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Program notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay. Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin. It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies. These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C. The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than that with which he began.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor
from Violin Partita No. 2 BWV 1004, arr. by Ferruccio Busoni

The Italian pianist, composer and conductor Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a tireless champion of the cause of contemporary music. His most important contributions to the modern concert repertoire, however, are retrospective, consisting of his popularizing keyboard transcriptions of works by J. S. Bach. Such, indeed, was his fame in this regard that his wife Gerda often found herself introduced at social occasions as ‘Mrs. Bach-Busoni’.

It is natural that Busoni should have been attracted to the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, as this work stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges it poses for the performer and the crystalline brilliance of its formal design. Musicologist Susan McClary calls it “the chaconne to end all chaconnes” while violinist Yehudi Menuhin referred to it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.”

The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande (with emphasis on the second beat of the bar), followed by 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

Busoni’s adaptation of 1893 is a vivid re-imagining of the structure of Bach’s violin score for the larger forces available on the modern piano keyboard. It should not be surprising that his conception of the Chaconne is so sonically grandiose, as the work itself only surfaced into public view at the height of the Romantic era. After waiting until 1802 to be published in a complete edition of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, its first recorded public performance came in 1841, with violinist Ferdinand David holding forth on his instrument next to Felix Mendelssohn improvising an accompaniment on the piano. Numerous other arrangements were to follow, including those of Schumann for violin and piano and Brahms for piano left hand.

Busoni grants himself full licence to take advantage of the complete range of sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even while writing multiple- register chord spacings more typical of the organ. His approach to transcribing was no doubt based on J. S. Bach’s own activities as a transcriber of other composers’ works. As Sara Davis Buechner tells us, “for Busoni, all music was a transcription of the composer’s original artistic idea anyway.”

While Busoni’s adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception, there are clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of the timbre of an orchestral brass section is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, followed not long after by the sounds of the timpani (in the variation with repeated notes), not to mention the many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the instrument for which the work was originally scored.

César Franck
Prelude, Chorale and Fugue M. 21

César Franck’s Prélude, Chorale and Fugue of 1884 is widely recognized as one of the highest achievements of 19th-century French piano writing. That such a work should come from the pen of a musician employed for most of his professional career as an organist might well be surprising. But as Stephen Hough points out, Franck’s unhappy early career as a young piano prodigy, thrust unwillingly into the public spotlight by an exploitative father, could well have warned him away from composing for the piano when he finally gained his independence as an adult.

Certainly the compositional models for this work, looking back as they do to the era of Bach and Handel, served well to distinguish the composer from the roving bands of circus-act piano virtuosi that he had narrowly escaped joining as a youth. The influence of Bach, in particular, is felt in the pervasive motive of the two-note sighing appoggiatura, so similar to its equally pervasive use at the opening of Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). Not to mention the variant of the melodic outline of Bach’s own name (when played according to the German naming system as B-A-C-H: ‘H’ being B natural), heard in the opening bars of the Prelude.

But this work also reveals itself as very much a product of its own time in the rich carpeting of its expansive keyboard writing – no mean feat in a work of overtly contrapuntal inspiration. Contemporary in reference, as well, is its use of the falling fourths of Wagner’s ‘bell motif’ from Parsifal, first announced in sweeping multi- octave arpeggios in the Chorale. This ‘motto’ theme recurs in the concluding fugue, along with the sighing appoggiaturas of the Prelude to mark this work as a classic example of ‘cyclical form’.

Frédéric Chopin
Barcarolle in F-sharp Major Op. 60

Chopin’s ‘fifth ballade’, as his Barcarolle of 1845 is sometimes called, transcends both in scale and dramatic intensity the models set for him in the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and the examples given in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Chopin had never been to Venice, so his evocation of the song of the gondoliers derives not from the recall of a musical memory, but rather from an imaginative journey into moonlight. Half dreamy nocturne, half heart-wringing love cry, it alternates between poetic reflection and restless passionate outburst. It seems to encapsulate in a single work the full range of Chopin’s musical sensibility, and he obviously was proud of it, as he played it frequently in his concerts in Paris, London and in Scotland.

The standard characteristics of the piano barcarolle, as announced by Mendelssohn in his Venetianisiches Gondellied of 1830, are all there: the 12/8 meter and repetitive rocking-boat rhythm stabilized by pedal points in the bass, and a love-duet texture of double 3rds and 6ths. But Chopin adds so much more to the mix, including a harmonic sensitivity to colour that makes you feel the chill of a fresh wind over the water at the point where the harmony suddenly turns to the minor. Scintillating flashes of iridescence sparkle from the tips of the waves up to the high register of the keyboard, and sumptuous trills (double trills, even) make you shimmer inside with the fire-and-ice pangs of young love. This is poetic writing for the piano of the highest order.

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63, No. 2 Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30, No. 4

The 19th century was an age in which musicians from Eastern Europe wore their national musical heritage on their sleeves: Liszt wrote Hungarian rhapsodies, Dvorak wrote Slavonic Dances, and Chopin wrote polonaises and mazurkas. The polonaise was an aristocratic dance, a ceremonial public dance: Bach and Mozart had written polonaises. The mazurka, however, was more intimately connected with the very essence of the Polish soul, its oddly arrhythmic pulse a measure of the very heartbeat of Poland.

The Mazurka in F minor Op. 62 No. 2 is a fine example of the sentimental, melancholy potential of this dance. It begins with a painful, plangent leap of a minor 9th and ranges restlessly and chromatically over its melodic ambitus in search of a respite that never seems to come.

The Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4, while inly wrapped with a dark cast of thought, still displays an inner strength of will that drives it from a slyly lilting dance pace on to exaltations of ecstasy.

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major Op. 47

Chopin’s four ballades all share a tone of epic narration but the third of the set, the Ballade in A flat Op. 47, stands apart for its bright sonorities and healthy, optimistic mood. It lacks the vehemence of expression that characterizes the other three ballades, Opp. 23, 38 and 52, with their terrifying codas of whirlwind intensity.

The work is dominated by two principal themes of contrasting character but united by common elements of basic melodic structure. The first, announced at the outset, is a songful melody that begins by rising up six scale notes, echoed by antiphonal responses in the left hand. Its contrapuntal profile is of two voices expanding out in opposite directions from a central point, a pattern that intensifies on the following page into celebratory cadences exploding out into ecstatic arpeggios to the low and high registers simultaneously.

The second theme changes the mood completely. It is a dancelike melody of instrumental character that descends six scale notes, outlined in a series of coquettish leaps made all the more coy by the constantly syncopated rhythm in which they are presented. While this second theme dips often into the minor mode, it rarely stays there long, often slipping back into the major when cadencing. The minor mode in thus constantly restrained from taking on the mask of tragedy.

While the first theme remains elegantly static throughout the work, the second undergoes considerable development in a texture of ornamental figuration that dances alternately above it and then resonantly rumbles below. This development is the dramatic heart of the piece, and immediately follows a third theme area of remarkable flamboyance, with extroverted multi-octave arpeggios issuing into joyously rambunctious passagework over large swaths of the keyboard.

The work ends with an ‘apotheosis’ of the songful first theme in massively thickened chordal harmonies and a recall of the rambunctious spirit and exuberant figuration of the contrasting middle section.

Enrique Granados
Three pieces from Goyescas

Enrique Granados’ colourful Goyescas suite, completed in 1911, was inspired by the works of the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Bearing the subtitle Los majos enamorados (Majos in love), it depicts the joys and struggles of a bohemian segment of Spanish society often painted by Goya, the majos, a lower-class stratum of the Madrid population known for their colourful style of national dress and saucy, self- assured manner. Later in the 19th century, majas would appear on the stage as the cigarette girls in Bizet’s Carmen.

Granados’ style of writing builds on the pianism of Chopin and Liszt but is highly charged with the sounds of castanets, the strumming of guitars, and other timbral reminders of Spain. Almost improvisatory in style with violent mood swings, his multilayered and deeply sensuous textures range widely over the keyboard, and like Debussy are sometimes written on three staves.

Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor (Lament, or the maja and the nightingale) is based on a Valencian folk tune. Its sad theme may be intuited from the situation in which it is used in the opera Granados composed from the Goyescas suite: a young woman, fearing for the life of her jealous lover who has gone off to fight a duel, pours out her soul to the nightingale. Her lament is presented in the simplest possible form at first, followed by five voluptuous variations. The nightingale has the last word in a coda replete with warbling trills and bird calls.

El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) is perhaps Granados’ greatest work. Both philosophical and deeply emotional, savagely raw and wondrously mysterious, it paints its two protagonists in stark contrasts of register, the inevitability of death resonating up from deep bass, the pleadings of love shimmering down from the high treble. Granados said that all of the themes of the entire suite are united in this piece, “intense pain, nostalgic love and final tragedy – death.”

El pelele depicts a game played by young women in which they would toss a life-sized straw man up in the air using a blanket held at the corners in the manner of a trampoline. The trills occurring frequently on the third beat of the bar express the giddy pleasure and sheer exuberance of the young women as they send the straw man aloft.

Donald G. Gíslason

 

 

 

 

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