Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov
Franz Schubert: Piano sonata in A major, D. 664 (Op. 120)
Scholars lack definite evidence for the date and place of composition of Schubert’s early A major sonata, but most are willing to grant that most likely he wrote it during the summer of 1819 while vacationing in Steyr in Upper Austria. He wrote to his brother Ferdinand that the surrounding countryside was “unimaginably lovely.” As biographer Brian Newbould notes, “the A major [sonata] is music of such wide-eyed youthful contentment that one could imagine it being a response to both the mountain scenery of Upper Austria and ‘a very pretty’ dedicatee.”
The work opens with one of Schubert’s most gracious melodies, one in which he takes obvious delight in spinning out to almost heavenly length. The second subject, hardly less enchanting, arrives soon and without preamble. The central slow movement focuses even more insistently than the first on a rhythmic pattern, one Schubert used often (a long followed by four short notes). This dreamy idyll is derived from a single theme that Schubert expands into a perfectly proportioned structure. The insouciant finale is again in sonata form. The lyricism, blithe spirit and overall sense of contentment have led annotator Konrad Wolff to call this music “a Viennese waltz danced in heaven.”
Some years ago, when he was music critic for The Ottawa Citizen, the late Jacob Siskind wrote that “the difficulty with most of the music of Schubert, and this is especially true of his piano sonatas, is to reconcile the seeming simplicity of the structure and the endless flow of melody with the emotional tension generated by the provocative key relationships of the various sections. In lesser hands, the music can sound merely pretty, or puzzlingly disjointed. In the hands of one who has the emotional depths to identify completely with the mysteries of the music, these scores have the capacity to heal the deepest emotional wounds.”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano sonata no. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
The Appassionata sonata (1804-06), along with the Op. 78 sonata in F sharp major, was Beethoven’s favorite up until the time he wrote the Hammerklavier sonata in 1819 (the 28th of his 32 piano sonatas). But whereas Op. 78, lovely and gracious as it may be, has never been a popular favorite, the Appassionata remains one of Beethoven’s greatest and most frequently heard works in any medium. As with so many of his compositions, the title was affixed not by the composer but by a publisher.
The opening movement is largely music of sound and fury, defined above all by rhythmic insistence. Both the defiantly rising principal subject (opening measures) and the lyrical, rising-and-falling second subject share a similar rhythmic pattern (long-short-long; long-short long), and both are built from arpeggios. Additionally, there is a rhythmic motto appearing often throughout the movement that corresponds exactly to that of the opening of the fifth symphony (da-da-da-daahh).
The second movement offers an oasis of tranquility and repose. It is a theme-and-variations movement built, like the second movement of the seventh symphony, more from a harmonic progression than from a melody. Each of the three variations employs increasingly rapid note values (eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds), following which there is a small coda that disintegrates into a mysterious chord, then, as if jolted with an electric shock, reenergizes itself and launches into the finale.
This concluding movement, in sonata form like the first, is one of the most demonic things Beethoven ever wrote, a musical juggernaut of relentless forward momentum and almost frightening power. Tension builds to almost unbearable levels, finally bursting its bonds in the presto coda which roars to an apocalyptic conclusion.
Franz Liszt: Scherzo and March; Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, Mephisto Waltz no. 1
The Scherzo and March may be one of Liszt’s lesser-known piano works, yet it is a formidable, ten-minute composition nonetheless. The title implies a two-part structure, but it is actually more than that. Following a short, mysterious introduction filled with gnome-like scurrying and scrambling figures, we arrive at a scherzo comprising two fully developed themes. Both suggest visions of hell, “a superb piece of diablerie,” as pianist Louis Kentner calls it. Then comes the march, which provides the central contrasting episode, “as if a Witches’ Sabbath were interrupted by a procession of monks carrying torches and chanting,” writes Kentner. The march rises to a fearsome climax, then recedes into the distance, after which the scherzo returns in shortened form. For a coda, the march music is recalled, now with elements of the scherzo as accompaniment.
Between 1847 and 1852, Liszt wrote a series of ten pieces under the rubric Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a title he borrowed from a collection of poetry by Lamartine. The best known number from this set remains Funérailles (No. 7), followed closely by the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (No. 3), the longest and, in the opinion of many, the finest of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses.
Liszt prefaced the score with these words from Lamartine: “Whence comes, O God, this peace that overwhelms me? Whence comes this faith with which my heart overflows?” A simple, hymnlike theme glides slowly upward in the left hand while the right hand accompanies with a gentle undulation that might well evoke the lambent light of votive candles in a small, private chapel. “Is there another piano piece with such hypnotic sweetness of sound?” asks pianist Alfred Brendel. The central section consists of two contrasting episodes in new keys and new tempos. When the opening theme returns, it is furnished with fuller harmony and cascades of arpeggios that bring to mind dazzling visions of transcendent beauty. The music rises to its ecstatic, fortississimo climax, then subsides into heavenly tranquility and resignation.
The nineteenth-century romantics were fascinated with the legend of Faust. Goethe’s monumental poem was the source of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, but it was another adaptation of the story that spurred him to write the first of his three Mephisto Waltzes. This was Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust of 1835, from which Liszt chose two unconnected passages and set them to music in the late 1850s. The Nocturnal Procession is seldom performed, but the other number, Dance in the Village Inn: Mephisto Waltz, became one of Liszt’s most popular pieces, both in its original orchestral form and in the subsequent piano arrangement.
Mephistopheles has led Faust to a small inn where a wedding celebration is in progress. The devil invites Faust to choose a woman and dance with her. After he chooses, Mephistopheles berates the village musicians for their bland, dull musicianship and offers to show them how to really play the violin. He borrows an instrument and creates a kind of music that bewitches everyone into “a whirl of bacchantic revelry” (Lenau). Frederick Niecks described the result as “the ne plus ultra of weirdness and unbridled sensuality in the whole domain of music.”