Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dumbarton Concerts: the Brahms Trio #1 in B Major, and a lot of cello-piano work (Schumann's "folk" miniatures)

On Saturday, January 21, the Dumbarton Concerts at the Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown in Washington DC performed the a chamber concert (“Ode to the Cello”) with the Andrist-Stern-Honigberg Trio.  The artists are Audrey Andrist (piano), James Stern (violin), and Steven Honigberg (cello).

I’ll discuss the second half of the program first. It was the Piano Trio #1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms, composed in white-hot youth at 21 and then revised three decades later.
All the themes in the work are familiar, and I think the figure in the scherzo (second movement) found its way as a similar motive in the last movement (minor) of my own A Major sonatina (age 14).  B Major (five sharps) is an odd key for a major work, and I wonder how well it fingers on the cello or violin (compared to C Major, or D Major, the most popular key tonality for the violin).  (I think Haydn wrote one symphony in B Major, and it may be the one called "The Razor".)  The first movement opens with a heroic theme (reminding one of the First Piano Concerto).  Toward the end, the movement, as performed, comes almost to a stop before a triumphant conclusion. The B minor scherzo is, as I said, familiar. The slow movement, Adagio, is again in B Major, when I think a different key (maybe E-flat) would have been appropriate. (Brahms’s first Piano Concerto goes D Minor, D Major, D Minor-Major without varying.)  Triple times are common. The finale is “another” Hungarian rondo ending not in triumphant major, but in B minor, reversing the romantic practice of the Picardy Third. (I did the same thing in my 4-movement A Major Sonatina, ending in A Minor. Mendelssohn did the same with the Italian Symphony, after the great peroration at the end of the Third.)

Here’s a YouTube video of the first movement performed at Yale University in December 2010 by the Temple Street Trio (not this concert), link.    The coda is really triumphant.  This work seems like it wants to be a piano quintet.  I think the writing anticipates the youthful and triumphant C Minor (with Picardy ending) quintet, Op. 1, by Ernst von Dohnanyi. 

I was fortunate enough to sit by a piano student who said that to him, music needs to always have "motion". There were a few places in this performance of the Brahms (especially the slow movement) where all sense of movement seemed to stop. 

Before the intermission, there was no violin, "just" cello and piano.  Again, “LIFO”, the first “Act” concluded with Robert Schumann’s “5 Pieces in Folk Style” (“Funf Stucke im Volkston”).  These are rather like songs without words than inventions, which Schumann is noted for in his miniatures, which many people think represent his best work.

The first part of the program comprised “transcriptions”.  This is not my favorite art form. The concert started by a transcription from Maurice Gendrom of “La Folia” by French Baroque compose Marin Marais.  This is contemporary to Bach but sounded a bit perfunctory, yet rather crudely effective.  (It is not Bach!)  Wikipedia appears to have the staff notation of the theme here

I’m not sure of Marais composed all the “variations” of this 12-minute piece for viol, using complicated fingering to generate the effects when unaccompanied, or if Gendrom composed the variations.  The Folia is supposed to be a “fertility dance”, which adds to the irony of the piece.  You may be able to play it from this page.
There followed a transcription of “Rosicrucian” Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, then two songs by Antonin Dvorak (from “Songs my mother taught me” and then “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka). Finally the duo performed Catalan-Spanish composer Gaspar Cassado’s  lively and mildly polytonal “Dance of the Green Devil” (“Danse do diable vert”).

I wonder why pianists who accompany other instruments use sheet music with page turners (they are starting to use iPads) whereas soloists must memorize the music.

Let me add one more personal note. When I was forced to leave William and Mary in 1961 (details on my main blog), a friend wanted me to compose a cello sonata for him. He even wanted two movements and for it to be in B-flat, which was not a key he usually liked.  I have never written it, but recently I started some sketches on paper, with polytonal tension between D Major (cello) and B-flat (piano) to start. I could see how the process of composition could generate a time-lapse sci-fi story, mapping to a "progressive dinner party" encounter with other people on another planet. 

The Church lobby has a sale of paintings by “Art Enables” (link for details and prices) .   There was one interesting painting of the Washington Mall with a menacing cloud approaching the Capitol from the East, threatening to engulf everything in its path.  (Photo just above is mine, taken from Monument in 2007; August smog is engulfing the city in real time.)

(First picture: No, I didn't bike into the City, but I ought to get up to it.)

One other matter: Let's hope that Dumbarton will have some more music from its Composer in Residence, Tudor Dominik Maican, who attends (graduated?) Indiana University and grew up in Potomac MD.   

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