Some of my favorite musical experiences have taken place in a relatively small room, listening to a handful of musicians. There was an evening at the Blue Note a couple of years ago, hearing Ron Carter, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian opining separately and together on a fascinating variety of topics, from blues to country to avant-garde. Twenty years earlier at the old Village Gate, I caught the World Saxophone Quartet at one of their final gigs with the original membership—although John Stubblefield sat in (stood in, actually, and weaved and dipped and rocked) for David Murray that night. It was magical.
In the classical world they call this chamber music, and it can also work magic. Think about it. Although an orchestra has way more color and power on tap, it may not bring you the same degree of contact with the spirit of the music itself. Too many cooks, too much machinery. Your odds of hearing sparks fly are generally much better if fewer people produce them.
So let us explore some chamber music here. To make the journey manageable, we’ll stick with strings, starting with combinations that lie off the beaten path. Then we’ll finish up with a quick survey of Haydn quartets, whose path is so beaten that new recordings are always popping up.
We could begin with music for one. Even if you take out keyboard literature, that leaves a sizable repertoire, which peaked during the Baroque era. Think of the Bach Suites for solo cello, for example, famous to audiophiles through the recordings of Janos Starker and others. Or Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, a gantlet that every serious violinist must sooner or later run. You can find classic renditions by Nathan Milstein et al. and quite recent traversals by the likes of Rachel Podger and Gidon Kremer (in other words, just about everyone). What makes this literature especially intriguing—and difficult for the performer—is that an instrument designed mainly to produce a single line of music must be coaxed into providing at least the suggestion of chordal accompaniment and/or “polyphonic melody,” i.e., both a main tune and a countermelody. That is usually accomplished via rapid, note-by-note shifting from one melodic plane to the other and back. For example:
That was violinist Julia Fischer, incidentally, from her second commercial release as a solo artist. Hmm, and wow.
As the age of the Baroque slowly faded away, so did the tradition of creating elaborate polyphony on a single stringed instrument. Not until the 20th century did such works for one-person band return. Then they were often intended as an homage to Bach, or to great violinists who had played the Bach solo works. That is certainly the case with the Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931). Each sonata is named for one of the great early-20th-century violinists and uses Bach’s solo techniques. Here, for example, is a fiery excerpt from No. 2, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and played by the equally fiery Rachel Kolly d’Alba:
(Yes, that was the Dies Irae woven into the music.) D’Alba’s CD is closely mic’ed and the recording is mastered on the loud side. You may prefer to seek out John Marks Records JMR14 (1996), which features Arturo Delmoni in this Ysaÿe sonata and the Bach D-minor Partita.
Duos. Moving right along now, to the late 18th century, and to music for two. You would think that during the Classical era, string duos—two violins, or perhaps one violin and one something-else—would have flourished. After all, they allowed for a useful division of labors while preserving economies that were prized in that most rational of all ages. Yet duos failed to flourish, unlike trios, quartets (especially quartets), and quintets. Joseph Haydn wrote some duos, probably in the early 1770s. He called them “6 Violin Solo [sic] mit Begleitung einer Viola,” i.e., violin solos with viola accompaniment. And that pretty much describes the relationship. By 1790 they had been published in arrangements “avec le Bass” (Paris, 1775; London, 1782) or for two violins (Offenbach, Germany, 1790). They weren’t published in their original form until 1799, which implies that the music market didn’t know exactly what to do with them.
They did inspire at least one set of imitations, however. In 1783 Joseph’s brother Michael was hard at work trying to finish up a commission for his employer, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. He’d gotten four sonatas done, needed two more, but had apparently dried up. Luckily Mozart was in town that summer, and—as the story goes—he stepped in and wrote two more sonatas for his old friend (Michael Haydn, that is, not the Archbishop, who had pink-slipped Mozart two years earlier in a particularly offensive manner).
Now we have a lovely new recording of selections from that sonata set, including both of Mozart’s duos and two of Michael Haydn’s. You can hear quite a contrast between the two composers’ approaches. Check out the last two minutes of Michael’s D-Major Sonata. The viola is relegated to a secondary role, although eventually its accompaniments get to sparkle more:
Mozart, on the other hand, had recently composed the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, for violin, viola, and orchestra, and he had really enjoyed creating conversations between the two instruments. His soloists got to share, argue, echo, paraphrase—a whole host of interactions. Some of this spirit got into his duos too, as in the opening measures of the Rondeau from the G-major duo:
Violin and viola both get a shot at the first tune (viola taking over at 14”), and even when the viola is accompanying, Mozart enlivens its work with things like the horn-call figures at 51”. At the minore episode in this movement, the two indulge in a canon, its strictness disguised by suave melodic contours:
We have been listening to violinist Rachel Podger and violist Jane Rogers. Their new duo album is one of those rare issues that rewards close listening but also can be spun more or less in the background, making your environment a little more pleasant. (Yes, I know: there’s something Philistine about turning good music into a soundtrack, but we all do it, no? And didn’t Mozart write some music with that in mind?) As always from Channel Classics, it’s recorded beautifully. Podger and Rogers have been playing this music since they were undergraduate buskers, and it shows. Warmly recommended.
Want something with more tang? Try Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins. Although Bartók assembled them as a sequence of teaching pieces—from very easy to rather difficult—even the simplest ones can be quite dissonant, full of this composer’s unique modernist way with folk materials. A number of his field recordings have also been preserved, so we can actually hear what he did with those materials. Here is a song he found in the Romanian village of Pátrova, in the Máramaros region of the Carpathian Basin:
And here is his Violin Duo No. 32, “Máramarosi tánc”:
That’s from a nicely priced Naxos recording of all 44 duos plus the Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117. It features György Pauk and Kazuki Sawa, and was recorded in Budapest in the 1990s. You should also consider an ECM disc of these duos with András Keller and János Pilz, which includes compositions by fellow Hungarians Ligeti and Kurtag. Keller-Pilz are just as tangy as Pauk-Sawa, if not more so, and they have re-sequenced the collection to make a more satisfying progression of tempos and moods for listening.
Trios. Yes, it happens that Mozart also wrote string trios. There’s one for two violins and contrabass from his Salzburg years, and then there’s the great Viennese E-flat Trio, K. 563, for violin, viola, and cello. He called it “Ein Divertimento . . . di sei pezzi,” because it had six relatively short movements, typical for light music of this type. It may be light, but it’s still Mozart. A recent Chandos release from the virtuoso Hermitage String Trio makes that abundantly clear. Listen to the Adagio, in which the opening cello motif seems to color the entire movement; the upper strings remain low in their range until the violin breaks free for a questioning, emotionally ambiguous phrase. It hangs in the air for a moment before the other instruments enter:
The second of the two Minuets is probably more representative of the work’s psychological tone, however:
The Hermitage Trio wisely bookend their performance of this Divertimento with two Bach preludes and fugues exquisitely arranged by Mozart. This programming strategy, rather like prefacing a lively symphonic movement with a slow introduction, enables us to appreciate the gravity of certain moments in the music that follows. Since getting this CD, I’ve probably played these little Bach arrangements more often than the Divertimento itself. Listen:
The Hermitage Trio describes itself as “steeped in the renowned Russian tradition of string playing.” That must mean they favor a lyrical approach and sweet but full-bodied sound, because that’s what I hear throughout their recording. Strongly recommended.
Department of Still More Tang: Beethoven wrote trios too. Lately the Trio Zimmermann have taken on Beethoven’s triumphant Op. 9 trios, written when he was still quite young but nevertheless bearing the mark of his extraordinary energy and motivic concentration. Listening to these works, one quite forgets that only three players are making all that sound and fury. Here are the slow introduction and the first two themes of No. 1 (Beethoven takes a while to get going, but then he really goes). A marvelous performance from Frank Peter Zimmermann and his colleagues, as you can easily hear. The French awarded it the Diapason d’Or this month.
Quartets. This is obviously the big category, the one that really caught on. The string quartet (two violins, viola, cello) offered a combination of intimacy and range—varied dynamics, registers, textures, leading voices—that composers and listeners found very attractive. We’ll return to this genre in future Classical Corners, because there’s so much music written for the quartet, in so many styles. (Last month I got a CD of John Adams’ new String Quartet. That puts him right in there with Mozart and Trent Reznor.)
More than any other single composer, Joseph Haydn guided the development of the string quartet. Beginning with lighter music, Haydn upped the stakes first in his six Op. 20 quartets, half of which end with contrapuntal fireworks that he labeled fugue (they’re actually more varied in their technical strategies than the textbook Baroque fugue). Those came out in 1772; besides their emphasis on “learned” style (i.e., counterpoint), they are also dotted with expressive markings that imply an equally enlarged range of emotions.
By 1781 Haydn’s ambitions had grown larger still. His six Op. 33 quartets were “written in a new and special way.” What this seems to have meant is that Haydn constructed themes out of a group of related fragments (= motives) that, by being re-shuffled in various ways throughout a movement, offered both unity and variety, i.e., the sort of balance and economy that 18th-century minds gravitated toward. Contrast was good, but even better if carefully controlled. The music should be easy to follow, but should also offer continually shifting landscapes and occasional surprises. Traditional structures—sonata, minuet, rondo—were pleasantly disrupted by witty departures or detours within them. It’s not surprising that one of the nicknames attached to these quartets is Gli Scherzi (“The Jokes”), and not only because its minuets, labeled scherzo or scherzando, are meant to be played faster than in previous works.
This profitable combination of light-hearted pleasure and flexibility in themes, textures, and emotions served Haydn very well. But one more major stylistic shift lay in wait for him, generated by his two journeys to London in the early 1790s. Whereas on the continent, string quartet music remained largely a private affair, enjoyed by the players themselves—often amateurs—and small groups of invited friends, in England audiences were accustomed to hearing quartets played by highly skilled professionals as part of a public concert. After violinist-impresario Johann Peter Salomon programmed Haydn’s Op. 64 quartets during Haydn’s first visit, the composer determined to produce additional quartets with a large public audience in mind. Salomon and his quartet performed the resulting Op. 71 and 74 quartets (six in all) during Haydn’s second London visit, in 1794. In nearly every respect they seem “bigger” than his previous quartets: there is more drama, more virtuoso display, especially for the first violin, more a sense of the quartet as a sort of small orchestra. From that point on, Haydn wrote quartets for the people. As he put it, vox populi, vox dei.
Haydn’s quartets have never lost their appeal. Nowadays, if you are a quartet looking to put out a Haydn recording, you can choose from two approaches: Go for stylistic consistency and completeness, recording all the works in a single opus number. Or prepare a sampler, with perhaps one early work, one middle work, and one of the “public” quartets; that makes a more varied program. Established groups usually opt for the completist approach, newer groups for the sampler.
The Jerusalem Quartet, founded in 1993 (and pictured at the top of our column), has issued a Haydn sampler. No big surprise there. They are not exactly newcomers to recording, having done well-received issues of Shostakovich, Dvořák, Schubert, and Mozart; this newest release appears to be volume 2 of a projected Haydn series (vol. 1 appeared in 2004 and featured one each from opp. 64, 76, and 77). There’s much to like about volume 2. Check out their supercharged version of the Allegro moderato from Op. 33 No. 3, popularly known as the “Bird” Quartet:
Nothing too moderato about that, but who cares? Terrific playing, even if it does turn the leisurely intimacy typical of Op. 33 into a much more public display of affect. The Jerusalem approach to Haydn is particularly evident in the scherzo of No. 3. Haydn sets up maximum contrast between the scherzo proper, which sticks to the low registers, and the trio section, in which the two violins chirp away by themselves. The Jerusalems further emphasize that contrast in their interpretation:
The Takács Quartet, originally formed in 1975, now record for Hyperion, having long since established an international reputation with complete sets of the Bartók and Beethoven string quartets for Decca. They are a stunningly accomplished group of players, capable of polishing anything so that it shines with their signature burnished tone quality. While at Decca they tackled some of Haydn’s late quartets, and now they have turned to the equally virtuosic Op. 71 and 74, issuing one disc for each complete opus. This is big playing, well suited to the bold, expansive gestures of these works—and to the gleaming sound of this group. There’s no exaggeration, just superb musicianship. Listen to the first movement of Op. 71 No. 2, in which Haydn featured a slow introduction for the first time in any of his quartets. It begins by smoothly outlining the octave leap that the nervous, showy first theme will take up in turn, and pass from one instrument to the next.
Did you notice that the second theme was just an inversion of the first? Right, a series of octave leaps going down, not up. Economy. Unity in variety. Absolute Haydn.
The finales of the Op. 71 and 74 quartets are often especially vibrant. Haydn made sure that the illustrious Salomon and his colleagues got plenty of opportunities to shine. We’ll stick with Op. 71 No. 2 to show you how one of these concert showcases winds up. The movement is marked Allegretto, but for the last section Haydn kicks the tempo to Allegro, making the first violin’s impetuous runs that much more exciting. By the final bars, the other players have joined the chase:
Nice, eh? Just a handful of musicians, making magic.
Featured Recordings, all recommended:
J. S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001–1006. Julia Fischer, violin. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 072. CD/SACD, 2005. Job Maarse, producer, Jean-Marie Geijsen, engineer. (There are too many historical and current alternatives to list here, but you are encouraged to try Milstein, Podger, Hahn, and Kremer, for starts.)
Passion Ysaÿe (Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27). Rachel Kolly d’Alba, violin. Warner Classics 568385. CD, 2010. See my comment and alternate recommendation above.
W. A. Mozart, M., Haydn: Duo Sonatas. Rachel Podger, violin; Jane Rogers, viola. Channel Classics CCS SA 32411. CD/SACD, 2011. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, producer; Daan van Aalst and C. Jared Sacks, engineering, editing, mastering. Downloads here.
Bartók: Sonata for Solo Violin Sz. 117; 44 Duos for Two Violins. György Pauk, Kazuki Sawa, violins. Naxos 8.550868. CD, 1995. Ibolya Tóth, producer; János Bohus, engineer.
Mozart: Divertimento in E flat major, K. 563. Bach Preludes and Fugues, arr. Mozart. The Hermitage String Trio. Chandos CHAN 10635. CD, 2011. Rachel Smith, producer; Jonathan Cooper, engineer. Download here.
Beethoven: String Trios, Op. 9. Trio Zimmermann (Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin; Antoine Tamestit, viola; Christian Poltéra, cello). BIS SACD1857. CD/SACD, 2012.
Haydn: String Quartets vol. 2 (Op. 20 No. 5, Op. 33 No. 3, Op. 76 No. 5). Jerusalem Quartet. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902030. CD, 2011. Martin Sauer, producer; René Möller, engineer.
Haydn: String Quartets Op. 71. Takács Quartet. Hyperion CDA67793. CD, 2011. Andrew Keener and Simon Perry, producers; Simon Eadon, engineer. Downloads here.
Haydn: String Quartets Op. 74. Takács Quartet. Hyperion CDA67781. CD, 2011. Andrew Keener and Simon Perry, producers; Simon Eadon, engineer. Downloads here.