Explore The Music
(Click the names below to expand info.)
Introduction to the Program by Michael Beckerman
Although two of the composers on the program of this concert were imprisoned in Terezín, none of the works on this program were written there. Surrounding one of the most powerful string quartets in the repertoire, Janácek’s reflections on Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, are pieces composed by Pavel Haas and Hans Krása before they entered Terezín. Janácek’s music had quite a presence on the concert programs in Terezín. His stature as the leading 20th century Czech composer, added to his reputation for defiance, made him an important symbol in the camp.
Back to Top
HANS KRÁSA: Theme and Variations for String Quartet
Born Prague, November 30, 1899; died Auschwitz-Birkenau, October 19, 1944
Theme and Variations for String Quartet
Composed during 1935-36; 10 minutes
Mahler meets the dance hall. Or at least that is what Krása’s theme conjures up in this Theme and Variations for String Quartet, with an ironic “wrong note” march. Composed in 1936, just a few years before Brundibár, the piece captures the energy, subtlety and innovation of Krása’s pre-war period. This composition is one of the few variation sets where each variation is longer and more complex. In fact, the title of the fifth variation, Quasi fantasia, suggests a description of the whole set. For more than most variations, this seems particularly free.
The first variation is half the length of the theme and is itself an ironic treatment of an irony. The second begins a pattern of wispily taking the theme apart and putting it together in new and odd ways. The third variation is a lilting 6/8 lullaby replete with jazzy harmonic shifts and songs without words. The fourth is an exquisite duet for the upper strings with cello pizzicato that yields to fantastic elaborations. The quasi fantasia seems at first to combine the romantic notion of fantasy with a baroque concept of contrapuntal fantasia. Here Krása’s marvelous “deconstructive” tendencies appear, as snippets of the theme emerge here and there, leading to another “romantic” duet that simply dies out.
The finale is an astonishing little piece, beginning with a Mendelssohnian fuguetta and displaying an uncanny combination of delicacy and power. Once again, various phrases from the theme are exhibited and toyed with. In the very center, everything stops and a lurching accompaniment commences, to be joined by a bluesy version of the theme. More variants appear, quasi recitativo, as the upper strings play one last romance.
Back to Top
PAVEL HAAS: Suite for Piano, Op. 13
Born Brno, June 6, 1899; died Auschwitz-Birkenau, October 17, 1944
Suite for Piano, Op. 13
Composed in 1935; 15 minutes
Pavel Haas’ Suite for Piano was composed in 1935 and first performed in a concert at the Club of Moravian Composers in 1936. The opening Preludium: vivace is a kind of Janáček-meets-Bach toccata: minimal, chromatic and kinetic until a glissando in the middle leads to a more consonant passage. The opening texture seems to reassert itself until a kind of hidden lyrical melody sounds through with devastating charm. The Con molto espressione is an almost improvisatory study in various expressive strategies, at once bluesy and atonal, its polyrhthms providing a rhythmic analogue to displacements of dynamics and dissonance.
The third movement, Danza, is something between Mussorgsky’s “Dance of the Unhatched Chicks” and the jazzy riffs of Haas’ contemporary Jaroslav Ježek’s pieces like “Bugatti Step” until it is interrupted by a kind of children’s tune. The Pastorale that follows is at first an extraordinary study in tone color. Rather than beginning by using a drone or the kind of rhythms usually associated with the pastoral mode, Haas’ version begins with an almost aimlessly coloristic intertwining of two parts. A more typical rustic passage with a drone only appears briefly twice in the middle until it blends back into two-part writing until a charming and magical extended cadence at the end adds additional parts.
The Postludium seems to reach back to the toccata-like mood of the opening, yet somehow both more contemplative and playful, its childlike rhythms a kind of presage of “The Lady is a Tramp.”
Back to Top
LEOŠ JANÁCEK: String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”
Born Hukvaldy, July 3, 1854; died Ostrava, August 12, 1928
String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”
Composed in 1923; 18 minutes
Leoš Janáček composed his String Quartet, “after Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata,” remarkably quickly in the fall of 1923. The Bohemian Quartet, which included the composer Josef Suk as second violin, had commissioned the work during a meeting in Prague on October 13, and he finished it by November 7. The speed of composition can be explained partly because of an enthusiastic burst of creativity due to the sudden and belated recognition of his music beyond his Moravian homeland, but also partly because he was able to draw material from a piano trio he had written more than 20 years earlier bearing the same literary reference. Although this trio had been well received in several performances, it was never published, and the full manuscript has been lost except for a single sheet. That sheet reveals that Janácˇek took a canon between the first violin and cello and made it the main theme of his quartet’s third movement.
For the majority of the 19th century, “Kreutzer Sonata,” referred only to Beethoven’s masterful Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major. Then, in 1890, Leo Tolstoy published his controversial novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The book became a scandale célèbre across Europe and North America for its scathing diatribe against the social institution of marriage and common understandings of romantic love, and for the furious and only ambiguously repentant account by the central character, Pozdnyshev, of his jealous murder of his wife over a suspected infidelity.
Pozdnyshev had stabbed his wife, a pianist, because he believed she was having an affair with a violinist after hearing them perform the Kreutzer Sonata at a party. He had in part blamed Beethoven’s provocative music: “how could anyone play this Kreutzer Sonata, the first Presto, in a drawing room with ladies in low-cut gowns?” Ultimately, he was acquitted as a wronged husband who avenged his honor.
From Janáček’s writings about the work, it is clear that the composer took the story to be much more of a human tragedy than Tolstoy, emphasizing the pathos of a woman unfairly victimized by constraining social circumstances—the classic realist predicament that the composer had recently presented in his opera Kát’a Kabanová. Theories of sonata form have long identified the second theme as feminine, so Janáček took the warm, major second theme from Beethoven’s first movement and transposed it into a plaintive, minor melody which he used for his canon between the violin and cello to open the third movement. It is fitting that Janáček would chose this material to place at the emotional heart of his quartet to mourn the battered wife.
As a whole, the Quartet is a riveting work, with an opening as famous as any work in the Czech canon. Classic Janáček, the combination of vibrating intensity and a folk-like dance plays itself out in various ways throughout the entire composition.
Back to Top
PAVEL HAAS: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7, “From the Monkey Mountains”
Born Brno, June 6, 1899; died Auschwitz-Birkenau, October 17, 1944
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7, “From the Monkey Mountains”
Composed in 1925; 32 minutes
Perhaps the most profound influence on Pavel Haas’ compositional outlook was the two year-period he spent in a master class with Leoš Janáček. Janáček was already 67 by the time he and Haas were introduced, and he familiarized all his students with the treatment of melody and harmony in Moravian folk music as a source of inspiration for all the compositional genres he taught. Haas in particular took this to heart, exploring other musical styles of the Czech lands, including Jewish synagogue music. Haas also had his eye on the west, showing an interest in jazz and Stravinsky’s neo-classical writing.
His “From the Monkey Mountains” String Quartet caused a critical scandal at its premiere in Brno in 1925. The name itself, “ Monkey Mountains” refers to the nickname of the Vysočina region (Moravian Highlands), a lovely, pastoral area that was the birthplace of both Smetana and Martinů. Though some may have found the title provocative, it was nothing in comparison to what they were about to hear. In the last movement, “Wild Night,” Haas decided to add an optional percussion part. The additions were not very dramatic, and the audience didn’t seem to be bothered. However, the critics of that time decided that Haas’ innovation showed a “lack of respect” for the string quartet, and he was all but forced to provide an alternative without percussive elements for the more sensitive ears. (Tonight’s performance will not feature the optional percussion part.)
Haas continued to compose until he was sent to Terezín in 1941. He wrote at least eight compositions in the camp; more than half are lost. Remaining are the Al s’fod Hebrew text setting, the Study for Strings that was immortalized in the notorious Nazi propaganda film, and the Four Songs on Chinese Poetry, also heard in this series.
“From the Monkey Mountains” is a work of enormous power. Depicting a series of scenes from what can be assumed to be a summer retreat, the first movement opens in a calm atmosphere, almost inaudible at the beginning. It develops little by little into a highly descriptive landscape, exploring all facets of such a scene (both dangerous and beautiful—note the violin’s shriek). The second movement also features quasi-programmatic elements in its closely related tempo and theme, focusing on the lurching coach, coachman and horse of the movement’s title.
The third movement is the expressive core of the composition, with a festive climax in celebration of “The Moon and me…” that quickly returns to the atmosphere and material of the opening movement. The finale mixes folk melodies and jazz elements and throughout the work, one can plainly hear Haas’ personal combination of humor and subtle irony intermingled with a profound level of thought and elegance.
Back to Top
With a vast repertoire and imaginative, innovative and unusual programming, the Nash Ensemble has established a reputation as one of the finest and most adventurous chamber groups in Britain and around the world, performing with equal sensitivity and musicality works from Haydn to the avant-garde. Through the dedication of its founder and artistic director Amelia Freedman CBE, the group has premiered about 265 new works, of which 165 have been commissioned by or for the ensemble.
The Nash Ensemble’s primary home is London’s Wigmore Hall, where it is chamber ensemble in residence. For the 2011/12 season, the Ensemble is presenting “Echoes of Romanticism,” a series that focuses on music written in Germany and Austria in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Soprano Dame Felicity Lott sings the last scene from Strauss’ opera Capriccio and joins mezzo-sopranos Alice Coote and Bernarda Fink and baritone Wolfgang Holzmair for song cycles by Mahler to mark the centenary of his death. Serving as the Ensemble’s concert manager is Judith Ackrill.
The Nash Ensemble regularly tours throughout Europe and the US. Recent highlights include performances in the Berlin Konzerthaus, the Musée d’Orsay of Paris and the Vienna Konzerthaus. The group has appeared at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival, and it has held residencies at Princeton University, Toronto Summer Music Festival and the Lofoten Festival in Norway.
The Nash Ensemble has an impressive collection of recordings of classical masterpieces, little-known or neglected gems and important contemporary works. Its “British Composers” series for Hyperion Records has received critical praise. The Nash’s recording of chamber works by Coleridge-Taylor for Hyperion was nominated for a BBC Music magazine award and was named “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone magazine. Recent releases that have also garnered acclaim include the complete Mozart string quintets for Onyx, two CDs of Beethoven string quintets for Hyperion, and Brahms’ sextets, string quintets, piano quartets and clarinet trio, also for Onyx. A disc of chamber works by David Matthews for NMC was recently nominated for a Gramophone Award.
The Nash Ensemble, which takes its name from the beautiful Nash terraces in London, has won numerous accolades, including The Edinburgh Festival Critics Award and two Royal Philharmonic Society awards in the chamber music category “for the breadth of its taste and its immaculate performance of a wide range of music.” Its website is www.nashensemble.org.uk.
Back to Top
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone
Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair has performed in recital in the leading musical capitals of the world, including London, Lisbon, Amsterdam, New York and Washington, DC. Last spring, he organized and appeared at a festival dedicated to Mahler at ORF RadioKulturhaus in Vienna. The previous year, he curated a Hugo Wolf festival at the same venue for the 150th anniversary of Wolf’s birth.
A regular participant at international music festivals, Mr. Holzmair has appeared at the Risör Festival (Norway), Bath Festival (UK), Menuhin Festival (Switzerland) and Carinthian Summer Festival (Austria). In addition to his artistic relationship with the British pianist Imogen Cooper, Mr. Holzmair has collaborated with several of the leading pianists of our time, most re¬cently Andreas Haefliger.
As an orchestral soloist, Mr. Holzmair has sung with such leading ensembles as the Berlin, Dresden and Israel philharmonics; the Cleveland, Leipzig Gewandhaus and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras; the Vienna Symphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. His current appearances include Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in both Vienna and Amsterdam, orchestrated Wolf songs with the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Budapest and Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem in Oviedo, Spain.
Mr. Holzmair has an operatic repertoire ranging from Gluck to Britten. His future plans include Beckmesser (Die Meister-singer) in Japan and Agamemnon (Iphigénie en Aulide) by Gluck/Wagner in Bayreuth. In North America, he has sung Papageno (Die Zauberflöte) and Eisenstein (Die Fledermaus) in Dallas, Faninal (Der Rosenkavalier) in Seattle, and both Don Alfonso (Così fan tutte) and Demetrius (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in Toronto. Other performances include Wolfram (Tannhäuser) in Erfurt, the Music Master (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Madrid, and the Father in Hänsel und Gretel on a tour of Japan.
Mr. Holzmair has an extensive, critically acclaimed discography. His recordings with Imogen Cooper include lieder by Clara and Robert Schumann (Philips) and songs by Wolf (Wigmore Hall Live Series) and he has made various Schubert recordings with Gérard Wyss (Tudor). He was a soloist for Pelléas et Mélisande with Bernard Haitink and the Orchestre National de France (Naive) and Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with Herbert Blomstedt, which won a Grammy Award. He is also a committed advocate of the performance and recording of works, especially lieder, by formerly persecuted composers, including the Terezín composers.
Born in Vöcklabruck, Austria, Mr. Holzmair studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Since 1998, he has taught lieder and oratorio at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and given master classes in Europe and North America. He is also a visiting professor and fellow of the Royal College of Music in London. His website is wolfgangholzmair.com.
Back to Top
Russell Ryan, piano
Pianist Russell Ryan performs as a soloist and collaborative artist throughout Europe, the US, Israel, Japan and China. He has performed in such world-renowned halls as Wigmore Hall in London, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. In spring 2007, he participated with Wolfgang Holzmair and others in a Hugo Wolf mini-festival at the Weill Recital Hall at New York's Carnegie Hall, presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum. Mr. Ryan has also participated in the Wiener Festwochen, the Menuhin Festival in Norway, the Grieg Festival Oslo and the Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival in Germany, to mention a few. These concerts mark his 92nd Street Y debut. He has also appeared on many radio and television broadcasts and has recorded several CDs.
Mr. Ryan maintains an active dual career as educator. He was a multiple prize winner at the San Francisco Junior Bach Festival for four consecutive years, then studied piano and chamber music at Vienna’s University for Music and Performing Arts. Upon graduating with honors, he became a member of the staff of the vocal department. For several years, he was also accompanist of the Wiener Singverein and frequently gave master classes in lieder, opera and musical theater at international festivals. In 2008, Mr. Ryan joined the faculty at Arizona State University, and he is guest instructor at the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) in Vienna, where he is in charge of the Vocal Performance Class. He also is a guest artist at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival and Middlebury Summer Program.
Back to Top