Kyllikki, Three Lyric Pieces for Piano Op. 41
Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, has earned an honoured place in the modern canon chiefly on the merits of his orchestral works, notably his seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and the tone poem Finlandia. Less celebrated are the composer’s more than 150 miniatures for piano, 115 of which were published in his lifetime, grouped into sets of varying size.
Writing in the early 20th century against a modernist backdrop of increasing atonality, Sibelius continued to compose in the tradition of tonal key centres, albeit with a harmonic vocabulary considerably expanded from that of late 19th-century Romanticism. While rooted in the German tradition, his scores, like those of Janáček, often evoke the folk idiom of his native country in textures resonant with pedal points and pulsing with ostinato patterns, occasionally tinged with the timbral vibration of the katele, the traditional Finnish dulcimer.
Kyllikki, composed in 1904, presents a triptych of lyrical scenes possibly linked pictorially with the adventures of a character from Finnish folklore. Its sequence of pacing and moods parallels that of a traditional three-movement sonata. The opening Largamente is heavily textured and projects an aggressive, Lisztian boldness of utterance, its virtuoso pose projected in flying octaves and sweeping arpeggios that alternate with turbulent patches of modal melody swimming in dark pools of tremolos.
The Andantino ‘slow movement’ opens with a grave evocation of stunned grief in a succession of short phrases low in the register that sigh with the fatalist resignation of the Volga Boat Song. More sanguine sentiments pervade the animated middle section, but standing apart from these contrasting moods of despair and renewed hope is a mysterious dulcimer-like trilling, commenting from afar like a bird singing in the woods. By contrast, the Commodo last movement is a leisurely salon-style piece of the utmost clarity of intention, chatty with coy intimations of the dance.
Sibelius’ Op. 75 ‘tree’ pieces are as much about the Finnish landscape as the sturdy botanical specimens that inhabit it. The Birch bends in the wind, a drone bass rooting it firmly in its native soil as it hums a jaunty little folk tune. The Spruce obviously grew up in a palace park somewhere in the Austrian capital. In a reverie of nostalgic reminiscence, it recalls those warm summer nights when, as a sapling, it learned to sway to the strains of the Viennese waltz.
The Five Esquisses Op. 114 are Sibelius’ last works for solo piano, each a portrait of some aspect of nature. The Forest Lake ripples in continuous 8th-note motion, its disturbingly dark harmonic colouring impervious to the concerns of the human observer. Song in the Forest poetically journeys to the centre of a shaded wood to find a hymn-like melody amid the lush overgrowth of Scriabin-like tritones tracing patterns of light and shade far above. Spring Vision is a walk in the park to the beat of a gentle little Schumannesque march rejoicing in the arrival of April.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E flat major Op. 31 No. 3
Beethoven’s 18th sonata, written in 1802, is a remarkably relaxed work from a composer better known for his turbulent musical impulses and revolutionary spirit. More rambunctious than rebellious, it quarrels little with the pose of classical poise expected in a traditional four-movement sonata, seeking instead to engage its listeners through expressive tenderness and mischievous merriment.
The work opens with a coy serving of bite-sized motives: two wistful sighs (falling 5ths), answered by solemn chords below, concluding in an anticlimactic cadence that seems to say: “Just kidding!” Unfolding with devil-may-care breeziness, it arrives at a chipper second theme pertly singing out over a left hand accompaniment churning with bustle. The development section sets out frowningly in the minor mode but soon lightens up and joins the fun as motives get tossed, in comic opera style, between a gruff growling bass and a chirpy echoing treble. A perfectly normal recapitulation wraps up the movement with few surprises.
The second movement Scherzo eschews the muscular vigour, relentless energy, and even the ternary (A-B-A) form characteristic of the most famous Beethoven scherzos in favour of a return to the original Italian meaning of the term: a “joke”. Unexpected pauses and sudden outbursts abound to great comic effect, both sly and slapstick. Beethoven’s humour is very dry here, with a chorale-like marching hymn in the right hand playing out deadpan against a constant left-hand patter of 16th notes, trotting in mock-military precision. Peppery fanfares and “oops-a-daisy” glissando-like pratfalls add to the fun.
Beethoven reveals his immense gifts as a melodist in a Menuetto of the utmost dignity and lyrical grace, worthy of a noble aria by Gluck. The register-leaping Trio ensures that the movement’s smoothness doesn’t devolve into smarminess.
The Presto con fuoco finale is an exhilarating moto perpetuo that has been variously called a gallop or a tarantella. Its breathless pace, prominent horn-call motives, and slightly off-kilter rocking pattern in the left hand, reminiscent of horseback riding, have given the sonata as a whole the nickname The Hunt.
La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes
Claude Debussy’s first book of “prints” or “engravings” (Estampes) dates from 1905 and features stylized musical postcards of exotic locales and memorable landscapes, assembled from the musical traces they have left in the composer’s imagination.
The second musical portrait in the series evokes an evening spent in the Spanish city of Granada. The soul of the city is summoned up first by the lilting rhythm of the habañera (DUM-da-dum-dum) that echoes through every octave as the piece opens. Soon the spicy Arab scale, with its augmented melodic intervals, comes into earshot, mixed with the strumming of a Flamenco guitar. The piece ends in a drowsy sonic haze as these aural emblems of Iberian life fade into memory.
Études 7, 11, and 5 from Douze Études
It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano etudes, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with pedagogical drudgery and musical monotony, since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic narcissism and shamanistic showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection and his public persona was light years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.
So his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, a means of building endurance for when it is needed in “real” music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedaling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.
Etude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques is a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings, out of the sound-swirl of which emerges, in the left hand, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an etude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.
Etude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of “composite arpeggios” (i.e., multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.
Etude 5 Pour les octaves finds Debussy in the most extroverted mood, summoning up the spirit of the waltz in voluptuous eruptions of sound echoing up from the bass, reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse or Scriabin at his most manic. The undulating mix of octave leaps both large and small requires a jack-hammer hand in a velvet glove.
Impromptu in A flat Major Op. 29
Spontaneity is the feature most prized in the genre named for it, the impromptu. Chopin projects an air of extemporaneous improvisation in his Impromptu in A flat (1837) by means of swirling arabesques of triplets spun effortlessly out of a simple harmonic pattern, the very image of a bubbling fountain of inspiration. Deeper waters are plumbed in the more pensive middle section in F minor, but here, too, the notion of fresh musical thoughts, spontaneously imagined, is upheld by the lavishly decorative, operatic-style ornamentation of a starkly simple melody.
Étude in A flat Major from Trois Nouvelles Études
In 1839 Chopin composed three etudes for inclusion in the Méthode des méthodes (1840), a comprehensive piano instruction manual published by the Belgian music educator François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) and the Bohemian pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). By no means as technically challenging as the composer’s daunting Op. 10 and Op. 25 sets, these “new” etudes assigned the aspiring pianist tasks of a more concentrated, distinctly musical nature: how to maintain interest in a melodic line set within accompaniment patterns that vie with it for the listener’s attention.
In the Etude in A flat an expressive, vocally-inspired melody floats freely within a two-against-three pattern of gently pulsing figuration, outlining melt-in-your-mouth harmonies of a delicate, sometimes aching poignancy. With melody spilling luxuriantly out of all voices in the texture, Chopin in this etude blurs the line between harmony and melody, between melody and accompaniment.
Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 No. 1
Chopin’s early Nocturne in F major Op. 15 No. 1 (1830-31) is a study in contrasts. Its tender opening melody, warmly doubled in the mid-range by the tenor voice, floats serenely over sympathetic harmonies in pulsing triplets, the pure soul of innocence in song. But then, like a daydream broken off by the intrusion of a stray thought,
it pauses… and plunges into a nightmarish middle section in F minor boiling up in turbulence and torment from the bass. This too gradually ebbs, however, and we drift back to the opening melody, as if waking from a bad dream. There is something eerie, almost surreal, about both daydream and nightmare in this piece.
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52
Chopin’s ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of storytelling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they
are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842- 43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.
To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems the order of the day but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones of the opening carry real pathos, made more plangent, and then more urgent, upon repetition with a countermelody in the alto.
The second theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the first theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then… magic! The very first bars of introduction return, in a different key, and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.
But the first theme’s lament returns, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The second theme follows, but it too finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until… magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.
After what seems like a reprieve—five angelic chords descending from heaven—all hell breaks loose and the work rides its fury to a final, fateful conclusion.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015