Monday, April 22, 2019

The Rolston Quartet and Hungarian Threads: Haydn, Brahms & Ligeti

Who: The Rolston String Quartet, 2017 winners of the “Cleveland Quartet Award”
What: playing Haydn's “Sunrise”  Quartet, Brahms' 2nd String Quartet, and György Ligeti's “Metamorphoses nocturnes”
When: Wednesday, April 24th, 2019, at 8:00
Where: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

Tickets can be purchased online through our website here or here; by calling 717-221-9599; or by emailing Tickets are also available at the door before the concert. There are also $5 tickets for college/university students also available at the door and school-age (K-12) students are free.

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Last month, with the return of the Pacifica Quartet, I wrote about the “classical music Cycle of Life,” how those new, young quartets appearing side-by-side with the Great Quartets of one generation may eventually become the Established Quartets of the Present who might, with any luck, become a Great Quartet of the Future.

It is now the Rolston Quartet's shot at the brass ring (pardon the merry-go-round analogy but sometimes the music business is like that), having won the latest Cleveland Quartet Award. They are now on their prize's tour, bringing them to eight different chamber music presenters, along with Carnegie Hall, around the country, including Buffalo, Detroit, Washington DC, Kansas City, Urbana (IL) and Austin (TX) as well as Harrisburg.

In 2016, they also won first prize at the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition. What does that mean for a young quartet? Well, it's more than just a trophy for their practice room and bragging rights: it comes with a three-year career development program worth $150,000, a recording, and $25,000 in cash.

Let's sample the Rolston Quartet playing excerpts from the works they'll be performing on Wednesday night. First, the lively finale of the Haydn Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise”:

(Hear the Dover Quartet, another Cleveland Quartet Award and Banff Prize-Winner, playing the complete quartet, a little later in this post.)

While we've heard Brahms' music frequently on Market Square Concerts programs, they've been the string sextets and quintets, the piano quintet, a piano quartet or two, maybe a piano trio or one of the sonatas. But the three string quartets have been curiously absent from the repertoire for many seasons. While the post concludes with a look at the curious background and creative perseverance of Johannes Brahms' second quartet, here's the Rolston Quartet playing its first movement:

(For not one but two complete performances of the Brahms with the legendary Cleveland Quartet - their 1973 debut album and from their 1995 Farewell Recital - see the end segment of this post.)

We've heard the 3rd, 4th and 5th of Bela Bartók's Quartets in the past few seasons – including this past February with the Doric Quartet – so the style of this early quartet Hungarian composer György Ligéti completed in 1954 will come as nothing unusual. Here's a sample of their live broadcast of the opening sections of Ligeti's “Metamorphoses nocturnes” with its fragmented hyperreality. This recording was done at WRTI in Philadelphia.

For a performance of the complete quartet – with score – see below.

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There is a Hungarian Thread through this program.

Hungary, an ancient land going back to the end of the 1st Millennium, went from being a 15th Century province of Austria's empire to become part of the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1868. After World War I and the demise of the empire, Hungary became an independent country with its own beleaguered history, ending up under the control of the Soviet Union with a brutal Stalinist regime in the 1950s.

(#1.) Haydn was the composer-in-residence of the Hungarian prince, Nicholas Esterházy, whose estate was on the border between Austria and Hungary. And this quartet, written in Vienna in the late-1790s, was dedicated to another Hungarian, Count Josef Erdődy.

(#2.) György Ligeti was a Hungarian composer, born in what was once part of Hungary but is now part of Romania, the same region where Bela Bartók was born. His 1st String Quartet, heavily influenced by Bartók's style, was completed in 1954 after he'd started teaching at the conservatory in Budapest, two years before the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution after which he fled to Vienna. Between 1973 and 1989, he taught at the famous music school in Hamburg, Germany, and died in Vienna in 2006.

(#3.) Johannes Brahms, a native of Hamburg in Northern Germany, eventually became a permanent resident of Vienna where one of his favorite pastimes was to hang out with friends at those smoky (and often seedy) taverns featuring Hungarian Gypsy musicians. In his 20s, he'd already met a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Reményi who inspired in him the love of this gypsy music which he would later incorporate into a famous set of Hungarian Dances and which he'd also use in lively dance-like finales for several of his works, including his 2nd String Quartet in A Minor, completed in 1873. (By the way, Gypsy Music is not the same as true Hungarian folk music: it's more like a kind of urban pop music from Hungary which was all the rage in Vienna in the second half of the 19th Century. Brahms' favorite haunts may be more akin to New York's steamy jazz clubs of the 1920s and '30s.)

So let's begin.

FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN: String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76 No. 1 (“Sunrise”)

“Papa” Haydn is described as the Father of the Symphony and the Father of the String Quartet since he was the first major composer to write the finest – and more importantly, the “survivingest” – examples of each genre. He was a prolific composer with a long list of 104 symphonies in his catalogue, not to mention some 80-plus quartets (of which 68 are published). His distinguished career, even if for most of it he was fairly isolated from the rest of the musical world at Prince Esterházy's estate, lasted about fifty years. Not long after he got his first full-time gig, a fellow named Mozart was born, and the Grand Old Man of the Baroque Era, George Frederic Handel, died in London. Haydn was composing his last works when a student of his began making a name for himself. Perhaps you've heard of him – Beethoven?

Haydn in 1799
The six Op. 76 String Quartets and the two of Op. 77 are Haydn's last completed quartets, written between 1796 and 1799 after he returned from his second London tour, days he considered among his happiest. During these two visits, he'd composed his last dozen symphonies. It was during his first trip to London he'd heard his friend Mozart had died – Mozart, who had dedicated six of his finest string quartets to him – and then, after the second trip, he found out his employer, Prince Anton Esterházy, had died (Anton was the less-musically-minded heir of Haydn's “glorious” Prince Nikolaus who'd died in 1790). With a new Esterházy prince requiring a court-composer even less than the previous one, Haydn had fewer obligations and was able, finally, to enjoy his international fame, the Greatest Living Composer at the center of the Musical Universe at the time, Vienna.

So these last quartets, then, come at a very relaxed time in Haydn's life. An exhilarating time one might suspect, the culmination of his years of hard work and service to the Esterházy household. The set of six, Op.76, was dedicated to another Hungarian aristocrat, Count Josef Erdődy (the wife of another member of the family would become a friend – and possible lover – of Beethoven's, who herself received dedications to his Op. 70 Piano Trios and the Op. 102 Cello Sonatas) – and the last two, Op. 77, were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz who would later become associated with Beethoven's Eroica among numerous other pieces. The fact Haydn was increasingly ill, unable to complete the six quartets Lobkowitz had commissioned, is not evident in this generally gracious and joyous music.

The “Sunrise” was a nickname not used by Haydn but something courtesy of a London critic who heard in the quartet's opening rising figure, the first violin over sustained chords in the other instruments, the idea of the sun rising over the horizon. After this dawn-like radiance, it quickly erupts into the lively second part of the movement about a minute in (the same kind of nature-inspired interpretation that would later give us “The Moonlight” Sonata, might think this is a chattering of birds greeting the morning sun or...). When the figure comes back a little later, descending in the cello under sustained higher chords, did someone resist calling it the “Sunset” Quartet? And when the development section begins (at 5:15 in the clip below), now in the minor key, perhaps there's some unexpected cloudiness followed by a passing thunderstorm...? Enough...

Anyway, we're soon on our way through a work that is beginning to show some awareness the musical landscape is changing, that the classical grace and balance and logic of the mid-18th Century is about to give way to something new, something more emotional (especially in the slow movement, beginning at 9:30, which is more than just the image of wistfulness), something that would eventually, in the hands of his student Beethoven, become known as “Romanticism.” (Perhaps it could be called “The New Dawn” Quartet... no, wait, please... enough with the nicknames.)

With the minuet (at 15:00), we're back in an elegant 18th Century world (even with its rustic middle bit) and the finale (at 19:15) is typically exuberant Papa Haydn, once more, even if the energy is not what we'd associate with a composer who is, resting on his laurels or not, already in his mid-60s.

The previous winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award is also a past winner of the Banff International Competition. From Banff's “Haydn round,” here's the Dover Quartet, recorded in 2013:

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GYÖRGY LIGETI: String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses nocturnes”)

György Ligeti in 1984
More people have heard his music – mostly through the use of his Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” – without knowing who he is, much less how to pronounce his name. Despite its looking like an Italian name – Ligeti with an accent on the second syllable – it's Hungarian, accented on the first syllable (his first name, György is often mispronounced Gyór-ghee but in Hungarian, the “y” softens the “g,” so it's actually “zhorzh”).

Regardless, the name often strikes fear in the hearts of unsuspecting concert-goers, hearing he is one of the most innovative of avant-garde composers in the second half of the 20th Century and, true, much of his music can be dizzyingly dissonant, bringing to it an edge and excitement that makes him one of the more identifiable voices in modern music. But everybody has their roots somewhere, and the 1st String Quartet is evidence of his.

The first of two published quartets (there were two more incomplete ones found in sketch-form six years after his death), this is what he himself called “The Pre-historic Ligeti.” It is in one movement but consists of a series of no less than seventeen miniature “nocturnes” (in the sense of night-dreams which can often be nightmarish, rather than in the reflective sense of Chopin) interconnected by various motives but often relying on stark and very sudden contrasts (as can happen in dreams). So the technical “metamorphosis” of these motives and the emotional “nocturnal” imagery lend the work its subtitle, “Metamorphoses nocturnes.” No sunrise and chatty birds, here.

While the program lists all seventeen tempo indications as if they're individual movements, you would do better just to listen to the piece as it evolves rather than try to follow where you are on this list. Some of them will have obvious divisions; sometimes the obvious “waltz-like nature” of one (a bit woozy, perhaps) will erupt into a Bartók dance-frenzy as if you'd tripped over a dime – and you may just miss the shock of it if you're trying to count which nocturne's coming up next. To be honest, since they're not marked in the score and none of them are given programmatic names, several of them don't seem to have beginnings or endings – again, very much like your dreams.

Here's a performance by the Arditti Quartet of the complete quartet that includes the score. Fortunately, you don't have to turn your own pages. If you're familiar with Ligeti's more famous and cosmically colorful Atmospheres from 1961, which one critic described as “a study in orchestration waiting for a piece to happen,” pay attention to the constantly shifting variety of colors he manages to get from just four string players – particularly near the end!

Being a Hungarian composer studying in Budapest – one of his teachers was Bartók's friend, Zoltan Kodaly – the influence of Bela Bartók will be a given. And with Kodaly's influence, so will the interest in folk music, though less so in this piece than in many of his later works.

The opening of the quartet is pure Bartók – crawling scale-wise passages often a half-step apart – and as the rest of it unfolds, it would be easier to point out parts that are not inspired, directly or indirectly, by Bartók. Considering the piece was composed only eight years after Bartók's death, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. And then, too, Ligeti was still a relatively young man, given how some composers develop. Yes, Beethoven produced his “Early Quartets” around the time he was pushing 30; if Ligeti'd lived only as long as Schubert, this would be about all we'd have of his music and we'd probably have never heard of him.

Ligeti in the mid-1950s
Let's consider a bit of biography which might help explain the composer's psychological development. As Lucy Murray mentions in her program notes – always recommended, whether you read them before or after but not during the concert – critic and author Alex Ross describes Ligeti's work as “artwork that answers horror by rejecting it or transcending it.”

Consider that Ligeti, a Hungarian Jew born in what is now the Romanian part of Transylvania, was called up for military service in 1944 by Hungary's Stalinist regime toward the end of World War II when he was 21. Shortly afterward, his 16-year-old brother was sent off to a Nazi concentration camp; both his parents were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti resumed his studies in Budapest and began this quartet around the time he turned 30. Knowing it would be banned, he wrote it, as composers who write for themselves rather than popular appeal often say, “for the desk drawer.” It would not be performed until 1958, by which time he had fled the failure of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which the Soviet government put down with fierce brutality. From there, he settled in Vienna and eventually became an Austrian citizen.

(A colleague of mine at UConn described what that time was like: a college student supporting the Revolution, he was warned by friends the police were at his home, waiting to arrest him. So without anything more than what he had on his back or in his pockets, without saying good-bye to friends and family, he set out in the middle of the night for the Austrian border and eventually made it to Vienna and freedom.)

Since anything that happens beyond these events will post-date the string quartet on the program, there's no need, here, to go into further detail. But if you have a chance, I highly recommend acquainting yourself with at least these two piano pieces that represent Ligeti's later style – where, in a sense, this “pre-historic” voice went. Again, they might be considering “nocturnal” in the sense of dream-like ambiguity and the pounding fear of nightmares. These links will take you to two of his etudes, subtitled “Autumn in Warsaw” (1985) and “The Devil's Staircase” (1993).

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JOHANNES BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

Brahms in 1890
Brahms was reluctant to talk about his “creative process,” though the circle worn into the carpet behind his piano bench will attest to the amount of miles he must have walked pondering the possibilities. He was a painstaking composer who wrote a great deal more than he ever allowed the public to hear.

He'd once said a composer's most useful tool was “a wastebasket.” And judging from the sheer number of works and sketches he destroyed, one might add a working fireplace. It took him over 20 years before he was able to call his first symphony “finished,” not that it took him that long to write it but it took him that long to start it, dispose of it, start over again, rewrite it, destroy it, put it aside a few years to work on other pieces, come back to it, destroy it, start over, and so on.

There's the famous, often-quoted statement he admitted to writing twenty string quartets before he finished his first one. That's probably not quite accurate: he may have written enough material for twenty string quartets before finding one that got past his typical “rinse-and-repeat” cycle of “begin/revise/destroy/set-aside/begin-again” creative insecurity. And even if there were even one of these twenty complete string quartets out there waiting to be discovered, don't count on it: Brahms was generally pretty methodical when it came to his periodic conflagrations.

We know Brahms began work on this particular quartet in 1866; the first quartet in C Minor was already underway the year before, perhaps already “complete” but not exactly “finished.” We also know both of them were finished in the summer of 1873 and premiered that October by his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. What we don't know is how many versions and sketches he struggled with, how an initial idea evolved into its final form, the way we do with Beethoven's famous (if barely legible) sketch-books. Even so, he had friends play through both of them before they were officially premiered and even then he made “substantial revisions” before sending them to the publisher who'd been waiting for them for at least the last four years. The delay, the composer explained, was if the usually effortless Mozart had such difficulties working on his six “beautiful quartets” dedicated to Haydn, the best he could do was to take his time to produce “two passably decent ones.”

But it might be instructive to look at what else Brahms had “in the oven,” so to speak, over the same period of time. His first symphony had been on one burner or another since 1854 when Brahms was 21 and determined not to engage in “on-the-job training” learning “how to write a symphony” by writing juvenile works he'd later regret, well aware of the expectations people had after the well-meaning Schumann had hailed him as “Beethoven's Heir.”

A piano quartet had also been gestating since 1855 at which point he wrote to Clara Schumann, just a year after her husband's attempted suicide (he would die in an asylum in 1856), “There are frightfully many notes buzzing in my head and around the paper, if I only had tranquility! But everything stays at the beginning stage, I can't finish anything.” From this period, we also have glimpses of a frustrated young composer – still in his early-20s – tacking page after page of various failed works on the ceiling of his room, lying on the bed, staring at them as if at the stars in the night sky, sure signs of the artist's much-dreading “writer's block.”

And it would take a better arm-chair psychologist than I to theorize how Brahms' frail creativity intertwined with the life and death of Robert Schumann (whom he'd only met a few months before Schumann's attempted suicide) and his subsequent unrequited love for Schumann's widow, Clara. The fact motives associated with her name – spelled out in musical pitches – appear like talismans behind the surface of the music is probably enough to get anybody's imagination going.

At some point, he must have been thinking about – as all composers in the shadow of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven would – the writing of string quartets. We only know he'd started two of them in the mid-1860s, but that doesn't mean those other “twenty quartets” hadn't been feeding his fireplace or papering his ceiling for the previous ten years.

Brahms in 1876
Then, something happened in the early-1870s: and finally, if not exactly “suddenly,” Brahms, who'd written many works and gained a reputation as a fine composer despite this decades-long “writer's block,” made a significant break-through, finishing the two string quartets of Op.51 in 1873, the first of his piano quartets (which now became the third he would publish) in 1875, and the epic first symphony, one of the greatest in the repertoire, in 1876. Is it a coincidence the 1st of these string quartets is in C Minor, the piano quartet which had begun in C-sharp Minor finally appeared now in C Minor, and the 1st Symphony is in C Minor?

To Beethoven, C Minor had a special meaning – we often talk about his “C Minor Mood” – many of his most dramatic works being in that key: just listen to the 5th Symphony with its context of a “Struggle Against Fate.” For Brahms, always sensing Beethoven looming behind him, C Minor was also a dramatic key though perhaps not so much a struggle with fate as it is, perhaps, a struggle with himself.

Once past the block regarding these particular pieces, a second string quartet soon found its way to the “Finished Pile,” and a year after the symphony, he almost effortlessly wrote the lyrical, exuberant D Major Symphony.

While the C Minor String Quartet, the first of the two sharing the same creative fire, is an intensely personal work, the A Minor is by comparison if not exactly “sunny” at least more relaxed and at peace with itself. The Hungarian dance that energizes its finale may perhaps reflect a celebration of the end of this long period of self-doubt. Brahms was, after all, now 40 but had yet to grow that famous beard we so often associate with him.

(By the way, while this may be the final concert of the 2018-2019 Season, Summermusic 2019 is not far behind. In case you're looking for some more Brahms, it will begin on July 13th with a program of the first two Brahms piano quartets.)

Speaking of “new, young quartets,” here's the debut recording the then-new Cleveland Quartet released in 1973, four years after they'd formed. I remember being so excited about this recording when I bought it way back then – and yes, people really did have hair like that: it was the '70s, deal with it!

Over the next 22 years, they went on to become one of the Great Quartets of their Generation. And Brahms' 2nd Quartet also featured in their farewell concert in 1995. Here are both recordings for those of you curious about how interpretations of the same piece can differ (or not) over time (even if the 1995 ensemble is only half the original quartet of 1973: personnel changes over time are almost inevitable, after all).

First Movement: Allegro non troppo

Second Movement: Andante moderate

Third Movement: Quasi minuetto: Moderato; Allegretto vivace

Fourth Movement: Finale: Allegro non assai; Poco tranquillo; Più vivace

This is a recording from the Cleveland Quartet's Farewell Concert on December 17th, 1995:

And we'll leave it there: the Cleveland Quartet may have retired as an ensemble, but they went on to continue their individual teaching schedules and mentorship programs, joining with Chamber Music America in 1995 and eight presenters – of which Market Square Concerts and its founding director, Lucy Miller Murray, had the insight to get on-board from the beginning – to promote the winners of their Cleveland Quartet Award.

And now the latest winners of the award, the Rolston Quartet, are here in Harrisburg to play a program that concludes with Brahms' 2nd Quartet. We wish them luck in their future – and urge you to check back in twenty-years' time to see how it all works out.

- Dick Strawser