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PROGRAM NOTES: BENJAMIN GROSVENOR

Robert Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18

In the autumn of 1838 Robert Schumann made a career decision. He would move from his native Leipzig to Vienna to find a publisher and a sympathetic public for his piano compositions. The public he hoped to attract in his year in the Austrian capital was a public of the fair sex, to whom he directed his “little rondo” Op. 18, “written for the ladies,” as he put it.

In keeping with the kind of gentle ears he was addressing, the title he chose was a term more associated with interior decorating than the taxonomy of musical forms. He called it Arabesque, perhaps in reference to the gently swirling curves and owing, intertwined lines of the piano texture in the work’s opening theme.

Structured in alternating sections of recurring refrain and contrasting episodes in an A-B-A-C-A pattern, the work begins with a section of whispering small phrase fragments in an utterly pure and chaste C Major. Two episodes of a more serious character in the minor mode o er alternative heart fodder for the heaving breast, the rst lled with longing, the second (surprise, surprise) a pert little march. Could Schumann ever the resist the urge to march?

This elegant little miniature concludes with a typically Schumannesque postlude, a wistful daydream that in its final phrase wakes up to remember the delicate motive of the work’s opening bar.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in B- at Major K. 333 “Linz

To the ears of modern audiences, given to admiring the thunderous eruptions
of a 9-foot grand projecting the well-upholstered scores of 19th-century pianist- composers, the crystalline perfection of Mozart’s almost minimalist keyboard writing might seem thin broth indeed. But then again, Mozart was not about making boom-box music for the powdered-wig set. He had little taste for sonic padding. He wrote only the notes necessary to outline his musical idea with clarity.

Which is not to say that he had no larger sound palette in mind, and no care for ‘effect’ when composing for the keyboard. His Sonata in B at K 333 shows clearly the in uence of the concerto style in the contrasts between ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ textures of its rst movement, and more strikingly still in the way its last movement rondo stops dead in its tracks on a cadential 6-4 chord to set the stage for a full-on ‘soloist’ cadenza. This was not a work aimed at the market for home music-making or study. It was music for public performance, meant to display the composer’s skill, and above all his taste.

In this regard, the in uence of Mozart’s mentor, Johann Christian Bach, is evident in the composer’s borrowing from J. C. Bach’s Sonata in G Major Op. 17 No. 4 to create the 6-note descending scale figure used in both the first and second themes of the first movement of this sonata. The “London Bach” was a leading exponent of the style galant and elements of this style are apparent in the short balanced phrases of the rst movement’s themes, and in its pervasive use of coy little two-note sigh motives throughout. This movement is an elegant amalgam of textbook sonata-form construction, Italianate vocal melodies and sparkling keyboard figuration.

The sonata’s emotional centre of gravity is the second movement Andante cantabile, an operatic aria transferred to the keyboard idiom. Its mood of dignified lyrical reflection is enlivened by frequent decorations of the melodic line and unified by the recurrence of the repeated-note rhythmic motif: duh- duh-duh DAH. Its development section wades into deep waters indeed with its probing chromatic explorations.

A playful lightness of tone returns in the Allegretto grazioso nale, a toe-tapping sonata rondo with a blithely carefree, eminently whistleable opening refrain tune featuring a whimsical downward hop of a 7th. The concerto spirit pushes this movement to ever-greater heights of rhythmic animation that culminate in the keyboard-spanning exertions of its exuberant showpiece cadenza.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2

When German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) first compared Beethoven’s C# minor Sonata quasi una fantasia to the dreamy glimmerings of Lake Lucerne bathed in moonlight, he was blissfully unaware of what pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960) would discover more than a century later. While examining a sketch in Beethoven’s own hand, Fischer realized that the famous triplets and polyrhythmic overlay of this sonata’s rst movement were taken directly from the scene in which Donna Anna’s father is killed by Don Giovanni in Mozart’s eponymous opera. What had passed for lunar luminescence was in fact commendatory commemoration.

Viewed in this new light, it would be easy to see the ‘tolling bell’ dotted rhythm of this movement as funereal, a sibling to the same rhythm in Beethoven’s Marcia funebre of his Sonata in A at, one opus number back. Or to Chopin’s own famous dotted-rhythm dirge, for that matter. And the lacerating dissonances of the soprano line as the movement develops become more plangent, as well.

Fortunately, the mood of suspended animation in grief that the first movement evokes is relieved by a consoling, dancelike Allegretto in the Major mode, a scherzo & trio emphatically grounded in the swaying body-rhythms of its insistent syncopations.

The pace picks up with a vengeance, of course, in the restorm nale, the only sonata-form movement in this work. If this music sounds scary, it’s meant to. This is Beethoven “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore,” a fist-clenching, pound-on-the-table protagonist, bent on musical violence. The agitato mood is unrelenting, what contrast there is being provided only by brief lapses into sullenness and simmering anger. At its climax, the movement explodes into a heaven-storming cadenza releasing lava ows of sonority across the entire keyboard.

Who could have foreseen that the rst movement’s quietly undulating broken chords would form the template for the raging fury of those in the finale?

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor Op. 19 “Fantasy”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the service done to posterity by composers who write their own program notes. Faced with an enigmatic two-movement work such as Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G# minor (1892-1897), the scribbling musicological drudge will no doubt rst listen with his eyes closed, con dent that the programmatic thread of a work labelled Fantasy must surely yield its secrets to the drifting imagination of the cultivated mind. Upon registering a mild to severe case of seasickness in the attempt, he will feel both relieved and validated to read the following words by the composer himself:

The second sonata reflects the in uence of the seashore. The development section is the dark agitation of the deep, deep ocean. The E Major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement, presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.

It would not be fake news to venture a guess at what the composer’s meaning is here: this sonata is about the sea. Its swells and undulations nd expression in the score’s many abrupt transitions between and pp, its choppy whitecaps in the ever-present rhythmic dislocations of accent between left and right hands, beginning in the very opening bars.

For the adventurous listener booking passage on the SS Scriabin, rhythmic uncertainty is a malaise for which no therapy has yet been invented. If the right hand sings out a fragrant melody in triplets, the left hand will surely keep company in groups of 4s or 5s, sometimes phrased across the bar line to generate added metrical dysphoria. Only when the wind dies down at nightfall, as described in the lusciously textured second theme of the first movement, can a regular metrical pulse reveal the glints of “caressing moonlight” of a melody glowing in the mid-range, enveloped by the most delicate tracery spun out above and below.

Those without their sea legs, however, would be advised to retreat imaginatively below decks for the following Presto, a swaying squall of a movement sure to revive memories of stomach upsets past.

Enrique Granados
Goyescas Op. 11
No. 1 Los Requiebros
No. 3 El Fandango de Candil

The extreme emotions portrayed in and provoked by the canvasses and etchings of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) have attracted many admirers, but few as musically gifted as the Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados, whose Goyescas (1911) draw their inspiration from the works of an artist often described as “the last of the Old Masters and the first of the new.” The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates its intention to depict the amorous adventures of working-class swains, and the maids who have caught their eye, in the poorer neighbourhoods of Madrid.

The first piece in the set, Requiebros (flirtatious compliments) begins with the tale of a pick-up line and its reception. A guitar-like ourish opens the piece with the 8-syllable rhythm of the jota, a form of Spanish popular music danced and sung to the accompaniment of castanets. These latter are picturesquely represented in the score by means of twinkling mordents, snappy triplet gures and scurrying inner voices, the throwaway character of which gures among the major technical challenges of this piece. Tempo changes of a stop-and- start character mark the various stages of the negotiation, but the sumptuous tonal banquet o ered on the last page of the score leaves listeners in no doubt whatsoever as to how rapturously the attering initiatives referred to in the title were welcomed.

El Fandango de Candil (the fandango by candlelight) presents a more advanced stage of the relationship, in which the couple are presented as dancing my candlelight to the infectious, ever-present rhythm of the fandango. The implication of the scene is that when the candle burn out, the dance continues by other means…

Franz Liszt
Rhapsodie espagnole S. 254

Liszt’s unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures is on full display in his Rhapsodie espagnole completed in 1863, an exuberant tribute to the musical heritage of Spain. Everything about this piece bespeaks the dramatic stage presence he cultivated as his trademark.

The work opens with a series of de ant gestures that see bass rumblings sweep up to the high register, where the delicious strumming of celestial harps whet our appetite for what is to come. And what comes is the traditional Folies d’Espagne, a tune used by numerous composers, including Rachmaninov in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, this tune gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its gural texture extends over the entire range of the keyboard.

At the peak of its exuberance a childlike jota aragonesa, announced with an almost music-box-like innocence in the high register, interrupts the proceedings, its popular character frequently enriched with a drone tone in the mid-range. Then after a tender recitative and a sentimental pause for lyrical re ection Liszt unleashes his feverish imagination in a muscular apotheosis of his two themes that may cause chips of stucco to fall from the ceiling and threaten the structural integrity of the rafters.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

Program notes: Yun-Chin Zhou

Domenico Scarlatti
Three Sonatas

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half that ends in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K.) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L.) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The Sonata in D minor K. 9 has long been among the most popular of Scarlatti’s sonatas, acquiring its nickname, the Pastorale, from a concert arrangement with that title published by pianist Karl Tausig (1841- 1871). Tausig’s title may well have originated in the impression of rural peacefulness summoned up by the sonata’s gently flowing melody in 6/8 time, with its Pan-flute-like trills and breathless runs up to the high register. Whoever this flute-playing shepherd is, though, he seems to have acquired a little drummer boy following hard behind, arguing via leaps in the bass that the piece would make a nice courtly march.

Drums are heard, as well, accompanied by trumpets, in the very fanfare-like Sonata in E major K. 380, with its many open fifth sonorities. We hear in this sonata an echo, in miniature, of the music of court ritual that must have been part of the everyday life of Scarlatti’s patron, employer and pupil, the Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal and Spain. And yet this piece arrives at a surprisingly intimate level of expression, given the ceremonial premise from which it sets out.

The Sonata in G major K. 455, by contrast, is unabashedly dancelike and popular in tone, filled with the rhythmic click and snap of the castanets. The idiomatic figurations of the guitar are heard in the repeated-note patterns that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity while it evokes Spanish popular musical culture in the most vividly direct way.

 

Franz Liszt
Sposalizio from Années de Pèlerinage II

The three books of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) detail the cultural impressions left on the Hungarian pianist-composer by his travels through Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Sposalizio is the first entry in the second book of this musical diary, a collection of pieces devoted to Italy. It takes its name from the 1504 painting by Raphael, Lo Sposalizio della Vergine (The Wedding of the Virgin), a representation of the joining of the Virgin Mary and Joseph in holy matrimony, pictured as taking place in the open square of an Italian city with numerous witnesses gathered round.

Liszt’s builds his evocation of this scene out of two simple motives presented at the outset: a wandering collection of notes in the pentatonic scale (remarkably similar to the opening of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, also in E major) and a short, slightly hesitant dotted figure. These two figures permeate the texture ever more urgently until a bell-ringing climax is reached with crashing octaves in the left hand to create what Alfred Brendel has called “an aura of elated innocence.”

 

Alexander Scriabin
Valse in A flat Major Op. 38 Vers la flamme Op. 72
Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 Fantasy in B minor Op.28

It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” He wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études, just like his Polish musical forebear.

The influence of Chopin is most readily seen in his Valse in A flat Op. 38 with its achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass clarifying the underlying harmony. Unlike Chopin, however, is the rhythmic pulse, which is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern expected of a well-behaved waltz. This is a waltz that ‘flutters’. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand will have none of it, and cheerfully ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy by wandering widely in 4-to-the- bar and 5-to-the-bar melodic units to create a perfumed distillation of waltz gestures, interrupted by bold outbursts of inner passion.

The ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (Towards the flame) is far from the salon demeanour of Scriabin’s early ‘Chopin’ period, being among the last works that he composed. It represents a psychedelic aural imagining of the world moving slowly and inexorably ‘towards the flame,’ heating up until it is finally consumed in a great conflagration of fire and light. The harmonic vocabulary of this piece is extremely advanced, based on chromatically modified dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in fourths rather than thirds. The harmonically subversive sound of tritones rings in the ear from the very start of the piece, when time seems to stand still, frowning in worry at what is to come. A second stage is reached when deep bass rumblings arise in a murky 5-against-9 rhythm, while the treble remains obsessed with the semitone motive that pervades the piece. Tongues of flame arrive in the treble when double tremolos curl around the middle register, eventually breaking out into silvery flashes of brilliance above until the piece ends in a dazzling aural snapshot of pure white light.

The piano textures of Chopin are apparent once again in the Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 with its sweeping left-hand accompaniment figures, studded with countermelodies in the tenor. And yet its wistfully lyrical melody, doled out in poised, evenly balanced phrases, barely ranges over more than an octave.

A much more muscular posture, very much at odds with Scriabin’s reputation for finely shaded melodic nuance and perfumed harmonies, is presented in his mid-career Fantasy in B minor Op. 28. While moments of lyric relief do arrive in this piece (and in canon, no less) it is overwhelmingly dominated by Lisztian figurations of flying octaves, thick chordal textures, disruptive rhythmic convulsions and flamboyant multi- octave arpeggiations in both hands. Swaying between a brooding restlessness and a search for ecstatic release, the mystic side of Scriabin comes clearly to the fore in this work, a worthy successor to the deeply chromatic yearnings of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

 

Charles Trenet
6 Songs
(arr. Alexis Weissenberg)

The history of the 20th-century poetic chanson, long associated with the names of Edith Piaf, Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, would not be complete without Charles Trenet, familiar to music- lovers in North America as the author of La Mer, recorded in the 1960s by Bobby Darrin as Beyond the Sea. Known for his velvety baritone voice and slightly loopy singing style, he was called le fou chantant (the singing madman) and enjoyed immense popularity in a career that flourished between the 1930s and 1950s, although he continued to perform and record virtually up till his death in 2001.

Charles Trenet’s success was not only due to the charm of his nostalgic songs about young love and the city of Paris, but also to the unique blend of swing, jazz, waltz and tropical dance elements that characterized his musical style. This was music that was ideal for the ‘piano stylings’ of a jazz musician and, sure enough, sometime in the 1950s an extended-play 45 rpm record appeared on the market entitled Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet. But who was this Mr. Nobody?

The name of the musician responsible for these exuberantly lavish arrangements and improvisations has only recently come to light, and the name surprised (and delighted) many in the classical music community. It was the Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. At a time when classical musicians would sooner have eaten wood shavings on toast than be caught performing (let alone recording!) songs from the French music-hall repertory, Weissenberg had evidently shimmered unobserved into a recording studio in a curly wig and nose-and-moustache glasses to secretly record this tribute to one of his favourite popular singers.

Coin de rue (Street corner) evokes memories of the old neighbourhood and pleasant daydreams of days long past. Its nostalgic tone is captured in the blur of slightly ‘watery’ harmonies.

Boum! imitates the pounding heartbeat of those newly smitten with the joys of love. It begins in a very modernist style before launching into an extroverted keyboard-chuckling texture of added-tone jazz chords and sparkling fill-in figurations.

Vous qui passez sans me voir (You pass by without seeing me) is a love song about a young man who can’t even get the woman of his dreams to notice him. His awkwardness is cleverly expressed in the bass drones with crushed-note ornaments.

En avril à Paris (April in Paris) is a waltzing tribute to the City of Lights, with sweeping figuration swirling around each melody note.

Vous oubliez votre cheval (You’re forgetting your horse) is a surreal ditty about trying to leave your horse at the coat check. It’s homage to the Roaring Twenties hit tune Ain’t she sweet is just one of the inexplicable features of this song.

Ménilmontant pays tribute to the vitality of the working class quartier of Paris where Maurice Chevalier was born, in a moto perpetuo style with many a clever reference to the Flight of the Bumblebee.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, premiered by the composer in Moscow in 1913, is an ambitious large-scale work in three movements bound together by elements of cyclic form and thematic reminiscence. Indeed, the quiet ending of its first movement and the bridge leading directly from the second movement to the finale make it seem like one continuous work in three parts.

This sonata was obviously written for the massive ‘mitt’ of Rachmaninoff himself, who is said to have been able to stretch a 12th (an octave and a 5th), and it represents virtually a compendium of the lush keyboard textures characteristic of the composer’s best work. It also contains large-scale formal features typical of the piano concertos, viz., a frenetic speed- up of tempo in the middle of the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis-style summing up of lyrical thematic material at the end of the finale—prominent features of both his second and his third piano concertos.

The work opens with a dramatic gesture emblematic of the formal grandeur underlying Rachmaninoff’s conception of the sonata as a whole: an arpeggio plunging down to the abyss, answered by a cannon- echo of a theme comprised of a falling 3rd (was he inspired by a similar opening to Beethoven’s equally grand Hammerklavier sonata?), a chromatically descending melody and chordal outline, all chiselled out over a quivering tremolo accompaniment. Nothing is small-scale in this opening theme. Virtually the entire span of keyboard real estate available to the pianist is traversed in a series of cadenzas before a much more modest and intimate second theme appears.

This tentative, delicate, chromatically descending second theme is obviously derived from the first. Its contrasting nature lies not just in its being in the major mode, but also in how it represents a complete scaling down, texturally, of the amount of sound coming out of the piano. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fistfuls of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a feverish rage that has ebbed, but not ended.

The second movement begins with a series of questioning phrases before a sadly lilting, almost apologetic theme appears. This down-in-the-mouth theme, however, leads to happier thoughts in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright ringing bell- strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The swelling, heart-breaking series of sequences that follows is the lyric climax of the movement from which a ruminative middle section mulls over memories of the first movement and churns itself into quite a froth.

The opening of the second movement ends as it began, with the same exploratory harmonic questioning, but this time answers itself by plunging into one of the most heaven-storming finales in the Rachmaninoff canon, one in which the lowest B flat on the keyboard booms out like cannon-fire, over and over again. Gradually cooler heads prevail and there blossoms, under the generous tone-giving care of the right-hand pinky finger, a nostalgic and lyrical second-theme melody to melt the heart of a tyrant. The development section thunders with renewed vigour as the first theme rushes headlong back onto the scene. But it is the achingly heartfelt second theme that triumphs in the end in a glorious hymn to all that is right with the world, leading to a coda bristling with pianistic fireworks that lights a path to the work’s final chords.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

Program notes: Pavel Kolesnikov

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantasy in C minor K. 475

The year 1785 was a good one for Mozart. In the words of musicologist John Irving, he had become something of a ‘hot property’ in Vienna, enjoying considerable success both as a published composer and as a performing musician. But Mozart had also acquired a reputation as a gifted improviser, if we are to believe the swooning testimony of Johann Friedrich Schink in his Literarische Fragmente of 1785:

And his improvisations, what a wealth of ideas! What variety! What contrasts in passionate sounds! One swims away with him unresistingly on the stream of his emotions.

One notable occasion on which the ecstatic Schink might have needed his swim trunks and inner tube was a benefit concert which took place on 15 December, 1785, at one of Vienna’s Masonic lodges. Mozart had become a Mason the previous year and for this concert contributed a cantata as well as a piano concerto, and for the grand finale of the evening held forth with his own fantasias, i.e., improvisations.

Was it by coincidence that, just the week before, an advertisement had appeared in the Wiener Zeitung announcing the publication by Viennese publishing house Artaria of Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor (K. 475) paired with a keyboard sonata in the same key (K. 457), or was it merely clever marketing?

This original pairing of fantasy and sonata in the same publication has led many pianists to perform the two works together as a single unit, the fantasy serving
as an elaborate ‘slow introduction’ to the sonata. The young Beethoven may have thought the pairing aesthetically effective when he composed his Sonata in C minor Op. 13 in 1798. Apart from the shared key, the Pathétique shares many characteristics with the fantasy- sonata publication, its fp opening followed by a sigh motive being only the most obvious.

Then again, the original joint publication might simply have been for commercial convenience, since the two works were composed a good half-year apart, and Mozart is known to have performed the fantasy as an independent work. Indeed, the Fantasy seems to have had an unusually high profile in the decade after its publication, spawning pirate editions in Mannheim
and Berlin, and even making a cameo appearance in contemporary literature when performed by a character in Wilhelm Heinse’s experimental novel Hildegard von Hohenthal (1795).

Mozart’s Fantasy is comprised of six sections of contrasting character, alternating between deeply expressive, modulating passages and more harmonically stable sections of melody and accompaniment that would be perfectly at home in any sonata movement. Remarkable in this work is the unusual vehemence of expression in the two central modulating sections. The first of these, with its jangling tremolos of alarm in the treble, would not be out of place accompanying a silent movie in which a young girl is being tied to the railroad tracks. (The emotional intensity of the ‘escape operas’ of the 1790s was already on the horizon.) Remarkable as well is how Mozart exploits the full range of the keyboard in the cadenza-like sections, especially the deep bass register. Indeed, passages occur in which both hands play below middle C.

Despite its harmonic wanderings to remote key centres, the final section of this work is in a solid C minor, providing a degree of symmetry to balance the wild turbulence that characterizes its emotional trajectory.

 

Robert Schumann
Fantasie in C major, Op. 17

Schumann began his career as a composer by writing exclusively for the piano. He wrote for no other instrument until 1840. The measure of his ambition and his sense of mission in this regard may be gauged in his massive Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, which he began in 1836 as a single-movement work inspired by his longing for the young Clara Wieck, his future wife.

The work was soon re-purposed, however, into a three-movement ‘grand sonata’ to be offered to the public with the aim of raising funds for a monument in honour of Beethoven, to be erected in his native city of Bonn. This was a project energetically supported, and substantially underwritten, by Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s Fantasy is dedicated. Eventually published in 1839, it makes for a rather strange ‘sonata’ but a meaty, imaginative and poetic ‘fantasy’, its three movements being of widely differing character and emotional content.

The passion of young love is immediately communicated in the first movement’s opening, with its rolling dominant 9th chord, expressively parallel to the composer’s romantic yearning, that never seems to find resolution or rest. A middle section Im Legenden-Ton (In the character of a legend) begins in a subdued manner but before long, it too builds into extravagant outbursts of passion before the opening material returns. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a melodic phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”

The second movement is a patriotically stirring march, worthy of leading the composer’s famous Davidsbund (his imaginary friends in the League of David) into battle against the barbarous hordes of musical philistinism. While a slower interlude provides some lyrical contrast, a pervasive dotted rhythm maintains the martial drum beat through virtually the entire movement. The virtuoso exuberance of the coda, with its wild leaps in opposite directions, stands as a test of pianistic marksmanship unique in the piano literature.

The work concludes with a poetic reverie which is
the emotional inverse of the expressively explosive first movement. This final movement stands in awe of all Creation, carried along by the poetic force of its luminous rolling harmonies, intermittently interrupted by snatches of melody that struggle to achieve utterance, then fall back into dreaming. The simple, yet resonant scoring of the piano texture between the two hands masterfully evokes the power of human wonder in moments of exaltation and transcendence. This is Schumann the Poet at his most inspired.

 

Robert Schumann
Nachtstücke Op. 23

This collection of four pieces was composed in 1839, at a time in which the composer (never really in the pink of mental health at the best of times) was particularly beset with fears of death. In March of that year, obsessed with thoughts of coffins and funeral processions, he was in the throes of composing a so-called Corpse Fantasy (Leichenfantasie) when a letter arrived which he took as confirmation of his premonitions: his older brother Eduard, head of the family publishing firm, lay dying. The effect of this news on the work in progress can only be imagined, but when it was finished, his intended, Clara Wieck, wisely steered him clear of his initial morbid title in favour of Night Pieces (Nachtstücke), after the well-known collection of dark tales by E. T. A. Hoffman.

These, then, are not nocturnes à la John Field, painting the poetic stillness of the late evening as an intimate setting for lyrical introspection, but enigmatic works evoking the night as a place of dark mystery, abnormal occurrences, and psychological danger.

All four pieces are in rondo form, i.e., they alternate their opening thematic material with a series of contrasting episodes. Schumann had proposed names for the
four pieces, which subsequently did not appear in the printed edition, but which are nonetheless suggestive of the imaginative world he wished to evoke.

The first was to be called Trauerzug (funeral procession) but what a strange little funeral march it would be. Hesitating between major and minor, its short, sharp pulses evoke furtive mischief more than dignified commemoration. And its dotted rhythm, characteristic of the famous funeral marches of Beethoven and Chopin, is oddly configured to emphasize the fourth beat of the bar, perhaps to enforce the curious indication oft zurückhaltend (often holding back).

It has been suggested that the descending bass-line motif is taken from the Marche au supplice from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a nightmarish reference to death that puts this piece squarely in the realm of the ghoulish. But could this be a grotesque parody? The idea cannot be excluded, given the relationship between this collection and another work composed in the same year, the distinctly whimsical Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Indeed, the Intermezzo of the Faschingsschwank was originally written for the Nachtstücke, suggesting a certain overlap in intention between the two works.

The second piece, Kuriose Gesellschaft (curious company) is a study in mood swings, from a composer personally well versed in the phenomenon. It throws together the oddest assortment of modes of expression, from the festive to the lyrically sentimental and the mechanically clownish.

The third piece, Nächtliches Gelage (night revels), bursts with an explosive yearning alternating with, but unrelieved by, episodes of intoxicated but slightly disturbing elation.

In the simple tunefulness of the fourth piece, Rundgesang mit Solostimmen (round with solo voices), we finally arrive at a simpler, less psychologically complex expression of emotion. While the texture of short notes interspersed with rests recalls the furtive steps of the opening ‘march’, the widely spaced arpeggios imply accompaniment by a strummed string instrument such as a guitar or lute, suggesting a more peaceful and intimate setting for these final musical thoughts on the experience of nighttime.


Alexander Scriabin
Vers la flamme Op. 72

The aesthetic aims of Scriabin were so expansive
as to be hardly containable within the scope of the piano keyboard. As he advanced in years his mystical inclinations narrowed considerably the gap between solo sonata and sonic séance, with his last works showing him at his most manically grandiose. Left unfinished at his death in 1915, for example, is a work called Mysterium for mixed chorus and orchestra, intended to be enacted over the course of a week in the foothills of the Himalayas with the aid of dancers, a light show, and the release of appropriately apocalyptic scents into the air, after which the world was roundly expected to dissolve into a state of eternal bliss.

Meanwhile, back home at the keyboard, pianists attempting to sustain the legacy of his piano music (without the aid of sherpas) have had their hands full dealing with the equally ambitious textures of his late works, with their flamboyant arpeggiations down to the nether regions, eddying swirls of finger fodder in the mid-range, and luminous echoes up in the gods of the high register.

His ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (‘Towards the flame’), composed in 1914, is precisely of this stamp. What constitutes ‘melody’ in the piece is virtually limited to the obsessively repeated semitone motif announced at the opening, and present throughout at the top of the texture. The composer’s unique harmonic vocabulary of altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for maximum resonance, ensures such an abundance of tritones (there seems to be one in virtually every chord) that in the end they all begin to sound like consonances.

According to Vladimir Horowitz, who played for the composer at the age of 11 and became one of the major proponents his music, the title of the work relates to the composer’s conviction that the world as a whole was edging ‘toward the flame’ and would gradually heat up until it erupted into a fiery cosmic conflagration.

“He was crazy, you know,” Horowitz adds, dryly.

Prescient intimations of global warming aside, Scriabin’s incendiary vision is communicated in this piece through a gradual increase in the complexity and animation
of the keyboard texture. At its opening, time seems suspended as long-held chords interspersed with rhythmically uncertain phrase fragments obviate any sense of regular pulse. Soon the mid-range begins to oscillate with conspiratorial murmurings as an ominous 5-against-9 rhythm rumbles in the bass. A third and final stage is reached when tongues of flame, in the form of blurry double tremolos, begin to lick the sonic spaces around middle C, leading to a final burst of bright light at the extreme ends of the keyboard.


Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op 30

In this short two-movement work from 1903, the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas, we catch the composer
in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.

A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable ‘three-hand’ effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the high mid- register, surrounded by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic helpers in the other voices.

The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie combined with the breathless, ‘panting puppy’ quality of its playful two-note sigh motives makes one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.

The piano textures of Chopin are a major influence on this movement. Pianists will recognize the piano writing of the climactic ending of the Ballade in A flat Op. 47 in the corresponding apotheosis of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the main melody from the first movement for a final bow.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

 

Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

J. S. Bach: Five transcriptions
Benjamin Grosvenor opens his program with a series of piano transcriptions, a genre that was wildly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then went out of fashion, and is now making something of a comeback. Transcription – the transferal from one medium to another – is as old as music itself. Many of our greatest composers – Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and a host of others – practiced it. “The beauty of the transcription,” writes critic Andrew Farach-Colton (Gramophone, July 2010), “is that (at its best) it opens two windows simultaneously: one onto the world of the composer and another onto the world of the transcriber.”

Today we hear five examples of transcriptions from Bach, an inveterate transcriber himself. In fact, the last of these, the instrumental “Sinfonia” from Cantata no. 29, is itself already a transcription Bach had made from the Prelude to his E-major solo violin partita (no. 3, BWV 1006). On today’s program it is fittingly preceded by another of Saint-Saëns’ many transcriptions, the reposeful, gently flowing Largo movement from the C major solo violin sonata (no. 3, BWV 1005). From another Bach cantata (No. 22, Ertödt’ uns durch dein Güte) we hear the final movement, which Walter Rummel transcribed precisely from the original – a continuously flowing line in the violins punctuated by five phrases of the chorale text sung by four-part chorus. “Bach-Siloti” is a hyphenation well known to pianists. Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) was a Russian-born pianist, composer and teacher and one of Liszt’s last students. He created over two hundred piano transcriptions, one of the most famous being the Prelude we hear today. However, its provenance is in doubt; Johann Tobias Krebs is often cited as the most probable author. The program begins with one of the numerous Bach transcriptions by the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991).

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7
Beethoven began writing piano sonatas in earnest in 1793 (the three so-called “Electoral” Sonatas are juvenilia, written by a thirteen-year-old), shortly after the move from Bonn to his adopted city of Vienna. The first three sonatas were published as a group (Op. 2), but for his next work in the genre, written in 1796-1797, Beethoven had this “Grande Sonate,” as he called it, published under its own opus number. The designation is appropriate, for it is the longest (slightly over half an hour) of all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas save the Hammerklavier.

Spaciousness of design and an almost symphonic aura also contribute to the justification for calling this a “Grand Sonata.” Orchestrally conceived touches abound, right from the opening measures where the steadily repeated E flats in the bass would almost surely go to violas or cellos. Wide leaps, frequent use of resounding six- and even seven-note chords, smoothly gliding octaves in the right hand alone and lightning-fast scale passages all suggest the resources of a symphony orchestra. As pianist Anton Kuerti notes, “The richness and diversity of material, the dovetailing of lines, the antiphonal responses and the sumptuousness of design … all reinforce this impression.”

The first movement opens with a surge of energy that persists until the final chord. Beethoven’s characteristic gestures, such as startling contrasts of loud and soft, pregnant pauses, and strong attacks on weak beats, are found in abundance. The coda is announced with another typically Beethovenian gesture: the sudden, almost violent wrenching of the tonality into new territory by means of a simple harmonic sideslip.

The word “grand” turns up again in association with the slow movement specifically, whose performance direction is con gran espressione – with deep expression. With its aura of profound reverence, hymn-like writing, long silences that speak as eloquently as sound, a dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo, and a duration of about ten minutes, this movement encompasses a small world by itself. Formally it is a simple ABA structure, with the contrasting central episode in the warm key of A flat major. Again there is a coda of significant length.

The third movement combines features of the courtly minuet and the more playful scherzo. Beethoven called it neither, allowing a simple Allegro to serve as its title. The constant overlapping and dovetailing of voices imply the interplay of orchestral instruments. Pianist Charles Rosen calls the contrasting Trio, written in the rare key of E flat minor, “an atmospheric exercise in tone color, with the melody hidden in an arpeggiated motion of triplets.”

The light-hearted, gracious tone of the finale, a sonata-rondo design (ABA-C-ABA), gives way to a fiery central episode in C minor pervaded with rushing thirty-second notes in perpetual motion. In a surprise move, Beethoven ends this “grand” sonata not with an imposing flourish but with a quiet bow.

Alexander Scriabin: Mazurkas, Op. 3, and Valse, Op. 38
The life of Alexander Scriabin was one of the strangest in the history of music. He started out by writing graceful, sensuous, quasi-Chopinesque little piano pieces and ended up totally, even maniacally, absorbed in mysticism and the occult. As with Chopin, most of Scriabin’s music is for solo piano (the balance is for orchestra). Also like Chopin, there are nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas, etudes, impromptus, waltzes and sonatas. The ten mazurkas of Op. 3 date from 1888-1889 when Scriabin was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory and very much under the influence of Chopin, though one could never mistake the Scriabinesque harmonic palette for Chopin’s. All are in ternary (ABA) form, each has a character of its own, which might range from gently wistful to exuberantly joyous, and all exhibit the characteristic rhythmic impulses of the mazurka.

Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin poetically describes the Waltz Op. 38 of 1903 (one of the few Scriabin wrote in this form) as “a fugacious memory of a distant past. … This piece is a magic box. Opened slowly, the intensifying, blinding light emitting from inside sets the universe ablaze just to vanish again at the end, leaving but a luscious trace.”

Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Nowhere in Chopin’s output do the national pride, dignified grandeur and defiant power of Poland find greater expression than in the polonaises. The polonaise originated in the late sixteenth century as a stately processional dance in triple metre. It was the polonaise that served as processional music for the lords and ladies to parade past the newly enthroned King of Poland in 1574 (Henry III of Anjou).  Pianist Garrick Ohlsson calls the F sharp minor polonaise Op. 44 of 1841 “tragic, compulsive and complex.” Chopin himself referred to it as “a fantasy in the form of a polonaise.” Embedded in this polonaise – the longest by far of any Chopin polonaise excepting the unique Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61 – is another dance form entirely, a mazurka. Preceding this is a long passage featuring an incessant rhythmic pattern reminiscent of drum rolls, and virtually devoid of melody. Framing the entire structure is thematic material that few will deny is some of the grandest Chopin ever conceived. The music’s epic scale and tragic tone, the powerful sonority drawn from the piano, and the striking contrast between the majestic polonaise and the gentle mazurka contained therein (the critic James Huneker called it “a flower between two abysses”) all contribute to making this one of Chopin’s grandest creations.

J. Strauss II: Blue Danube arranged by A. Schulz-Evler
or Arabesques On Themes from Johann Strauss’s Waltz “On The Beautiful Blue Danube”, Op. 12

NOTE: Title taken directly from the title page as first published in Vienna, c. 1900, translated from German into English

More than any other kind of music, it is the waltz that conjures up visions of Vienna as a kind of romantic never-never land. Of all the composers who contributed to the rich heritage of Vienna’s dance music, it is Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King,” who reigns supreme. Leading the list of his many waltzes is the immortal On the Beautiful Blue Danube, (The Blue Danube, for short). Originally written in 1867 as a choral piece for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association, the words were soon discarded in favor of a purely instrumental version, the form in which it is most familiar today.

Naturally, anything so popular has been subjected to countless arrangements. One of these, created in or about 1900, is for solo piano by the Polish pianist and composer Adolf (or Andrei or Andrej) Schulz-Evler (1852-1905). The rather cumbersome title, Arabesques on Themes from the Waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” is nevertheless an accurate description, for indeed, what Schulz-Evler has done is essentially to follow the same sequence of themes from Strauss’s original (in itself, in fact, a whole string of waltzes), while copiously adorning the music with arabesques, filigree and other decorative touches. The result is a tour de force that captivates with its charm and dazzles with its outlandish virtuosity, sweeping listeners into the music’s magical orbit and sending them home radiantly happy.

In an article devoted to “The Return of the Piano Transcription” some years ago (Classical Pulse!, June/July 1994), Philip Kennicott had these words to offer about Schulz-Evler’s contribution: “Strauss’s familiar waltz themes are decadently encrusted with a staggering amount of frippery and frills. The piece lurches from one insane technical hurtle to another. One wants to shout both ‘Stop this madness!’ and ‘More! More!’ at the same time. And underneath it all there is an elegance, a coy gracefulness; one marvels that any human being would train himself so thoroughly as to be able to accomplish this kind of playing.”

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

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