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Khatia Buniatishvili: program notes

Khatia BuniatishviliKhatia Buniatishvili, piano
Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Monday, January 23, 2011

Franz Joseph Haydn, piano sonata no. 33 in C minor, Hob. XVI/20

Although Haydn’s role in the development of the symphony and string quartet is secure in the minds of many people, but they are still apt to forget just how important the genre of the piano sonata was to this composer. Haydn wrote about sixty of them, spread across a span of over forty years, from the 1750s to the 1790s.

The C-minor Sonata is an extraordinary work by any means of measure. It is the first sonata Haydn obviously intended as being specifically for the piano as opposed to the harpsichord, and the first to which he assigned the title “sonata” rather than “divertimento” or “partita.” It dates from 1771, when the composer was in his brief but significant Sturm und Drang period.

The Sturm und Drang (usually translated as “storm and stress”) movement originated in literature of the period, emphasizing emotional intensity, dark pathos, stormy moods, restless anxiety and a general avoidance of the elegant and superficial language common to the age. In music, this form of expression manifested itself in the frequent use of minor keys, persistent and dramatic alternations of loud and soft, rich textures, a large harmonic palette, unusual formal designs and wide tessituras (melodic range).

All these qualities can be found in the sonata at hand. It begins unequivocally in C minor, with an elegiac subject filled with expressive “sighs” and an atmosphere of yearning. But the key of the second subject is far more difficult to determine. It begins in A-flat major, moves to E-flat, and seems to resolve in B-flat, but only momentarily. Then it’s off to still more keys, and remote ones at that. Throughout the movement, little cadenzas, unexpected pauses, a profusion of decorative touches (notes ornamented with trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, and the like), rhythmic surprises, and chromatic twists of both harmony and melody keep the attentive ear constantly on edge. A development section worthy of Beethoven and an abrupt pianissimo ending to the movement are additional features of note.

The slow movement, in A-flat major, exists on a somewhat lower emotional plane. A singing melodic line (absent in the first movement) is the first quality to strike the listener. Later we hear long strings of syncopation, the bass line and the upper voice moving independently and at the same pace but in alternation (“out of sync,” in the vernacular).

The Finale returns to the pathos of the opening movement. It is full of restless momentum, daring modulations into distant keys, and abrupt excursions into contrasting, lighthearted moods. Music theorists have a ball analyzing its form, which ambiguously combines development and recapitulation sections.

Franz Liszt: piano sonata in B minor

More words have probably been written about Liszt’s B-minor Sonata than about any other single piano composition of the nineteenth century. Like many works we regard today as indubitable masterpieces, this one suffered a difficult birth.

Liszt completed the sonata on February 2, 1853 and dedicated it to Robert Schumann, who had fifteen years earlier dedicated his great Fantaisie, Op. 17 to Liszt.

In this sonata, Liszt brought to perfection the form Schubert had tried in his Wanderer Fantasy of 1822 – absorption of the four-movement sonata into a gigantic, single-movement work in several sections, all unified through the continuous process of thematic transformation. Liszt was intimately familiar with Schubert’s model, for he had made a transcription for piano and orchestra just a year before he completed his Sonata.

Like a sculpture, the sonata takes on a different character depending on the angle from which it is viewed.  Most commentators agree that the work conforms more or less to a large-scale sonata-allegro design (introduction – exposition – development – recapitulation – coda), though just where the divisions occur is a matter of differing viewpoints. Furthermore, this sonata-allegro design is superimposed onto a traditional four-movement structure as found in the classical symphony or string quartet (fast first movement – slow second movement – scherzo-like third movement – finale).  Hence, at any given moment in the sonata’s design, one can regard it from varying perspectives.

Essentially, the genius of this sonata can be summarized in pianist Louis Kentner’s words: “In the B-minor Sonata Liszt uses the device of presenting, in a short Introduction, three seemingly incongruous elements … and then proceeds to demonstrate how these can be welded into a unity of such compactness, of such compelling power, that it convinces even the unregenerate.” These three elements have no names, but might be identified as follows: a) a quietly gliding downward scale; b) a defiant outburst; c) a sinister ten-note motif preceded by a “drum-roll.” There are two further themes of great significance, a grandiose chorale-like subject first heard shortly after one of the famous double-octave passages, and a quietly reflective Andante sostenuto idea in F-sharp major (Liszt’s “beatific” key).  The initial gliding downward scale serves as a point of demarcation, recurring at major junctures of the sonata’s formal plan: at the beginning, leading into the Grandioso subject, the transition to the fugato, in the recapitulation again leading into the Grandioso subject, and at the very end. Some listeners like to regard it as a curtain used to separate acts of a drama.

As a rough guide, one might regard the exposition as the first movement; the development section as the quiet Andante sostenuto and the demonic fugato (equivalent to the second and third movements of a traditional design); and the recapitulation as the finale, followed by a coda that takes the listener full circle back to the mysterious downward gliding scale with which the sonata opened nearly half an hour before.

Needless to say, the sonata’s appeal lies in more than structural concerns. It is full of virtuosic effects, dramatic outbursts, profoundly meditative passages and intriguing variants of the basic motivic material. Perhaps Louis Kentner’s words will serve as the best approach to listening:  “Analysis should not attempt to break the seal of the mystery that is artistic creation anyway, but should say with humility: ‘We are in the presence of genius.’ The alchemy of genius will, thank God, forever remain a secret.

Sergei Prokofiev: piano sonata no. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83

As Prokofiev was a formidable concert pianist, it is not surprising that he devoted a large part of his output to solo piano music. Nine sonatas appeared throughout his lifetime, though not evenly spaced. The first four (1907-08) came from his conservatory years, though all were later re-written, followed by the fifth in 1923 (revised in 1953). A sixteen-year hiatus separated the fifth from the next three sonatas, sketched simultaneously in 1939 and sometimes referred to as the “war sonatas.” Of the nine, the Seventh is by far the best known.

Prokofiev began working on this sonata in 1939 and completed it in 1942. Sviatoslav Richter gave the first performance on January 18, 1943 in Moscow. Glenn Gould characterized the sonata as “built to last. … With its schizophrenic oscillation of mood and its nervous instability of tonality, it is certainly a war piece. It is full of that uniquely Prokofievian mixture of bittersweet lamentation, percussive intensity and … lyricism.”

Violent contrasts are found throughout the work, beginning on the first page of the score. The opening theme skims nervously and lightly over the keyboard, but culminates in a ruthless pounding figure. Yet even the contrasts within the entire first subject become a collective contrast to the calm and lyrical second subject (Andantino). Much of the tension in this sonata-form movement derives from the large-scale contrasts between the driving restlessness of the first subject and the gentleness of the second. The central movement is marked Andante caloroso (caloroso = warm) and does indeed offer a sweetly ingratiating theme in E major. This gives way to a new section (Poco più animato) that recalls somewhat the restlessness of the first movement. After the music grows to a powerful climax, we hear a brief reminder of the gently lyrical E-major theme, thus setting in strongest juxtaposition the violent harshness of the third movement, which moves relentlessly forward in 7/8 meter with the terrifying power of a musical juggernaut.

Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Stravinsky’s boundless fertility of imagination is nowhere more in evidence than in his ballet score for Petrushka (1911), one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century music. It actually began life as a concert piece for solo piano and orchestra, but when the composer played the passages that later became the “Russian Dance” and “Petrushka’s Cry” (within the section called “In Petrushka’s Room”) for Serge Diaghilev, the legendary impresario of the Ballets russes in Paris, Stravinsky was persuaded to alter the work and turn it into a ballet score.

The scenario involves the carnival scene at Shrove-tide (the three days preceding Ash Wednesday) in early nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, with all its attendant noise, bustle, high spirits, dances, magicians, vendors, side shows and attractions of all sorts – a veritable riot of sound and color. One of these attractions is a puppet show about a poor, unhappy clown found in fairgrounds in nearly every country. In Russia he is called Petrushka.

Ten years after the ballet was introduced in Paris, Arthur Rubinstein persuaded the composer to arrange a “Petrushka Sonata” for solo piano. (Details can be found in Rubinstein’s entertaining autobiography, My Many Years.)  It is dedicated to the pianist, as well it might be, for he paid Stravinsky the hefty fee of 5,000 francs for it, though one also notes that Rubinstein earned many times that amount for recitals in which he featured this dazzling display piece.

The three numbers amount to a bit less than half the complete ballet score. The highly animated “Russian Dance” is the music to which Petrushka and other puppets dance after being brought to life by a magician. “In Petrushka’s Room” was the first music Stravinsky wrote in his original conception of the score for piano and orchestra, wherein the puppet “exasperates the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios, [and] the orchestra retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” In these first two movements the piano part can be lifted largely intact from the complete orchestral score. However, “The Shrove-tide Fair” represents a true piano reduction of orchestral textures and sonorities. So brilliantly did Stravinsky realize this task that the piano “reduction” is scarcely less fascinating and colorful than the original. Here, in a sequence of episodes and dances, is displayed all the excitement and razzle-dazzle of the crowded carnival scene in Admiralty Square of old St. Petersburg.

In listening to this music, one is left with the indelible impression that, to Stravinsky, the piano is indeed a percussive instrument – an object of steel wires and hammers, not an instrument of vocal and lyrical attributes. He and Rubinstein had violent arguments over this matter (again, see My Many Years), but in the end, both emerged victorious with the resounding success of Petrushka in each of its versions.

Program notes by Robert Markow.

3 thoughts on “Khatia Buniatishvili: program notes

  1. Stunning performance! Brilliant performer. What a gift she has. Leila: once again you have brought us new young talent that takes our breath away. The Liszt was amazing: the Prokofiev explosive and then: the heart-stopping Stravinsky! And in case we might have thought she only could do the big pieces she encored with Chopin like a chocolate left on your pillow at a five star hotel! Thank you all for this wonderful evening.

  2. It was an absolute treat to hear Khatia perform tonight! From her ferocious virtuosity to her heart-tugging, soaring melodic lyricism, she wove a spell over me that left me enchanted and exhilarated from start to finish!

  3. It was the third time that I heard Khatia playing this program, thanks to video recordings from Verbier and Annecy festivals. However, yesterday’s recital far exceeded my high expectations. The absolute sincerity that emanated from the scene was almost overwhelming. Sonata B minor, Prokofiev’s 7th and Petrushka – I am certain at least half of the hall knew every note of this music. And – and we knew nothing. Because it was so fresh and, hmm, extreme that one could not draw any parallels.

    I talked to many people last night and this morning. Someone says he was not 100% convinced by Khatia’s interpretation. Another said he heard the best Haydn ever (and this came from a Haydn lover!). Yet another friends called this morning to say that this was once-a-life-time event. To me, this polarization of opinions is a powerful testimony of the worthiness of the artist.

    Thank you, Leila and Paul, for bringing this experience to Vancouver!

    One thing completely blew me away though. Did you notice she looked at her left hand leaving the stage after Stravinsky? I thought she peeled the skin off the back side of her fingers with those wild glissandi in Petrushka. It’s very easy to do if you are not careful. But apparently, that was not the reason. I went backstage after the recital and asked. Khatia said she damaged her finger BEFORE the concert. I looked at her left hand and it was in blood. Can you imagine playing a program like that WITH BLEEDING FINGERS? She admitted that the pain became almost unbearable while she was playing Stravinsky. DID WE EVEN NOTICE?

    Leila was right, this is one tough girl!

    Eugene Nizker

    PS. And no, Leila, her hair looks fine to me.

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