1921 (with Berg playing the harmonium, Schoenberg the violin and Webern the cello), at a special Strauss evening of the Society for Private Musical Performances.  (The Society had been established some four years earlier, with the aim of enabling contemporary music to be heard without disturbance from hostile audiences.)  At the end of the evening the manuscripts were auctioned to provide much-needed funds.

  Barely two years after he had completed his Op.9 Chamber Symphony, and during the time when he was working on his epoch-making Second String Quartet, a dark cloud descended over Schoenberg’s life. In the summer of 1908 his wife, Mathilde, who happened also to be Zemlinsky’s sister, left him and their children, and went to live with the painter Richard Gerstl, who had been giving art-lessons to Schoenberg.  Thanks largely to the intervention of Webern, she was eventually persuaded to return to her family; but a few months later Gerstl committed suicide in a particularly gruesome manner.  Mathilde never recovered from this tragic incident, and she led a depressed and shadowy existence in the Schoenberg household.  At the time when she died, in 1923, Berg was working on his Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and winds.  The piece was  designed to celebrate Schoenberg’s 50th birthday, and like Schoenberg’s Op.9 Chamber Symphony it called for an ensemble of fifteen players.  Moreover, the names of the ‘holy trinity’ of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern  were encrypted into the music.  The work plays continuously, and it is only in the finale – a sort of collage of events from the two preceding movements – and in the cadenza that precedes it, that the two soloists are heard together.

Berg also prepared concert-endings for the first two movements of the Chamber Concerto, so that they could be performed as individual items, and a full decade later – this time, to mark his own fiftieth birthday - he made a transcription of the slow movement for violin, clarinet and piano.  The arrangement was undertaken at the request of the violinist Dea Gombrich (sister of the famous art historian), and Berg based it on the reduction of the Chamber Concerto for violin and two pianos - or, in the case of the slow movement, just one piano - that had been made in 1926 by his pupil Fritz Heinrich Klein.  Berg retained the original violin part as it stood (but additionally gave the player a three-bar melody that had been allotted to the cor anglais in the full score), but according to Gombrich he sat down with her at the piano, and with a coloured pencil circled the notes in Klein’s arrangement that he wanted to assign to the clarinet.

In his sketches for the Chamber Concerto, Berg designated its three movements as ‘Friendship’, ‘Love’ and ‘The World’, respectively. The love depicted in the slow movement was that of Schoenberg for Mathilde: not only is her name mysteriously encrypted into the music, but Berg alludes to Schoenberg’s early symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, drawing a parallel between the death of Mélisande following her illicit love-affair with Pelléas, and the fate of Mathilde.  Perhaps it was Mathilde’s fate that engendered the form of the Chamber Concerto’s slow movement, in which the mysterious chimes of midnight deep in the bass of the piano at its mid-point act as a signal for the music to run backwards – at first in a strict retrograde formation, and thereafter in a freer reconstruction in reverse formation of the first half’s events – as though Berg were somehow attempting to turn the clock back.

© Misha Donat 2016      



   
   

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