Cicely Parnas, Cello

“Self-possessed and prepossessing, Parnas is musically poised beyond her 20 years. Her bow-arm is perfection itself, and with it she sculpts phrases of lapidary detail … The clarity of articulation in passagework and the skill with which she shaped lyrical lines were startling. This was artistry that cannot be taught; the musician simply owns it.” –The Washington Post, April 2014


ARENSKY: Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a

SCHUBERT: “Arpeggione” Sonata in A minor, for cello and string orchestra (arr. D. Tabakova)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for Strings, Op. 48

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Notes on the Program
By Aaron Grad
Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a [1894]


Born June 30, 1861 in Novgorod, Russia

Died February 12, 1906 near Terioki, Finland

After studying with Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Arensky joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, where his students included Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Glière (who in turn taught Prokofiev). The move to Moscow also brought Arensky into contact with Tchaikovsky, who befriended and mentored his young colleague. After Tchaikovsky’s untimely death in 1893, Arensky paid tribute in his String Quartet No. 2, with its central movement constructed as variations on Tchaikovsky’s song “Legend” from Sixteen Songs for Children. The next year, Arensky extracted that movement and arranged it for string orchestra under the title Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky.

A simple presentation of the theme leads to seven short and highly inventive variations. The most expressive melody might be that of the seventh variation, in which Arensky inverted the rising and falling contours of Tchaikovsky’s theme. (Taking a page from his teacher, Rachmaninoff used the same trick to great effect in his Variations on a Theme of Paganini.) The new material heard in the coda is adapted from Russian Orthodox chant.

“Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor, D. 821 [1824]

Born January 31, 1797 in Vienna, Austria
Died November 19, 1828 in Vienna, Austria

The obscure sonata that Franz Schubert wrote for an all-but-forgotten instrument speaks to the exceedingly difficult path this composer faced in his short life. He was a talented child, with a singing voice that earned him a place in Vienna’s elite choir school, but he only began composing at the relatively advanced age of 12 or 13. As was expected in his family of educators, he began a full-time job as a teaching assistant at 17, and still he kept up twice-weekly lessons with the composer Antonio Salieri. Despite completing hundreds of compositions, Schubert’s teenage years passed without a single public performance or printing of his music.

Schubert’s career never got much better: A composer who dreamed of writing operas suffered through 16 failed theatrical projects; a budding symphonist could not even get a private reading of his increasingly innovative scores, let alone a paid commission. Any momentum that might have been building crumbled in late 1822, when he contract the syphilis infection that would ultimately kill him six years later, at the age of 31.

Through all those dark years, Schubert leaned on a loyal circle of friends who kept him afloat financially and creatively. It was one such friend, Vincenz Schuster, who initiated one of Schubert’s most curious compositions in 1824. A Viennese guitar maker had just invented a new instrument, with six strings tuned like a guitar but bowed like a cello, and Schuster became the leading proponent of this so-called Bogenguitar (“bowed guitar”) or guitarre d’amore. On the manuscript of the sonata that Schubert wrote for Schuster, he used the label arpeggione, an apt description of an instrument that excelled at arpeggios and broken chords. Schuster gave a private performance, but before long the instrument and Schubert’s composition faded into obscurity.

The Sonata in A Minor was only published for the first time in 1871, with alternate parts for cello or viola and an explanatory note describing the long-extinct arpeggione. (There is no record of anyone other than Schubert using that name, but it has stuck nonetheless.) This performance uses an arrangement that transfers Schubert’s piano accompaniment to string orchestra, a project undertaken in 2004 by the Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova at the behest of violist Maxim Rysanov. Tabakova explained, “It almost felt like a musical crosswords as each line found its own voice in the strings. Color-wise, my preoccupation was to retain the lightness and delicacy of the accompaniment and remain as true to the original score as possible.”

From the outset, the slurred leaps and arpeggios optimize the strengths of the intended instrument. The upper string of the bowed guitar was tuned a fifth higher than a cello’s high A-string, sending the cellist high into the instrument’s delicate treble range. Still the performer must be ready to leap down to the cello’s bass register for idiomatic swoops that employ the lowest E of the arpeggione, playable on the cello’s low C-string.

It matters little whether the central Adagio is played on an arpeggione, cello, or any other instrument: this music is pure song, channeling the tender sentiments of Schubert’s finest lieder. An unaccompanied transition leads into the rustic, droning theme of the finale.

Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 [1880]


Born May 7, 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893 in Saint Petersburg, Russia

“How fickle my plans are,” Tchaikovsky wrote, “whenever I decide to devote a long time to rest!” Tchaikovsky’s time with his sister in Ukraine turned into a working vacation that summer of 1880, as he confided to his patron and confidante, Nadezdha von Meck. “I had just begun to spend a series of entirely idle days, when there came over me a vague feeling of discomfort and real sickness; I could not sleep and suffered from fatigue and weakness. Today I could not resist sitting down to plan my next symphony—and immediately I became well and calm and full of courage.”

Tchaikovsky’s plan for that music wavered between a symphony and a string quartet, until he landed on something in between: a serenade for string orchestra. The title and form of the work paid homage to Mozart, the greatest composer of Classical serenades, whom Tchaikovsky once praised as “the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music.” As he wrote in his diary, “Nobody has made me cry and thrill with joy, sensing my proximity to something that we call the ideal, in the way that he has.”

Tchaikovsky wrote the Serenade in little more than a month, even with some of that time devoted to a concurrent project, the 1812 Overture. Again writing to von Meck, Tchaikovsky explained, “The overture will be very showy and noisy, but it will have no artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and love.” Drawing a comparison, he continued, “I wrote the Serenade on impulse. I felt it deeply, from start to finish, and therefore I dare to believe it will not be without merit.”

The Serenade for Strings merges a Classical sense of order with Tchaikovsky’s own abundant gift for melodic expression. Despite the modest heading that promises a “Piece in the form of a Sonatina,” the first movement establishes a grand and noble tone with a reverent chorale. Instead of a minuet or scherzo, the second movement offers a flirtatious diversion in the form of a Waltz, the quintessential dance of nineteenth-century Vienna and Paris.

The slow movement, labeled an Elegy, takes a more somber turn. The initial motives echo the falling scale fragments that began the work, establishing the sort of thematic integrity that Tchaikovsky so admired in Beethoven, another of his Classical heroes. In the finale, the “Russian theme” promised by the subtitle is an amalgamation of folk material Tchaikovsky mined from a printed collection. The main tune from the fast body of the movement traces the same descending contour as the Serenade’s initial chorale, a link that serves to prepare the return of that ceremonial slow music. The related fast theme reignites for a final scamper to the finish.

© 2017 Aaron Grad.

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