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Program Notes: Igor Levit

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828

The Baroque suite was the iPod shuffle of its time. It was a colourful bowl of musical Smarties with a cosmopolitan flavour, offering a collection of dances from all the major musical nations of Europe: the moderately-paced allemande from Germany, the much animated courante from France (or its cousin, the corrente from Italy), the stately sarabande from Spain, and the leaping, if not outright pole-vaulting gigue (jig) from England. An introductory piece was sometimes added at the beginning, and other optional dances such as the gavotte or minuet (the galanteries) were not infrequently inserted in the lead-up to the gigue finale.

Of course, no one put on their dancing shoes when these pieces were played. These were stylized dances for listening to, and for playing before company in middle-class homes, where keyboards were becoming the favourite family instruments for domestic entertainment. Among such works, however, the six suites that Bach published with the title Partitas in the first volume of his Clavierübung (1726-1731) were in a class all their own, boldly virtuosic both in contrapuntal construction and in the technical demands they make of the performer.

The Partita No. 4 in D major opens with a majestic French overture movement in the style popularized by Louis XIV’s court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, featuring a grandly strutting first section in the stop-and-start style of a ceremonial procession, embellished with breathless runs and bell-ringing trills, followed by a much nimbler fugal section in three-part imitative counterpoint. 

The Allemande that follows is deliriously ornate, only kept on the straight and narrow by the even pace of 8th notes measured out by its left-hand voices. The pace picks up in the Courante, with its fine embroidery of small broken-chord figures permeating the contrapuntal texture from top to bottom.

The Aria is marked by neatly doled out four-bar and eight-bar phrases in a radically simple, predominantly two-voice texture. The deeply self-involved Sarabande wanders far afield in its almost recitative-like philosophical musings over a walking bass, after which we are brought back into more rhythmically regular territory in the following Minuet.

The closing Gigue is an exhilarating display of contrapuntal skill mixing rollicking broken-chord figures and mischievous “ants-in-your-pants” running motives within a driving harmonic framework.

Franz Schubert
Moments Musicaux D. 780

The six Schubert pieces published in 1827 under the title Moments musicaux are rooted in Viennese social life, particularly that brand of informal home entertaining that involved singing, dancing, and someone holding forth at the piano—that someone very often being Schubert himself. The spirit of song is evident in these pieces in their many singable melodies and a keyboard texture that extends little beyond the singable range of the human voice. The spirit of the dance may be felt, as well, in their buoyant rhythms and numerous sectional repeats.

While the context of this music is social, Schubert’s own personality is distinctly audible within it, especially in his quicksilver changes in tonal colouring between major and minor, his melodies glinting with small chromatic inflections, and at the phrase level in the way in which he toys playfully with the listener’s harmonic expectations.

These traits are evident in the opening Moderato which, after a little yodel-call in the purest C major, slips nonchalantly into C minor, then E flat major, then G minor, then back to C again, all in the time it would take you to pour yourself a glass of Riesling and take the first sip.

The halting sicilienne rhythms of No. 2 in A flat major strike an enigmatic tone of repressed sadness. This sadness plaintively takes centre stage in a minor-mode middle section full of gentle pathos that swells into heart-rending cries of operatic passion.

The overtly dance-like No. 3 in F minor is the most popular piece of the set. It was previously published separately under the title Air russe. But what seems like a folk dance with a Slavic flavour in its minor-mode sections becomes unmistakably Viennese when the tonality turns major.

An even more radical contrast is presented in No. 4 in C # minor, which begins as a moto perpetuo with a layered Baroque texture of constant 16ths in the right hand against steady 8ths in the left, but in its middle section in the major mode it turns into a gently swaying dance tune.

The most dramatic of the six pieces is undoubtedly No. 5 in F minor with its ‘Erlkönig’ feel of riding over hill & dale on horseback. No. 6 in A flat major is heavy with emotion, as well, but in a different sense. By dint of constant repetition of its descending two-note motive, it heaves sigh after sigh, to end the set on a note of philosophic acceptance and resignation.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 (Tempest)

It says something about the dramatic and outright theatrical character of Beethoven’s musical ideas that so many of his piano sonatas have attracted descriptive titles, titles that have even usurped the place of opus-number identifiers in the case of such famous works as the Pathétique, the Moonlight, the Appassionata and Les Adieux. The motivation for calling Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor Op. 31, No. 2 The Tempest comes from his biographer, Anton Schindler, who believed the work to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s play of the same name, although not all modern historians agree. 

Beethoven begins his sonata audaciously with a series of three musical gestures, at three different tempos, all on the very first line of the score. A slow, rolling arpeggio outlines a major chord (Largo), followed by an anxious series of mini-sighs furiously fretting away in a minor key (Allegro), and then another slow-down (Adagio) to come to a cadence. Well, Beethoven certainly has your attention now. What could be going on?

All is revealed when the movement gets underway. The arpeggio motive, rising up from the bass, appears as the first theme, but at a faster tempo. And the anxious mini-sighs return to fret again in the second theme. What appeared to be just an introduction actually turned out to be the key to the whole movement. It’s like coming to see the lord of the manor on a great country estate and finding that the impeccably dressed man leading you to the library isn’t the butler after all, he’s the lord of the manor himself. 

The dramatic tension in this movement is constant, with both first and second themes being set in the minor mode. Then there are those “girl-tied-to-the-railway-tracks” tremolos animating much of the silent movie you are picturing in your mind. And there are even episodes of operatic recitative just before the recapitulation, for added pathos. 

The second movement Adagio, by contrast, is the soul of stability in a major key (B flat) with not even a passing reference to the minor mode. Structured in sonata form without a development section, the textures in this movement evoke the various sections and instruments of an orchestra, especially the timpani-roll figure in the bass that eventually becomes an echo in the high register, as well.

While the first movement created its emotional payload by means of dramatic changes in tempo, the last movement gathers in intensity by the opposite means: its manic repetition of the same hypnotic figures at an eerily constant pace. It’s the aural equivalent of a circus house of mirrors in a Stephen King horror novel: you keep hearing the same pattern over and over again, as if you were going mad. Despite its gentle pace, this is really scary music, especially the ending, that just disappears down a fox hole at the bottom of the keyboard, as if a ghost had just left the room by passing through a wall.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83

Rachmaninoff and Scriabin were perhaps the last Russian composers to live out their creative lives according to the ideals of the Romantic era. Their world was one of individual artistic freedom with music viewed as the expression of personal emotion. They wrote under an open sky.

The low ceiling under which Soviet composers were made to work meant that their artistic message was available to audiences only after it had ricocheted off the walls of State ideology. With sincerity as collateral damage in the cultural crossfire, Russian musical rhetoric re-armed with the weapons of covert resistance. Thus many Sovietera works bristle with biting irony and a suspiciously patriotic flair for military rhythmic precision that might flatter the nation’s militant leaders while at the same serving as a warning to its population. Soviet composers, like their ideological jailers, were masters of double-think and their work was often tinged with suggestions of the grotesque.

Many of these qualities are evident in Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B flat, the second of his three “War Sonatas” written during WWII. Prokofiev was an admirer of the transparency and intellectual clarity of 18th-century music and his first movement Allegro inquieto takes as its model the Classical-era sonata with its lively and assertive first theme matched with a second theme of slower, more lyrical material. Much of the writing has the clarity of Scarlatti’s two-voice keyboard textures, sometimes even cut down to the bare bone in unisons between right and left hand, as in the opening measures.

But there the comparison to 18th-century procedure ends. Prokofiev’s first theme is spiky, angular and restless, his second theme area just as wandering but more meditative and contrapuntally self-absorbed. His harmonic vocabulary is persistently dissonant, rife with 7ths and 9ths, and in more active moments often encrusted with blurry tone clusters.

All the more startling, then, is the apparent sentimental “warmth” of the opening section of the second movement Andante caloroso. The melody, doubled in 10ths, is thought to be quoted from Schumann’s song Wehmut (sadness), but all resemblance is lost as it wanders through a bright forest of chromatic complications eventually to return to its original simplicity at the close of the movement.

The finale is a tour de force of percussive pianism, a toccata in 7/8 time written in the most diatonic language of all three movements—although its allegiance to the key of B flat, brutally hammered home at both ends of the keyboard in its final bars—seems motivated more by the cold logic of the guided missile than the nostalgia of the returning tonal emigré. Whether it summons up thoughts of the mechanical rhythms of Soviet industry, the implacable power of the KGB, or as Sviatoslav Richter, expressed it, the “lifeforce” that leads human struggle on to victory, this movement occupies a unique place at the summit of the piano repertoire.

Donald G. Gíslason

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