AN 2 9994 Haydn Schubert Brahms

Haydn, Schubert, Brahms

They spoke about it

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Haydn – Schubert – Brahms

In this celebration of Vienna, Stéphane Tétreault and Marie-Ève Scarfone evoke two instruments that are no longer commonly played today. Their performance transports us from the grace of a Haydn divertimento to Schubert’s divine “Arpeggione”, to say nothing of the depth of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.1.

The baryton, a member of the viola da gamba family, was in use as early as the 17th century but did not gain popularity until the second half of the 18th century. In addition to its seven bowed strings, the baryton has 16 to 20 wire strings that are plucked with the thumb of the left hand, making it particularly diffi cult to master. Joseph Haydn contributed greatly to the baryton’s popularity by writing over 170 works for the instrument, including 126 trios, no doubt at the behest of his patron, Prince Nicolas Esterhazy, who played the instrument himself.

The version heard here of one of Haydn’s many works for baryton, viola and cello was arranged by the Russian-born American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, a virtuoso who performed chamber music with greats such as Arthur Rubinstein, William Primrose, and Jascha Heifetz. Like most baryton trios, the Divertimento in D begins with a slow movement whose transparency and textures Stéphane Tétreault compares to a watercolour painting, followed by a stately minuet and an exuberant finale.

A bowed string instrument that is tuned like a guitar, the arpeggione enjoyed limited popularity (over a period of no more than 10 years), likely due to its lack of an end pin, making it diffi cult to handle, and to its six strings, making it tricky to bow the middle strings. Franz Schubert’s Sonata, completed in November 1824, a year after the arpeggione’s invention by Johann Georg Staufer, remains the instrument’s most well-known work. It was published posthumously in 1871, with transcriptions for violin or cello already in addition to the arpeggione part. “The piece is technically very diffi cult,” points out Stéphane Tétreault, “but once on stage, the performer must attempt to transcend these diffi culties. The listener is often transfi xed by the ambiance this masterpiece creates.”

1824 was a difficult year for Schubert, who faced increasingly precarious health, lukewarm reactions for some of his works, and a certain disenchantment with his relations. “Imagine a man, I say, whose greatest hopes have come to nothing, to whom the joy of love and friendship offers nothing but pain, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for Beauty threatens to vanish and ask yourself, is he not the most miserable, unhappy creature? My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall fi nd it never and nevermore [lines by Goethe on which Schubert had composed the lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade” 10 years earlier]. I may well sing every day now, for each night, I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday’s grief,” wrote Schubert to his friend Leopold Kupelweiser.

While the relatively diminutive sonata seeks primarily to show off a new instrument, one can sense how often – and how suddenly – Schubert’s mood could change, from the most exuberant joy to the darkest torment. For example, the strikingly melancholic mood of the fi rst movement’s opening theme, introduced by the piano, is dissipated by the dancelike character of the second theme, played on the arpeggione. The lied-like “Adagio” gives the instrument a chance to display the vocal quality of its expression, while the popular character of the fi nale highlights its virtuosity.

Started in 1862, before Johannes Brahms had even turned 30, the Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor was offered to the publisher Simrock in 1865 as a work that “is certainly not diffi cult for either instrument”. And while compared to the F major sonata, Op. 99 (whose magnifi cent slow movement was originally part of the earlier work) it may seem less technically challenging – the piano creating a rich background for the cello’s warm tone –, it remains a work that demands superb craftsmanship from both performers, who must convey the fi rst movement’s emotion while also making sense of its polyphonic texture and weaving a narrative thread that carries the listener from beginning to end.

Premiered on January 14, 1871 in Leipzig by Emil Hegar on cello and Karl Reinecke on piano, the sonata, with its three movements subtly connected by the interval of a minor sixth, seems somehow rooted in the past. It includes a nod to the scherzo of Beethoven’s A major sonata, a thinly veiled homage to Mozart and Schubert in the nostalgic “menuetto,” and a quote from Bach’s The Art of Fugue in the last movement. It is as though Brahms, by turning back the clock, were taking one last look back at his youth and the masters who came before him.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen

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Stéphane Tétreault
AN 2 9994 Haydn Schubert Brahms
AN 2 9994 Haydn Schubert Brahms
AN 2 9994 Haydn Schubert Brahms

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