Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Al desio di chi t'adoro
The Marriage of Figaro received a decidedly positive reception at its Viennese premiere in 1786. The cast was strong and the audience so enthusiastic that almost every piece had to be encored, effectively doubling the opera's already considerable length. In order to ensure reasonable ending times at subsequent performances, Emperor Joseph decreed that only the solo arias could be repeated.
Despite its initial success with the public, Figaro was dropped from the Burgtheater repertoire after only nine performances, not return to Vienna for another three years. Mozart had powerful competitors in the court's musical establishment, Antonio Salieri among them, and these politically savvy rivals may have contributed to the opera's disappointingly short initial run. Although the performances of The Marriage of Figaro were an artistic and public triumph, they did not constitute the financial success that Mozart had hoped for.
In 1789, Figaro returned to Vienna with a greatly altered cast. Perhaps the most significant change was the loss of Nancy Storace, the enchanting English/Italian soprano for whom Mozart had created the role of Susanna. Storace's replacement was Adriana Ferrarese, one of the most successful sopranos of the day but a singer of very different vocal and dramatic strengths. Storace was known for the subtlety of her singing and the wit and flexibility of her acting. Ferrarese, by contrast, was reared in the more formal world of Opera Seria and was known for her dramatic gravitas, formidable power and coloratura agility. In order to ensure the success of the all-important second Viennese run of Figaro, Mozart felt that some musical adjustments should be made in the role of Susanna.
Mozart liked to boast that he could make an aria fit a singer like a well-made garment. Here he outfitted Ferrarese with music designed to highlight her particular blend of dignity and virtuosity. In the fourth act he abandoned Susannas's subtly seductive aria, Deh vieni non tardar, and replaced it with Al desio di chi t'adoro, a more extroverted work tailored around Farrarese's strengths. Al desio is written in the form of a two-movement (slow/fast) rondó concertante, the longest and most aristocratic type of aria then in vogue. Accompanied by an unusual complement of solo woodwind instruments (including basset horns, French horns, and bassoons), the aria evokes the sufferings of a tragic heroine. The aria is extremely expressive and provides opportunities for the soprano to display her dramatic temperament and vocal agility. Although rarely included in modern day performances of The Marriage of Figaro, Al desio has taken its rightful place as a favorite concert aria in the Mozartian soprano repertoire.
Robert Schumann - Fairy Tales, Op. 120, for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano
Robert Schumann, the son of a bookseller, publisher, and novelist, grew up equally passionate about literature and music. Gifted both as a writer and a musician, he founded and edited the enormously influential journal The New Leipzig Musical Times, which became a driving force behind German musical Romanticism. Always a generous colleague, Schumann campaigned vigorously in support of the composers who he felt were producing music of substance. He also sought to bolster the reputations of underappreciated composers of the past, while criticizing contemporary musicians who he felt catered to prevailing "Philistine" tastes for flashy technical display.
Schumann's passion for Romantic novels and poetry informed his musicianship at every level. From his earliest years the deeply emotional Schumann viewed music primarily as a way of expressing his kaleidoscopically shifting, often dreamy, inner states of mind. Throughout his life he aimed at finding ways to fuse literary and musical imagery, giving many of his pieces evocative titles such as Arabesque, Butterflies, Carnival, Fantasy Pieces, and Scenes from Childhood. These titles were often applied only after he had completed the music in trancelike states of creativity. They were meant to draw the listener into his subtle world of color, mood, texture, and poetic allusion.
Fairy Tales, Robert Schumann's final piece of chamber music, was composed in 1853, shortly after meeting the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms. Schumann was in the midst of a fevered burst of creativity when Brahms first came to play for him. So inspired was he by Brahms' artistry that he wrote an effusive article in The New Leipzig Musical Times, praising Brahms' genius and describing him as music's great hope for the future. The article was written in mid-October, at the same time that he composed Fairy Tales. Perhaps this accounts for the rather Brahmsian flavor that permeates the second and, especially, fourth movements of the piece.
Schumann scored Fairy Tales for the mellow combination of clarinet, viola, and piano. His declining health at the time included auditory hallucinations and hypersensitivity to extreme high and low register sounds. These afflictions may have led him to choose the soothing sonority of the two middle-range instruments for this charming evocation of childhood. While Schumann never identified the particular tales or narratives that inspired these four lyrical character pieces, they evoke the atmosphere of favorite stories of youth. The first piece is tender, playful and lyrical, suggesting the beginning of pleasant outdoor journey. The minor-key second movement is more robust and march-like, with a more nonchalant middle section. The third movement is nostalgic and poignant, while the swaggering final movement suggests a hunting scene with lusty horn calls and galloping rhythms.
Georges Bizet - Three Songs
Although the three songs in this set were composed at different times in Bizet's life and are based on texts by three different poets, they form a beguiling and unified triptych. A lighthearted spirit pervades the songs, which blend images of love and the natural world. Louis Bouilhet's poem "Song of April" evokes the beauty of a glistening spring morning as a young woman encourages her beloved to get up and join her in savoring the gorgeous day in progress. Victor Hugo's "The Ladybug" teasingly presents the image of a bashful 16-year-old boy at a dance party, too shy to summon the courage to kiss the young beauty with a ladybug on her neck. Waltz music accompanies the scene as the disappointed insect finally flies off, reproaching the young man for his reticence. And Édouard Pailleron's "Tarantella" inspired Bizet to compose a delightfully virtuosic showpiece, again based on themes of love and flight. The airborne butterfly, musically represented by the soprano's coloratura passagework, conjures the image of her lover's frivolity and inconstancy.
Johannes Brahms - Sonata in E-Flat, Op. 120, for Viola and Piano
The warm, middle-range sonorities of the viola and the clarinet cast the two instruments as natural musical allies. Both instruments are, by nature, warm and consoling. The viola was the favored chamber instrument of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and the clarinet inspired late masterworks by composers as diverse as Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Bartók. There is a spiritual link between the two instruments, which Schumann exploited in Fairy Tales (heard earlier on this program). Brahms' Sonata in E-Flat was originally composed for the clarinet, but he soon decided to arrange it for the viola, feeling that the work's glowing, reflective character would be equally well-served by the rich-toned string instrument.
In 1890 Brahms was entering his late 50s and felt that his composing days were coming to an end. Ever self-critical, he intended to complete a few unfinished works and burn the rest. Fortunately, he attended a performance around that time by the distinguished German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired to compose a series of crowning works to showcase his artistry. (Mozart was similarly inspired by the playing of the legendary Anton Stadler, to whom he dedicated a set of late masterpieces, including his great clarinet concerto, composed only weeks before his death.) Brahms' E-flat-major sonata, heard here on the viola, is the final piece in the set of compositions that he wrote for Mühlfeld and his last piece of chamber music.
Brahms found his unique compositional voice early in his career and maintained it until the end. Unlike Schumann, who favored poetic titles for his pieces, Brahms eschewed programmatic references, preferring to write "pure" music in traditional forms. In contrast to revolutionaries such as Wagner and Lizst, Brahms was, at heart, a Romantic Classicist, keenly aware of his place in the lineage of music history. As he grew older, his music became texturally simpler and more graceful, reflective, and relaxed. "Autumnal" is the term invariably applied to his late works, and that adjective perfectly describes the atmosphere of the sonata in E-flat major for viola or clarinet.
The first movement is bathed in a warm, sustained lyricism. The atmosphere is pastoral, tranquil, and suffused with a golden inner glow. Brahms' musical voice is wise and consoling throughout this exceptionally beautiful movement.
The passionate second movement, in the form of a vigorous Scherzo, begins with a fiery viola solo. A reassuring, chorale-like middle section starts with the piano alone in music of sustained nobility and confidence. The trio is followed by a short transition, heralding a return to the urgency and passion of the first section.
The final movement starts with a flowing, folk-like theme, which is followed by six variations. Brahms was always fascinated by the element of rhythm, and he uses complicated syncopated patterns as important structural components in several of the variations. In the first one, for instance, the piano and viola play on opposite sides of each pulse, alternating in playing on and off the beat. The second variation has a cradle-like motion; the simple melody is accompanied by an arpeggiated pattern that teeters back and forth across the octaves. Variation 3 is a calm, filigreed conversation between the two instruments, and the fourth variation extends the tranquil atmosphere in a gentle but rhythmically off-balance dialogue that often masks the downbeats. Variation 5 insistently reestablishes the rhythmic equilibrium, diving headlong into a vigorous, E-flat-minor allegro. The sixth and final variation begins with a serenely flowing stream of melody that gradually gains in momentum, culminating in a strong, triumphant conclusion.
Schubert - Shepherd on the Rock, Op. 129, D. 965, for Soprano, Clarinet and Piano
Franz Schubert was unusual among the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries in that he was not an instrumental virtuoso. Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Liszt developed early reputations for their formidable keyboard prowess. Their performance skills enabled them to attain varying degrees of "star power," giving them the ability to introduce their solo and chamber compositions directly to the public, publishers, and influential, music-loving aristocrats of the day. While Schubert sang in a small, pleasant voice and had functional keyboard and string instrument skills, his performance abilities were better suited to intimate musical circumstances.
For this reason, his reputation remained largely confined to a Bohemian circle of devoted admirers and friends who gathered on a weekly basis in private homes to hear and perform his latest musical offerings. These events, known as Schubertiades, were attended by artists, literary figures, musicians, and middle-class Viennese music lovers. Schubert was the kind of person to whom friends were naturally drawn and became devotedly attached. He lived most of his adult life off the good graces of his colleagues, who gave him lodgings and would occasionally raise funds to have his music published. When he died at 31, he left behind no books, money, furniture, or estate, but his musical legacy was enormous.
Although most of his music remained unpublished at his death, he composed over 1000 separate pieces during his short lifetime. Like Mozart, his memory and ability to concentrate were prodigious. He was able to imagine and hold entire compositions in his head, then write them down at breakneck speed. Schubert's greatest musical gifts were melodic - for all intents and purposes, he invented the Art Song, composing over 600 of them.
In 1828, his final year, Schubert's friends rented the Vienna Concert Hall and sponsored the first public recital of his music. The response among the attendees was effusive, and Schubert was enormously heartened. It seemed that his fortunes were finally about to change for the better. He received an open-ended request for music from the prominent publishing firm Schott, and he set to work in a final burst of creative activity. One of the most famous sopranos of the day, Anna Milder-Hauptmann (the creator of the role of Leonora in Beethoven's opera Fidelio), requested that Schubert write her a brilliant concert aria that would allow her wide expressive latitude and be suitable for large audiences. The result was one of Schubert's most popular songs, The Shepherd on the Rock. Sadly, he died only weeks after completing the song and never had the opportunity to hear it performed.
Of the hundreds of songs that Schubert wrote, only two, both composed during his last year, feature obbligato instruments. The first, On the River, involves the French horn, and the second, Shepherd on the Rock, the clarinet. In keeping with the outdoors imagery of the text, the clarinet sonority provides appropriately folkish associations, as well as conveying the pathos and melancholy of the song's introspective middle section.
Schubert chose to blend three poems by two different poets in order to express a wide range of human emotion. Romantic sensibilities are represented in the poetic and musical evocations of nature, picturesque landscapes, the desolation of separated lovers, and the joy of wandering. The song begins in the alpine heights with a young shepherd yodeling across mountain ravines to his lover somewhere below. The clarinet responds with echoes from the depths of the valley. The second section expresses the sadness of life, evoking sorrow and grief as hope for the future ebbs. Optimism and positive emotions return in the final section, which heralds the beginning of spring and the joyous anticipation of wandering. The song ends in a jubilant cascade of scales and arpeggios in the soprano and clarinet.
- Michael Parloff, 2009