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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: MURRAY PERAHIA

Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817

The spirit of the dance can be felt across a wide range of Bach’s works, from the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Mass in B minor. For Bach lovers with toes eager to tap, then, an entire suite of dance pieces comes as veritable picnic for the ear. In this regard, the French Suites are among Bach’s most immediately appealing keyboard works and the Sixth Suite especially so for the wide range of dance genres represented in it.

The standard Baroque suite as practiced in German lands comprised an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, with any number of other dances filling out the space between sarabande and gigue – the so-called galanteries. These latter Bach lays on with a liberal hand, giving us in his French Suite No. 6 in E Major a largely French-inflected list of additional dances, including a gavotte, a polonaise, a minuet and a bourrée.

The influence of French lute music is apparent in the opening allemande with its pervasive pattern of arpeggiated chord guration. Broken chord gures in the so-called style brisé (“broken style”) were a staple of the lute repertoire and widely adopted in the harpsichord literature of the late Baroque era because they provided a means for implying a multi-voice texture within a continuous stream of short-value notes. The peppier courante, while also unfolding in a steady stream of 16ths, relies far more on the impressive effects to be gained from standard idiomatic keyboard writing, especially runs and single lines passed between the hands.

The dignified sarabande expresses its grandeur by means of a gradual widening of the distance separating left and right hands, extending out to more than three and a half octaves at its height in the second half. It is also the most ornamentally decorated of the dances in this suite, simply rippling with trills in its melodic line against more philosophical ruminations in the bass.

The galanteries (gavotte, polonaise, minuet & bourrée) are typically French, with all the fashionable frills and ruffles of the early-18th-century style galant on full display. The gavotte hops while the polonaise purrs and twinkles, with an abundance of mordents. The minuet is a moderately paced sequence of short elegant phrases, breathlessly outpaced by the more rustic bourrée that follows.

The gigue nale displays the traditional mix of leaps and scales that normally characterize this exuberant English dance, with its opening theme turned upside down, as is the custom, at the start of the second half.

Franz Schubert
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935

Schubert was a pianist, but not a touring virtuoso trying to carve out a career for himself by burning up the keyboard in front of an ever-changing audience of strangers in the various capitals of Europe. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and his smaller pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

The first impromptu in F minor is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern introduction that soon dissolves into the kinds of buoyant, quivering keyboard textures that “spoke” very well on the Viennese piano, with its relatively light action. The utterly enchanting B section features a whispering murmur of broken chords in the right hand over top of which the left hand enacts a dialogue between bass and treble on either side.

The second impromptu, in the form of a minuet and trio, is simplicity itself, dividing its attention between an anthem-like chordal opening theme, of small range and intimate character, and a wide-ranging middle section of rippling broken chords that drives (lovingly) to a sonorous climax.

Impromptu No. 3 in B at is theme and five variations. The theme is a gently toe-tapping melody of balanced phrases, varied in all the standard ways: rhythmic subdivision, textural infilling, elegant ornamentation, and a thickly scored, passionately throbbing minore variant. The last variation resembles a Czerny piano etude of unusual elegance and élan.

The impromptu with the most personality in the set is the last one in F minor, a rondo that really wants to be a scherzo. It hops and bounces, twinkling away in the minor mode, full of restless energy that erupts from time to time into overt displays of keyboard moxie in sudden outbursts of jarring trills and dazzling runs.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece as a whole are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn gure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos-tinged whimpering of chromatic half steps and the mood of forthright self-assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the Major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale gures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last piano sonata presents the composer in the two guises that characterized his musical genius: as earth-bound raging titan and heaven-seeking poet of the human spirit. Its two movements correspondingly display the widest possible contrast in structure and mood, comprising a restless and argumentative sonata-form allegro in the minor mode followed by a placidly serene variation-form adagio in the tonic major. Both movements strive to push musical expression beyond known limits with an almost religious intensity of feeling, but they address different gods. Dionysus provokes the frenzied ravings of the first movement, Apollo the mystical contemplations of the second.

The first movement’s maestoso introduction presents the ear with a defiant gesture, a jagged downward leap of the harmonically unstable interval of a diminished 7th, answered by a jangling trill higher up. There seem to be volcanic forces at play in the way that much of this movement’s turbulent musical material rises abruptly to the surface after suspenseful passages of eerie calm. Scurrying passages of unison between the hands lend a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric while contrapuntal episodes of fugato only seem to concentrate its fury, not tame it. Emblematic of the extremes within which the argumentation of this movement operates is the sheer amount of sonic distance that often separates the hands. One climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass takes place over 6 octaves, and the movement’s final chord, which arrives more out of emotional exhaustion than from a sense of resolution, extends over a space of 5 octaves.

This spaciousness of sound distribution characterizes the way in which the second movement’s opening theme is harmonized, with a good two octaves separating the angelic melody of the right hand from the bass tones giving it harmonic meaning down below. The movement begins in a mood of elegy and contemplative repose, moving by small steps in its initial variations into more animated figuration, each growing naturally out of the previous. Contrast and variety is not the aim here, but rather organic development. Particularly spectacular is the arrival of a sparkling and jazzy third variation out of the dotted rhythms of the second. From this point on, however, the mood turns increasingly poetic, with a concentration on the heavenly timbres of the high register lovingly supported, from time to time, by a plush carpet of rumbles from the deep bass. Beethoven seems to be speaking to us outside of the world of normal harmony, in pure sound. In a blurry texture of tremolos and trills spanning the full range of the keyboard, his theme rises above all earthly cares, as if transfigured, leading the movement to a serene close.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

Program Notes: Anna Fedorova

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Fantasia in D minor K. 397

Mozart’s D minor Fantasia is a bundle of mysteries; an intriguing sound-puzzle for the listener but a labyrinthine minefield of interpretive choices for the pianist. Mere slavish attention to the details of the printed score—the motto and creed of historically informed pianism—risks missing the point entirely in a work so obviously based on the spirit of free improvisation, with its seven distinct sections, three cadenzas, and constantly changing tempos and moods.

Worse still, the work that dates from 1782 remained unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791 and the first printed edition (Vienna, 1804) simply ends on a cliff-hanging dominant seventh chord. This has prompted subsequent editors to bring the work into port with an additional 10 measures provided by “another hand” (to use the scholarly phrase), not without a certain measure of eyebrow elevation on the part of purists, to be sure.

Sniffing at the brute amateurishness of this solution, Mitsuko Uchida, for one, ignores these additions and instead repeats the opening arpeggios at the end of her recording of the piece to bring a rounded symmetry to the form and preserve Mozartean authorship throughout.

What will Ms. Fedorova do? In a piece predicated on improvisatory surprise, it is perhaps best for listeners not to know in advance.

 

Frédéric  Chopin

Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49

Despite its generic title, Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor of 1841 is every bit as nationalist in sentiment as his mazurkas and polonaises, based as it is on motives from many of the patriotic songs nostalgically sung by his fellow Polish emigrés in Paris who, like Chopin himself, were unable to return to their native land after the failed Warsaw uprising of November 1830. Indeed, Theodor Adorno has described the work as a “tragically decorative song of triumph to the effect that Poland was not lost forever, that someday […] she would rise again.”

It begins in the low register of the keyboard with a mysterious march of uncertain import. What begins in imitation of the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a military parade soon drifts almost imperceptibly into the gentle lilt of dance music in an elegant aristocratic salon. Wide-spanning arpeggiated passagework links the various sections of the work that move through moods of restless anxiety to forthright defiance, and, finally to the exultation of military triumph, evoked in a strutting cavalry march.

At the very heart of the piece, however, is a restrained Lento sostenuto that calls a momentary truce to all the patriotic posturing to express the simple nobility of the Polish soul, an echo of which is heard in recitative before the work swells resolutely in rippling arpeggios to its conclusion.

 

Toru Takemitsu

Uninterrupted Rests

Toru Takemitsu rose to prominence in the 1950s to become, in the words of his countryman Seiji Ozawa, “the first Japanese composer to write for a world audience and achieve international recognition.” Largely self-taught, he was influenced by the music of Debussy and Messiaen, by the musique concrète experiments of Pierre Shaeffer, and by Balinese gamelan music, becoming known especially for his sensitivity to the play of timbre and sound colour.

Uninterrupted Rests (1952-1959) is a work in three movements that seeks to capture the mood of a nature poem by Shūzō Takiguchi about the heaviness of a dark night with the wind and cold weighing on every moth and twig.

Takemitsu shared John Cage’s view that silence was an actual presence in music, rather than an absence, and his score reflects this by giving dynamic markings even to rests, to indicate the intensity with which they are to be felt.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Preludes Op. 32 and Op. 23

Rachmaninoff’s masterful control of pianistic colour and sonority is on full display in his Preludes Op. 23 (1901-03) and Op. 32 (1910). By no means miniatures, these works are more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 and 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

The Prelude in G major Op. 32 No. 5 makes colourful use of the high register to present a delicate melody floating placidly above a murmuring accompaniment in the mid-range, hazily blurred in the ear by the unusual five-against-three patterning of the left and right hands. It is hard not to think of birds chirping on a clear cold winter’s day when listening to this prelude.

The bright and jangling open-fifth accompaniment figure that begins the Prelude in G# minor Op. 32 No. 12 tempts and taunts a pensive baritone melody in the darker regions of the keyboard below that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency.

The muscular Prelude in B flat Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and dynamism of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over three octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied, but equally tumultuous, middle section.

 

Robert  Schumann

Fantasy in C Major Op. 17

Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasy Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenage daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wiecks. The Fantasy’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in the movement’s mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).

That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a grand sonata in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”

The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.

The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices, and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.

Schumann’s three-movement “sonata” was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Ksenija Sidorova

The Concert Accordion

 

Early Beginnings

The accordion has for centuries been associated with music of a light or popular nature. Its portability, full harmonic texture and penetrating, reedy timbre have made it the ideal mini-orchestra for country dances and the perfect one-man house band for city cafés and music halls. The very sound of the accordion oozes nostalgia. Indeed the sound of accordion music has long been cinematic shorthand for identifying a film’s setting as the city of Paris, even before the Eiffel Tower comes into view.

It took a long time to develop the idea that the accordion might be taken seriously as a concert instrument, partly because opportunities for developing skill in performance through professional instruction were few. Then, of course, there was the problem of repertoire. What pieces were there for concert accordionists to play? And finally, the instrument itself needed to be improved, in the way the piano and orchestral instruments had been strengthened and made more versatile in the 19th century, in order to provide a worthy vehicle for the compositional inspirations of major composers.

In the early 20th century, major progress on these issues was made in the Soviet Union, with meaningful contributions from Denmark and England. Folk music, the core of the accordion repertoire, was at the centre of Soviet policy on music education and so the first professional accordion program was established at the Kiev Conservatory in 1927, with similar programs subsequently appearing in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Russian cities.

On May 22, 1935, the renowned accordionist Pavel Gvozdev gave the first accordion recital in the Soviet Union in Leningrad and two years later performed a new concerto for accordion and orchestra by Feodosiy Rubtsov (1904–1986) in the Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, events which greatly stimulated interest in the artistic potential of the accordion.

 

The Accordion Gets a Makeover

Of even greater importance were changes made to the instrument itself in the period following WWII. Two types of accordions were in use. The traditional Russian accordion, the bayan, had buttons on both sides of the bellows while the piano accordion featured a regular piano keyboard on the right and buttons on the left. Both used the Stradella bass system for the left hand, an arrangement of single bass notes over a single octave alternating with buttons that played major, minor, diminished, or dominant 7th chords. While this configuration was ideal for the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern of dance music, it represented a serious barrier to composing for the concert repertoire.

With the arrival of the free-bass system with its arrangement of single-note buttons extending over a wide range, accordionists were able for the first time to play bass melodies and create their own chords, instead of having to use the pre-set chords of the Stradella system. In addition, new stops were devised that expanded the range of timbres available on the instrument. The accordion had now become a fully polyphonic instrument, capable of performing in chamber ensembles and of performing transcriptions of classic works in the concert repertoire.

 

The Modern Accordion

One of the first to exploit the new possibilities of these improvements was the Danish accordionist Mogens Ellegaard (1935–1995) who, from the 1950s onward, challenged composers to write serious works for the accordion. One of his first commissions was the Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro for accordion and orchestra (1958) by the Danish conductor and composer Ole Schmidt (1928-2010).

While the Russian bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips (b. 1948) moved the bar forward in his country, championing in particular the music of Astor Piazzola, Ellegaard’s student, the Scots-born Owen Murray, brought his teacher’s enthusiasm for the accordion back to Britain. After graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1982, Murray made history by being appointed professor of accordion at the Royal Academy of Music in 1986, marking the arrival of academic respectability for the accordion in one of the most prestigious musical institutions in Europe.

Murray’s student at the Royal Academy, Ksenija Sidorova, continues the work of creating a place for the accordion on the concert stage, playing both transcriptions of established works in the classical canon and a growing number of modern and contemporary compositions written specifically for the accordion. She plays an artisan-crafted instrument from the workshops of the Italian manufacturer Pigini in Ancona, considered the Rolls-Royce of accordion-makers. Her instrument (which she calls “the Beast”) has a left-hand range of four and a half octaves, and a special chin-activated stop which allows lightning-fast changes in timbre.

 

Program Notes

 

Piotr Londonov

Scherzo-Toccata

Piotr Petrovich Londonov was a prolific contributor to the accordion repertoire through his many arrangements of Slavic and Scandinavian folk songs. This breathless, almost frantic, Scherzo-Toccata is extremely popular among accordionists, judging from how often it has been played at international competitions and the number of YouTube videos of the piece currently online.

Written for bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips as a test piece for a competition in Geneva in 1979, it combines the repeated-note figuration of the traditional chattering toccata with the repeated short phrase fragments of the scherzo, alternating between sections of purposeful drive and carefree cheerfulness.

From Kesenija Sidorova: Scherzo-Toccata was a compulsory piece for several accordion competitions, and is frequently performed by accordionists all over the world. It is a cheerful short piece, which explores different techniques on this versatile instrument.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” K. 265

The sheer audacity of writing piano variations on a theme so childlike and innocent as “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”) is a gesture uniquely Mozartean in its impertinence. The only modern equivalent would be the fugues based on tunes by Britney Spears that are so impudently posted on YouTube nowadays by composition students with too much time on their hands.

Mozart’s treatment of the theme is for the most part figural. He slices & dices the structural harmonic outline of his thematic material to re-present it with pearly right-hand decorations and insurgent left-hand runs, in coy echoes and ever-so- serious imitative entries, and finally with the obligatory set pieces: a poised and elegant operatic adagio followed by a rousing eggbeater of a finale.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Barcarolle Op. 10 No. 3

Rachmaninoff completed his group of Salon Pieces Op. 10 in 1894. The third of the set is a barcarolle, a type of character piece patterned after the boat songs of Venetian gondoliers. But the rocking motion typical of the barcarolles of Chopin and Mendelssohn is here given a mere suggestion by Rachmaninoff in the quavering triplet figures that flutter throughout the first section, perhaps in imitation of water lapping at the edge of a boat.

In the middle section, the accompaniment evolves into an animated swirl of frothy running figures that only serve to further emphasize the lonely isolation of the main melody singing out below in the baritone range. This hauntingly timid, rhythmically uncertain melody comes across particularly well in the plaintive reed timbre of the accordion, so well that one could easily imagine this mood piece having been originally written for the instrument.

 

Anatoly Kusyakov

Autumnal Sceneries

Composer Anatoly Ivanovich Kusyakov paints the autumnal geography of his native Russia in six musical landscapes that employ the full sonorous resources of the accordion. His musical language is a modernist extension of traditional harmony that features dense chordal structures marbled through with contrapuntal motives.

Autumn reveries introduces us to the Russian landscape in a series of bellows-heavy sighs alternating with simpler phrases of a more optimistic stamp. Leaf-fall paints the dance of leaves in the wind with a fast-moving treble scurrying above a slower- moving melody in the bass below. The quirky gate of Soiree Mood conjures a vision of some character out of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. One could easily imagine the scene of an ugly duckling moving slowly and awkwardly across the landscape.

Forgotten Chimes has a chorale-like dignity reminiscent of Bach’s organ music with its monumental build-up of harmonic tension and instrumental sonority. Cranes describes the passing of majestic birds overhead in a series of soulful dissonant chords over a relentless ostinato bass. The final scene, Wind Dance, is the most virtuosic of the set, featuring both hands moving in fast figuration at a breathless pace.

From Kesenija Sidorova: The first movement, Autumnal reveries, immerses us in the spirit and mood of autumn—rain drops, wind, distant memories of summer. The second movement reminds us somewhat of the last movement (Presto) of Chopin’s B flat minor piano sonata, Op.35, “wind howling around the gravestones”.

The third movement is very picturesque, with interweaving lyrical and wild themes.

The fourth movement, Forgotten chimes, depicts the ruins of the cathedral and the distant sound of the church bells. The fifth movement, Cranes, is inspired by a poem of the same name by Rasul Gamzatov about the souls of the fallen soldiers, who,

“Were buried not in soil to be forgotten,

But turned into white cranes in flight instead.”

The final movement dispels the heavy dark mood with its sarcastic accentuated patterns and melodies inspired by Russian folklore.

 

Semionov Viatcheslav

Red Guelder-Rose (“Kalina  Krasnaya”)

From Kesenija Sidorova: Semionov is regarded as one of the pioneers of the contemporary accordion and is a well-known concert performer, pedagogue, and composer. Since 1995 he has held the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation. Guelder  Rose was composed in 1976 in memoriam to a great Russian film director, Vassily Shukshin, who directed and acted in the movie of the same name. It was the most successful film of the year (1974) and is widely known even outside of the USSR.

The song is about an unrequited love. It instantly became popular and sometimes is mistakenly regarded as traditional.

 

Alfred  Schnittke

Revis Fairytale

Satire is a powerful force in politics. The Soviet authorities knew this when, in 1978, they banned The Inspector’s Tale, a stage adaptation of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel satirizing official corruption in czarist Russia. But Alfred Schnittke’s incidental music to this production survived the ban to resurface in in the 1985 ballet Esquisses (Sketches), which added a whole host of other Gogol characters to the mix. The music from this ballet lives on in the suite created by accordionists Yuri Shishkin, Friedrick Lips, and Ksenija Sidorova, entitled Revis Fairy Tale.

This is music with satiric intent woven deep into its fabric. Chichikov’s Childhood attempts to reveal the psychological make-up in early childhood of the central protagonist in Dead Souls, who absurdly seeks to buy from Russian landowners the ownership rights to their deceased serfs. The musical styles of Haydn, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky bear witness to the grotesquely simplistic thinking that was Chichikov’s special gift since birth.

Officials scurries along in mock-bureaucratic haste, helped along by snippets of Mozart’s Magic Flute  overture, while Waltz channels Shostakovich’s genre-deflating practices with slow-motion oom-pah-pahs and a comic choice of timbres.

The last piece in the set, Polka, evokes the improvisational whims of the gypsy violinist, starting slow but then accelerating to an exhilarating pace, flickering all the while between major and minor tonalities.

From Ksenija Sidorova: This fairy tale was first transcribed by Russian accordion virtuoso Yuri Shishkin, and subsequently by F. Lips and K. Sidorova. In the first movement, the happy childhood of Pavel Chichikov is polystylistic, combining familiar themes from many sources such as Mozart’s Magic Flute  and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The waltz represents one of the scenes in Gogol’s Dead Souls, and the last movement, a Polka, recalls the character Akaky Bashmachkin from a short story, The Overcoat, also by Gogol. In the story the hero scrimps and scrapes in order to buy himself an overcoat to replace his threadbare one, but late one night he is mugged by two robbers who steal it. Receiving no help from the authorities, but rather a reprimand, Bashmachkin becomes ill and dies but his ghost haunts the city, stealing other people’s coats in revenge.

 

Program notes: Sir András Schiff

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 60 in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI:50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London of 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi whom Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a distracted husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say: “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

Nonetheless, a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops it opened with, but now with new frilly ornaments, in the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements, in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of different textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those whose eyelids might droop.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic wrong turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly ends up making a wrong turn.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, exist in a world of their own, governed only by the formal rules they themselves invent for their own unfolding. The Sonata in E major Op. 109, despite its three-movement structure, may be thought of in two halves. First comes a complementary pair of emotionally contrasting movements, both in sonata form, played together without a pause, the first a dreamy star-gazing fantasy in moderate tempo, the second a frighteningly focussed agitato of nightmarish intensity. The emotional volatility of these two movements is balanced and resolved by the poised and serene set of variations which serves as the sonata’s finale. These variations are based on a melody of such quiet dignity that they virtually erase all memory of the emotional wanderings of the previous movements.

The compression of form of which Beethoven is capable in his late works is evident in the first movement, the exposition of which is complete in a mere 16 bars. It opens with a melody buried within a delicate tracery of broken chord figuration that flutters innocently as if floating suspended in the air. It has barely breathed out its first two phrases and is moving to cadence, when it is interrupted by a disorienting diminished seventh chord that leads nonetheless to a lovingly lyrical duet, adagio espressivo, between left and right hand. But this second theme only has time to sing out a few bars itself before breaking out, cadenza-like, into a keyboard-spanning series of rapturous arpeggios and scale figures. And then the exposition is over, on the first page of the score. The development deals exclusively with the broken chord figuration but with the melody line more clearly exposed, and builds to a climax for the return of the opening material, presented this time with the hands at the extreme ends of the keyboard, after which a coda extends the dreamlike reverie.

The expansive mood of rhapsodic wonder is brought quickly down to earth, however, when E major changes to E minor and the second movement, marked Prestissimo, stomps defiantly into the ear. This is no scherzo: there is no trio, no contrast of mood. The development section may murmur sullenly, but this is only a momentary lull before the defiant tone of the opening, flickering with menace, returns to close the movement in the same uncompromising spirit in which it began. Remarkable in this movement is the way in which Beethoven manages to express such extremes of emotional violence within a texture so starkly ruled by the strictures of imitative counterpoint.

This is not a coincidence. The musical spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach has been hovering over this sonata since it began. The broken chord figuration of the opening movement looks back to similar homogeneously ‘patterned’ textures in the preludes of Bach, and the movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in the concluding movement, we encounter a variation melody characterized by an almost religious serenity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

Beethoven is not attempting to rehabilitate the outdated styles and procedures of the Baroque, but rather enriching the music of his own time with the density of musical thought typical of that bygone
era. And as Sir András has so aptly pointed out in his Wigmore Hall lecture on this sonata, it would be difficult to think that Beethoven was not inspired by the example of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when constructing his own for this sonata finale. The recall of the simple, unadorned theme at the end of Beethoven’s sonata has the same commemorative resonance as this same gesture at the end of the Goldbergs. Not to mention the textures of many of the variations that parallel those found in Bach’s famous set.

The first variation is not one of them, however. There is no hint of contrapuntal interest in this Italian opera aria for keyboard, marked molto espressivo, with its elegantly expressive melody and clear bass-and-chord left-hand accompaniment. Variation 2 lightens the texture with a hocket-style alternation of the hands that presents the harmonic and melodic outlines of the theme in interlocking 16th-note flashes of sound, similar to the texture of the Goldberg variation 20 and the second variation of Beethoven’s own sonata of Op. 26 (first movement).

The yeast of Baroque ferment comes overtly to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in double counterpoint, with the right and left hands regularly swapping melodies in the course of presenting the theme. Variation 4 moves the time signature to 9/8 for a change of pace to present a full four-voice texture of imitation, much in the style of Goldberg variation 3. The contrapuntal impulse emerges even more clearly in the more strictly structured imitative texture of Variation 5, richly suggestive of similar textures in Goldberg variations 18 and 22.

Beethoven’s own synthesis of old and new emerges in the final variation, which moves from a simple chordal statement of the theme to a gradual accumulation of rhythmic energy that finally emerges into a texture of whirling trills and flecks of melody flickering in the high register, before a simple re-statement of the original theme ends the sonata in a mood of spiritual peace.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C major K.545

There is a reason most piano students know this sonata. It is listed in Mozart’s own personal catalogue of his works as being für Anfänger (for beginners) and its unpretentious texture of scales, broken chords and Alberti basses, not to mention the choice of the simplest possible key (C major, with no black keys), seem to confirm Mozart’s intention to write a small-scale piece that would be ideal for teaching the musical novice the basic building blocks of keyboard technique.

But because this is Mozart (and not Czerny) the level of musical sophistication in this sonata is noteworthy. The first movement opens with a melody of the utmost simplicity, its outlines based on the three notes of the major chord, which issues into a series of rising and falling runs. These runs, however, cleverly mask the fact that the opening theme and the transition to the second theme are merged together, so that the second theme area, in G major, seems to arrive in the most natural manner possible. This more perky theme leads to a series of harmonic sequences in broken chords which summon up general agreement that a cadence would now be in order and the cadencing pattern chosen is one from which a closing thematic motive in rocking arpeggios emerges to end the exposition.

Nothing to wonder at, one might suppose, unless of course you happen to notice that the second theme is constructed by inverting the melodic outline of the the first, and that the closing theme is merely a rearrangement of the notes in the broken-chord sequences that preceded it. No, nothing to notice here.

The development immediately takes up the rocking arpeggio figure and goes minor with it, to provoke the appropriate level of eyebrow-knitting concentration that a good, roiling development section is wont to inspire. Advanced beginners in the class will no doubt notice that the recapitulation begins in the subdominant (F major) instead of the C major tonic. But is it such a bad thing to give students a little practice in a different scale pattern, one requiring their 4th finger to hit a
B flat on the way up, as well as on the way down? Pedagogical minds with hearts that beat for the general welfare of their pupils think not.

The second movement Andante is a three-part song with a development section in the middle, all ticking along over the steady rhythmic guidance of an Alberti bass in the left hand throughout. It seems gifted with an endless supply of variations for the scant few melodic and rhythmic patterns that characterize its theme, the triadic outline and dotted rhythm of which (just between us) make it a sibling to the second theme of the first movement. The middle section, which is more like the B section of a Baroque da capo aria than a real sonata-form development, dips into the shade of the minor mode to mull over a few more serious thoughts but fails to stay there long and the sunshine of the major mode soon returns to end things off with a rosy- cheeked smile.

The last movement, a miniature rondo of diminutive proportions, features a symmetrically structured playful theme alternating with two intervening episodes. As is common in Mozart, the episodes are not entirely contrasting in thematic material as the little imitative hops of the opening theme seem to keep poking their heads in the door at every opportunity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D. 958

In September 1828, as Schubert lay suffering the debilitating effects of the tertiary syphilis that would fell him only two months later, he managed a feat of compositional prowess that speaks to the steely will that coexisted with the delicacy of sentiment in the personality of this Viennese composer of distinctly bohemian habits of life. The 130 manuscript pages of his monumental three last piano sonatas, the Sonatas in C minor, A major and B flat major (D. 958-960) were all produced within this single month.

The Sonata in C minor D. 958 is undoubtedly one of his most serious works, for which he chose the key associated with so many of the greatest achievements of his idol Beethoven, at whose funeral he had served
as a pallbearer the previous year. C minor is the key of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the Symphony No. 5 and the great Piano Sonata Op. 111, as well as the 32 Variations in C minor from which the defiant opening subject of this sonata is quite obviously derived. But while Beethoven’s mind bent ever towards compactness and density in musical expression, it was Schubert’s gift to stretch, extend and elaborate his musical material in a poetic search for its inner psychological meaning.

This he does with telling effect when he transitions the uncompromising stance and abrupt rhetoric of the sonata’s opening pronouncements into less heroic territory to prepare for his lyrical second subject in E flat major. Here is where Schubert’s ability to ‘orchestrate’ on the piano is most evident. The repeated pedal tone in this simply harmonized melody, at first confined to the alto, soon shines out in the treble like a beacon of hope over all that passes on beneath it. But E flat major soon turns to E flat minor in a sprightly and slightly wicked variant of this theme.

The development begins in an expansively modulatory frame of mind, ranging widely through various keys until its interest settles on a distinctly un-settling voice of small range and ominous import in the bass, that ruminates and builds, marked with the rhythmic stamp of the opening chords to prepare for the recapitulation. This motive recurs again in the coda, emerging into the light of day in treble octaves that carry its worrisome preoccupations to the final bars of the movement.

The second movement is one of the few genuine adagios that Schubert wrote, given as he was to more moderate- tempo slow movements. It unfolds in a 5-part scheme of alternating themes in an A-B-A-B-A pattern. These themes are of opposing emotional valence, however, the first exuding elegiac tranquillity, the second more disquieting in its deliberations. Each is elaborated in a series of different textures, which only increases the emotional distance between them when they are juxtaposed in this way. The Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata seemed to have been an inspiring point of reference in the elaboration of this movement.

The restless Menuetto that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. Dance-inspired enjoyment seems impossible to achieve as each successive idea is undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in irregular phrase lengths, as a small deviation into the minor mode, or in mysterious pauses, as if the flow of emotion were cut off in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale. Here the spirit of the dance is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling, but strangely ominous rondo with the developmental features of the sonata. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback, of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig, and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short bursts of melodic ideas are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

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: The Vertavo String Quartet with Paul Lewis, piano

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major K. 414

Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent 
of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a piano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.

The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.

Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show. Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes, parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement, but more importantly, as 
in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.

Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch. Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.

The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it
presents – four in the orchestral exposition alone. The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall. The ‘development section’, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra. Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.

The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of J.S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J.C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute. And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.

The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure. The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repeated motive of three notes descending by step. When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra!

Thrills, spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

 

Bela Bartók
String Quartet No. 6

In the film Play It Again Sam, Woody Allen nervously busies himself arranging his apartment to be just right for the arrival of his date. He is torn over the appropriate choice of background music: will it be Oscar Peterson, or a Bartók string quartet? The implication is clear: does he want to appear ‘hip’ or ‘intellectual’?

Even without the neurotic nod from Woody Allen, the Bartók string quartets have always had a reputation
for being ‘intellectual,’ and for good reason. They are tightly-argued, dense works composed in continuity with the great German tradition of motivic development and thematic transformation. They stubbornly pursue an agenda of making a work grow out of a small number of single cells of musical material – a kind of ‘sourdough’ approach to making the musical loaf, if you will.

Bartok’s motivic cells are usually made up of only a 
few notes lying within a small melodic range, normally the space of a perfect fourth – which immediately sets them apart from the octave-spanning dozen-note pitch patterns of that other 20th-century genre of intellectual music: 12-tone composition. Like the five-note spans of many a Stravinsky tune (the finale of The Firebird springs to mind), the melodic units in Bartók’s string quartets are human-scale tunes, and like those of Stravinsky as well, undoubtedly influenced in this by the composer’s in-depth exposure to the folk music of his native land.

This quartet was composed in the fall of 1939, in the
 last months that Bartók was to spend in Hungary. His mother was dying, his own health was deteriorating, and World War II had just broken out, causing him to make plans to escape with his family to the United States. Such is the context for the unusual formal structuring 
of this work, in which each movement begins mesto
 (i.e., sadly) with the same lyrical, but lonely chromatic melody. This melody wanders its lonely path, mostly by whole tones and semitones, fixating finally towards the end on a motive that will be fundamental to the work
as a whole: three notes within a perfect 4th that change direction after the second note.

This melody will gradually expand in textural weight as it introduces each successive movement. It is presented in one voice, the viola, at the start of the first movement, in two voices at the beginning of the second movement (with three instruments playing a single line), in three voices at the start of the third movement, and in all four voices in the last movement.

The first and last movements are in a kind of sonata form, with a developmental middle section. They treat their material (the three-note motive and two other ideas) in an abstract way in the tradition of European ‘absolute’ music, with much use of imitation between the instruments and structural manipulation of motives, especially by inversion.

The two inner movements are much more connected with the outside world, though they see that world through the distorting lens of irony and satire. The second movement features a grotesque march – surely a comment on the militarism that was driving him to flee his homeland – with a contrasting middle section that parodies the strumming cimbalom of Hungarian folk music. The third movement is less subtle still. It breaks out into open laughter in a clownish burlesque relieved only by a brief interval of sentimental remembrance in its middle section.

By the fourth movement, the downward pull of the mesto melody is irresistible and its influence, along with mystified quotations from the first movement lead the quartet to end in a questioning haze of emotional numbness, symbolized by the futile attempt of the viola to begin its lonely message over again in the closing bars.

 

Antonin Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonin Dvořák’s music and the pull of his traditionally crafted but ethnically flavoured compositions is equally strong among contemporary audiences today. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the aural structures of music were becoming ever more complex and fatiguing for the listener, Dvořák offered a range of esthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era – formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality devoid of the chromatic ambiguities that made Wagnerian harmony such a distorting circus-mirror for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s enduring love of exoticism and nationalist sentiment with his gracious, soulfully folk-music-tinged melodies, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies, and with his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are
 to be found in his magnificent Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which, along with Schumann’s E-flat Quintet, Op. 44 and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet Op. 34, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.

The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in
 a sunny A major, it dips by the end into the shadows
 of the minor mode before yielding to a restless,
 more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This abrupt contrast between thematically derived passages is a particularly Brahmsian touch
(the F Minor Quintet begins with the same contrast) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody will be presented before a second subject, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola, soon enveloped by yet another utterly scrumptious piano figuration. Dvořák’s textural inventiveness is limitless.

The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability to merge imperceptibly into the recapitulation. The movement is crowned by an extended coda that drives relentlessly to its conclusion with all the propulsive energy of a Rossini overture.

The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought’, and the lonely, pensive opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and more upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A- C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, pleading, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, also in F♯ minor.

In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.

Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between
the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.

This movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a viable replacement for prescription antidepressants.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: LUCA PISARONI & WOLFRAM RIEGER

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Four Songs

The earliest German lieder we have in the concert repertoire come from the more than 30 works that Mozart wrote between 1768 (at the age of twelve!) and his death in 1791. His mature songs reflect his skill as
an opera composer in their sensitive treatment of the text, bolstered by large-scale structural key modulations and delicate pictorial touches in an independent piano accompaniment.

Needless to say, it was not ever thus. The publishing tradition from which these songs emerged was much less expressively rich with composers pursuing the ideal of folksong-like simplicity in scores often consisting of a mere two staves. The keyboard player – who, in amateur performance, might well be the singer – was expected to play along with the top-line melody while improvising a suitable harmonic accompaniment from the bottom line, perhaps joined by a cello for a bit more ‘oomph’ in the bass register. Haydn’s 12 Keyboard Lieder of 1781, for example, were published in this way.

By the 1780s, however, Mozart’s reflexes when writing vocal music tended instinctively to the multidimensional sphere of the operatic. Each of his songs in this recital deploys its vocal and instrumental resources to create a mini-drama, a comic cameo or a psychological scene, much in the manner of the Romantic generation of composers who were to follow.

Das Veilchen (The Violet) is likely the most famous
of Mozart’s songs. The text, by Goethe, is from the singspiel Erwin und Elmire (1773-74), which tells of how a young woman coldly tramples on the affections of a sincere young suitor, only to realize her mistake and be united with him in the end. She sings this song in recognition of her mistake, the violet being a metaphorical stand-in for the crushed and crumpled young man who nonetheless remains true in his feeling for her.

Mozart, in setting this text, creates a different mood for each verse. Notable is how the tripping steps of the young woman are evoked in the piano at the words mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn (light in step and merry in mood).

The accompaniment of Komm, liebe Zither (Come, beloved zither) was not written for the piano at all, 
but rather for that miniature monarch of the sub-balconic serenade, the mandolin (which the piano arrangement ably imitates). In a foreshadowing of the later appearance of this instrument in the Don’s aria Deh vieni alla finestra from Act 1 of Don Giovanni (1786), this song features an aspiring lover who shares his girl troubles with his plucky little instrument, hoping that as his Leoporello it will do all the fretting for him and pull strings to win him the object of his heart’s desire. What is a rather ordinary poem, on a fairly standard theme, gets transformed in Mozart’s hands into an engaging duet between a sentimental young man and his chatty instrumental servant.

The term ‘explicit’ is not a word that normally comes to mind when describing Classical-era lieder, but An Chloë comes as close as one would wish to deserving the epithet. Setting prudish fans a-flutter to cool the blushing cheeks of maidens and matrons alike is this read-between-the-lines scene of serious hanky-panky, hidden behind a verbal screen of fairly transparent meaning.

Mozart plays the innocent here. Setting this ‘wink-
wink’ text in the style of a simple, whistle-able folksong melody, he loads the score with all the sigh motives and dramatic pauses of an operatic love scene. While not quite as rhythmically and randily realistic as Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier overture, Mozart’s setting nevertheless leaves us in no doubt that by the end our ‘exhausted’ horizontal hero is reclining snugly next to his love interest, and probably having a cigarette.

Bringing us back down to earth is Abendempfindung (Evening feeling), an elegiac meditation on death.
When composing this work in June of 1787, Mozart likely had death very much on his mind. His father Leopold had died just the previous month, and he and his wife Costanze had already lost two infant children in their young marriage.

The flow of the text is given a dramatic quality by the way in which the smooth cantabile vocal line of the opening alternates with a simpler, more direct recitative style of delivery to give the impression of emotions that interrupt the singer in mid-thought.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Four Songs

If there were action comic books for classical composers, there would surely be one for Beethoven. Few composers can lay claim to the super-hero status that this rebellious symbol of liberty and humanitarian values has become in popular and political culture around the world. Was there really any competition in the choice of the Ninth Symphony for the concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Surely not.

And yet the 80 or so songs of this composer reveal a side to him quite different from that of the heroic and high-minded herald of freedom and democracy. Without the bullhorn in hand, he reveals himself to be witty, affectionate, and just as likely as any adolescent to fall victim to a pretty face and an alluring smile.

His mid-career Lied aus der Ferne (Song from afar), published in 1810, addresses the familiar problem
of what to do when you are here, and she is not. At such times, words like Sehnsucht (yearning) come spontaneously to the mind of your average 19th-century young man of sensitivity and feeling, who will inevitably head off for a walk in the upland forested regions of the German countryside to find suitable poetic parallels for that expansive swelling feeling in his chest that tells him he is alive.

Beethoven brings the scene to life for us in a setting that gives a picturesque musical description of the successive scenes capturing the young man’s attention. A lengthy introduction replete with piano trills in the high register informs us that aviary wildlife is warbling nearby and the dance-like rhythm of the vocal line gives plausibility to the toe-tapping upswing in his mood.

The accompaniment changes for the second verse in imitation of the rhythm of his footfall as he trudges uphill while the third verse lets us hear the bout of tachycardia that afflicts him at the top of the hill. The rosy-cheeked optimism of the first verse then returns to round out our brief excursion into this Grouse Grind of the human heart.

Der Kuss (The kiss) finds Beethoven in a more jocular mood. Here we meet up with the ever-attractive girl-about-town Chloë – fresh from her engagement in the previous song by Mozart – beset once again by the attentions of a male suitor with conquest on his mind. Part of the joke here is the way the poem repeats the pursed-lip front-vowel ü sounds in the words Küss (kiss) and Müh’ (effort), forcing the singer into a visual gag by making him adopt the facial configuration of a kiss.

Reckoning it easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, our young swain makes bold to initiate the much-desired lip-lock. Chloë, he is not surprised to learn, turns out to be one of those girls who in mock annoyance and disingenuous discouragement is wont to say: “I’ll give you exactly two hours to get your hand off my knee, or I shall write a letter.” Beethoven makes the punch line (that she didn’t scream then, but oh boy did she scream later) into a series of Benny-Hill-style elbows in the ribs, with numerous text repetitions for leering comic effect on the last page.

More characteristic of Beethoven in a straightforward lyrical mood is Ich liebe dich (I love you), in which melody flows unimpeded over an evenly uniform accompaniment pattern, untroubled by sudden dramatic inflections or intruding thoughts: a perfect embodiment of the poetic sentiments of the text.

The picture of love presented in Beethoven’s early song Adelaide from 1794-1795 is the idealized one of unattainable love – a theme that was to repeat itself in Beethoven’s personal life. (No one, apparently, took the trouble to introduce him to Chloë.)

Adelaide offers many poetic parallels to the scene presented in Lied aus der Ferne: a lovelorn swain wanders alone in a garden where he experiences the presence of his love interest in every natural feature
of the landscape, calling out her name in ecstasy at regular intervals. The uncertain, searching mood of the piece is evoked by the 2-against-3 pattern of the piano opening, indicative of the complex emotions swirling in the singer’s heart. The piano writing, unusually assertive for the time, supports the depth of feeling expressed by the singer.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine

Mendelssohn, like Mozart, began writing songs as a child and continued for the rest of his life, with rarely a month that didn’t produce a new song from his pen. And yet this composer’s song output has suffered in comparison with that of other Romantic-era composers such as Schubert and Schumann who typified more intensely in their music and in their lives the dark psychological and emotional concerns of this age – concerns which Mendelssohn seemed to float above with a blithe cheerfulness.

Consider a song such as Neue Liebe (New love), with a text that evokes a supernatural sighting of forest fairies returning from the hunt with a load of stag antlers as their catch. The singer is torn between thinking he is intercepting a sign that could either be foretelling romantic bliss, or his own death. Spooky stuff, this, halfway to ghoulish, even. But while Schubert in his setting of Erlkönig paints the aspect of real danger in such a fairy encounter, Mendelssohn presents the scene, musically, from the fairies’ point of view, with a light, airy, scampering rhythm much akin to the mood evoked in his famous scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Typical of the un-neurotic approach of this composer to his poetic subject matter is the miniature Gruss (Greeting), which paints in a few short breaths, the sheer exhilaration of the arrival of spring.

More psychologically complex is Morgengruss (Morning greeting), in which poet Heinrich Heine sends up the cliché of a lovers’ farewell at daybreak. The young man looks up at her window for a last farewell, a parting gesture which doesn’t come. ‘No matter,’ he thinks, making the best of a bad situation, ‘it’s probably just because she is dreaming of me.’ Mendelssohn tones down the savage irony of Heine’s text, but still gets the message across with a grinding forte dissonance on the word mir (‘she dreams of me-e-e-e’), suggesting a subtle ‘Yeah, right!’ from the composer.

Darker in tone, with a tumultuous piano accompaniment to match, is Allnächtlich im Traume seh’ ich dich (Each night I see you in my dreams). Here the mode is minor and the deep disturbance in the night-dreamer’s psychology realistically presented. Exceptionally ingenious in Mendelssohn’s word setting is the harmonically inconclusive way that way the vocal line ends, leaving it for the piano to cadence definitively in the home key, a musical representation of the dreamer’s bewilderment and disorientation when he awakens from his dream.

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On wings of song) features one of Mendelssohn’s best known melodies. In typically Mendelssohnian fashion, it eschews a literal painting of the text (set in the exotic locale of India) to concentrate on its purpose as a drawing-room seduction poem. And seduce it does through a perfectly balanced melody lovingly constructed with contours that symmetrically rise and fall, and a floating arpeggiated drawing-room accompaniment reminiscent of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Reiselied (Travelling song), by contrast, is definitely not meant for performance in the amateur drawing room, with its story of high drama and virtuoso piano accompaniment to match. Similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig, it features a breathless horseback ride by night, with the wind and racing horse hooves painted by a moto perpetuo pattern in the piano that almost overshadows the vocal line. Light and dark, danger and relief alternate in this song as the worrying piano figuration in the minor mode changes to a lighter, more buoyant major-mode oom-pah-pah pattern when happier thoughts pass through the mind of the rider, a young man racing to see his beloved.

 

Franz Schubert
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine

These six songs come from the final period in Schubert’s life. Composed to a set of poems by Heinrich Heine, they were published posthumously in a collection entitled Schwanengesang (Swan song) in 1829 and it has been suggested that their bitter irony and tragic cast of thought make them a logical continuation of Die Winterreise, Schubert’s song cycle of the lonely wanderer treated harshly by the world which ends with a desolate picture of the lonely and lamentable Leiermann (hurdy-gurdy man).

Those who think of Schubert as a composer of ‘light’ Viennese melodies that paint the delicate flutterings of the human heart will be thrown back against the wall by the majestic grandeur and symphonic conception of Der Atlas. Atlas is the mythological figure who, after losing in a war involving the Titans and Zeus was punished by the father of the gods by being made to hold up the skies eternally. The distress of this fallen hero is symbolized by whirling tremolos in the piano, his staggering under the immense weight he bears by the two hammer-stroke octaves that begin in the first bar and continue throughout.

Ihr Bild, a song of irretrievable loss, is as spare and sonically undernourished as Der Atlas is stormy and overbearing. The bare unisons bespeak utter desolation and the numbness of loss while intervening passages in chordal harmony evoke happier days that will never return. Throughout, the steely gaze of the singer’s persona is utterly chilling.

A much less emotionally complex tone is struck in Das Fischermädchen (The fisher maiden), a barcarolle of guileless simplicity that paints the scene, musically, from the young girl’s point of view, although the narrator is a cynical seducer, trying to convince the girl to ‘trust him as she trusts the waves’. Heine’s subtle irony is toned down in Schubert’s more buoyant setting of the scene.

Desolation returns in Die Stadt (The town) as the
poet sits in a rowboat heading for the town where his disappointment in love began. The boatman’s oars
are rhythmically sketched in the tremolo pattern of
the piano accompaniment, and the misty shapes of
the town in the distance by impressionistic overlay of harmonies over top. This imaginative conception of the scene in sound, painting the poet’s despair so starkly but with so few gestures, is far in advance of its time.

A mysterious chord progression begins Am Meer (By the sea), painting a scene of mysterious calm. There seems to be nothing these two estranged lovers can say to each other. The music depicts both the shadow of their former happiness in eerily placid passages in the major mode that alternate with chromatically tortured tremolo passages emblematic of their pain.

Der Doppelgänger is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise: a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from
it by his inner pain. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by placing the singer’s vocal declamation – it could hardly be called ‘melody’ – over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment, as mournfully dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.

 

Franz Schubert
Six Songs on texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Auf dem See (On the lake) likely dates from sometime around 1817 and recounts a boat trip taken by Goethe with friends in 1775 while on vacation. The goldne Traüme (golden dreams) of the second verse is likely
a reference to a young girl that Goethe was infatuated with (and trying to forget). The rocking rhythm which Schubert creates in the piano accompaniment is not only astonishingly evocative of the movement of a boat bobbing among the waves, but also a perfect foil for the wide-ranging melody that it supports above.

More philosophical concerns stand at the centre of Grenzen der Menschheit (Limits of Mankind), composed in 1821. The poem dates from 1775, when Goethe was grappling with the concept of Fate and its role in human existence. Schubert’s setting reaches for the sublime in confronting the poet’s thought in music: the stern and implacable chord progressions of the piano accompaniment evoke the majesty of the gods while the low range and unadorned declamatory style of the vocal line lends prophetic heft to the text. The extreme dynamic range (from ff to pp) in this work stands witness to the stark divide that separates human and divine destinies.

Appreciation for the young male form is present, as well, in Ganymed (Ganymede), Goethe’s evocation of the ancient Greek legend of Zeus bringing the most handsome of men, the young Ganymede, up to the heavens on a cloud to become his cup-bearer. The sensuality of the scene is matched by Schubert’s rapturously arching phrases and the ever-increasing pace of the action conveyed through increasingly lively figuration in the piano.

Erlkönig (The Elf King) was published as Schubert’s
Op. 1 and along with Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) counts as one of the founding works in the development of the Romantic lied. This macabre story, cast in the popular and sensationalist genre of the strophic ballad, derives from a terrifying night ride actually undertaken by Goethe in 1779 with
a seven-year-old boy, the son of a close friend, in the saddle in front of him. The demonic energy of the ride is conveyed in the pianist’s (incredibly difficult) battery of octaves that pulse throughout, a dramatic foil to the four distinct voices heard within the poem: the narrator, the boy, the father, and the lurid, luring voice of the Elf King himself, whose ‘desire’ for the young boy is fraught with a menacing hint of pedophilic lust.

Wanderers Nachtlied II (Wanderer’s Night Song 2), the second poem by Goethe with this title, derives from a mountain hike that the poet undertook in 1780 into the beautiful forested mountains of Thuringia where, struck by the peace and calm of the view, he etched this poem into the wall of the hut where he was staying. Visiting the hut again, fifty-one years later on his eighty-second birthday in 1831, he teared up at reading his words still visible on the wall: Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch (Just wait, and soon you, too, will be at rest). Schubert captures the hushed, contemplative atmosphere of the scene in this famous setting, sung pp throughout, with simple harmonies and placidly even tone colour to create a mood of absolute serenity.

An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) combines Greek legend and human life in the extended metaphor of the coach journey. Kronos the Titan was father of Zeus and often identified with the figure of Chronos (Time). In this poem, the poet declares, with the bravado of youth, his desire to go down in a blaze of glory at the peak of his powers rather than submit to a humiliating decline in old age. Schubert here composes with a muscular aggressiveness not normally associated with him but admirably suited to this text evoking the invulnerability of youth.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

Program Notes: Vilde Frang

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F major

Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto is such an established pillar of the standard repertory that it comes as a surprise to learn that this composer also wrote three sonatas for the instrument, although these are as obscure as the concerto is popular. The first, in F major, dates from 1820 when the composer was still a lad of eleven; the second, in F minor, was written five years later and published as Op. 4; and the third is a work of Mendelssohn’s maturity, written in 1838, but not published during the composer’s lifetime. This sonata was discovered only in 1953 by Yehudi Menuhin, who also introduced audiences to Mendelssohn’s early Violin Concerto in D minor. Of the sonata, Menuhin wrote that it “has the chivalrous romantic quality of the age that produced Schumann, the elegance and lightness of touch of the age inherited from Mozart, and in addition the perfect formal presentation which Mendelssohn himself drew from Bach.”

The sonata opens with a bold, striding subject, almost Schumannesque in its vigor, first for the piano alone, then for the violin accompanied by a torrent of arpeggios in the piano. The tightly-knit structure of this sonata soon becomes apparent as the first theme dissolves into the second, whose character is different (suavely lyrical) but whose rhythmic profile is based on that of the opening subject. The slow movement features music of ravishing sweetness, and the last scampers along with characteristic Mendelssohnian fleetness and lightness of touch.

 

Gabriel Fauré: Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, Op. 13

Gabriel Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms: piano pieces, chamber music, works for small chorus, and songs. In the larger forms he left a famous Requiem and two rarely-heard operas, Prométhée and Pénélope. The sonata we hear this afternoon, composed in 1876 and lasting nearly half an hour, is actually one of his largest pieces.

Fauré himself said that his music exemplified “the eminently French qualities of taste, clarity and sense of proportion.” He hoped to express “the taste for clear thought, purity of form and sobriety.” To these qualities we might add meticulous workmanship, elegance and refinement, for in all these respects his Violin Sonata Op. 13 certainly conforms.

“Schumannesque” is often used to describe the opening movement, not only for the music’s impassioned urgency, but for its sophisticated rhythmic layering, pervasive use of syncopation, and intricate mingling of the voices. The second movement, a barcarolle in D minor, offers some much needed relief. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name: stylish, witty, brittle, epigrammatic, and crackling with electricity are just a few of the descriptions that have been applied to this undeniably appealing music. The finale is another sonata-form movement with an unorthodox sequence of keys (again the Schumann influence).

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in A major, K. 305 (K. 293d)

Aside from the symphony, Mozart wrote more violin sonatas than any other type of music. More than forty sonatas survive, and they were written in every period of Mozart’s life, starting at age of six. Nearly half of the early sonatas are essentially keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, in which the violin merely doubles the melodic lines and adds incidental imitation and dispensable figuration. But beginning with the so-called “Palatinate” (or “Palatine”) Sonatas (K. 296 and K. 301-306), written in Paris during the first half of 1778, Mozart gave the violin a significantly greater role to play, drawing the two instruments closer to the equal partnership found in the late sonatas. The designation Palatinate refers to the dedicatee, Maria Elisabeth, wife of Carl Theodor, Elector of the Palatinate (a region in western Germany adjoining France).

Brilliance, energy and much unison writing mark the first movement, whose exuberance is relieved only during the gentle second theme. It is in standard sonata form, with a short but harmonically adventurous development section. The second movement is a theme and variations set. The theme is, as violinist Abram Loft puts it, “all melting lyricism and grace.” The first of the six variations is for piano alone, the second involves many ornamental touches from the violin, the third consists of flowing triplets traded back and forth between the two instruments, the fourth has the violin playing a simple melodic line while the piano provides a luxuriant underlay, the fifth is in the minor mode, and the sixth brings the sonata to a joyous conclusion.

 

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata no. 2 in D major, Op. 94a

September 1942 found Prokofiev in the far-off, exotic Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, where he was working with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Ivan the Terrible. Having a fair bit of free time on his hands, Prokofiev decided to use it to write something quite different from the film score he was preparing. With memories of the great French flutist Georges Barrère in his mind from his Paris years (1922-1932), Prokofiev sketched out a sonata for flute and piano, on which he put the finishing touches upon returning to Moscow the following year. The first performance was given in December by the flutist Nikolai Charkovsky and accompanied by Sviatoslav Richter. But scarcely anyone else seemed interested in the work, so when David Oistrakh suggested that Prokofiev turn it into a violin sonata, the composer eagerly agreed. In this form, the work bears opus number 94a (or 94bis). The first performance of the Violin Sonata took place on June 17, 1944, played by Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. (Prokofiev’s other violin sonata, No. 1, was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1946, well after the “second” sonata.

Prokofiev said he “wanted to write the sonata in a gentle, flowing classical style.” These qualities are immediately evident in the first movement, both of the principal themes are lyrical and eloquent. The Scherzo, in A minor, bubbles over with witty, energetic writing in the form of flying leaps, rapid register changes and strongly marked rhythms, while the brief, expressive slow movement possesses, in critic Alan Rich’s words, “the tenderness of a Mozartian andante.” The Finale goes through several changes of mood and tempo and, in the concluding pages, it hurtles along with a white-heat intensity to a thrilling close.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

 

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

As I enter my 20th year of professional performance, I have been reflecting on the most resonant musical moments throughout my development as a singer. From my beginning as a Broadway baby to my now daily dances with Handel, I have realized that there is a lot of music in between those two poles which has shaped me. This program is a collection of personal parcels, each one having a distinct and meaningful place in my trajectory.

As an eager 16 year old planning my first-ever recital, I was immediately taken by the beauty and depth of Henri Duparc’s songs and was simultaneously fascinated by his systematic destruction of his entire oeuvre, apart from a small handful of remaining works. I have chosen to start this recital with the same three songs that began my first recital as a budding countertenor.

Before I could even fathom the idea of vocal recital, at 13, I was asked to do my first role in opera: Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. After years of musical theater, I found the challenge and the emotional complexity of Britten’s work exhilarating. As I entered into Britten’s universe, I discovered classical music’s ability to plumb the depths of human experience with uncanny expression, and it was this discovery that sent me down the road to becoming a classical singer. Britten not only holds a special place in my artistic journey, but also in the history of countertenors as he is the first composer ever to have written an operatic role specifically for countertenor as opposed to castrato — that of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His transcriptions of old English folk songs showcase his agility in wafting between subtly ironic, flat out silly, and poignant.

One thing I’ve learned about being half southern Italian and half Hungarian-Jewish is that while I may know how to eat well, I have a lot of guilt with which to contend. Luckily, both of my parents are psychologists, so I was able to focus mainly on the food. I realized recently that apart from the occasional chicken paprikash, the only connection to my Hungarian heritage I can remember is a miniature bust of Liszt that made its way onto the dresser in my childhood bedroom. When I learned about Liszt’s lore in college, his emotionally virtuosic playing and its palpable effects, I was intrigued. Since then I’ve been trying to put together a group of his songs that felt natural to me as a performer, and it wasn’t until now that I concocted this felicitous combination of his German settings. Connected, but not entirely the same as this Hungarian sense of romanticism, is the characteristically Italian state of impetuosity. Though none of the three Italian arias I am presenting was actually written by an Italian, they were all written for and performed by Italian castrati. These physically altered superstars of their era gave the art of opera wings, and along the way generated a body of work which never ceases to entrance me. Both Mozart and Handel offer endless opportunities to dig into characters with harmonic shifts, textual delineation and of course ornamentation carefully cooked-up by the singers themselves. These three arias represent the foundation of my work as a singer: executing the highest of technical demands while simultaneously rendering emotional arcs tangible.

At six years old I was no good at reading sheet music. My unusually creative piano teacher, Pei-Fen Liu, thought that perhaps instead of trying to play the notes, I’d have an easier time taking my fingers out of the equation. So I began to sing, and though I’m not sure my sight-reading improved, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed singing. After humming notes and singing solfège scales, Pei-Fen decided it was time for the next step. She pulled out a book of Gershwin songs, and away we went. I became so enthusiastic about Gershwin that I used to sit in my room and listen to any recordings I could find. When I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, I wanted so badly to understand how she wove her magic that I remember spending hours trying to copy down each syllable of scat that she added to the tunes she was singing. By the time I was eight, I told my parents that I was ready to give this a go in public. Wonderfully supportive as they were, they helped me to find an audition at a community theater. Filled with anticipation, and a joy of music, I walked into the audition room with a Gershwin tune prepared. Little did I know that I was about to embark upon a life of music and a craft which challenges and moves me every day. As I opened my mouth to sing the first few bars of “Summertime” that day, I couldn’t have imagined that it would close a recital like this one with the VRS.

-Anthony Roth Costanzo

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