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Program Notes: Sir András Schiff (Sunday, February 7)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in B flat major K. 570

The period of the 1770s and 1780s brought regime change to the world of keyboard
music as the harpsichord was gradually edged out by the first generation of
fortepianos, capable of playing both loud (forte) and soft (piano) on the same set
of keys. The pace of development was dizzying, comparable to that of computers
today, with game-changing new models coming out every few years.

While Haydn delighted in exploiting the sonic capabilities of each new instrument
that came under his fingers, Mozart was much more conservative in his approach.
He remained generally much closer, in his keyboard writing, to the lean contrapuntal
textures of the chamber ensemble than to the bold new pianistic world of handcrossings,
extreme ranges, and pedal effects explored by Haydn.

Mozart’s Sonata in B flat K. 570 is a perfect example of his more conservative
approach. It opens with a meet-and-greet introduction to the home key: the B-flat
major chord is spelled out note by note, and the key is confirmed by a running
passage containing all the notes of the scale.

Then like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a
few ingredients, Mozart uses the opening theme as his second theme, as well—in
a contrasting key, of course, and cast into the bass. But it’s the very same theme,
presented anew with some entertaining contrapuntal chatter in the treble, and it is
this contrapuntal chatter that will dominate in the development section. Mozart is
masterfully economical in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and
over again, mixing garnish and main course at will.

The second movement Adagio opens with a theme somewhere between stately
and solemn, a theme as lovingly devoted to the notes of the E-flat major chord as
the first movement’s opening was to that of B flat. Written in the form of a rondo, it
features two contrasting episodes, each quicker in pulse, more expansive in mood,
and wider in melodic range than the more static refrain to which they reliably return.

The last movement Allegretto, with its recurring tick-tock beat, summons up
the mechanical world of clockwork music, and features some robotic C-3POstyle
humour in its comic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative
counterpoint.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its
musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious
late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a
melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.
The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one
could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as
it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-andaccompaniment
texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic
lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It
is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone
and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this
movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply
compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of
the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section
is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd
Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin
liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in
equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard
grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with
rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers
of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of
tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by offbeat
accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with
dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the
traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation
of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and
then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing and sympathetic
triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of reason
over emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh
motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident,
evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first
movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as
the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before,
until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could
only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological
resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder
and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new
mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly
elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata
concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of
the keyboard.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 61 in D major Hob. XVI:51

Haydn is known for his surprises and his 61st sonata does not disappoint. First there
is the unorthodox two-movement structure of the work, with an opening movement
at a gentlemanly Andante pace and a finale that could easily be mistaken for a
scherzo. Each movement, moreover, ends on a quiet note, suggesting that this was
not a concert work, but rather conceived for private performance with a feminine
sensibility as its aesthetic target.

Composed during Haydn’s second visit to London (1794-95) this sonata was
obviously written to exploit the heavier, more powerful sound of the English piano.
English pianos were more resonant than their Viennese counterparts, especially
in the treble, but had a slower action less suited to pearly passagework. So Haydn
goes light on thematic development, maximizing instead the sonic effects made
popular by the London piano school of Clementi, Cramer, and Dussek: frequent
dynamic contrasts, multi-octave arpeggios, and passages in double 3rds and double
6ths.

The first movement begins with a snappy and ear-catching echo-dialogue between
right and left hands, quickly followed by a reply in stately dotted rhythms. A
strong current of vocally-inspired lyricism soon takes over in octaves with a triplet
accompaniment that strongly foreshadows the songful textures of Schubert.
Switching elastically between these two poles of collar-pulling excitement and
lyrical relaxation Haydn spins out copious variations of his material, maintaining all
the while a tone of leisurely amusement.

The same generosity of sentiment is evident in the finale, which despite its Presto
tempo indication proceeds in a moderately-paced succession of quarter notes for
much of its course. Beneath this placid surface of rhythmic uniformity, however, is a
lively pattern of rapidly changing harmonies, and a weak beat of the bar that keeps
aspiring to be the strong beat, jabbing you in the ribs with a gusto and relish that
would soon become known as ‘Beethovenian’.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in A Major D. 959

The wretched state of Schubert’s health in the last months of his life stands in
striking contrast to the vitality of his creative output in this period, exemplified by
his last three piano sonatas. The second of these, the Sonata in A Major, displays
in its four contrasting movements all the qualities that make this composer so
hard to pin down as either an inheritor of Classical-era forms or a brilliant pioneer
of the new Romantic movement, with its emphasis on psychological reality as a
structuring element in music.

Much of the confusion may be laid at the feet of Beethoven, whose shadow hangs
heavy over Schubert’s musical legacy. The argumentative force of the great
composer’s musical vision seems to relegate Schubert to the margins of musical
greatness by comparison. But then again, Schubert is not arguing with you. The
prize-fight atmosphere of Beethoven’s most compelling sonata movements, with
motivic combatants duking it out in the musical boxing ring, is hardly comparable
to the imaginative flights of fancy that make Schubert much closer to My Dinner
with André than to Rocky.

The first movement of Schubert’s A Major Sonata puts Classical and Romantic
musical gestures side-by-side. Solidly Classical is its stern opening comprised of
repeated motives driving to a firm cadence. And Classical as well is the strong
contrast between first and second themes, not to mention the eruptions of
contrapuntal ‘churn’ that roil the texture at regular intervals. But the Classical mould
is just as often broken in Schubert’s use of irregular phrase lengths, miraculous
modulations, and a pursuit of instrumental colour that sees cascades of octavespanning
arpeggios interpolated into the musical argument with the nonchalance of
a reader turning the pages of a book. Indeed, the closing bars of the movement are
awash in rippling waves of harmonic colour that foretell the poetic opening pages
of Liszt’s A Major Concerto.

Where Schubert sets his sights on the sublime is in the second movement, a tour de
force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle
section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles
fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More
wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and
eventually to a dramatic confrontation. When the hypnotic world of the movement’s
bleak opening returns, it finds itself accompanied by a strange knocking-on-thedoor
motive, resounding like a distant echo.

Another personality entirely inhabits the third movement scherzo, an energetic,
acrobatically playful diversion that hops from register to register with carefree
abandon, often dancelike, always impish. Its contrasting trio is much more of a
home body, staying put in the centre of the keyboard, stabilized by a recurring
pedal tone.

The sonata-rondo finale has many fathers, being a reworked version of the middle
movement of Schubert’s own Sonata in A Minor D. 537, patterned after the finale of
Beethoven’s Sonata in G Major Op. 31 No. 1, and with an opening theme strangely
reminiscent of the St. Anthony Chorale attributed to Haydn. In presenting his
material, Schubert often imitates a chamber ensemble, with melodies singing
out loudly from the mid-range, or passing antiphonally from treble to bass. The
development section goes through a bruising bout of orchestral-style turbulence,
but Schubert’s special fondness is for the pure singing tone of the piano itself. This
movement is full of melodies set against a burbling accompaniment in triplets, or
chiming up high in its register like a music box.

Donald G. Gíslason

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