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“Isserlis plays with almost tangible intensity and soul.” —Financial Times

“Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs, in whatever combination.” —The New York Times

Exclusive New York engagement
Steven Isserlis, cello
Jeremy Denk, piano


HAHN: Variations chantantes for Cello and Piano
CHOPIN: Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 65
MARTINŮ: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1
LISZT: Romance oubliée for Cello and Piano
FRANCK: Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major

On the Blog

(Click the names below to expand info)

From stevenisserlis.com:


Steven Isserlis’s website, with his writings, articles, a quiz, etc.

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From jeremydenk.net:


Jeremy Denk’s website, with his writings, audio clips, a link to his acclaimed blog, ThinkDenk, etc.

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From ft.com:


Cellist Steven Isserlis on his pianist grandfather and his compositions,” by Peter Aspden, Financial Times, 1/10/14; interview about his composer grandfather Julius Isserlis, prior to release of a new CD.

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From economist.com:


"The Q&A: Steven Isserlis—Music is a Great Healer," The Economist, 9/12/13; Q&A before his performance at Wigmore Hall.

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From thejc.com:


Interview: Steven Isserlis,” by Jessica Duchen, The Jewish Chronicle Online, 9/2/10; interview before the 2013 BBC Free Prom.

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From nytimes.com:


String of High Notes for Pianist,” by Michael Cooper, The New York Times, 3/17/14: article about Jeremy Denk receiving the Avery Fisher Prize and his new opera, The Classical Style.

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From startribune.com:


SPCO names pianist Jeremy Denk as next artistic partner,” by Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune, 3/18/14, article about The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra naming him to its artistic staff.

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From macfound.org:


Profile of Jeremy Denk upon being named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” grant).

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Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

“The Lure of Paris”

By Sandra Hyslop


For centuries, poets and princes, rogues and romantics have succumbed to the charms of Paris. Whether born in that city or coming to it from elsewhere, people have found its magnetic field hard to resist.

All of the composers on this evening’s concert were born outside of Paris but spent significant years of their lives within its borders. Three of them—Reynaldo Hahn, Franz Liszt and César Franck—first experienced Paris as musical wunderkinder; of those, Hahn and Franck took up permanent residence in the city, while Liszt, a wildly successful touring concert pianist, returned to Paris repeatedly in his adult life, making it his de facto second home. The fourth composer, the Polish exile Frédéric Chopin, arrived there at the age of 21 and never left; and lastly, the Czech exile Bohuslav Martinů spent 13 significant years in the city, leaving only when he was forced to join the great wave of emigrants who fled Paris during the Nazi occupation.

One can argue that these composers arrived in Paris—from Venezuela, Hungary, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia—with sensibilities ripe for grafting onto the French language and culture; or one can believe that Paris and France had a transformative effect on their native heritage. Probably both positions have elements of truth. The fact is that the music of all five of these composers would be unimaginable without their formative experiences in the heart of Paris, the City of Love and Light.

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HAHN: Variations chantantes for Cello and Piano

REYNALDO HAHN

Born Caracas, Venezuela, August 9, 1874; died Paris, January 28, 1947
Variations chantantes for Cello and Piano
Composed in 1905; 5 minutes

Born as the youngest of twelve children to a German father and a Spanish mother, Reynaldo Hahn showed remarkable musical gifts even before his family left Venezuela and moved to Paris when he was four years of age. He made his debut as a pianist in an elegant Parisian salon at age six and entered the Paris Conservatoire at age eleven.

Hahn lived at the center of Paris music life during the era now known as La belle époque, a period that found particularly eloquent expression in his music compositions. An intimate friend of Marcel Proust and of the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Hahn moved in sophisticated circles. He became a French citizen in 1909 and served on the frontlines in World War I. Because of his Jewish ancestry, he left Paris in 1940 and spent the years of Nazi occupation in Monte Carlo. At war’s end he returned to Paris, where he was the director of the Paris Opéra until his death from a brain tumor in 1947.

In addition to promoting and conducting music, and writing essays and criticism for journals and newspapers, Hahn composed industriously: during his lifetime he achieved renown for his many late-romantic songs (mélodies) for solo voice and piano, as well as for several operas, ballets and other incidental music for the stage; a piano concerto and other larger concert works; and chamber music for a variety of instruments.

Hahn’s first important success as a composer came with the mélodie “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” (“If my verse had wings”), which he composed at the age of just fourteen; it has endured to the present day, along with the solo vocal works of Fauré, Chausson and Debussy, as representative of the best songs of that era. His gift for melody—he was, himself, a good lyric baritone—found expression not only in his many vocal compositions, but also in his instrumental music. For the short Variations chantantes he chose a melody from Francesco Cavalli’s 1654 opera Il Xerse, treating it to melodic and rhythmic variations that translate the vocal original into lyrical cello material perfectly suited to the instrument’s range and timbre.

© 2014 Sandra Hyslop

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CHOPIN: Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 6

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN

Born Zelazowa Wola, Poland, March 1, 1810; died Paris, October 17, 1849
Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 6
Composed in 1845–1846; 28 minutes

Out of his hundreds of compositions, almost all of them for solo piano, Frédéric Chopin wrote only four that required a cellist: one piano trio and three works for cello and piano. He composed eloquently, even obsessively, for the piano, contributing a body of works for his instrument matched in quantity and quality by few other composers for any other single instrument. Still, the cello clearly spoke to Chopin, and although the piano plays a significant role in these four works, the cello’s unique voice commands attention.

On a concert tour in Vienna as a young man, Chopin had met the Austrian cellist Joseph Merk (1795–1852), who held the principal chair of the Vienna Court Opera orchestra. About this occasion Chopin wrote: “On Thursday there was a soiree at Fuchs’s, when Limmer [an Austrian composer] introduced some of his own compositions for four violoncellos. Merk as usual made them more beautiful than they really were by his playing, which is so full of soul. He is the only violoncellist I really respect…” For Merk the 19–year–old Chopin wrote the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for cello and piano (1829–1830).

Settling in Paris not long thereafter, Chopin made the acquaintance of the great French cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884), an important player in the music life of Chopin’s adopted home city, and after 1846 the principal cello professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Like Merk, Franchomme inspired Chopin to compose for his instrument.

First, Chopin and Franchomme collaborated on the Grand Duo on Themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, which they published in 1831. They maintained their friendship through the years and in 1845–1846 Chopin composed the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, dedicating it to Franchomme. The two colleagues introduced the Sonata (or, at least, the second, third, and fourth movements) at Chopin’s last public performance, a concert at the Salle Pleyel in February 1848. It was the last of Chopin’s compositions to be published in his lifetime.

As he had already done in his solo piano sonatas, Chopin turned to a conventional sonata framework, but with an idiosyncratic approach to thematic development. Contrapuntal passages lend strength and complexity to the work, in which the quasi-sonata form first movement is followed by a mazurka/scherzo, a nocturne/largo, and a sonata-rondo fourth movement. The instruments are accorded equal roles in the structure of the whole. In addition to composing lyrical passages of great beauty for the cello, Chopin could not resist giving to the piano richly embellished melodic materials.

Chopin composed this sonata near the end of his life, after he and George Sand had come to the painful end of their relationship. The striking parallels between melodic elements of this cello sonata and of Schubert’s great 24-song cycle Winterreise have often been noted. The piano introductions to the two works—Chopin in G minor, Schubert in D minor—describe downward-arching melodies that seem to have poured out of the same grieving soul. For those who know Schubert, it’s not possible to hear the opening of Chopin’s Cello Sonata without thinking of the first Winterreise song , “Fremd bin ich eingezogen, fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.…” (I came here as a stranger, I leave as a stranger.…)

© 2014 Sandra Hyslop

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MARTINŮ: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1

BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ

Born Polička, Bohemia, December 8, 1890; died Liestal, near Basel, August 28, 1959
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1
Composed in 1939; 20 minutes

In 1923 Bohuslav Martinů left his beloved Czechoslovakia home for a visit to Paris; he stayed for 16 years. A talented violinist and pianist, he had studied composition formally in Prague with Josef Suk. Now, in France, he had contact not only with Albert Roussel, whom he sought out for composition lessons, but also with the entire music culture of 1920s Paris. The air vibrated with music of the composers Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and many others, as well as of that seductive immigrant from across the Atlantic, American jazz.

So stimulated was Martinů by what he heard in Paris that he composed a number of works which echoed the styles, the rhythms, the instrumentation and the panache of his new home. He also composed his first works for solo cello in Paris, including the Concertino (1924), two Duos for Violin and Cello (1927), his first cello concerto (1930) and some easier pedagogical pieces for cello and piano. Such positive cultural and musical experiences were eclipsed in the 1930s by the rise of fascist politics, and in 1939 Martinů fled Paris in advance of the Nazi occupation of the city. He and his wife made their way through southern France and Portugal to the US.

During 1939, his final, politically stressful year in Paris, Martinů composed the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1. Finishing the piece on May 12, he dedicated it to the great French cellist Pierre Fournier, who played its public premiere in Paris with Martinů’s countryman, the pianist Rudolf Firkušný. Martinů would later characterize this Sonata as his “last greeting, a beam of light from a better world.”

In its three movements the Sonata traverses a wide emotional range. The drama of the opening movement, Poco allegro, certainly suggests an inner turmoil—whether prompted by personal or political tensions is undoubtedly a moot point—that is far from the works of Martinů’s earlier Paris years. The second movement, Lento, exploits the full-throated passion inherent in the cello’s voice. Passion carries into the final movement as well, this time in a rhythmically driven Allegro con brio that sends the Sonata to an energized conclusion. “For several minutes,” Martinů observed, “we realized what music could give us, and we forgot about reality.”

Although he continued to compose prolifically (including two more sonatas for cello and piano) for the next two decades, Martinů joined the other exiles of his era who lived in an eternal music diaspora. The US proved to be a temporary haven, but no home; his political beliefs kept him from returning to his Czech homeland after World War II, and Martinů withdrew to the south of France and Italy for his final years.

© 2014 Sandra Hyslop

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LISZT: Romance oubliée for Cello and Piano, S. 132

FRANZ LISZT

Born Raiding, Hungary, October 22, 1811; died Bayreuth, Germany, July 31, 1886
Romance oubliée for Cello and Piano, S. 132
Composed in 1880; 4 minutes

Franz Liszt was known to compose quickly—and to return to his works, even after their publication, in order to refine and revise. Frequently he transformed his own music into transcriptions and adaptations for new instrumentations. Thus, the “Romance oubliée” began as a solo song for voice and piano, and Liszt later transcribed it for solo piano, as well as for various string instruments with piano.

Liszt had composed the original song in 1843 on a French poem by an acquaintance, Caroline von Pavloff, known as a poet and translator of Tolstoy’s works. The poem, “O pourquoi donc,” is a meditation on the plight of women who shed tears for lost love.

In 1848 Liszt adapted the song as a piano solo, and in 1880 he set it again in versions for violin and piano, viola and piano, and cello and piano. He adapted the expressive vocal material to suit the sonic textures of the instruments, re-titling the resulting piece Romance oubliée (Forgotten romance). None of the versions of the “Romance oubliée” demand virtuosic technique. Rather, Liszt gives the performers a medium for expressing the refined intimacy of their instruments while recalling, in a wordless vocalise, the original text and poetry. Cellists in particular have taken this lyrical transcription into their repertoire—not surprisingly, since their instrument is often likened in range and timbre to the human voice.

© 2014 Sandra Hyslop

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FRANCK: Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major

CÉSAR FRANCK

Born Liège, Belgium, September 10, 1822; died Paris, November 8, 1890
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major
Composed in 1886; 28 minutes

César Franck had an influence in the music world in inverse proportion to his public renown. Franck had trod a difficult path in his childhood. His Belgian father, determined to make capital on the talents of his wunderkind son, kept him on a short leash for many years. Franck’s extraordinary music talents earned him multiple prizes in composition, theory, organ and piano at the conservatories in Liège and Paris, and he achieved a bit of fame in Belgium as a teenage concert pianist. When he reached his 20s, however, he escaped his father’s domination and made a life for himself in the French capital.

Active as a renowned church organist, Franck composed operas, oratorios and solo music for piano and organ. Concertgoers of an earlier generation frequently heard his Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, but today his reputation as a composer rests principally on two chamber music works: the Piano Quintet in F minor from 1879 and the Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, composed for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931).

The sonata was presented to Ysaÿe as a wedding gift on the afternoon of his marriage in 1886 to Louise Bourdeau, and he spontaneously performed the work that day for their wedding guests, with Marie-Léontine Bordes-Pène at the piano. Franck’s sonata quickly acquired an international audience after Ysaÿe and Madame Bordes-Pène premiered the sonata in Brussels a few months later, in December 1886. Because of Ysaÿe’s frequent performances in following years, the sonata became widely known and admired.

Not only violinists, but also performers on many other instruments have taken Franck’s sonata into their repertoire. Transcriptions for flute, viola, double bass, tuba and saxophone are just a few—the French pianist Alfred Cortot even arranged the work as a duet for piano four-hands. The most often-heard transcription, however, is that for cello. Franck himself authorized the French cellist Jules Delsart to make a transcription, which was published in January 1888. Franck also autographed a copy of the second edition of the work, describing it as being “for violin or cello.” Because this is a large sonata, with bold, lyrical writing for the piano as well as the violin, the cello’s voice seems especially well suited as a partner in the drama. The cello is able to play the sonata in the same key, A major, with only minor adjustments, and the piano part remains unchanged.

The voices of the cello and the violin, each with a span of a little more than four octaves, overlap in their ranges—the lower two octaves of a violin cover the same tones as the upper two octaves of a cello. Given the way this sonata in the key of A major falls within the violin’s range, Steven Isserlis says, “I play straight from the violin part, and transpose it mostly down an octave,” leaving occasional passages in their original violin octave, which the cello can easily play.

Like many of Franck’s compositions, the Sonata in A major is built upon a germ of a musical idea, a motto theme, which provides structural unity by appearing in every movement. The generative musical germ of the Sonata in A major appears in the first four bars of the piece. Written in 9/8 measure, the theme rocks gently (“molto dolce”) in intervals of thirds and fourths, gradually gaining momentum toward a climax that sends the piano into a grand statement of Franck’s second theme. These two thematic elements recur in various guises throughout the sonata, which has rightly earned a permanent place in the chamber music repertoire as one of the most beloved, and challenging, sonatas for a string instrument and piano.

© 2014 Sandra Hyslop

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Artist Bios

Steven Isserlis, cello

This program’s exploration into the charms of Paris over foreign composers reflects cellist Steven Isserlis’s commitment to thoughtful, innovative programming. In recent years at 92Y he has presented Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano with Robert Levin on the fortepiano, and surveyed the cello chamber repertoire of the early Romantics. Since October 2006, frequently in partnership with Jeremy Denk, Mr. Isserlis has introduced children to the lives and music of the great composers at 92Y Family Concerts; he will give one the day after this concert, Sunday, April 27, at 3 pm.

This season Mr. Isserlis is presenting a thematic series at London’s Wigmore Hall: “In the Shadow of War,” for which he is joined by such friends as Joshua Bell, Dénes Várjon, Janine Jansen and Alexander Melnikov in performing works written during the two world wars. He will also present a selection of these works at the 2014 Salzburg Festival. Other major projects for this season include three highly varied new recordings, all on the Hyperion label: concertos by Shostakovich and Prokofiev with the Hessische Rundfunk orchestra under Paavo Järvi; a disc of sonatas by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, with harpsichordist Richard Egarr; and a program of romantic cello sonatas with pianist Stephen Hough.

These new CDs will join an extensive and award-winning discography. This past January Hyperion released the Isserlis-Levin Beethoven cycle to enthusiastic reviews; Gramophone named it “Recording of the Month.” Other recent releases include the Dvořák concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Harding; a recital disc for Hyperion with Thomas Adès, including the premiere recording of Adès’ Lieux Retrouves, written for Isserlis; and for BIS, a recording with Olli Mustonen of the three Martinů sonatas, Sibelius’s Malinconia and Mustonen’s own cello sonata. Last year Mr. Isserlis became one of only two living cellists (the other being Yo-Yo Ma) to be inducted into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame.

Writing and playing for children is one of Mr. Isserlis’s major interests. He has written two books for children about the lives of the great composers that have been translated into many languages. He has recorded a children’s CD for BIS with Stephen Hough and has written three musical stories for children with composer Anne Dudley, all premiered at 92Y.

For the past 16 years Mr. Isserlis has been artistic director of the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall. He gives most of his concerts on the Marquis de Corberon (Nelsova) Stradivarius of 1726, kindly loaned to him by the Royal Academy of Music. His website is stevenisserlis.com.

 
Jeremy Denk, piano

Pianist Jeremy Denk has had an extraordinary 2013/14 season. In September the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named him one of its 2013 Foundation Fellows, and Nonesuch Records released his CD, Bach: Goldberg Variations. In November Musical America named Mr. Denk its 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year. Last month, Mr. Denk received the prestigious 2014 Avery Fisher Award, and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra announced that he would join the ensemble as one of its artistic partners.

To coincide with the release of Bach: Goldberg Variations, Mr. Denk launched the 2013-14 season with performances of the “Goldbergs” in Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC; the album reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart and was featured in “best of 2013” lists by The New Yorker and The New York Times. Other season highlights included his return to Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco and engagements with the Baltimore and Cincinnati symphonies.

Tonight’s concert is one of many collaborations with Steven Isserlis, here at 92nd Street Y and around the world. Next week Mr. Denk heads to São Paolo for two concerts, followed by two more with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He will spend part of his summer as music director of the 2014 Ojai Music Festival, where he will premiere the new comic opera, The Classical Style, with music by Steven Stucky and libretto by Mr. Denk.

Mr. Denk’s schedule for next season includes debuts with the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, plus performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. He will play Bach’s concertos on tour with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and return to Wigmore Hall. He will make his recital debut at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam playing the Goldberg Variations, which he will also perform throughout Europe.

In 2012, Mr. Denk made his Nonesuch label debut with a pairing of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by the New Yorker, NPR and the Washington Post. He has a long-standing attachment to the music of Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas was included in many “best of the year” lists. Mr. Denk’s writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Guardian and on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. His blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives. His website and blog are at jeremydenk.net.


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92Y Recommends

IN THE NEWS: Jeremy Denk receives Avery Fisher Prize and is appointed to SPCO artistic staff, 3/18/14. Click the “On the Blog” tab for full info.


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