Accompanied by the New York Classical Players under the baton of the South Korean conductor Dongmin Kim, the American violist Richard O'Neill performs Franz Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D.821, arranged for Viola and String Orchestra by Dobrinka Tabakova. The concert was recorded at W83 Concert Hall, New York, on May 1, 2015.
In 1824, disappointed by the recent failure of his opera, Alfonso und Estrella (despite the fact that he considered it one of his finest works), Schubert returned to instrumental music on a smaller scale. As Bach had been stimulated by the recent invention of a five-string cello (with a top E string) to emphasise the Sixth Suite's position as the crowning glory of the set by writing in a higher register for the instrument than in the previous five suites, Schubert was clearly motivated by the arrival of the six-stringed arpeggione, a strange hybrid of a bowed instrument with the extended range and possibility of fast and accurate leaps and runs facilitated by its Classical-guitar-like stringing (E-A-D-G-B-E). The incorporation of frets was designed to make playing easier and intonation more accurate – Schubert was obviously unaware of the potential flaws of this new instrument, namely the difficulty of crossing strings cleanly due to a reduced differential angle at the bridge, the limited dynamic range, (the arpeggione was a smaller-bodied and quieter instrument than the cello, one on which application of too much downward pressure of the bow would result in hitting adjacent strings) and the restriction of expressive powers that was the inevitable consequence of the use of frets. It seems likely that Schubert typically wrote this sonata largely as a friendly gesture towards the instrument's inventor, Vincenz Schuster. The increasing dynamic range of the piano would have made balance and projection even more problematic – no wonder that, after little more than ten years, the arpeggione succumbed to rapid extinction.
Schubert was born into a musical world dominated by the colossal figure of Beethoven. It is a mark of how much the younger man was in awe of the great master that on his deathbed he asked that his body should be buried in a grave next to that of his idol (which it was). Compositionally there are many similarities between these two composers, most obviously their use of predominantly Classical forms and their prowess in almost all areas of instrumental and vocal writing with the notable exception of opera. This said, Schubert appears the more introverted and perhaps the more sensitive and fragile of the two, generally more at home in the smaller, more intimate forms of music-making (quartets, sonatas and of course Lieder) than in larger scale works. And while Schubert's later symphonic works are second to none, it is interesting to note that he was one of very few Classical composers never to write a concerto – it was against his nature to write a piece with the intention of showing off his own ability or those of the performer and instrument he was writing for. And while Beethoven would frequently struggle to find a theme or melody for his work, with Schubert this was an apparently effortless process – all came from song (Schubert wrote more than 600 Lieder). Beethoven's later experimentation with form made him a revolutionary, but with Schubert it is the predominance of melody, and especially the emotion it conveys, that sees him moving towards Romanticism.
The Arpeggione Sonata was written in 1824, soon after the Schöne Müllerin song cycle and shortly before the Great C major Symphony of 1825-1828 and the C major String Quintet of 1827, perhaps his finest instrumental works. It is written on a smaller scale, with three movements: a sonata form allegro moderato, a heartfelt, singing adagio and an allegretto rondo movement whose interludes are bursting with variety and energy.
The first movement, in A minor, is imbued throughout with a touching blend of sadness and joy (as was Schubert's own life), the beauty, sensitivity and lyricism of its first theme contrasting with the carefree nonchalance of the second, a shattering outburst of pain (like Gretchen's scream) at the climax of the development section leading through the recapitulation to the last breaths of the instruments and culminating in the death sentence of the two closing chords.
The theme of the second movement in E Major, unfolding like a love song, is clearly derived from the Larghetto of Beethoven's Second Symphony and for a while shares the simplicity of the Largo of Chopin's later Cello Sonata. However, a sinister undercurrent emerges, threatening the tranquil beauty of this world and anticipating the icy bleakness of the Winterreise. The movement ends, like its predecessor, in an experience close to death, the pace slowing almost to a complete stop before finding the most fragile of lifelines to carry the music through to the finale.
The last movement begins as an ecstatic rondo, the gushing theme predominantly bathed in the sunshine of A Major, interspersed with energetic, lively interludes with traces of folk idioms and demanding considerable virtuosity from both performers. A nostalgic piano solo temporarily eclipses the spotlight on the string instrument before the final return of the rondo theme, ending with one of the many rising arpeggios that characterise this work, a positive and satisfying end to a composition that has reflected the whole gamut of human experience.
Source: David Kenedy (hyperion-records.co.uk)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
♪ Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D.821, arranged for Viola and String Orchestra by Dobrinka Tabakova (1824)
i. Allegro moderato [00:36]*
ii. Adagio [09:43]
iii. Allegretto [14:14]
Richard O'Neill, viola
The New York Classical Players
Conductor: Dongmin Kim
W83 Concert Hall, New York, May 1, 2015
* Start time of each part
Why Do String Players Still Love Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata?
By Inge Kjemtrup
April 1, 2018
Schubert's delicate "Arpeggione" Sonata was written for an instrument that is virtually extinct. Why has this piece endured and why do modern players like violist Antoine Tamestit and cellist Gautier Capuçon love to play it?
Within the three movements of Franz Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata in A minor, D.821, are poignant melodies from the great master of the lieder set alongside sparkling virtuosic passages. The sonata is a satisfying piece for performer and audience. It's hugely popular, even though the arpeggione, the instrument for which it was originally composed, is now almost forgotten.
The best performances of the sonata make it sound effortlessly beautiful, a result that can only come about through long hours of practice. "The most difficult thing is to reach simplicity with beautiful expression", says Madrid-based violist Wenting Kang. "It's easy to do too much and it's easy to do too little." It's also essential to capture the tender character of the sonata, which was written when Schubert was already ill with what was almost certainly syphilis, which would kill him four years later. "You can feel the fragility in the music and I think it's very touching", comments cellist Gautier Capuçon. Violist Antoine Tamestit, who made the sonata the centerpiece of his 2010 release, says that it is "not a showpiece. It's an intimate piece".
Schubert wrote the sonata in 1824 and dedicated it to Vincenz Schuster, a virtuoso and champion of the arpeggione. The fretted, six-stringed arpeggione – then known as bowed guitar, violoncello guitar, or guitarre d'amore – is connected to the viol family. The instrument seems to have been devised concurrently in 1823 by Viennese luthier Johann Georg Staufer (or Stauffer) and Hungarian luthier Peter Teufelsdorfer. Tuned E-A-D-G-B-E like a guitar, the arpeggione is held between the knees without the support of an endpin. A scant handful of the original instruments have survived, and can be seen in museums, including the music collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Schuster commissioned other composers to write for the arpeggione and even wrote a tutorial himself, but the instrument's fame was fleeting. After Schubert's death in 1828, the sonata was also forgotten. It did not appear in print until 1871, and included a transcription for cello.
British viol maker Shem Mackey was commissioned to build an arpeggione by a viol player and shares some of his extensive research with me. Mackey observes that Staufer's arpeggiones reflect his work as a guitar maker (Schubert owned one of his guitars) and his first arpeggiones had guitar-shaped bodies and sound holes. By 1825, however, his arpeggiones had taken on cello attributes, such as the body shape and f-holes (the Met Museum arpeggione, from 1831, is of this type). All of Staufer's arpeggiones had flat backs, like the viol.
Today the arpeggione is played by a very small number of people around the world. UCLA music professor, guitarist, and composer Peter Yates is one of them, though he didn't set out to be an arpeggione player. "I needed a bowed guitar", he explains, and so he built his own. Talking to Yates, I begin to understand why the arpeggione didn't endure. "Finding the right strings and stringing them is difficult", he says. Plus "holding the instrument is awkward".
But Yates enjoys performing Schubert's sonata on his arpeggione. "The fingerings, the shape of the arpeggios all fall gracefully." The instrument is softer than a modern stringed instrument and the strings resonate sympathetically. "With six strings you can't play as aggressively", Yates says. "You can't set a degree of pressure on one string because you'd get two strings instead of one." Unfortunately, the arpeggione's gentle sound also contributed to its short life, as it couldn't compete against increasingly louder violin-family instruments, nor could it be heard in the new, bigger halls.
I ask Yates what advice he would give a modern player, based on his experience on the arpeggione. He advises "articulated nuance", something that's easier to accomplish on a fretted instrument. He also urges that a modern player "stay away from bel canto, smeared-on sound as much as possible" and study Schubert's articulations in the manuscript. "There's lots of detail in the notation", he says.
All of the modern players I speak to have studied Schubert's manuscript. Tamestit takes it one step further. "I play directly from the manuscript. It is so full of information", he says, although he finds the Henle iPad app, with its many links and notes, to be useful, too. Capuçon works from the latest Bärenreiter edition, though he comments that "even if you have an urtext edition, some things are still unclear. I teach my students that they have to use their brains!"
Composers, like doctors, have a reputation for illegible writing, and Schubert is no exception. His accents, which resemble a child's drawing of a bird in the sky, are a puzzle. "Some are crescendos, some are accents", says Tamestit. "That accent plus fortepiano: Is it a double accent? Is it a decrescendo?" asks Capuçon. "All this is written by the composer to emphasize one syllable in a phrase. It's like when we talk and we take more time with one word. So does the accent fit in a phrase, does it work? Do you do crescendo until ff or until the middle of the phrase? The music gives us the answer."
Like so much of Schubert's music – especially the lieder – the "Arpeggione" sonata's mood shifts rapidly. "It goes between A minor and A major", says Tamestit. "It's hopeful, sad, nostalgic, and sweet." It's also very quiet throughout. "The fortes are moments of great passion that don't last", he adds.
How much or how little vibrato to use is another issue for a performer. Kang uses little vibrato, adding expression with the bow instead. "I always imagine how the composer heard it. [The arpeggione] is not a Romantic instrument. The right hand can do so much with sound and color change."
The sonata's first movement shifts between the tender melody and brilliant virtuoso passages, making it hard to decide on the opening tempo. For Kang, her sense of the "foggy, rainy mood" and her view that "Allegro moderato means never too fast" helps her with this. Capuçon uses his tempo in the virtuoso passages to determine the tempo of the opening. Tamestit's tempo choice is based on his observation that the opening melody is in four, while the virtuoso passages, which must be "made as fluid and light as possible", are in two.
A modern player must diverge from the score at several points because of the tessitura of the original instrument. This comes into play particularly with multi-octave runs (m. 79 in the first movement, for example) and octave jumps (m. 115 in the first movement). At m. 115, some players go an octave higher to underscore the drama of a rare ff moment, which is then followed by a mini-cadenza. "For me it has to work musically", says Kang. She does all she can to avoid breaking up Schubert's "beautiful long slurs".
The second movement is an Adagio in E major and it requires the long legato line be maintained. The Adagio is followed immediately by the Allegretto third movement. The Allegretto's rondo form provides plenty of opportunity for contrast, from a Hungarian style to a Viennese dance – in the latter "you need a little delay and lift", says Tamestit. The arpeggios in the third movement would have a rolling barcarolle effect on the arpeggione and modern players must work harder to achieve this. Unlike the arpeggione players, Tamestit notes, "we cannot play full chords – it's awkward".
Would the sonata be less awkward in a different key? That was the idea of German violist Hartmut Lindemann, who transcribed it from A minor to G minor. In G minor, he writes on his website, "The open strings of the viola assume the same role as did those of the arpeggione in the original A minor". Furthermore, "most of the difficult passage work can now be more easily executed".
Many professional musicians begin their study of the "Arpeggione" early in their careers. "The ‘Arpeggione’ has been one of my favorites since I was little", Tamestit explains. "At 12, I wasn't allowed to play it, but I did anyway, just to find the right sound." Capuçon comments that "Schubert is a composer that I always felt close to as a child".
For Kang, after having put the sonata to one side for many years, it was playing through the sonata recently with a sympathetic pianist – Paul Coker who had worked with Yehudi Menuhin – that made her return to it. "If the pianist doesn't understand Schubert, then it's just not good", she says.
Like Kang, Tamestit's interest in the sonata was revived by a pianist, in this case his long-time collaborator Markus Hadulla. Hadulla works with many singers, and when Tamestit came to rehearse at Hadulla's home, he found his gaze straying to the lieder scores atop the piano. He and Hadulla began playing the lieder "just for practicing" and then hit upon several that suited viola and piano, "making our own little lieder cycle". The two eventually recorded the "Arpeggione", along with a handful of lieder, and the stirring Der Hirt auf dem Felsen ("Shepherd on the Rock"), D.965, with French soprano Sandrine Piau.
Were he alive today, Vincenz Schuster would no doubt be disappointed by the arpeggione's limited popularity. But he could only be delighted that Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata – "a propaganda piece for an instrument", jokes Tamestit – lives on.
One of the few violists to ever be awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant as well as a 48th Annual GRAMMY Award Nomination (Best Soloist with Orchestra), Richard Yongjae O'Neill (born on December 31, 1978 in Sequim, Washington) is rising to international prominence as one of the most promising artists of his generation. Highlights from this season include appearances with the London Philharmonic led by Vladimir Jurowski, the Asian premiere of the Brett Dean Concerto with the Seoul Philharmonic led by Francois Xavier Roth, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra with Constantine Orbelian, a Live from Lincoln Center television broadcast for PBS with the Chamber Music Society, an appearance with the Emerson String Quartet and Leon Fleisher at the Mostly Mozart Festival in Avery Fisher Hall, and the release of his third album for Deutsche Grammophon. In recent seasons he has made debuts at the world's most prestigious halls including New York's Carnegie Hall, London's Wigmore Hall, Paris' Salle Cortot and Seoul Arts Center. In 2008-2009 he will make his recital debut at the Kennedy Center, tour South Korea with Concerto Köln celebrating the release of his fourth album for ARCHIV/DG, and will return to London to perform with the London Philharmonic at the South Bank Centre. O'Neill has performed with many orchestras including the Los Angeles and Euroasian Philharmonics, and the KBS Symphony Orchestra among many others.
A highly accomplished chamber musician, he has collaborated with the Juilliard and Emerson String Quartets, Ensemble Wien-Berlin, Gil Shaham, Cho-Liang Lin, Kyung-Wha and Myung-Wha Chung, Kyoko Takezawa, Elmar Oliviera, Jamie Laredo, Joshua Bell, James Ehnes, Nicola Benedetti, Steven Isserlis, Frans Helmerson, Gary Hoffmann, Carter Brey, Edgar Meyer, Barry Douglas, Jon Nakamatsu, Garrick Ohlsson and Andre-Michel Schub, among others. He was a member of Chamber Music Society Two of Lincoln Center, a residency that features the world’s most gifted young chamber musicians, and frequently returns to the Society. He also serves as principal violist of Santa Barbara-based Camerata Pacifica. He frequently tours with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as well as with Musicians from Marlboro. He has held the position of principal violist and soloist with Sejong (Opus 3 Artists). Festival appearances include Marlboro, Aspen, Bridgehampton, Casals, Chamber Music Northwest, IMS Prussia Cove, La Jolla, Mostly Mozart, Seattle as well as Bargemusic and Brooklyn.
A Universal Classics Recording Artist, his latest album "Winter Journey" for Deutsche Grammophon debuted this past October and has earned him a Platinum Disc Award: his debut album for Universal released in 2005 garnered him a Gold Disc Award. His second album was the unprecedented #1 Bestselling Classical (as well as International Pop) Recording for 2006, garnering him a Double Platinum Disc Award. In addition to his recording contract with Universal/DG, Mr. O'Neill is dedicated to recording lesser known music for labels such as Naxos, Bridge, Centaur and Tzadik: his recordings of Schoenberg and Webern for Naxos were the subject of an extensive New York Times article which described his performances as revelatory. His recording of Schoenberg's String Quartet Concerto as a member of the Fred Sherry String Quartet earned him a GRAMMY Nomination for Best Soloist with Orchestra. Recordings of Stravinsky's Elegy for Solo Viola as well as Schoenberg's String Trio, Ode to Napoleon and Third String Quartet are due to be released on Naxos in the coming year as well as his fourth solo album with Concerto Köln featuring Baroque repertoire for ARCHIV/DG.
No stranger to the media, he has been featured on television and radio broadcasts worldwide. A popular figure in Korea, he was the subject of a two-part, five-hour documentary for the Korean Broadcasting System that was broadcast to over 12 million people, and has been featured on all of the nation's major television networks, magazines and newspapers. He has also performed on CNN and PBS, served as a Young Artist-in-Residence for National Public Radio's Performance Today in Washington D.C., and has been broadcast on BBC-3, the CBC Live from the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, WQXR, WFMT, and most of the broadcast stations nationwide.
The first and only violist to receive the prestigious Artist Diploma from The Juilliard School, he received degrees from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (B.M.), graduating magna cum laude, and The Juilliard School (M.M.). He has studied with Paul Neubauer and Donald McInnes. Mr. O'Neill performs on a fine and rare viola made by Giovanni Tononi of Bologna, crafted in 1699.
Residing in New York City and Los Angeles, he was recently honored with a Proclamation from the New York City Council for his achievement and contribution to the arts. A dedicated teacher as well as performer, Mr. O'Neill serves on the faculty of the Herb Alpert School of Music at the University of California, Los Angeles as its youngest member.
"Ravishing" — London Times
"An electric performance... a crackling, visceral, reading that held the audience in rapt attention" — New York Times
"First-rate" — New York Times
"Elegant, velvety tone" — New York Times
"A colorfully robust, expressive performance" — New York Times
"An astounding performance" — New York Sun
"Richard O'Neill was the real find of the evening" — New York Sun
"Technically immaculate" — Los Angeles Times
"Fierce virtuosity" — San Francisco Chronicle
"A rock solid performance that showcased the obvious ardency and skill of Richard Yongjae O'Neill" — Denver Post
"There was a new face that should be noted right away: violist Richard O'Neill made a smashing debut... the young musician is already making his way in the highly competitive world of music... O'Neill took every advantage with his big, resonant sound, facile technique and secure musicality. Over the past 25 years, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has introduced any number of important musicians to Seattle. O'Neill is the latest" — Seattle Post Intelligencer
World renowned Takács Quartet announces the appointment of violist Richard O'Neill from June 2020, and the retirement of Geri Walther after fifteen remarkable years
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