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Program Notes: Sir András Schiff (Tuesday, February 9)

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 62 in E flat major, Hob. XVI:52

Joseph Haydn wrote his last three piano sonatas on his second visit to England
(1794-95), keenly aware that the sound of the English piano was very different from
that of its Viennese counterpart. Viennese pianos were quick and responsive but
their sound, like their action, was light. English pianos had a heavier action, longer
keys, and a fuller, more room-filling sound.

The so-called London piano school (Clementi, Cramer, Dussek) excelled in
exploiting this beefier sonority to create keyboard textures brimming with dramatic
effects that played to the instrument’s strengths: full chords in both hands, frequent
dynamic contrasts, dizzying runs plunging from the top to the bottom of the
keyboard, and sugary double 3rds for an extra-sweet sonority in the upper register.

Haydn obviously knew this bag of tricks carefully, because his Sonata in E flat
contains all of them, and more. Opening boldly with a fanfare of full-textured 6-
and 7-note chords, its first 10 bars feature no less than five alternations between
forte and piano, the last coming at the end of a dramatic run that swoops down a
good four octaves to a low E flat. The first theme abounds in double 3rds while the
second theme imitates the tick-tock action of a mechanical clock, a popular musical
motif of the period. Piano sonority is putty in Haydn’s hands, swelling with the throb
of orchestral tremolos, then subsiding in long held notes (a good example is just
before the development section).

A different kind of sonic theatre is enacted in the second movement sarabande, a
stately piece in 3/4 time with a noticeable emphasis on the second beat. Added
stateliness is assured by the double-dotted rhythm in the theme, but the real story
in this movement is in the ornamentation. The score is simply swimming in grace
notes and other grand ornamental additions to the melodic line, many of them
ecstatic runs gliding up to the high register in the manner of an improvising opera
singer.

The finale pulses to the beat of an army drum, introduced at the opening in a series
of repeated notes over a low bass pedal: the shepherd’s musette meets the military
tattoo. Adding to the comic tone of the proceedings, all this mechanical precision
is frequently stopped dead in its tracks by inexplicable pauses that often set the
listener up for a sound explosion and a burst of activity to follow. Add in more than
a handful of cheeky fz accents on weak beats of the bar and you have as good a
demonstration of Haydn’s impeccable musical wit as his keyboard music has to
offer.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as
a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly
struggle and spiritual transcendence—in terms of the raw elemental building blocks
of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form
movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set
of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged
leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness;
a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to
emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity.
Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The second
subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than
heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually
large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the
divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble
and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the
second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental
change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic
gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of
contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three
variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through
its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration
accompanying the variation theme. The third variation arrives at a degree of elation
that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark
with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.
It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle
luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever
more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to
glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until transmuted into
the essence of the divine.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in D major, K. 576

It is a measure of Mozart’s genius that he always knew how to do the minimum
to create maximum effect. The texture of his piano sonatas are spare—just shy of
spartan, in fact—but within them thrives a wealth of musical content rich enough to
satisfy the broadest range of listeners, with attractive melodies, foppish ornament
and learned procedure all cohabiting the same small musical space. Such, in fact,
was his ability to create attractive multi-dimensional musical structures that the
listener—like an ultra-hip viewer of The Simpsons—must constantly be on the lookout
for insider jokes.

Take the first movement of his Sonata in D K. 576, for example, which begins
with as macho an opening as could be imagined—a triadic, hunting horn motif—
answered directly by a phrase with frilly trills and a feminine ending that Robert
Levin has described as coming from “Miss Goody Two-Shoes.” Not to mention the
tangle of imitative counterpoint into which this call-to-the-hunt soon falls. Bach,
on horseback? Seriously? Or is this just a craftily disguised musical representation
of the hunt itself, with the melody ‘chasing’ itself, musically? The gap between a
Mozart musical structure and the thorniest of British crossword puzzles narrows
considerably when the dimension of wit is considered.

An air of operatic dignity radiates from the lyrical slow movement, laid out in
the A-B-A form of the Baroque da capo aria, with its more active middle section
in the relative minor key. This middle section, however, is anything but singable,
being more in the style of a richly chromatic, free keyboard improvisation on its
underlying harmonies.

Carefree nonchalance rides in the same carpool with learned counterpoint in the
last movement rondo as an opening theme, so coyly inflected as to be almost
flippant, gets immediately roiled by a left hand of churning countermelody.
Compositionally, Mozart puts everything but the kitchen sink in this finale, with
virtuoso passagework in the style of a piano concerto sitting cheek-by-jowl with
canons and fits of double counterpoint, all the while maintaining a pose of naïve
simplicity and toe-tapping rhythmic regularity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B flat major, D. 960

It would be wrong to judge Schubert by the standards set by Beethoven, who
represented the logical extension of an outgoing rationalist Classical age. Schubert
represented the intuited beginning of a new Romantic age, an age in which formal
models, previously held together by patterns of key relationships and motivic
manipulation, would find coherence in a new kind of structural glue based on the
psychological drama of personal experience.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Schubert’s approach to the Classical era’s
pre-eminent formal structure, the sonata. Like a good tailor adjusting an old suit, he
lets out the seams of strict sonata form to allow it to breathe with the new lyrical
air of his age. Concision and argumentative density are replaced with timeless
daydreaming and lyrical breadth. Schubert’s sonata movements often contain three
major themes instead of the standard two, arrived at and departed from by way of
unexpected, sometimes startling, modulatory surprises. By this means he blunted
the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving largescale
tonal tensions but rather directed the listener’s attention to the momentby-moment
unfolding of melodic contours and harmonic colours. And yet even
these moments are frequently punctuated by thoughtful pauses. In the end, what
Schubert aims to create is a balanced and satisfying collection of lyrical experiences
within the formal markers of the traditional sonata: exposition, development, and
recapitulation.

Given these lyrical aims, it should not be surprising that he favoured moderate
tempos such as the Molto moderato of the first movement of his Sonata in B flat
D. 960, a work composed just months before his death in 1828. Its opening theme
features a peaceful melody, with a hint of pathos in its second strain, supported by
a simple pulsing accompaniment and ending with a mysterious trill at the bottom
of the keyboard. This trill will be an important structural marker in the movement,
repeated (loudly) at the first ending of the exposition and just before the start of
the recapitulation.

A second theme of a more serious cast, and a third of hopping broken chords
round out the exposition, each passing fluidly between the major and minor modes
like a tonal dual citizen, mirroring the dual modes of sweet yearning and inner
anxiety that characterize the composer’s ‘outsider’ persona in works such as Die
Winterreise. Major becomes minor and minor major as well in the development,
which maintains the initial pulse of the opening as it builds to a fierce climax.

The second movement Andante sostenuto is surreal in its starkly spare texture
of layered sonorities, featuring a sombre but halting melody in the mid-range
surrounded on both sides by a rocking accompaniment figure that quietly resounds
like the echo inside a stone tomb. Only Schubert could create such a melody, one
that combines sad elegy with tender reminiscence and pleading prayer, relieved
only by the nostalgic strains of the movement’s songful middle section.

The third movement scherzo is surprisingly smooth-flowing in a genre known for its
mischievous wit, but mixes it up with twinkling echo effects in the high register and
exchanges of melodic material between treble and bass. The trio is more sombre
and contained, expressing its personality more through syncopations, sudden
accents, and major-minor ambiguities than through wide-ranging scamper and
exuberance.

One might actually think that some of the lightness of mood from the previous
movement had influenced the start of the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which
keeps wanting to start in the ‘wrong’ key (C minor, for a movement in B flat), but
quickly sorts itself out to offer us one of Schubert’s most unbuttoned, ‘bunnieshopping-in-a-box’
merry themes. And more still await us as a gloriously songful
melody takes over, only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatically forceful new
motive in a dotted rhythm that charges in, like a SWAT team breaking down the
door of an evil-doer’s lair. But it was all a misunderstanding, of course, and these
threatening minor-mode motives are soon dropped in favour of an almost parodistic
variant of the same material in the major mode, something that kindergarten
children might skip to at recess. The force of Schubert’s imagination ensures that
this last movement of his last sonata is as vivid and riotous a ride through the rondo
genre as that of his Erlkönig “through night and wind.”

Donald G. Gíslason

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