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Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D 958

Schubert’s unabashed admiration for Beethoven is vividly on display in the opening bars of his Sonata in C minor D 958, composed in September 1828, shortly before his death. Schubert had served as a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral the year before, and his own death from tertiary syphilis was to be only months away, which may perhaps account for the unusually serious tone of this work.

The key chosen for the sonata, C minor, is synonymous with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, as expressed in the Pathétique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, the last piano sonata Op. 111– as well as the famous 32 Variations in C minor, after which Schubert’s de ant opening statement is rhythmically and harmonically patterned.

Schubert has not lost himself entirely, however, in Beethoven’s musical personality, as his choice of second theme shows. This theme is pure Schubert, a lovingly affectionate little hymn with chiming, bell-like pedal tones that Schubert somehow then manages to transform into a dance. Drama returns, however, in the development section, that chews away at the first theme’s motives before settling into a long rumination on a neighbour-note figure alternating between bass and treble. The re-transition to the sonata’s opening statement to begin the recapitulation is masterfully handled by means of menacing hints in the bass line of the aggressive punchy chords that began the movement.

Schubert’s second movement is something of an eyebrow-raiser: it is a real adagio, a comparative rarity in the works of a composer whose lyrical instincts tended to emerge at a more moderato pace. In its concentrated lyrical tone, piecemeal phrasing, and style of ornamentation, it owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor. Not to mention the accompanimental patterns that it borrows from the slow movement of another sonata in C minor, the Pathétique.

There is an anxious, worrying quality about the Minuetto & trio that it is hard to put your finger on. Minuets in a minor key are a bit odd to start with, although Mozart produced a sublime example in his Symphony No. 40 in G minor K 550. The sense of unease in Schubert’s minuet may simply be a matter of how this movement seems alienated from the spirit of the dance. Its irregular phrase lengths, the sudden disturbing changes in dynamics and unexpected silences are more ghostly than toe-tapping.

And ghostly is a good description of the last movement Allegro, in which Schubert unleashes his inner playful demon with wicked glee. This moto perpetuo movement, with its dancelike tarantella rhythm (likely patterned after the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3), is both thrilling and strangely ominous, reminiscent of the night ride in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig. The keyboard writing is brilliantly effective, however, especially in the galloping second theme, with its cross-handed texture of melodic fragments jockeying between high and low register, leaping across a steady horse-hoof pulse in the middle of the keyboard.

Percy Grainger
Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier

The Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger is best known for his arrangement of the English folksong, In an English Country Garden. He also wrote piano paraphrases, many of which he labelled “rambles,” presumably to indicate the meandering pleasure he took in wandering through the musical meadows of other composers’ works. His most elaborately wrought of these is based on the love duet between Sophie and Octavian (Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein) in the final scene of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

Grainger was an admirer of Richard Strauss, the great virtue of whose music lay in its sumptuous “vulgarity” (Grainger’s word), vastly preferable, in his view, to the demeanour of modesty and emotional restraint of, for example, Ravel. Armed with these premises, the modern listener should be prepared, when listening to Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble, for an encounter with the aesthetic tastes of a bygone era, an era of ear-tickling “frilly” pianism offered up in a tenor of open-hearted emotionalism encapsulated in the term “schmaltz”.

Grainger composed this paraphrase in what he calls his “harped” style, one in which waves of harmonic colour are heard to ripple across the entire sound register of the instrument in poetic arpeggio formations, and even the notes of chords written on the same stem are not always served up in solid blocks but rather “sprinkled” out in digital sequence. It is a style that luxuriates in the amount of keyboard real estate it can occupy in a single phrase, with each tuneful scrap of melody intoned in the mid-range paired with a sonic echo somewhere in the outer regions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the distance between the concert hall and the piano lounge narrows considerably during the performance of this work.

Audience members with a bird-watcher’s interest in rare sightings will want to train their opera glasses on the pianist’s shoelaces before the piece begins to catch a glimpse of the middle “sostenuto” pedal being deployed as selected bass notes are silently depressed above on the keyboard.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B at minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff ’s second piano sonata is in three movements bound together by the cyclical recurrence of common musical motives. It sounds like one continuous work in three parts, however, as the first movement closes softly and is followed by a bridge section at the opening of the second movement that recurs at the end to connect it to the finale. This sonata is a massive work in which Rachmaninoff projects his trademark sense of pianistic power and musical muscle as convincingly as he does in his piano concertos, with which the sonata shares some large-scale formal design features: a fast middle section in the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis of lyrical melody at the end of the last movement – prominent features of his 2nd and 3rd piano concertos.

The work opens with one of the great dramatic gestures in the piano repertoire, an arpeggio plunging to the bottom of the keyboard followed by a cannon-echo above that outlines the first theme: a falling 3rd, and chromatically descending melody, developed over a series of cadenza-like passages before a calmer, more hymn-like second theme appears in the major mode, also based on the chromatic melody. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fist-chords of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a fever that has ebbed, but not quite run its course.

The second movement opens with a series of questioning phrases, as if bewildered and almost dejected. Solace does come, though, in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright and ringing bell-strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The lyrical climax of the movement comes shortly thereafter in a heart-breaking series of harmonic sequences that tug at the emotions as only Rachmaninoff can. The mood then turns darkly ruminative, as fragments of the first movement are worried and fretted over until the opening material is recalled and the questioning phrases return.

The finale interrupts this mood of contemplation with a cascade of sound and a series of stabbing gestures that issues into the first theme, a wild ride surging onward in a solid wall of sound, reinforced by the frequent tolling of the lowest B at on the keyboard, plumbed over and over again. Rachmaninoff ’s lyrical instincts then take over to offer us a warmly generous and expansive second theme that later becomes the exalted subject of the movement’s apotheosis. The movement ends, like the concertos, with a scramble to the finish in reworks reminiscent of the ending of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto.

Maurice Ravel
La Valse

Ravel had been planning to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz since 1906, when he began to sketch out a piece he called simply Wien (Vienna),a tribute to the “waltz king,” Johann Strauss II. But it was only under a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the famous Ballets Russes, that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev hated the work after hearing it played in Ravel’s two-piano version, but the composer published it in an orchestral version anyway and it premiered in 1926. Meanwhile, the original solo piano version produced when the work was composed endured as a daunting enigma for intrepid pianists to master and perform.

The problems to be confronted are many. With three authentic versions issuing from the pen of the composer, what is a pianist to do? The solo piano score is an ultra-compressed version of both the two-piano and orchestral versions. A signi cant portion of it is written with a third staff above the regular piano part to indicate prominent lines in the other versions, so every performance is by definition a kind of transcription: the pianist must decide just how much to include. Leave out the slyly creeping chromatic ligree in the inner lines and much of the piece’s Viennese charm is lost. Omit the extravagant glissandi at climactic high points and the piece loses a major source of its propulsive exuberance.

Yet another problem is that the score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass in preparation for bits of waltz rhythm to emerge haphazardly above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between an uninhibited, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.

Ravel describes what he called his poème chorégraphique as follows: “Swirling clouds a ord glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

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