Mary Wu and Friends: Richard, James, Andrew and Kitty

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 21 April, 2014 (Monday) 8PM

Circle of friends, or frenemies

The friendship between composers, like that of ordinary people, or any other relationships in life, can be volatile and sometimes, going to great extremes. The only difference is perhaps, composers are often more vociferous about their admiration or contempt towards fellow composers, and their anecdotes were recorded and cited by posterity.

Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, two of the most famous and popular musicians of their day, enjoyed mutual admiration and companionship. The acquaintance was made when the Schumanns lived in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn was not only the director of Gewandhaus Orchestra, but also the founder of the Leipzig Conservatory. Schumann was recruited as a teacher of composition by Mendelssohn in 1843. Although it is not known whether Fanny Mendelssohn shared the same close ties with the Schumann household (primarily for the reason that she resided in Berlin after her marriage), she could have easily identify herself with Clara Schumann: both were talented composers and formidable pianists, except that Fanny was forced to resign to the role of salon concert hostess while Clara continued her concert career well into her seventies.

The relationship between the Schumanns and Liszt is rather intriguing. On one hand, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt acknowledged the genius of one another. Schumann dedicated the Fantasie in C major, op. 17 to Liszt in 1839. In return, Liszt dedicated his monumental Sonata in B minor, published in 1854, to Robert Schumann. On the other hand, the pair had went through its ups and downs since their first meeting in Leipzig in 1840. On an evening of 1848, Liszt stormed out of the Schumann household, condemning Robert’s Piano Quintet as “zu leipzigerisch”, i.e. too provincial, not to mention the later “War of Romantics” in the 1860s which pit the conservatives (Clara Schumann and Brahms) against the progressives (Liszt and Wagner). Nevertheless, Liszt remained a staunch supporter of Schumann’s music after Robert’s death. He performed many of Schumann’s most important piano works, including the song transcriptions, and introduced Schumann’s opera, Genoveva, in Weimar.

It might be difficult to pin down a direct, personal link between Liszt and Ravel. However, the two did share a common trait – a gifted and keen ear for colours. This is particularly evident in Liszt’s piano transcriptions of orchestral pieces, which revolutionize the piano writing and technique; vis-à-vis Ravel’s orchestral arrangements of his own piano pieces, such as Rapsodie espagnole, Ma mère l’oye and Alborada del gracioso, which sometimes overshadow the fame of the original version.

Despite being compatriots, the aloof temperament of Ravel did not impress the adolescent Poulenc. At the age of eighteen, Poulenc was seeking a teacher with whom he could pursue his studies. He wrote to his friend and previous piano teacher Ricardo Viñes, who was a close friend of Ravel and premiered Menuet antique (1898), Jeux d’eau (1902), Pavane pour une infante défunte (1902), Miroirs (1906), and Gaspard de la nuit (1909). Poulenc was introduction to Ravel in 1917, but the meeting did not go well: Ravel criticized his playing of a movement from Le Tombeau de Couperin (unpublished at the time), and disappointed Poulenc with his negative remarks on Schumann and late Debussy. Some years of coolness followed. It was not until the appearance of Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Poulenc began to warm up to the music of Ravel. He considered Ravel’s Left Hand Piano Concerto ‘sublime’. Poulenc was among the mourners who attended Ravel’s funeral in 1937 and he counted Ravel among his musical idols, along with Debussy, Strauss, Stravinsky and Falla.


Franz Liszt (1811-1886): “Widmung” (Liebeslied), S.566

Mary Wu, piano

Franz Liszt (1811-1886): “Widmung” (Liebeslied), S.566

Liszt made countless piano transcriptions of pieces by other composers so that he might play them on his recitals. Many of these were of big, bravura works (all the Beethoven symphonies and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique) intended to show off Liszt’s phenomenal technique. But he also transcribed many shorter and less dramatic works, and he was especially drawn to transcribing songs: he made about 160 transcriptions of songs for voice and piano by other composers.

In all, Liszt made transcriptions of twelve Schumann songs (“Widmung” appeared in two different versions) as well as three more by Clara Schumann. His most popular transcription of a Schumann song is “Widmung” (“Dedication”), Opus 25, No.1. It is the first song of the cycle Myrthen, a wedding gift from Robert to Clara in 1840.

The original text by Friedrich Rückert is the ultimate declaration of love and devotion. Schumann cast the song in ABA form, framed by a short introduction and a postlude, which is a quotation of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

One could see the genius of Liszt “arrangement” by comparing it with Clara’s “transcription”. While Clara adheres most faithfully to her husband’s original by transcribing the melody to the right hand of the piano, Liszt gave new insights to the song by lengthening the introduction, so that it balances nicely with the postlude. Moreover the first verse is heard twice, first in the treble and repeated in the bass, almost a figurative declaration of love between the bride (treble) and the groom (bass). The middle section retains the simplicity in Schumann’s original. Nevertheless, the reprise of the first verse reveal the Midas’ touch: the rolling arpeggios and then throbbing chords accompanies the melody, reinforced in octaves. The juxtaposition of the triplets against the final reprise melody lead the music to a glorious climax. In Liszt hands, the lied has now transcend its original meaning. It has become a vivid wedding portrait, an apotheosis of the union of two souls.

Francis Poulenc (1899 – l963): Sonata for Violin and Piano, FP 119
I. Allegro con fuoco
II. Intermezzo
III. Presto tragico

James Cuddeford, violin
Mary Wu, piano

Francis Poulenc (1899 – l963): Sonata for Violin and Piano, FP 119

Allegro con fuoco
Intermezzo: Trés lent et calme
Presto tragico

Born into a well off bourgeoisie family, Francis Poulenc was the son of Emile Poulenc, director of the pharmaceutical firm Rhône-Poulenc, and Jenny Royer, an amateur pianist. Poulenc’s mother gave him his first piano lessons when he was five. From 1914-1917, Poulenc took lessons with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who became a spiritual mentor and the dedicatee or first performer of his earliest works. After military service between 1918 and 1921, he took composition lessons from Charles Koechlin, a pupil of Massenet, Fauré, and André Gedalge at the Paris Conservatoire.

By the 1920s, Poulenc was an established composer. He was the youngest member of a loosely related group of young French composers known as Les Six, whose members included Milhaud, Durey, Tailleferre, Honegger and Auric. Poulenc’s life and his musical style often reveal traits of polarity: on one hand, his music was marked by a charismatic sense of urbanity and dry wit; on the other hand, his choral works, in particular, reflected a profound sense of spirituality and piety. But in Poulenc’s own words, “I am very eclectic … Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even less a Futurist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a Iabel.” In fact, Poulenc musical language can be considered rather ‘conservative’ to his contemporaries. Quoted from a letter of 1942 by Roger Nichols, Poulenc expressed that: “I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart–Schubert?”.

While Poulenc’s most widely known chamber music involves wind instruments, not strings, he made three attempts in writing a violin sonata, all dedicated to French female virtuoso violinists of his time. He discarded the first two violin sonatas, written for Helene Jourdan-Morhange (1919) and Jelly d’Aranyi (1924) respectively. The third one, which managed to see the light of day was written for the hugely talented violinist, Ginette Neveu, who died prematurely in a plane crash in 1942. Poulenc revised the last movement after the tragic incident.

The sonata was first performed on 21 June 1943, written in memory of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, a victim of the Spanish Civil War. The first movement opens with an obsessive figure of dotted rhythm, followed by three sharply articulated sixteenth notes. An innocent melody introduced by the piano brought a breath of fresh air to the commotion, and the relentless pace is replaced by a more nostalgic dialogue between the violin and the piano. A distorted version of the piano melody, accompanied by screeching figures in the violin, drive the movement to a dramatic halt. The main themes are heard again and the movement closes with a glimmer of ray in D major.</p<

The second movement, an Intermezzo, is headed by a quotation from Lorca, “The guitar makes dreams weep.” Perhaps that explains why the movement features pizzicato and strumming technique on the violin, evoking the sound of the guitar. It begins with a chant-like melody on the piano, the modally inflected violin tune add to the feeling of a vague, remote past. The music is rather like a caressing breeze on a hot summer night, with the violin mysteriously gliding away into the darkness at the end.

The opening of the finale shows Poulenc’s gaîté Parisienne style: the sounds of can-can, carousel and the musette are thrown into a whirlwind frenzy, winding to a catastrophe climax. The solo violin screams and falls, as if hit and crushed by accident. The music grounds down to a mournful dirge, as if life is shown in flashback while the world stand still. The sudden flourish in the piano and violin are reminiscent of the specter reappearing at the end of Petrushka.

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): Piano Trio in A minor
I. Modéré
II. Pantoum (Assez vif)
III. Passacaglia (Trés Large)
IV. Finale (Animé)

Mary Wu, piano
Andrew Ling, violin
Richard Bamping, cello

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): Piano Trio in A minor

II.Pantoum: Assez vif
III.Passacaille: Très large
IV.Final: Animé

“I think that at any moment I shall go mad or lose my mind,” Ravel wrote to a friend. “I have never worked so hard, with such insane heroic rage.” The source of his rage was the outbreak of World War I, and the result of his labors was the magnificent Piano Trio in A minor, premiered in Paris on 28th January 1915, featuring Alfredo Casella (piano), Gabriel Willaume (violin), and Louis Feuillard (cello).

The work was dedicated to André Gédalge, professor of fugue and counterpoint at the Conservatoire. Ravel’s homage to his teacher is reflected in the third movement and in fugal elements in the slower central section of the opening Modéré.

In the opening movement, Ravel employs the exotic rhythmic patterns of Basque music from his native region. Ingeniously, he gives the impression of typically Basque irregular meter by dividing the even rhythmic pattern of eight notes to the bar into a pattern of 3+2+3. This folk-like theme, stated first by the piano and then by the strings, undergoes several remarkable transformations in the course of the movement. The violin introduces the second theme, which is slightly slower but in the same 3+2+3 rhythm. It places incredible demands on all three players, forcing them to exploit their instruments to the limit in order to obtain the distinctive range of tone colors of Ravel’s imagination.

The Pantoum of the second movement refers to “pantun”, a Malayan poetic form that Baudelaire and Hugo had used, in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third of the next. Ravel imposes this literary form on his sprightly scherzo and trio. A fascinating interplay of cross accents is heard in the middle section in which the strings remain in triple time, while the piano switches to duple time.

The third movement is a stately Passacaille – an eight-bar ground based on the pentatonic scale. The haunting opening melody is introduced in the bass of the piano, followed by nine variations. Each of the variations continue to rise in pitch and increases its textural density. The dynamics and intensity continue to build up to the seventh variation, after which the music starts its descent. The movement ends with the solitary piano.

The music proceeds without pause to the Final, a musical tour de force. The movement begins with an inversion of the main theme of the first movement, announced gently by the piano through a delicate haze of string sound. The use of irregular 5/4 and 7/4 meters makes a subtle reference to the Basque rhythmic elements of the Modéré. Ravel combined the percussive piano effect with the shimmering sound of the string instruments, bringing the trio to a breath-taking conclusion.

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Fantaisie in G Minor for Cello and Piano

Richard Bamping, cello
Mary Wu, piano

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Fantaisie in G Minor for Cello and Piano

Better known to the world as the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Medelssohn was the eldest of four children born into a post-Enlightenment, cultured Jewish family. Fanny received her first piano lessons from her mother, who was reputed to have noted her daughter’s ‘Bach fingers’ at birth. Equally gifted and inseparable from childhood, both Fanny and Felix studied the piano with Ludwig Berger, and in 1816 with Marie Bigot in Paris, a close friend of Beethoven. A few years later she learned theory and composition with C.F. Zelter, an early champion of J.S. Bach.

Her first composition dates from December 1819, a lied in honour of her father’s birthday. During the next few years Fanny produced many lieder and piano pieces. She married the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel on 3 October 1829. Despite the support of her husband, Fanny was strongly discouraged to publish her composition, or to pursue a career as performer, by her father and brother. Motherhood added further domestic obligations to Mrs. Hensel’s daily life. Nevertheless, Fanny managed to revive the Sunday morning musical salon concerts, known as Sonntagmusik which had been held by her mother. These concerts provided an outlet for her creativity, and allowed her to showcase her formidable skills on the piano.

By 1846 Fanny became acquainted with Robert von Keudell (1824-1903), a musically-talented and well educated man. It was Keudell urged Fanny to accept the offers of Berlin’s publishing houses and present her work to the world. While lieder and piano pieces dominate her output, Fanny also wrote a number number of instrumental chamber works. Among them the Piano Trio, op.11 and the String Quartet in E-flat Major, are well-received and often performed today. Tragically, this new found success and confidence were to be short lived. Fanny died from a stroke on 14th May 1847.

In addition to Felix, Fanny had a second musical brother the cellist Paul Mendelssohn, who performed occasionally on his sister’s Sunday concerts on a beautiful Stradivarius cello. Fanny wrote two cello pieces with piano for Paul – the Fantaisie in G Minor (1829) and the Capriccio in A-flat major (1831).

Both cello pieces reveal the peculiar expressivity in Fanny’s works, as well as the possible influence of Beethoven. The gloomy opening of the Fantasia in G Minor bears an uncanny resemblance to the slow movement from Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet, op. 59, no.1. It is followed by a sunny section in G major, in which the cello and piano engaged in amiable dialogue. Nevertheless, the opening theme makes a surprise return, a la quasi fantasia in the style of Beethoven, before the music builds again to a brilliant end.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, op. 44
Inmodo d’una Marcia. Un poco largamente
Scherzo. Molto vivace
Allegro ma nontroppo

Mary Wu, piano
James Cuddeford, violin
Kitty Cheung,violin
Andrew Ling,viola
Richard Bamping, cello

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, op. 44

Allegro brillante
In modo d’una marcia. Un poco largamente
Scherzo. Molto vivace
Allegro ma non troppo

Sketched within remarkably short time of five days and completed in the following two weeks, Schumann’s only piano quintet was one of the pioneering works for its novel instrumentation: combining the piano with a full string quartet (two violins, viola and cello), whereas previous works, most notably Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, were written for the piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.

Schumann originally intended the piano part for his wife Clara. The premiere took place in Leipzig on 6th December 1842. However, Clara fell ill on the day and the piano part was taken by Mendelssohn who, so it is reported, performed the demanding piano part from sight.

The Piano Quintet enjoyed an immediate success. Clara Schumann subsequently performed it in 1843 and it formed part of the repertoire of her Russian tour of 1844. The work remained a popular part of Clara Schumann’s repertoire throughout her life. While it failed to impress Liszt, Wagner was won over by the sheer beauty of the music.

The first movement begins majestically in E-flat major, with wide, striding intervals, conjuring an almost orchestral sound. The piano introduces a tender melody, which is expended and elaborated by the violin. The cello and viola introduces the intimate second theme, dovetailing into each other’s phrases. The development begins with a foreboding descending phrase, which the piano struggles to find its way out of the harmonic maze created by the tutti strings.

Moving to C minor, the second movement is closer to a funeral march but in name. The mysterious piano phrases become a ritornello to the sparsely textured melody played by the strings. A serene passage in C major is followed by the march, leading to the Agitato episode in F minor. Here, Schumann recast the march melody at a faster speed, before a poetic interlude, now in F major leads the movement back to the somber conclusion.

A relentless ascending scale from the piano opens and provides the chief material of the Scherzo. The lyrical melody of first trio bears some resemblance to the piano ritornello of the previous movement, while the second trio section in A-flat minor provides striking contrasts with the change in meter and texture.

The finale, from its emphatic opening oscillating between C minor and G minor, exemplifies Schumann’s gift of melodic and harmonic invention. It is also a manifestation of Schumann’s contrapuntal skill, especially in the extended coda. The opening theme of the Quintet is augmented, and treated as a fugal counter-subject to the finale’s opening theme.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.