Skip navigation Go to the main menu

Program Notes: Church Marathon


Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Church Marathon is a regular and beloved part of the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht. During this anniversary edition, Janine Jansen and her top international cast once again present an extremely varied programme in three Utrecht churches. In the Lutherse Kerk, you can hear this year’s two star pianists without strings, and no fewer than three cellists shine in a moving piece by David Popper.

Every advanced cellist knows the tricky etudes by Czech David Popper, himself an extremely gifted and successful cellist who, strangely enough, is not well known outside the cello world. Not only did Popper perform as a soloist, he was also head of the cello group of both the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Wiener Staatsoper from the age of twenty-five, as well as being cellist in two famous nineteenth-century string quartets: the Vienna Hellmesberger Quartet and the Budapest Hubay-Popper Quartet. He knew almost all the leading composers of his time, including Wagner, Bruckner, Brahmsen and Liszt. When the latter invited him to become a professor at the newly founded Budapest Conservatory, Popper would also develop into a renowned pedagogue. As a composer, he wrote quite a few compositions for his own instrument. His Requiem, opus 66 for three cellos and orchestra or piano was a tribute to his good friend and publisher Daniel Rahter, and the piece would later be heard at Popper’s own funeral. The three cellists play equal parts: after a joint opening without accompaniment, they take turns playing lyrical and melancholic solos together with the pianist. Torleif Thedéen and Jens Peter Maintz, two of Janine’s favourite cello colleagues who have been frequent guests in Utrecht, play Popper’s poignant piece together with the promising New Generations Artist Benjamin Kruithof, who will also be heard at the two afternoon concerts in TivoliVredenbrug this week.

Other concerts at TivoliVredenburg this week feature many highlights from the chamber music literature for strings and piano, with the challenging piano parts performed alternately by Sunwook Kim and Denis Kozhukhin. The only chance to hear both pianists together is tonight at the Lutherse Kerk. They will play Schubert’s masterful Fantasy in f minor. In Schubert’s own time, playing the piano together was a favourite pastime of close friends, much like today perhaps playing computer games. Schubert himself also enjoyed sitting behind the piano to perform his own compositions together with befriended pianists, singers and string players. The Fantasy in f is one of his most beloved pieces for four-hand piano. Not only because of the impressive fugue in the final movement, but also because of the complex, emotional eloquence of Schubert’s contrasting melodies. From the penetrating, extremely moving opening melody, to the more optimistic and delicate passages in the two middle movements, to the furious exclamations of frustration that appear in all four movements. Schubert wrote this Fantasy in his last year of life and dedicated it to his favourite pupil, Countess Caroline von Esterházy, with whom he was deeply in love, according to the diary entries of a friend.


Thursday, December 28, 2023

Besides the countless virtuoso violin concertos and recital pieces Janine Jansen travels the world with, the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach plays an important role in her musical life. ‘You are occupied with Bach your whole life,’ says Janine. She finds his music perfect, everything is right, down to the smallest detail. Reason enough to organise her own Bach festival in The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam next spring. Not only has she herself recorded quite a few concertos, inventions and the Second Partita for solo violin for the Decca label, over the past twenty years Bach’s masterpieces have also regularly been on the programme at the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht. This year, Janine invited her father Jan Jansen to perform an intimate Bach programme in the Pieterskerk together with some of her international friends.

Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote mainly music for the church during his lifetime, suddenly composed quite a few instrumental works between 1717 and 1723. During these years, he was working at the court of Prince Leopold von Anholt-Köthen. Because the prince was, in Bach’s own words, ‘a music lover as well as a music connoisseur’, many musical activities took place. Moreover, in Calvinist Köthen, the court chapel did not have to accompany church services as often as in the various Lutheran towns where Bach worked before and after. In Köthen, he had plenty of time to compose and perform new instrumental music together with the outstanding musicians of the court chapel, with whom he rehearsed weekly. It was probably during this period that Bach’s world-famous compositions such as the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Brandenburg Concertos, the French Suites and Das wohltemperirte Clavier were created.

Bach would also write quite a few sonatas for different settings during this period, in the style of his Italian colleagues Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi. The so-called ‘trio sonata’ took off thanks to these Italian composers who were an important source of inspiration for Bach. A trio sonata consists of two melody parts and a third accompanying (bass) voice. These three parts can be performed, for instance, by one organist, but also by two melody instruments accompanied by harpsichord and cello (the ‘basso continuo’). Various versions of Bach’s trio sonatas often exist, sometimes Bach himself reused his own material, sometimes other colleagues arranged his music. There are also several versions of the two famous trio sonatas on the programme tonight. The Trio Sonata in C major, BWV529 is best known in the version for solo organ, but the version for two melody instruments and basso continuo is probably also by Bach himself. The Trio Sonata in G major also exists in a version for two flutes and basso continuo, which was later given the catalogue number BWV 1039, while the version for viola da gamba and harpsichord (in which the harpsichord also plays the second melody part), was given the number BWV 1027. Researchers suspect that neither of these versions is the original, perhaps it was a trio sonata for two violins and basso continuo. The inventive and lively musical dialogues of the two melody voices can be heard tonight in the versions for recorder/viola and violin/viola respectively. Clearly, no matter which instruments are playing, Bach’s genius music always manages to convince.


Thursday, December 28, 2023

After the concerts in the Lutherse Kerk and the Pieterskerk, which featured three cellists, two pianists and two trio sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Church Marathon closes with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet in F major. Janine Jansen plays this impressive piece together with three loyal musical friends who have been frequent guests at the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht.

If you listen to the Third String Quartet by Russian composer Shostakovich without any prior knowledge, you will hear penetrating music that contains tragedy and anger, as well as humour and playfulness. Although the first movement sounds relatively carefree, a menacing undertone can be heard fairly soon. The second movement – which begins with a dramatic and striking rhythm in the viola part – sounds mechanical and cold, a successful parody of evil. The third movement opens with fierce chords, followed by a wild dance. The fourth movement – a penetrating lament with many rarefied, high melodies – passes without interruption into the final movement, a restless Moderato with a hushed conclusion.

Knowledge of Shostakovich’s life is not necessarily necessary to enjoy this string quartet, but those who know a little more about the context will be better able to grasp the contrasting emotions this string quartet evokes. Shostakovich completed it in 1946 and dedicated it to the renowned Russian ‘Beethoven Quartet’, which premiered the work in Moscow. It is often suggested that, like his 1941 Seventh symphony, this string quartet had the invasion of the Germans as its subject. Initially, Shostakovich therefore gave five war-related titles for the five movements of the string quartet: ‘Airborne ignorance of a violent disaster’, ‘Rumblings of unrest and anticipation’, ‘The forces of war unleashed’, ‘In memory of the dead’ and ‘The eternal question: Why? And for what?’ But out of self-preservation, the ever-controversial Shostakovich would later abandon those titles.