Pianists Robin and Rachelle McCabe return to the Meany stage to perform Brahms’s magisterial two piano arrangement of his F minor quintet as well as music by Ravel and Prokofiev in this spirited display of sisterly chemistry.
Brahms: Quintet for Two Pianos, Opus 34B
In 1862 Brahms, likely inspired by the Schubert quintet, seized upon the idea of writing a string quartet with a second cello. When violinist and composer Joseph Joachim looked at the score, he deemed the ideas too strong for the sonority of a string quintet. Brahms destroyed the first attempt, recasting it as a sonata for two pianos. Brahms premiered this version with Carl Tausig, early in 1864. Still unsatisfied, Brahms again rewrote the work as a quintet for piano and strings. (This history calls to mind that of the composer’s first piano concerto, which also evolved in various forms.)
This quintet has become one of the most famous and best-best loved works in the chamber music repertoire. The combination of piano and strings has attracted the most performers, but Brahms thought enough of the two-piano version not to destroy it – a major vote of confidence, in light of his customary self-doubts! And he published it, moreover, with the separate opus number of 34B.
The opening figure, played in unison in both pianos, projects a winding, circular melodic shape that is constantly varied but recognizable throughout the work. Another idea that permeates the entire quintet is that of the melodic half-step, which forms the core of the second theme of the movement.
The slow, rocking motion of the second movement proves tremendously soothing after the stormy drama and sudden tonal shifts of the first movement. The key of A flat major is warm and tender, and the simple ternary form acts as a kind of emotional ‘rudder,’ so to speak, an antidote to the energy and tumult which is pervasive in the other movements.
The Scherzo begins with an eerie theme, in the shadows, but it is soon banished by a joyous, if brief chordal outburst. Following a bucolic trio with a broad, bold melody, the Scherzo is repeated literally. The ending of the Scherzo is a throbbing series of outcries, repeating that all-important melodic half-step. In fact, the English music scholar Tovey wrote that ‘the savage half-step at the end of the scherzo, comes straight from the end of the Schubert quintet, and from nowhere else in the whole history of final chords.’
In the finale, Brahms experiments daringly with form and structure. The opening is a slow, somber introduction and the closing is an immense and fast coda, a ‘tour de force’ of the movement, encapsulating all the ideas of the finale, towards a resolute, closing gesture.
Ravel: ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’
In 1907, two years after his fourth failed attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome (!!) Ravel produced two major works, both firsts for him, and both capitalizing on his remarkable sensitivity to Spanish music. (His mother’s Basque origins doubtless contributed to his natural affinity.) L’heure espagnole was his first opera; Rapsodie Espagnole was his first published piece written originally for orchestra.
The ‘Prelude to the Night’ begins with and is dominated by a four-note descending ‘twilight’ gesture, which will appear again in the Malaguena and Feria movements. The first two movements evoke sensuous, exquisite color in an atmosphere of understated elegance, functioning as short, impressionist tone poems leading to the dazzling brilliance of Feria, the ‘Festival.’ Ravel was a master of interpreting dance, and this suite provides ample evidence of this dimension of his genius.
Prokofiev: 12 Dances from “Romeo and Juliet,” transcribed for two pianos by Sergei Babayan, and dedicated to Martha Argerich.
For never was a story of more woe than this
Of Juliet and her Romeo
In 1935, Sergei Prokofiev made a devil’s bargain: He moved to the Soviet Union which he had left since 1918, tempted by a lucrative offer to write any opera or ballet he wanted, thereby taking command of the country’s music scene.
He chose to compose a “Romeo and Juliet” ballet, which led to one of the most beloved dance works in the repertory as well as a series of famous orchestral suites.
Prokofiev came up with the idea for a ballet adaptation of Shakespeare after considering “Tristan und Isolde” (but deciding he could not contend with Wagner), and “Pelleas et Melisande,” (presumably he thought the same about Debussy!).
But Prokofiev made a very unconventional decision about the ending: It was to be happy! But the ensuing uproar from the government and the critics, was furious, and ultimately Prokofiev rewrote the story to conform to the Shakespeare play.
This is a finger-blistering transcription by Babayan, who is himself a brilliant pianist. He wrote this arrangement and dedicated it to his dear colleague Martha Argerich, with whom he premiered the work. Thanks to my sister’s friendship with Babayan (she has presented him as a guest artist on her concert series), we were able to obtain this music, hot off the press, from Germany, since it is not yet circulating in the UK or in the United States.
These pianistic depictions of the ballet are in turn vivacious and joyful, whimsically tongue in cheek, somber and ominous, and are also, of course, laden with heart-throbbing sorrow and loss. The writing for the two pianos is daringly imaginative. In “The young girl Juliet,” for example, in less than two minutes, the pianos capture Juliet’s bubbling character, as she teases her nursemaid, but only until the last line in the piece. Here, as in the ballet, she suddenly catches sight of herself in a mirror, and realizes she is no longer a girl, but a woman, on the threshold of experiencing new sensations and emotions. The pianos halt their frolic suddenly, and there is a plaintive final, fragile ascending scale, evoking this moment of a sweet, yet sad epiphany.
“Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” is a poetic duet and conversation between the lovers, the dialogue moving from shy exchanges towards more intimate professions and eventual overpowering passion. The outcome, as we have come to accept, is the star-crossed lovers taking their own lives.
This transcription begins with the Prologue, describing the death of Tybalt with menacing drums and violent outbursts. Then, in the final dance, Tybalt’s death is captured in frenetic passages between the pianos as the Montagues and Capulets do battle. Romeo’s frantic goal to seek revenge upon Tybalt for killing Mercutio is portrayed in skittish frantic runs and gestures, evoking street fights and age-held hatreds. The final chords of the dance are bitter, brutal and resigned, perhaps evoking the utter futility of lives lost forever. And for what??
—Program notes, © Robin McCabe, 2023
Rachelle McCabe, professor emerita of music at Oregon State University, enjoys an international career as a concert pianist and artist teacher. She has performed as soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as in China, Canada, Southeast Asia, and France. She has held teaching residencies in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and British Columbia.
Rachelle McCabe is the artistic director of Corvallis-OSU Piano International with its prestigious Steinway Piano Series, workshops, and educational outreach programs. In lieu of live concerts during the pandemic lockdown, Rachelle directed an exciting virtual piano festival presenting more than 20 world-renowned pianists in exclusive performances. The festival is available at Corvallispiano.org. Rachelle also directs the OSU Chamber Music Workshop and the OSU Piano Institute, both summer programs.
Believing in the power of collaborative arts to help bring about change, Rachelle has created innovative programs and videos with writer/philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and various other poets, artists, and scientists to address the global crisis of climate change and extinction. McCabe and Moore have performed their compelling program, Variations on a Theme of Extinction, in many cities across the USA, Canada, and Scotland, and a film version which weaves Rachelle’s studio performance of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli with Kathleen’s spoken narrative in various Oregon locations is found on YouTube.
Rachelle McCabe is a highly respected teacher and since completing her 35-year professorship at Oregon State in 2021, she keeps an independent studio of highly motivated students. In demand as a guest artist teacher and adjudicator, her current schedule includes master classes and festivals as well as concerts in Hong Kong, Atlanta, Portland, Eugene, and Seattle.
Rachelle holds a doctorate (DMA) from The University of Michigan, a master's degree from The Juilliard School, and a bachelor’s degree from The University of Washington. Her teachers were Willard Schultz, Bela Siki, Ania Dorfmann, Gyorgy Sandor, and Theodore Lettvin.
Celebrated pianist Robin McCabe has established herself as one of America’s most communicative and persuasive artists. McCabe’s involvement and musical sensibilities have delighted audiences across the United States, Europe, Canada and in nine concert tours of the Far East. The United States Department of State sponsored her two South American tours, which were triumphs both artistically and diplomatically.
As noted by the New York Times, “What Ms. McCabe has that raises her playing to such a special level is a strong lyric instinct and confidence in its ability to reach and touch the listener.” The Tokyo Press declared her a “pianistic powerhouse,” and a reviewer in Prague declared, “Her musicianship is a magnet for the listener.” Richard Dyer, the eminent critic of the Boston Globe: ‘Her brilliant, natural piano playing shows as much independence of mind as of fingers.”
Her recordings have received universal acclaim. Her debut album for Vanguard Records featured the premiere recording of Guido Agosti transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Critics praised it as “mightily impressive.” Stereo Review described her disc of Bartok as “all that we have come to expect from this artist, a first-rate performance!” She was commissioned to record four albums for the award-winning company Grammofon AB BIS in Stockholm, which remain distributed internationally, including the CD “Robin McCabe Plays Liszt,” (AB BIS No. 185).
McCabe earned her bachelor of music degree summa cum laude at the University of Washington School of Music, where she studied with Béla Siki, and her master’s and doctorate degrees at the Juilliard School of Music, where she studied with Rudolf Firkusny. She joined the Juilliard faculty in 1978 then returned to the UW in 1987 to accept a position on the piano faculty. In 1994 McCabe was appointed Director of the School of Music, a position she held until 2009. McCabe holds a Michiko Morita Miyamoto Professorship in Piano at the School of Music and has previously held a Ruth Sutton Waters Professorship and a Donald Petersen Professorship in the School of Music.
McCabe is a dedicated arts ambassador and advocate for arts audience development, frequently addressing arts organizations across the country. With colleague Craig Sheppard, she has launched the highly successful Seattle Piano Institute, an intense summer immersion experience for gifted and aspiring classical pianists.
The winner of numerous prizes and awards, including the International Concert Artists Guild Competition and a Rockefeller Foundation grant, McCabe was the subject of a lengthy New Yorker magazine profile, “Pianist’s Progress,” later expanded into a book of the same title.
In 1995 McCabe presented the annual faculty lecture — a concert with commentary — at the University of Washington. She is the first professor of music in the history of the University to be awarded this lectureship. Seattle magazine selected McCabe as one of 17 current and past University of Washington professors who have had an impact on life in the Pacific Northwest. In 2005, to celebrate its 100th year as an institution, The Juilliard School selected McCabe as one of 100 alumni from 20,000 currently living to be profiled in its centenary publication recognizing distinction and accomplishments in the international world of music, dance, and theater. Today she is a highly- sought teacher at the University of Washington, with students from around the world seeking admission to her studio.
McCabe performs regularly throughout the United States, and has made several tours of South Korea, Japan and China. In 2022 she has been appointed Artistic Advisor to the Beijing Royal School, an elite private K-12 institution which is evolving an international Arts curriculum She appears often as an invited jurist for international piano competitions, most recently in New Orleans, San Antonio, and Vancouver, Canada. In 2016 she served on the jury of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. In March of 2022 she served on the jury for the Hilton Head International Piano Competition.