Impromptus Op. 90, Nos. 1-4
The impromptu is just one of a number of small-scale instrumental genres arising in the early 19th century, known under the collective title of “character pieces”. Cultivated by composers of the Romantic era, these pieces present a simple musical idea in an intimate lyrical style with the aim of evoking a particular mood or moment of personal reflection, spontaneously experienced and communicated.
The typical construction was a simple three-part form (A-B-A), with a middle section that contrasts in mood or emotional intensity with the outer sections. The eight impromptus that Schubert composed in late 1827 are classic examples of the genre, and indeed are the first pieces bearing the name impromptu to establish themselves permanently in the repertoire.
The Impromptu No. 1 in C minor is the longest of the set, its expansive range of moods and textures being more typicalfortissimo octave yielding to the pianissimo of the lonely little tune that follows, strangely forlorn and introspective despite its march-like rhythm. After its assertive potential is explored, a more songful variant arrives to captivate the ear in the major mode, ending with a melodic turn figure that spawns its own lyrical discussion. The middle section offers contrast more in texture than in thematic content as it works through the two related themes in the manner of a formal sonata development. Sonata-like, as well, is the resolution of the accumulated dramatic tension in the major-mode ending of the “recapitulation”.
A more simply contrasted pair of emotions is explored in the Impromptu No. 2 in E-flat, which juxtaposes the carefree running scale passages of the opening with a more emphatic middle section dominated by vigorous emotional outbursts. Recent developments in the design of the Viennese piano made possible the extreme range of the right-hand scalar passages, which Schubert exploits to create thrilling crescendos in the high register.
The Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat presents a lyrical vocal melody over melt-in-your-mouth harmonies laid out in a gentle but ever-moving accompaniment pattern that perfectly paints the fluttering of the human heart.
Impromptu No. 4 in A-flatmajor begins with a buoyant cascade of broken chord figures that appears almost to be winking in merriment, despite its minor-mode setting – all the more playful because of the soothing chords that following, seemingly saying: “Just kidding, folks”. The middle section worries obsessively in a melody of questioning semitone rises and falls, its accompaniment fretting in pulsing, anxious sympathy with these deliberations. But in the end, the major mode wins over after the opening material is recalled to lighten the mood once again.
We are lucky to have this sonata, a product of Janáček’s impassioned middle age. Although well beyond his teen years at the time, the Czech composer nevertheless reacted with adolescent fervour in composing this tribute to František Pavlík, the 19-year-old labourer killed in the ethnic violence that marked demonstrations held on the 1st of October, 1905 in the Moravian city of Brno.
Adolescent was his decision to burn the last movement (a funeral march) before the sonata was premiered in 1906, and flagrantly Romantic was his gesture of tossing the manuscript of the other two movements from a bridge into the Vltava river shortly thereafter. Only in 1924 did pianist Ludmila Tučková, who performed the work at its premier, reveal that she had copied out the first two movements, allowing the work to be re-performed and published for the first time.
Despite its programmatic origins, the first movement, ominously labelled Presentiment, is in fairly standard sonata form, with even a repeated exposition. A few introductory bars set up the key before the restless first theme appears. Immediately noticeable is the extraordinarily wide spacing of the piano texture, evocative of the timbre and idiom of the hammered dulcimer (cimbalom) used in Moravian folk music. The second theme is more lyrically conceived, but both themes display Janáček’s characteristic use of small motives to create larger phrase units that accumulate in meaning through repetition.
The second movement, entitled Death, focuses-in emotionally on the loss of a young life. Evocative of the void left by the death of the young František, its first section begins almost every bar with an emptiness: a 16th note rest in both hands. The whole movement is built from the repetition of a single modally-inflected phrase, dully repeated in the opening section (which bears some of the ghostly stillness of Ravel’s Le Gibet from Gaspard de la nuit), but more operatically sung out in the expansive middle section. Finally, however, the meditative mood of the opening returns to end the movement pianississimo, as it edges towards the silence of the grave.
Concert Arabesques on Themes from On the Beautiful Blue Danube
The idea of “covering” another performer’s songs is a practice well known to both lovers of refined jazz and those whose musical taste is circumscribed by the four walls of their local pub.
Before the invention of the radio, the amount of music being publicly performed far outstripped the means for distributing it to a mass audience; instrumental transcriptions of “hit” tunes were an easy, crowd-pleasing item to include on the programs of travelling concert artists. Liszt, for example, was famous for his opera fantasias, and Sarasate for his Carmen Fantasy.
With the death of Rachmaninoff and the older generation of pianists, however, concert programs after the Second World War saw fewer of these pieces listed. The emerging “period performance” movement put respect for the conditions of a work’s first appearance as the supreme goal of the modern musician. “Covering” a great work of musical art was akin to dumpster-diving, as frowned-upon as stealing the tulips from your neighbour’s garden. Adolf Schulz- Evler’s scintillating Blue Danube transcription, for example, was described in the 1954 edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians as “meretricious”, i.e., “whore-like” in its appeal. For 1950s audiences, then, attending a public performance of this piece was not something you could tell your mother about.
Only Glenn Gould’s brilliance in re-creating Bach on the modern piano and Vladimir Horowitz’s demonic ability to project the values of 19th-century pianism to a 20th-century audience allowed these musicians to stand apart from the general trend. Indeed it was the prestige of Horowitz’s own Carmen Fantasy and Stars & Stripes Forever – as well as his pianistic re-touching of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – that opened the door for transcriptions to return to the concert stage after his death in 1989.
Ever since, modern pianists have been hunting around in the attic for old gems of the repertoire, in a classical-music version of the Antiques Road Show, with the Schulz-Evler Blue Danube transcription standing as one of their greatest finds. And modern audiences, like dieters rejoicing in new research that promotes the nutritional value of chocolate, have been just as enthusiastic.
The Polish-born pianist Adolf Schulz-Evler (1852-1905) was a student of Karl Tausig and the composer of minor works, mostly forgotten today, except for his pianistically exuberant transcription of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Structured as an introduction with five waltzes, it begins with a tantalizing sonic apéritif that bubbles with champagne effervescence in the high register as small hints of the waltz tune emerge below.
Despite the work’s intoxicating mix of tunefulness and pianistic “ear candy”, its challenges are not merely technical.In such repertoire, the concept of “Taste” – note the capital T – is paramount, with only a few sequins, a touch of eye liner, and the odd festive sideways glance to separate a Liszt from a Liberace.
Your intrepid notes writer has consulted horoscopes, communed with his Ouija board, and even tried to contact Edward Snowden in a frantic attempt to determine what musical direction will likely be taken by Mr. Albright in his improvisation.
Alas, only Mr. Albright knows that, and maybe not even he…
Études, Op. 25
The two sets of twelve piano studies which Chopin published as his Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), stand, even today, as the foundation of modern piano technique. In the words of pianist Garrick Ohlsson: “If you can play the Chopin Études … there is basically nothing in the modern repertoire you can’t play”. Each étude presents a specific technical challenge to the pianist, but in a way that transcends its original pedagogical purpose, making each study into an exquisite Romantic-era “character piece”.
It is easy to imagine why the Étude No. 1 in A-flatis known as the “Aeolian Harp”. Beneath a steady pulse of melody notes, many of them repeated on the same pitch, strums a swirling, rippling accompaniment that challenges the pianist to split his hands conceptually in two between a melody or bass-note finger (the pinkie) and the fingers playing the accompaniment, i.e., all the rest. Particularly perilous are the exhilarating leaps – in opposite directions! – at the emotional climax of the piece.
The difficulty in the Étude No. 2 in F minor is metrical: two triplets of eighth notes in the right hand are paired with one triplet of quarter notes in the left. Think of trying to tap your foot to two different songs playing at once, one coming from each earplug of your iPod: your right ear is hearing 12/8 while your left ear is hearing 6/4.
The Étude No. 3 in F major is an exercise in pianistic poise. While the hands are made to leap in opposite directions, a trill-ish figure in the centre of the hand must remain calm and unruffled. Not a piece for the fidgety, the feverish, or the feckless.
Leaps are also a prominent feature of the Étude No. 4 in A minor but here the challenge is to keep the right- hand pinkie-finger singing out blithely above the jumpy accompaniment below, despite being always on the off- beat.
The Étude No. 5 in E minor is the “ugly duckling” of the set. To each attack in the right hand is attached, like a barnacle, a chromatic inflection a semitone away that makes it walk like it has a stone in its shoe. Its contrasting middle section in the major mode – as poised and elegant as the opening section is grotesquely limping and ungainly – is richly carpeted with a harmonically full, rolling texture that allows the left hand to sing out a simple but engaging baritone melody of small range and modest harmonic goals.
Double thirds, in both chromatic and diatonic varieties, haunt the shimmering Étude No. 6 in G-sharpminor. Chopin introduces here a tonal palate hitherto unknown in the piano literature in this quicksilver merry-go-round of kaleidoscopic colouration.
The slow, lyrical Étude No. 7 in C-sharpminor is a chamber trio. The left-hand ‘cello’ voice sings a duet with a treble melody in the right-hand while a gentle sympathetic chordal accompaniment occupies the middle ground. This is one of the few études where the principal difficulty lies in the left hand.
While most student pianists would rather swallow a hairball than play a whole piece in double thirds, a large majority of those would rather pass a kidney stone than do so in double sixths, as here in the Étude No. 8 in D-flatmajor.
The Étude No. 9 in G-flatmajor is a merry romp over the black keys requiring fine control of the hand to bring out the rollicking principal tune against a flurry of competing textures around it.
The pianist’s octaves – bread and butter of the virtuoso performer – receive a thorough annual check-up in the Étude No. 10 in B minor, both in their stormy and lyrical manners of performance.
The Étude No.11 in A minor, known as the “Winter Wind”, reveals Chopin as the inventor of yet another revolutionary new pianistic texture, one that seems to want to include every note on the instrument. Typical of Chopin’s pianistic approach is the way that the cascading figures descending from the top of the keyboard require passing the thumb under the 5th finger when rising back up.
The “Ocean” Étude No. 12 in C minor gets its name from the waves of sound that sweep up and down the keyboard, doled out octave-by-octave in broken chord figures that are extremely tiring to perform accurately at fast tempo. While the chordal patterns of the opening are simple, Chopin reveals himself a master of chromatic harmony and piano tone-colouring in the tension-filled middle section.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.