Program Notes by Robin McCabe
Brahms: Sonata for Two Pianos, Opus 34B (after the Quintet)
In 1862 Brahms, likely inspired by the Schubert quintet, seized upon the idea of writing a string quartet with a second cello. When violinist and composer Joseph Joachim looked at the score, he deemed the ideas too strong for the sonority of a string quintet. Brahms destroyed the first attempt, recasting it as a sonata for two pianos. Brahms premiered this version with Carl Tausig, early in 1864. Still unsatisfied, Brahms again rewrote the work as a quintet for piano and strings. (This history calls to mind that of the composer’s first piano concerto, which also evolved in various forms.)
This quintet has become one of the most famous and best-best loved works in the chamber music repertoire. The combination of piano and strings has attracted the most performers, but Brahms thought enough of the two-piano version not to destroy it – a major vote of confidence, in light of his customary self-doubts! And he published it, moreover, with the separate opus number 34B.
The opening figure, played in unison in both pianos, projects a winding, circular melodic shape that is constantly varied but recognizable throughout the work. Another idea that permeates the entire quintet is that of the melodic half-step, which forms the core of the second theme of the movement.
The slow, rocking motion of the second movement proves tremendously soothing after the stormy drama and sudden tonal shifts of the first movement. The key of A flat major is warm and tender, and the simple ternary form acts as a kind of emotional ‘rudder,’ so to speak, an antidote to the energy and tumult which is pervasive in the other movements.
The Scherzo begins with an eerie theme, in the shadows, but it is soon banished by a joyous, if brief chordal outburst. Following a bucolic trio with a broad, bold melody, the Scherzo is repeated literally. The ending of the Scherzo is a throbbing series of outcries, repeating that all-important melodic half-step. In fact, the English music scholar Tovey wrote that ‘the savage half-step at the end of the scherzo, comes straight from the end of the Schubert quintet, and from nowhere else in the whole history of final chords.’
In the finale, Brahms experiments daringly with form and structure. The opening is a slow, somber introduction and the closing is an immense and fast coda, a ‘tour de force’ of the movement, encapsulating all the ideas of the finale, towards a last resolute, closing gesture.
Ravel: ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’
In 1907, two years after his fourth failed attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome (!!) Ravel produced two major works, both firsts for him, and both capitalizing on his remarkable sensitivity to Spanish music (His mother’s Basque origins doubtless contributed to his natural affinity). L’heure espagnole was his first opera; Rapsodie Espagnole was his first published piece written originally for orchestra.
The ‘Prelude to the Night’ begins with and is dominated by a four-note descending, a ‘twilight’ gesture which will appear again in the Malaguena and Feria movements. The first two movements evoke sensuous, exquisite color in an atmosphere of understated elegance, functioning as short, impressionist tone poems leading to the dazzling brilliance of Feria, the ‘Festival.’ Ravel was a master of interpreting dance, and this suite provides ample evidence of this dimension of his genius.
Prokofiev: 12 Dances from “Romeo and Juliet,” transcribed for two pianos by Sergei Babayan, and dedicated to Martha Argerich.
For never was a story of more woe than this
Of Juliet and her Romeo
In 1935, Sergei Prokofiev made a devil’s bargain: He moved to the Soviet Union which he has left since 1918, tempted by a lucrative offer to write any opera or ballet he wanted, thereby taking command of the country’s music scene.
He chose to compose a “Romeo and Juliet” ballet, which led to one of the most beloved dance works in the repertory as well as a series of famous orchestral suites. Prokofiev came up with the idea for a ballet adaptation of Shakespeare after considering “Tristan und Isolde” (but deciding he could not contend with Wagner), and “Pelleas et Melisande” (presumably he thought the same about Debussy!).
But Prokofiev made a very unconventional decision about the ending: It was to be happy! The ensuing uproar from the government, and the critics, was furious, and ultimately Prokofiev rewrote the story to conform to the Shakespeare play.
This is a finger-blistering transcription by Babayan, who is himself a brilliant pianist. He wrote this arrangement and dedicated it to his dear colleague Martha Argerich, with whom he premiered the work. Thanks to my sister’s friendship with Babayan (she has presented him as a guest artist on her concert series), we were able to obtain this music, hot off the press, from Germany, since it is not yet circulating in the UK or in the United States.
These pianistic depictions of the ballet are in turn vivacious and joyful, whimsically tongue in cheek, somber and ominous, and are also, of course, laden with heart-throbbing sorrow and loss. The writing for the two pianos is daringly imaginative. In “The young girl Juliet,” for example, in a mere three minutes, the pianos capture Juliet’s bubbling character, as she teases her nursemaid, but only until the last line in the piece. Here, as in the ballet, she suddenly catches sight of herself in a mirror, and realizes she is no longer a girl, but a woman, on the threshold of experiencing new sensations and emotions. The pianos halt their frolic suddenly, and there is a plaintive final, fragile upward scale, evoking this moment of a sweet, yet sad epiphany.
This transcription begins with the Prologue, describing the death of Tybalt with menacing drums and violent outbursts. Then later, in the penultimate dance, Tybalt’s death is captured in frenetic passages between the pianos as the Montagues and Capulets do battle. Romeo’s frantic goal to seek revenge upon Tybalt for killing Mercutio is portrayed in skittish frantic runs and gestures, evoking street fights and age-held hatreds. The final chords of the dance are bitter and resigned, perhaps evoking the utter futility of lives lost forever. And for what??
“Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” is a poetic duet and conversation between the lovers, the dialogue moving from shy exchanges towards more intimate professions and eventual overpowering passion. The outcome, as we have come to accept, is the star-crossed lovers taking their own lives.
—©2023, Robin McCabe