Less is more

Headshot of Madeleine Retter playing the violin
Madeleine Retter, CSO Violin

This is my eclectic assortment of ‘less is more’ – there are some big names, but you won’t find any big symphonies or concerti. I have always been drawn to the intimate and vulnerable nature of chamber works, so this collection is an ode to the introverts out there.

These smaller-scale works and soaring lines offer glimpses into sound capsules of different worlds – I hope you’ll find moments of incredibly moving depth and stillness.

Madeleine Retter, CSO Violin

LISTENING NOTES

Maurice Ravel
Piano Trio in A minor
I. Modère

This is Ravel’s opening movement of his dreamy trio for violin, cello, and piano composed in 1914. Listen for the two main themes: the first begins rhythmically in the piano and is somewhat dark and murky, contrasted by the floaty, delicate and lyrical second theme.

The piano trio is a favourite genre of mine, mostly because of this piece, but often presents balance challenges between the different voices. Here though, Ravel perfectly captures the magical extremes of the piano, the warmth of the strings, and that iconic, shimmery French sound.

Arvo Pärt
Tabula Rasa
I. Ludus

I first really listened to Arvo Pärt surrounded by the Sydney Botanic Gardens in spring and instantly fell in love with the meditative and pure voices. Here, Estonian composer Pärt writes a double concerto for violins, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra that is written in two movements: Ludus (Game) and Silentium (Silence). 

Tabula Rasa means ‘blank slate’; I think this movement uses silence and extremes in pitch to show us the infinite number of creative possibilities in the universe.

Arvo Pärt
Fratres for Violin and Piano

Fratres (which means brothers in Latin) is a beautiful example of Pärt’s unique compositional style, tintinnabuli. The composer himself says it best: ‘Music must exist of itself…two, three notes…the essence must be there, independent of the instruments.’

This piece is built on two drones and three voices that move through a repeated chord progression. The result is mesmerising in its delicacy, sometimes disturbing in its ambiguity, but ultimately sublime.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor
IV. Allegro

I love how this movement creeps in with the piano and pizzicato – the best cello pizzicato moment in my opinion!

This movement has these wonderful, hypnotic moments where the melodies seem like they’ll just keep rolling along, only to be abruptly altered by cries. The main melody of this movement is a folk-like dance theme famously quoted in Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, but this one came first!

You can hear how the melody transforms each time into something more and more tortured and wailing – perhaps a product of the Second World War during which it was composed – until finally slowing into stillness.

Oliver Messiaen
Thème et Variations
Thème, Variations, IV & V

This charming work for violin and piano was written in 1913 and features on this mixtape for its soaring violin melodies. Messiaen wrote this piece for his first wife, Claire Delbos, and they both performed in the debut performance.

The Theme begins simply, and while you can hear more typical Messiaen birdsong and rhythmically complex moments in Variation IV, the melody is always cleverly intertwined.

While there are five variations, I have only chosen two for this mixtape, mostly because of how Variation IV leads into V – what a moment!

Nigel Westlake
Tall tales but true

From the very opening, this piece is captivating. The wonderful septet instrumentation of violin, bass clarinet, two acoustic guitars, percussion, piano and bass brings together so many different colours and textures. From glistening harmonics to undulating piano motifs and funky bass clarinet lines, there is always something playful and new to hear.

I particularly enjoy the moments that highlight the percussion, bass clarinet and guitar – not your regular septet features!

Maurice Ravel
String Quartet
II Assez vif

I don’t think you can go past this movement for the depth and range of string quartet colours. There’s the cheeky pizzicato dance theme; the floating melody in the second scherzo theme coupled with the buzzing tremolo; and the warm but wistful, central slow theme of the trio.

I can’t help but picture a sunny summer’s day with swirling winds and the most vibrant colours whenever I listen to this piece. 

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in A Minor
III. Molto Adagio

I have never been able to think of a more perfect piece of music than this truly beautiful, transcendent work and I knew it had to be on this mixtape. Its title bears the description ‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart’, translated as the ‘Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode’.

Beethoven wrote this piece after being very ill; this piece reflects not only his extreme joy at renewed life but the darkness that came before. I think you can hear this in the opening slow section which joins a chorale and eventually blooms into joyous, faster sections like a vivid sunrise.

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