A romantic island getaway for four
F.A. Pfeiffer (1754-1792)
6 Quatuors, Ouevre 1, pour le fagot, violon, viola et basse,
très humblement dediés à A.S.A.R. Monseigneur le Prince de Prusse,
no.6 en re mineur
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Trio, in G major, for 2 violas and cello
Quartett G-dur fur Fagott, Violine Viola und Violoncello
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Trio, D.471,in Bb major, for violin, viola and cello
Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841)
Concertino per viola, violoncelllo e fagotto:
Tema scherzando con variazioni
C.M. von Weber (1786-1826)
Andante e Rondo Ungarese, Op.35
arranged by Mordechai Rechtman for bassoon and string trio
As charming as the music may be, «island» can't keep serving up our old classical favorites Devienne and Danzi. We also need a vacation, and what better place to head than the nineteenth century, where we managed to dig up some treasures to keep us all enchanted for some time.
Not to plunge immediately into entirely foreign waters, we open the programme with a relatively conventional example of our genre, a quartet for bassoon and string trio. Pfeiffer (1754-1792) was a German bassoon virtuoso who made many successful concert tours throughout Europe. His output was not enormous and understandably concentrated on his own instrument, but he possessed an accomplished command of classical compositional style, likely gleaned from his early years as a double bassist in the unrivaled Mannheim court orchestra. The d minor quartet is a harmless enough piece, the first movement displaying the dialogue and florid runs between the violin and bassoon usual to the bassoon quartet style. Following is a rather touching adagio canzona for the bassoon to display lyrical talents and three octave range above a lilting accompaniment. The third movement is an acrobatic Rondo, whose main them has a distinctively dark-hued gypsy character.
With the Hummel trio, «island» mainsails into fully-fledged romanticism. A student of both Albrechtsburger and Mozart, Johann Nepomuk Hummel went on to become one of Europe's greatest pianists and composers. He was also a close friend of Mozart, and similarly was a prodigy who from an early age traveled frenetically on concert tours throughout Europe. Having established his reputation as one of its leading piano virtuosi, he settled more quietly for some years in Vienna with no fixed position. This was a period of great industry (producing this Trio among much else), but also of enormous financial insecurity, during which Hummel taught ten lessons a day and stayed up composing until 4AM. This lifestyle obviously served to reestablish his life priorities, as Hummel went on to become one of the most financially astute and comfortably set up of composers, especially once becoming grand-ducal Kapellmeister at Weimar. Many of his contemporaries ungenerously saw this bourgeoisie reflected in his playing and composition, perceiving his music as rather old-fashioned, learned, dry and passionless, especially in comparison to the more fiery Beethoven and other more bombastic proponents of Romanticism. Indeed his compositions have a classical simplicity of line and structure, but also often a wonderful sense of freely spontaneous melodiousness. In fact, as evidenced by the warmly glowing slow movement of his string trio, I am at a loss to understand any criticism. With its unfolding, soaring melodies, swelling crescendi, the inevitability to its harmonic tugs leading to climactic peaks, it can only be described as decidedly passionate.
The languorous reverie is abruptly broken by Schneider's quartet. Opening with an arresting, buoyant dotted rhythm, its continuously unfolding virtuosic episodes in each instrument and its sometimes quite alarming harmonic turns raise the heart rate. Above all, Schneider's music exploits a consummate familiarity with instrumental colour and capabilities, which can be explained by the fact that by an early age he had mastered most of them himself. In addition to being a touring horn virtuoso, Schneider was also quite the entrepreneur. In 1807 in Berlin he started a series of subscription concerts or "musical divertissements" which combined the efforts of both professionals and amateurs. He also came up with the economically astute concept of "Kombinationskonzerte", by which the accompaniment was the same, thus requiring only one costly engraving of the orchestral parts, but the solo part was written for five different instruments. Thus five different solo concerti could be published with minimal expense or effort. Contrary to what his working methods may seem to imply, Schneider did write a great variety as well as volume of chamber music; much of it is strikingly inventive and "when performed with care is still capable of pleasing many lovers of music in the concert hall". (Altmann) We intend to please all of them!
The great Viennese Franz Schubert doubtlessly needs no introduction here. His chamber music oeuvre is amongst the most cherished of audiences and players alike. The Trio D 471 was composed in September 1816, probably for private performance or for the winter soirées of Ignaz von Sonnleitner. The Allegro, beginning with a striking pianissimo, has an economy of thematic material, but it evolves through such a diversity of registers, keys and textures that one has a sense of continuous and spontaneous invention. Alas only the first 39 bars of the following Andante remains, but these bars are of such profound beauty that they demand inclusion in our programme. The only problem is that they will leave you, and us, swooning for more.
In his History of Violin Playing, Andreas Moser wrote: "If only concert organisers had the courage to include in their programmes one of Rolla's trios...the audience would listen astounded at the excellence of the music." Well, we dare! However, we will spare you the first movement, which struck even us as unnecessarily long-winded and unwieldy. Alessandro Rolla was first violinist at La Scala from 1803 and five years later became the first professor of violin and viola at the new Milan Conservatorium. Highly influential, held in great regard by his contemporaries, his compositions display a sensitive, idiomatic approach and a fluent melodicism which was seen as representing a continuing Italian tradition as opposed to Paganini's more extrovert bombast. Whatever spurred a violin virtuoso to come up with the innovative instrumentation of viola, bassoon and cello is a mystery, but the combination does present opportunities for dense sonorities, darkly glowing textures and colours, especially in the lyrical Andante. The third movement presents a an infectiously cheeky theme which is embellished with increasing acrobaticity in the following variations. The cellist in particular is never thrown a life jacket!
And finally it is the bassoonist's turn to dive into churning waters in Weber's Andante e Rondo Ungarese. Both this and the Concerto, Op.75, are all-time hits with bassoon students, for whom the crowning achievement of a year's toil over etudes and excerpts is to perform one or the other backed by a hapless pianist flailing over the orchestral reductions. Until I can afford to hire my own full orchestra, I am thrilled to be able to perform this arrangement with string trio, courtesy of Israeli bassoonist Mordechai Rechtman. The piece was written originally for viola and orchestra in 1809 for Weber's brother Fritz. Later it was readapted for the Munich bassoonist Georg Friedrich Brandt for whom the concerto had been composed two years previously.
As one would expect from the so-called "father of German Romantic Opera", the theatre is never far away. In the opening Andante the bassoon bewails a rather mournful c minor tune, above a pizzicato accompaniment. Whilst this is often performed in smooth and elegant cantabile style, as a display of the instrument's vocal tenor register, there is something in the strange syncopations and accents, the ungainly leaps, and the extreme use of the high register (all of which are far more featured by a classical bassoon than a modern one), which reminds me of the fact that since childhood poor Weber was plagued by a hip disease which forced him to limp all his short life. It is indeed a lament! Which then undergoes some stormy transformations in the following variations. However, before one really must draw one's handkerchief to wipe away the tear's, the clouds rise on a bunch of merry gypsies, who present the rather silly theme of the Rondo. Following is a rather good-natured romp, in which the influence of the 19th craze for "gypsy" music can be felt in its tonal colourations, jaunty rhythmic figures and bravura rather than by the use any genuine Hungarian melodies. Of course the primary comic effect of the Rondo is achieved merely by witnessing the bassoonist being strained to the limits of agility and range, especially if foolish enough to attempt the piece on a bassoon of the period!