VRS, Author at Vancouver Recital Society

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PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johannes Brahms
7 Fantasies Op. 116

If the word fantasy implies improvisation and free association of thoughts, then the collection of three capricci and four intermezzi that Brahms published under the title Fantasien in 1892 are misnamed, as they are among the most densely expressive and tightly crafted miniatures to come from his pen. Some have seen the collection as a kind of multi-movement ‘sonata’, with the three intermezzi in E (Nos. 4-6) grouped together as a slow movement. Less controversial is the notion that the motive of the descending 3rd forms a unifying thread running through the entire set.

Expressive devices seem to be in overdrive in this collection of richly layered pieces, with the fundamental parameters of musical construction – rhythm, harmony, melody, and tone colour – constantly shifting under our feet as we listen. Rhythm is the most obvious of these, its regularity being subverted at every turn by the use of hemiola, syncopation, and other dislocations of the metrical pulse. Harmonies swimming in rich pools of bass overtones constantly come in and out of the shadows and further stretch our sense of time when resolutions are delayed.

The tone palette is orchestral in its range of colours, suggesting the various instrument choirs of a large ensemble, with textures ranging from heftily scored to virtually threadbare. The contrapuntal weave of these works is thick and two-voice imitative duets abound, sometimes even in the same hand. You get the impression that the real meaning of these pieces is often being whispered to you in the middle voices.

Each is in ternary (three-part) form, with a contrasting middle section and an opening section that returns at the end, often varied in some essential way. The moods presented may be fiery or deeply reflective, with the term capriccio generally describing those of more extraverted character and intermezzo – those more inly wrapped in musical thought.

The opening Capriccio in D minor presents a volcanic lava flow of piano sonority stretching from the very bottom of the keyboard to the upper mid-range, and is particularly ambiguous in its metrical pulse.

The Intermezzo in A minor begins like a sarabande, with a prominent stress on a long-held second beat of the bar. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of wistful minor tonality and major-mode contentment.

The Capriccio in G minor is restless in its pursuit of chains of descending thirds. Its middle section rapturously develops out of an instinct for chorale-singing.

The Intermezzo in E major has the quality of a nocturne, its middle section luminous with the soft gleam of moonlight.

The Intermezzo in E minor is remarkable for its eerie opening, configured in two-note groups of full chords and single notes, creating an almost hiccup-like texture of mismatched resonances on the keyboard.

The second Intermezzo in E major that follows evokes a stately court dance of some sort, quizzically interrogated by a chromatically climbing middle voice.

The final Capriccio in D minor restlessly explores the descending 3rds motive in its opening section. Its middle section is a marvel of keyboard scoring that features a leading voice in the middle of the texture surrounded by garlands of ornamental figuration.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C minor Hob. XVI:20

The period of the 1770s was remarkable for two important developments in music history. The first was the replacement of the harpsichord by the fortepiano as the preferred instrument for keyboard composition and performance. The second was the aesthetic movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm & stress) that promoted emotional intensity and deep expressivity as leading characteristics in artistic expression. In music, this resulted in works streaked with pathos, anxiety, and moodiness, often in minor keys and rife with dramatic contrasts of soft and loud.

Haydn’s C minor Piano Sonata, composed in 1771, stands emblematic of both developments. The sudden dynamic contrasts in the score reveal it to be Haydn’s first keyboard sonata expressly written for the piano, while its dark tone and wide emotional range mark it as a typical product of the Sturm und Drang era.

This is evident from the way the first movement opens, with a pair of two-note sigh motives, more sobs than sighs. And yet the movement’s mood is not one of sustained hand-wringing but rather of emotional volatility, a volatility expressed most tellingly in its quicksilver changes in rhythm and texture that keep the listener constantly on edge. Lavishly applied trills, turns, and mordents, combined with perky dotted rhythms and impetuous scale figures, convey energy and a focused sense of purpose but they alternate with sigh motives and even an adagio cadenza that daydreams the proceedings to a complete halt in the middle of the exposition. Indicative of the sense of worry and restless unease that underlies the movement as a whole is the way that it ends softly, as if with a whimper.

The second movement, Andante con moto, has an archaic feel to it, as if some echo from the preceding Baroque era were being channeled in the simple two-voice texture with which it opens: a noble melody of small range advancing in measured steps over a walking bass. It reaches its peak of expressivity in its many passages of throbbing syncopations between the left and right hands.

Haydn makes a move to the dark side in his choice of finale. The standard practice of the time was for a last movement to be gay and lighthearted but the Allegro finale of the C Minor Sonata is by contrast psychologically intense and filled with a sense of urgency. Its peak of restless energy is reached in an extraordinary display of virtuoso hand-crossings of its second half.

Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Bagatelles Op. 33

If you have ever wondered what it might be like to have Beethoven at your dinner party, half in his cups and mischievously holding forth at the keyboard for the entertainment of all, then such an experience has been frozen in time for you in the score of his Bagatelles Op. 33. These seven little “trifles” (bagatelles in French) were published in 1803 for the popular market and they find him “trifling” with his audience’s expectations at every turn. Who knew that Beethoven could be such a cut-up?

Bagatelle No. 1 in E flat opens with the most naively innocent tune, sent aesthetically off-track from the get-go by a generous lathering of ornamentation in questionable taste that gets ever more garish with each reprise of the theme. And the formal proportions of the piece are way off-base, with trivial transition sections and routine cadencing patterns hilariously repeated and developed beyond their musical merits.

Now, Beethoven’s scherzo movements are known for their metrical and rhythmic jokes, but Bagatelle No. 2 in C major (actually labelled a scherzo) is way over the top in its manipulation of rhythm and accent, leaving the listener struggling to understand where the basic pulse is supposed to be. And the transition from the mock-serious Minore section back to the jumpy opening material is so abrupt as to be ludicrous.

No. 3 in F major spoils its charmingly folk-like melody by placing its second phrase in a remote key, unprepared, which makes the modulation back to the original key for the repeat all the more awkward. The problem only gets worse when Beethoven adds appoggiatura ornamentation to the theme, highlighting the incongruity.

No. 4 in A major parodies a sugary musette, with a stationary pedal tone in the bass supporting a treble melody that doesn’t move much either. The middle section in the minor mode proceeds with much more harmonic variety, except that it is all accompaniment. There is no melody above for it to accompany!

The first section of No. 5 in C major sparkles in the high register, a real “tickling of the ivories.” But it does nothing more than set up, and then execute, a cadence pattern, over and over again. This piece is a parody of vapid passagework, and features on its last page a comic representation of a composer sitting at the keyboard, playing the same single note over and over again, trying to figure out where to take the music. In the end he decides … to repeat what he has already written before.

The tune of No. 6 in D major is at war with itself. The first phrase longs to be taken seriously as lyrical, but the second phrase spoils the effect with a playful cadence.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the repeated 3rds at the opening of No. 7 in A flat major were about to issue out into an early version of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53. This final bagatelle is a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much repetition and the erroneous notion that you can get a different result by merely doing the same thing over and over again.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata 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 dulcet 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 5 alternations between forte and piano, the last coming at the end of a dramatic run that swoops down a good 4 octaves to a low E flat. The 1st theme abounds in double 3rds while the 2nd 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 of this is just before the development section.

A different kind of sonic theatre is enacted in the 2nd movement sarabande, a stately piece in 3/4 time with a noticeable emphasis on the 2nd 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 a 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.

PROGRAM NOTES: SIR SIMON KEENLYSIDE

Johannes Brahms
Songs from Opp. 6, 72, 86 & 96

It may be surprising to learn that while Brahms is universally revered as a giant of 19th-century instrumental music, he is often listed as one of the lesser composers of 19th-century art song. This may be because the texts he chose to set were for the most part not those of the great German poets. It may also be because he was loathe to indulge in the type of word-painting that Schubert had established so effectively as a major dramatic feature of the Lied (art song) genre.

But Brahms was strongly of the view that truly great poetry had no need of music, and so he chose lesser works that his musical ideas could more easily illuminate. His musical ideal in vocal music remained the simple German folk song with one general mood, subtly varied in response to the meaning of the text. A major role in creating that mood was the piano accompaniment, as illustrated in the songs chosen by Sir Simon.

In Nachtigallen schwingen (Nightingales beat their wings) the twitter and rustling of birds is picturesquely sounded out in the piano’s chattering triplets that create an animated aural backdrop to the singer’s identification with them as he walks through the forest.

Even more vivid is the piano’s depiction of the ebb and flow of waves breaking and foaming on the shore in Verzagen (Despair).

The piano conveys the tramp-tramp-tramping of footsteps over heathery terrain in Über die Heide (Over the heather) while its gentle drowsy pulse and saturated harmonies evoke the mood of Brahms’ famous lullaby in O kühler Wald (O cool forest).

An unusual and slightly eerie alternation between major and minor captures the ear immediately in the piano introduction to Nachtwandler (Sleepwalker). It almost sounds like a mistake, but conveys brilliantly the floating psychological state of the somnambulist.

A more playful interaction between piano and singer characterizes the last song in the set, Es schauen die Blumen (The flowers gaze), in which the piano plays the role of supportive sidekick, often echoing the vocal line back to the singer, as if to say: “Hear, hear. Well said.”

Francis Poulenc
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire

Francis Poulenc was absolutely besotted with the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), originator of the terms cubism and surrealism. Apollinaire’s manner of constructing the fantastical ‘word salads’ of his poems finds its musical equivalent in the way that Poulenc composed these four settings of Apollinaire poems in 1931. Poulenc would compose isolated phrases individually, and then assemble them together as a kind of cubist collage.

The result is a kaleidoscopically colourful mix of sometimes comical non-sequiturs depicting with twinkling irony and dreamy nostalgia the somewhat louche demi-monde of society in which the composer thrived, and into which he threw himself with gay (in all senses) abandon. A pose of restrained elegance, however, keeps the aesthetic pose well this side of ‘camp’.

L’Aiguille (The eel) is a valse-musette that, in the composer’s words, “evokes the atmosphere of a shady hotel, with a rhythm inspired by little steps in felt shoes, and should be touching.

Carte postale is dedicated to Madame Cole Porter and strikes a tone of amorous mockery.

The last two works in the collection, Avant le cinema and 1904, are patter songs that rely on the straight face of the singer for their wit to come across at just the right voltage.

Francis Poulenc
Suite Française for piano

In 1935 Poulenc was commissioned to write incidental music for Edouard Bourdet’s play La Reine Margot about Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), wife of Henri de Navarre (1553-1601), later crowned Henri IV of France. To get the right period feel for his music, Poulenc plundered the Livre de danceries of 16th-century French composer Claude Gervaise, whose dances he rewrote in a modern neo-classical style for chamber orchestra, much as Stravinsky had done with the music of Pergolesi for the ballet Pulcinella. A piano version of this incidental music to La Reine Margot came out in the same year under the title Suite Française.

Like Stravinsky, Poulenc mostly kept the four-square phrasing, simple repetitive rhythms and modal harmonies of the original scores, creating variety by setting various sections for different choirs of instruments within the orchestra – a feature mimicked in the piano version. The modern sound of Poulenc’s score comes from his austerely sonorous, widely-spaced chord figurations, replete with 7ths and 9ths, as well as many acerbic ‘wrong-note’ harmonies.

The dances vary in mood, with the lively bransles, fanfare-like Petite marche militaire and celebratory Carillon alternating with the more serene and wistful Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne.



Francis Poulenc
Le travail du peintre


Poulenc was a keen and enthusiastic observer of visual art. In the journal he kept on a visit to the United States he wrote enthusiastically about the paintings that captured his attention at the museums he visited. The idea of writing a song cycle about 20th-century painters that he admired first came to him after the publication in 1948 of Voir, an anthology of his friend Paul Eluard’s poems about the painters in his life. Eluard was also an art lover and an avid collector, who owned works by all the painters included in the song cycle that Poulenc eventually composed almost a decade later as settings of Eluard’s poems. Le Travail du peintre (The work of the painter) was commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty, who gave the first performances of the song cycle in 1957 in Paris with the composer at the piano.

Poulenc’s settings are more a reaction to Eluard’s poems than a direct appreciation of the painters they set out musically to describe. Pablo Picasso is iron-willed, filled with invincible energy. The playful fantasy and dreamlike mischief of Marc Chagall is captured in what Poulenc called a “rambling scherzo.” Georges Braque is fondly remembered for his aquatints and etchings of birds in flight, imitated with the zesty chirping of bird sounds in the piano. The carefully composed cubist constructions of Juan Gris find their correlative in the balanced phrases of the song composed in his honour. Paul Klee receives short shrift in a quick song having little, it seems, with the painter’s actual work but inserted because of a need for contrast in the cycle as a whole.

The song devoted to Juan Miró seems fixated on that painter’s treatment of the sky. And finally, Jacques Villon, pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp (brother of the more famous Marcel) is memorialized in a litany of phrases that Poulenc sets with an even, regular pacing as a timeless contemplation of eternal human values.

Franz Schubert
Selected Lieder

Schubert is credited with single-handedly transforming the German Lied from its status as a form of home entertainment mostly cultivated by amateurs, and largely ignored by serious composers, into a worthy vehicle for artistic expression at the highest level. Not a bad item on your resumé if you were a mere teenager, as Schubert was when in 1815 at the age of 17 he composed his first epoch-making lieder, Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade.

What distinguished Schubert’s contributions to the genre was the way in which he brought the full range of musical resources – harmony, texture and declamatory style – to bear on the expression of the poetic text, as the selections on Mr. Keenlyside’s program amply demonstrate.

Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem Liebesbotschaft (Message of Love) asks the burbling brook, ably represented by the cheerfully flowing figuration of the piano, to take his message of love downstream where his beloved lies daydreaming at the river’s edge.

Alinde is another song combing water imagery and the theme of love’s yearning. Its gently rocking barcarolle rhythm in 6/8 time represents both the lapping of waves at the water’s edge and the lover’s impatience as he waits for his beloved to arrive. An endearing, almost cutesy touch is provided by the small run-up ornaments in the piano.

Standchen (Serenade) is a song drawn from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. In the scene in which it appears none-too-bright Cloten has crept into the bedroom of Imogen, who lies sleeping, to sing her this artless song with the hope that she will awake, arise, and make him happy in the way that only a young woman in nightclothes can. Cloten’s doltish overestimation of his chances in this regard is underlined by harmonies based on pedal tones and a naively upbeat rhythmic pattern in the piano.

Pity the budding epic poet in An die Leier (To the Lyre) whose musical sidekick, his lyre, has a mind of its own and will only let him sing love songs. Anxious calls to war are conveyed in clangorous dotted rhythms of diminished 7th chords out of which sweet dominant 7ths always seem to emerge to send the music in a more amorous direction.

In Nachtstück (Night Piece) an old man slowly walks into the forest at the close of day to commune with nature and consider his own approaching death. The opening introduction depicts his slow measured gait but more consoling music intervenes when he considers the rest that death will bring.

Similar thoughts on the impermanence of human life motivate An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (To the Moon on an Autumn Night), a quasi-operatic solo aria, complete with recitative, bound together by a recurring ritornello in the piano. The constant presence of the moon shining down on the singer is evoked by the piano’s frequent echoing of the vocal line.

Herbstlied (Autumn Song) is Schubert’s tip of the hat to the lads and lasses who bring in the harvest. Folksong-like in the simplicity of its melody and its structuring in balanced phrases, it has an almost Handelian sense of quiet dignity and restful lyricism.

The last song in Sir Simon’s selection of Schubert songs is Abschied (Farewell) from the Schwanengesang song collection. This parting song is remarkable for its complete absence of melancholy. The singer is obviously leaving on his own terms and happy to do so. We can just see him, trotting away from town on horseback, the prancing hoof-steps of his mount picturesquely painted in the staccato articulations of the piano accompaniment.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: ANDREA LUCCHESINI

Domenico Scarlatti
Six Sonatas K 491 – K 454 – K 239 – K 466 – K 342 – K 146

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of the Iberian peninsula, where Scarlatti worked at the royal courts of Spain and Portugal.

A frequent pattern in these works is for technically challenging figurations in the right hand to be repeated in the left, so their value as teaching pieces was recognized early. They were, in fact, first published under the title Esercizi. Their survival in the modern repertoire no doubt derives from the flurries of repeated notes and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half ending in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The sounds of court life come alive in the ceremonial fanfares of trumpets and volleys of brass choirs in the Sonata in D major K 491, with its simple repeated phrases and stomping cadence patterns enhanced with big cadential trills.

A similar ceremonial atmosphere reigns in the repeated-note drum beat of the Sonata in G major K 454 – until it erupts into exuberant multi-octave runs and frothy patterns of keyboard effervescence.

The clicks of castanets are heard in the snappy rhythms of the ever-so-Spanish Sonata in F minor K 239 while the following sonata in the same key (K 466) strikes a more wistful poetic mood with its plaintive whimpering phrases of complaint and heart-breaking cadential harmonies.

The Sonata in A major K 342 chases its own tail with scurrying patterns of scale patterns that only rarely stop to catch their breath.

The final work in the set, the Sonata in G major K 146, balances elegantly trilled scraps of melody with diving arpeggio gestures that suggest the brash strokes of the flamenco guitarist.

Luciano Berio
Six Encores

The Italian composer Luciano Berio had a gift for aphorism, for saying much and suggesting more in a brief span of time. His Six Encores written between 1965 and 1990 represent well Berio’s fascination with the piano as an instrument that generates pure sound rather than harmony or polyphony. Each piece demonstrates a single process at work, the unfolding of a single formal principle. The first two pieces in the set, for example, are concerned with the resonance that lingers when a piano key is played and not released.

The delicacy of Brin (French for “wisp, strand”) can be intuited from its name. A single, colourfully chromatic chord played at the very end contains all the notes “wispily” spun out before it arrives, the “strands” out of which it is slowly being put together. The pedalling here is watery, the mood reflective and sentimental, in keeping with Berio’s dedication of this piece to a friend who died at the age of 20, commemorated in the chiming of a high B-natural, the highest note in the piece, which occurs exactly 20 times.

In Leaf the overtones of notes held down cast a haze over the fistfuls of tone clusters punched out staccato. This and the preceding Brin, in the kaleidoscopic variety of viewpoints from which they present the same small amount of tonal material, have been compared to a “sound mobile” twisting in the air, to be taken in from all sides.

The four remaining pieces view the piano as a means of evoking the qualities of the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – and are named to associate each element with the keyboard (Klavier) of the instrument.

Wasserklavier is devoted to water and has been called “a loving forgery.” It re-imagines the Brahms Intermezzo in B flat minor Op. 117 No. 2 and the Schubert Impromptu in F minor Op. 142 No. 1 by passing their motivic components through a “refracted” contemporary lens. The descending 2nds of the Brahms Intermezzo, in particular, seem to come at the ear as if from a kind of fun-house distorting mirror.

Erdenklavier evokes the solidity of the earth with ringing open intervals – 4ths and 5ths – in a single line of melody featuring notes struck at widely differing dynamic levels and pedalled so as to last different amounts of time.

Luftklavier paints the air, a medium vibrating with energy, thanks to a colourful ostinato in the mid-range against which isolated pitches play in the wind on either side. The persistent fluttering tremolos in the score are reminiscent of Debussy while the rat-tat-tat of repeated notes recall Prokofieff’s Toccata Op. 11.

The last in the series of “elemental” pieces, Feuerklavier, rivals Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme in its tremolo-crazed depiction of the unpredictable patterns of flickering flames as they lick the air.

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 surprizes. By this means he blunted the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving large-scale tonal tensions. Rather, he directed the listener’s attention to the moment-by-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 surprizing 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 generally 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 somber 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 surprizingly 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, ‘bunnies-hopping-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 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: IGOR LEVIT

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms)

The Bach revival of the 19th century began with a performance of the
 St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, conducted by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It reached its stride at mid-century with the founding, by Robert Schumann and others, of the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society tasked with the publication of Bach’s complete works. Over the next 50 years, European musicians had ever-greater access, at a pace of almost one new volume a year, to the complete range of Bach’s creative output: cantatas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral suites, as well as works for harpsichord, clavichord and organ – the whole lot of it.

Only one problem remained: getting the public on their side. The most popular solo instrument of the 19th century, both on the concert stage and in the family home, was the piano, and while Bach wrote for virtually every performing instrument of his time, the piano was not one of them. The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel- framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription.

And the transcribers were many. Each saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own individual aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a lonely, moody, solitary figure capable of making the stone walls of his great church tremble with the force of his musical personality. Brahms, who became a subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft edition in 1856, took another view. For him, Bach was a musical craftsman whose surpassing merit resided deep in the formal structures of his scores, not in their surface effect.

His transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004 is thus an attempt to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sound of the violin on the piano. And in keeping with the severity of his approach, he wrote for the left hand alone, in order to reproduce for the performing pianist the challenges this polyphonic work would have originally posed for the solo violinist.

These challenges were not trivial. The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations. Bach’s Chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic pro le of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor.

The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavichord. Those used to hearing the Chaconne played in the more popular Busoni transcription will hear a new work in this rendition, one much more dependent on the musician’s ability to convey with fewer notes the greatness of its musical design through nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and expressive detail.

Ferruccio Busoni
Fantasia after J. S. Bach KiV 253

Busoni’s Fantasia was written in 1909 as an expression of personal grief at the death of his father, Ferdinando Busoni, the person who first introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is a hybrid between transcription and original composition, containing elements of both in equal measure.

Bach is present in fairly literal quotations from three works: the organ chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, who art the light of the day), from which the ‘tolling bell’ motive of four long repeated notes comes; the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen (God’s son is come) from the Kirnberger chorale settings; and the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to Almighty God) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.

Busoni’s own writing in the Fantasia envelops the quotations from Bach in shrouds of downcast rumination, as symbolized by deep explorations of the low range, and by recurring gentle echoes in the high range that are emblematic of a mystical contemplation of the Beyond. How earthly pain vies with religious faith for the mourner’s cast of mind is easily grasped

in the way that some of the chorale melodies are rhythmically displaced relative to the regular beat structure of the bass, especially in the dark and brooding introduction.

The high degree of harmonic indeterminacy in the writing gives it a ‘floating’ quality, as if the thoughts behind it were struggling through a fog of confused emotions. At times piercing, patterns of falling semitones evoke the stabbing pain of mourning. This heightened degree of expressiveness, and the means used to convey it, are much akin to the pianistic rhetoric of Scriabin.

The composer’s emotional ambivalence in this liturgical collection of consecrated memories is evident in the work’s closing gestures: a pair of echoes, the first up high, in the major mode, symbolizing heavenly peace, the last down in the bass, in the minor mode, symbolizing earthly grief.

Robert Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme in E at major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24

In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter, or perhaps because of it, he wrote down a theme o ered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.

The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized
hymn that in its downward-seeking phrases blends the pious fervour
of communal singing with the tenderness of personal reflection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring to vary instead its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices, the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.

It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment, the aural traces of a mental window gently closing on the world .

Richard Wagner
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal (arr. Liszt)

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual, glorifying the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood owing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined, military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera
in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of the actions and psychological states of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mood of mystery and the religious symbolism radiating out from the rst great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

Franz Liszt
Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam (arr. Busoni)

In 1847, Franz Liszt ended his career as a touring virtuoso pianist and took up residence in Weimar to concentrate on composition. Perhaps it was the experience of living in a place where Bach had lived and worked that prompted his interest in organ music, or perhaps it was the awakening of the religious feelings that would later see him take minor orders in the Catholic Church. Or indeed, perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t resist the temptation of writing for an instrument that could make even more noise than the iron-framed Érard pianos on which he broke so many strings in his concert career.

His first major composition for organ came in 1850, a gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue (lasting a good half hour) based on a chorale melody from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, which had premiered in Paris in 1849. In the opera, three evil Anabaptist fanatics in 16th-century Holland connive to convince the Dutch population that they all need to be re- baptized in order to get on the right side of the Almighty. Their recruiting song Ad nos ad salutarem undam (Come to us, to the waves of salvation) is a snivelling little tune in the minor mode with numerous awkward intervals in a demonic dotted rhythm.

Liszt’s treatment of this theme unfolds in three distinct sections. In the opening section the theme is teased out in small dramatic fragments, bit by bit, its character hinted at strongly by menacing snippets of dotted rhythm that unfold in a wide variety of styles, from bombastic assertion to hushed recitative, over vast swathes of the keyboard.

The placid and quietly lyrical Adagio second movement provides much welcome relief from the rough-textured and rambunctious Fantasy preceding it. This movement presents the theme in its entirety, in the major mode, and calmly meditates on its melodic character.

All this daydreaming, however, is interrupted by a sweeping cadenza that announces a return to the minor mode and the last movement’s fugue. Liszt’s fugue subject is a nasty piece of work, highlighting the aberrant intervals and pointed dotted rhythms of the original theme. Of course, Liszt can’t stay long in a purely contrapuntal texture and his fugue soon devolves once again into free fantasy to end in a blaze of triumphalism that would make even Napoleon blush.

Busoni does a masterful job of translating Liszt’s somewhat awkward and unidiomatic organ figurations into the virtuoso language of the piano paraphrase. Mimicking characteristic keyboard textures from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Réminiscences de Norma to convey the sonic heft of the original organ work, he seems at every turn to ask: Why use just one note when ten will do?

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: JULIA BULLOCK & JOHN ARIDA

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Four Lieder

About the Composer

Franz Schubert established the German lied as an important art form and then set a standard of excellence that no one since has quite matched. Schubert created more than 600 songs in a prodigious outpouring that sometimes saw him composing five songs in a single day. However, it is not the sheer number that matters, but rather the songs’ extraordinary quality and enormous emotional range. At the heart of Schubert’s genius lay his unrivaled gift for melody, whether it be the perfect melody to cover all verses in a strophic song or a theme for the piano that is even more crucial to the song’s emotional color than the singer’s line.

About the Works

No less an authority than Johannes Brahms called “Suleika I” of 1821 “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The poem for this song and its companion, “Suleika II,” is often attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe since it can be found in his compilation West-östlicher Divan, inspired by Goethe’s fascination with the work of 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz (Suleika is one of Hafiz’s characters). However, it was actually written by Marianne von Willemer, an Austrian actress who had a brief but intense relationship with Goethe, who edited the poem for his collection. Written while Willemer was traveling in 1815 from Frankfurt to Heidelberg to meet Goethe, it is a song to the East wind that blows on her outbound journey. The wind is heard in the piano’s opening measures before a whirling ostinato takes over, conjuring both the carriage’s motion and Willemer’s agitated heartbeat. Near the end, the tempo eases, a new three-note motif rings softly, and the key moves from B minor to a brighter B major as the singer anticipates meeting her lover.

The Friedrich Rückert poem to which “Lachen und Weinen” (“Laughing and Weeping”) is set portrays the instability of an adolescent’s emotions, oscillating rapidly between laughing and crying. Schubert adds a tenderly sympathetic touch at the words “Bei des Abendes Scheine” as the flightiness briefly falters and the harmonies slide to minor. Setting a true Goethe poem, the wonderfully concise song “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (“Wanderer’s Nightsong II”) is an example of Schubert’s sublime simplicity in capturing a poem’s mood, which, in John Reed’s words, is a “progression from outward calm to inner peace.” Written in 1816, “Seligkeit” (“Bliss”) sets one of Schubert’s favorite poets, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty. An uncomplicated strophic song, it is a giddy little waltz that perfectly matches the mood of uncomplicated joy.

SAMUEL BARBER (1910–1981)
Hermit Songs, Op. 29

About the Composer

From an early age, Irish poems and tales fascinated Samuel Barber, who was partly of Irish descent himself. In the summer of 1952, he finally traveled to Ireland, and while visiting sites connected with William Butler Yeats during a trip to Donegal, he found Yeats’s grave to be surrounded by tombstones belonging to people with the Barber name. When Barber returned to the United States, his research turned up some texts in old Gaelic written during the early Middle Ages by anonymous Irish monks and hermits. Their pithy power and earthy expressiveness captivated him.

About the Works

In a note Barber wrote for the publication of his Hermit Songs, he described them as “written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of the manuscripts they were copying or illuminating—perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small poems, thoughts, or observations—some very short—and speak in straightforward, droll, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, animals, and to God.”

With a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Barber wrote his 10 Hermit Songs between November 1952 and February 1953. A painstaking text setter, Barber carefully selected translations; dissatisfied with the versions of two of the texts, he asked W. H. Auden to prepare fresh ones. Barber was considering various famous international singers to debut the Hermit Songs, until he heard the young Leontyne Price—then completely unknown—in her teacher’s studio. Barber and Price performed the premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, on October 30, 1953. It was the beginning of a long creative partnership between Barber and Price, culminating in Antony and Cleopatra.

A Closer Listen

From the 13th century, “At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” is a pilgrim’s tormented song as he travels to Loch Derg (Red Lake) in County Donegal, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The pianist’s left hand measures out his relentless steps while the right hand’s bell motif suggests the spiritual solace awaiting him. As with most of the songs, Barber establishes no meter, allowing the singer freedom to follow the irregular rhythms of the words.

The 12th-century “Church Bell at Night” is one of the aphoristic songs in which Barber captures the blunt speech of the monks. A shimmering bell chord irradiates the song. Attributed to Saint Ita of the eighth century, “Saint Ita’s Vision” is one of the loveliest of the Hermit Songs. A broad narrative recitative leads to a rocking lullaby as the saint experiences her mystical vision of the infant Jesus nursing at her breast. Attributed to the 10th- century’s Saint Brigid, “The Heavenly Banquet” is another joyful vision in which denizens of Heaven appear as ordinary human beings at a celestial banquet. The piano’s racing scales fuel the singer’s delight.

“The Crucifixion” comes from a 12th-century anthology, The Speckled Book. The piano’s fluting high motif mimics “the cry of the first bird.” The singer’s phrases evoke pain and grief powerfully but without exaggeration. The final twist is the shift of focus away from Christ’s suffering to the suffering of his mother, Mary. Marked “surging,” “Sea-Snatch” is a panicked cry to Heaven by sailors drowning in one of Ireland’s wild storms. Equally brief, “Promiscuity” is a bit of sly gossip told by piano and singer with the same caustic sing-song melody.

From the eighth or ninth century, “The Monk and His Cat,” translated by W. H. Auden, is the cycle’s most infectious song, as it describes the contented partnership between the scholar and his cat, whose frisking movements are heard in the piano’s two-note motif. It is also the only song with a fixed meter: a relaxed, lilting 9/8 beat. Also translated by Auden, “The Praises of God” (11th century) is a wild, dervish-like dance with eccentric rhythmic stresses and cross rhythms.

“The Desire for Hermitage” (eighth or ninth century) seems to be the personal expression of the composer, a man who indeed craved solitude all his life. The stark beginning of the song is a repeated G that first sounds in the piano, then joined by the singer; this single note represents the state of aloneness, as well as the surrounding hush. Gradually, the piano and vocal lines become more active, even ecstatic, culminating in a passionate piano interlude that seems to proclaim the joy of solitude.

GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845–1924)
Selections from La chanson d’Ève, Op. 95

About the Composer

In 1905 at age 60, Gabriel Fauré was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire, a revered establishment of French music. In a period of upheaval at the Conservatoire—culminating in the scandal of Maurice Ravel (Fauré’s student) being refused the institution’s top award, the Prix de Rome—Fauré was chosen because he was considered to be a trusted outsider able to bring reform. Not a product of the Conservatoire himself, Fauré had been trained instead at the smaller and less hidebound École Niedermeyer.

This heavy responsibility, however, did not keep Fauré from pursuing his composing career. In fact, he was about to embark on a radical transformation of his musical style from the limpid, lyrical mélodies that had characterized much of his earlier songwriting. Having already made a shift in his previous song cycle, La bonne chanson, Fauré would now develop a late style that de- emphasized melody in favor of vocal and piano music combining an almost austere simplicity with extraordinary sophistication, particularly in the harmonic realm.

About the Works

On a trip to Brussels in March 1906, Fauré became acquainted with the poetry of Belgian symbolist Charles van Lerberghe. In 1904, Lerberghe published a volume of 96 poems, La chanson d’Ève, which imagined Eve coming to life in the Garden of Eden without Adam, giving human meaning to nature’s magnificent creations, of which she is a part. Lerberghe had been inspired to create this work by a glorious garden outside Florence, and Fauré—also a lover of gardens—had matched this by beginning his composition near another sumptuous garden at Lake Maggiore. Fauré reduced the cycle to 10 songs, written off and on between 1906 and 1910 while he was simultaneously creating his opera Pénélope.

The narrator of the cycle is Eve herself, a wondrous creature who is mortal and very feminine, and at the same time a representation of all Creation. In his definitive analysis of Fauré’s songs, pianist Graham Johnson describes the implied time scale as immense: “as if Eve is born and dies at opposite ends of the same cosmic day—a day perhaps encompassing millennia.” Omitting the very long first song, “Paradis,” Ms. Bullock sings six of the 10 songs in the cycle on this evening’s program.

A Closer Listen

“Prima verba” (“First Word”) is La chanson d’Ève’s second song, in which Eve realizes her first words bring the souls of everything in nature to life. The piano and vocal lines initially seem bare and static—in Johnson’s words, “like an empty void.” But they soon flower into extraordinary harmonic complexity as nature takes on a new dimension. Eve’s identification with the rose permeates the cycle, as we hear in “Roses ardentes” (“Ardent Roses”). The pantheistic vision of poet and composer reaches an apotheosis at song’s end as the previously restricted vocal line climbs joyously toward the sun, the “supreme force.”

Far from the traditional imagery of a white-bearded old man, God shines as the young creator embodied in his world in “Comme Dieu rayonne” (“How God Radiates”). As Johnson writes, “the third verse weaves a glorious light- filled tapestry of sound,” as the piano shimmers around the increasingly ecstatic vocal line. “Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil” (“Are you watching, my scent of sun”) combines the sights, sounds, and scents of nature into one rapturous whole. “In this song, sunlight … is uncontainable: With Fauré’s help it searches out and pervades every nook and cranny of harmonic possibility” in the extraordinary piano part.

Composed in June 1906, “Crépuscule” (“Twilight”) was the first song Fauré composed, even before knowing it would spawn a cycle. Until this point in the cycle, the songs have been filled with joy and sensual pleasure. Then Eve hears a cry of pain, a sigh in the night that portends sadness. She has by now tasted the forbidden apple that gives knowledge, and she realizes that she, like all natural things, will die. The rising chords of the piano introduction are a recurring theme that represents Eden, now being disturbed. The cycle’s final song, “O mort, poussière d’étoiles” (“O death, dust of stars”) brings the presence of death. Always at one with nature, Eve does not fear it, but instead welcomes her dissolution into all of creation. Fauré’s son Philippe described this stark, uncanny song as “a sort of funeral march toward an open-armed nirvana.”

ALBERTA HUNTER, CORA “LOVIE” AUSTIN, BILLIE HOLIDAY, and NINA SIMONE
Four Women of Blues and Jazz

In the final section of this evening’s program, Ms. Bullock pays tribute to some of the leading African American musicians who shaped American jazz, blues, and popular song throughout the 20th century. First we hear the sultry blues ballad “Driftin’ Tide” from 1935, which was closely associated with renowned jazz singer Alberta Hunter. The infectious, up-tempo “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” also comes from 1935 and was frequently sung by Hunter. It was composed by Maceo Pinkard, one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a highly successful composer, lyricist, bandleader, and music publisher.

Cora “Lovie” Austin was a formidable jazz pianist and the founder and leader of her own popular band, the Blues Serenaders. Based in Chicago, she specialized in accompanying the leading blues singers of her era, including Hunter, with whom she wrote one of the greatest of all blues classics, “Downhearted Blues,” the lament of a woman who loved the wrong man. We also hear “Frog Tongue Stomp: A Lovie Austin Tribute,” a solo piano piece written by one of today’s prominent jazz pianists, Jeremy Siskind, saluting the legacy of Austin’s flamboyantly distinctive style. With the exception of “Revolution,” which Ms. Bullock will sing a cappella, Siskind arranged all of the songs in this section of the program.

This evening’s program concludes with two iconic African American singers, whose fame has never faded: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Holiday renamed herself and was also dubbed “Lady Day” by her music partner Lester Young. The tragedy of Holiday’s life added to the power of her artistry, but her serene love song “Our Love Is Different” shows her at her romantic best. Renowned as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, originally aspired to be a classical pianist. When she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music, undoubtedly for racial reasons, her career took a different trajectory. Discovering her voice as well as her keyboard skills, Simone became one of the most compelling musicians of the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Selma to Montgomery marches. Ms. Bullock has selected Simone’s famous Civil Rights anthem “Revolution,” as well as her provocative song “Four Women,” in which women of various skin tones protest the Eurocentric beauty standards imposed on black women.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2018 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

 

PROGRAM NOTES: Jerusalem Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

Richard Strauss
String Sextet from Capriccio

Capriccio (1942), Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?

The year is 1775 and the setting is the aristocratic chateau of the aesthetically refined Countess Madeleine in the French countryside. Philosophical questions do double-duty as proxies for romantic intrigue since the Countess’ two main suitors are a composer and a poet. In a flirtatious spirit of free enquiry, she sets them the task of jointly writing a work that will reveal the relative merits of their respective artistic domains—and marriage proposals. (Spoiler alert: the Countess decides, in the end, that she can’t decide.)

The opera begins with a lusciously scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama. This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.

*                      *                      *

The musical style of the sextet, in keeping with the opera’s historical setting and its philosophical message, is certainly backward-looking, at least with respect to the revolutionary musical developments of the early 20th century. The spiky neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s own look-back at the 18th century, his ballet Pulcinella, is nowhere to be heard in this score.

Richard Strauss is here writing in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality with which he began his career in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a style of writing in which even the most remote key centres are made instantly accessible by means of smooth, but highly chromatic voice-leading practices, with the aim of bringing wondrously varied harmonic colourings to the surface of the music.

The result is a radiant brightness of tone, enhanced by Strauss’ skillful disposition of his six instruments in sonic space to produce the silken sheen that is the trademark of his string writing, so different from the ‘thick chunky soup’ texture of Brahms’ string quartets.

Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the 1st violin in the opening bars, a motive remarkably similar to the ear-worm phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motives in the texture, elaborated over many endearing and nurturing points of imitation, that makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.

 

Arnold Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

On a cold moonlit night a couple walks in a barren, leafless grove of trees. She is carrying a child that is not his, she tells him. Despairing of finding true happiness, she had longed to find purpose in life through motherhood and had let down her guard with a man she didn’t love. Now, having found a man she does love, she is wracked with guilt. They walk on. Let that not be a burden to you, he replies. The special warmth we share between us will transform that child into ours, mine and yours. As they embrace, his breath and hers kiss in the night air, and they walk on, bright with a feeling of promise under the vault of heaven.

Such is the story told in the poem Verklärte Nacht (1896) by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s eponymous chamber work composed in 1899. Its premiere in 1901 caused a scandal, both for the work’s association with Dehmel—whose poetic preoccupation with sex had seen him thrice put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy—but also for what was perceived as the immoral “sensuality” of Schoenberg’s score. The German public evidently felt discomfort basking in the lyrical warmth of a work about premarital sex, especially one based on a story that so closely parallelled the Christian Nativity narrative, and used the religious language of “transfiguration” in doing so.

But Schoenberg’s chamber tone poem tells a sympathetic story of secular transformations: of a frightened pregnant young woman into a reassured mother-to-be, of a problematic unborn child into a bond uniting future spouses, and of a cold moonlit night into a warm natural setting for the nurturing of human love.

*                      *                      *

The musical language Schoenberg uses combines the most important—and even opposing—tendencies of his time. Few relationships in German music of the late 19th century were more adversarial than those between the proponents of Wagner’s free-roaming evocations of psychological states and the supporters of Brahms’ craftsmanlike control of abstract formal structures. And yet Schoenberg seems to create a delirious synthesis of both ideological positions.

The probing chromatic harmonies, long-held sighs and paroxysms of ecstasy found in Tristan und Isolde are much in evidence in Schoenberg’s score, as is Wagner’s use of rising sequences of melodic phrases to portray rising levels of emotional intensity. The texture, however, is thoroughly contrapuntal, with frequent imitative interplay between the instruments, and with melodic motives developed in the Brahmsian style of “continuous variation”.

The story is told in an extended narrative arc that begins in a sombre D minor, with long, slow notes in the bass to indicate the deliberate walking pace of the couple, and a descending scale indicating the dreary prospects for the upcoming conversation. The ensuing musical discussions are fraught with anxious emotion, hammered home by the oft-repeated motive of two descending semitones in the texture, and the first half, in which the young woman tells her story, ends in a despairing whisper.

The male figure’s reassuring reply, however, opens the second half in a softly radiant and consoling D major that only builds in tenderness and intimacy as the magical transformation of man, woman, child and natural landscape takes place before our ears. The shimmering glassy sound of harmonics at the very end is the perfect emotional correlative of the serenity that comes when human sympathy conquers all obstacles.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence Op. 70

In 1890 Tchaikovsky spent three months at the Florence villa of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, composing his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he sketched out the slow movement of what would become the four-movement sextet he completed on his return. Published under the title Souvenir de Florence, it nevertheless shows little by way of Italian musical influences, apart from the Adagio serenade. The third and fourth movements in particular are Russian to the core, brimming over with folk tunes and the vigour of village dancing.

Even more surprising is the neo-classical bent of the work, not just in the clarity of its string textures and the simplicity of its rhythmic pulse, but also in its routine application of Mozart-era symphonic counterpoint, with numerous passages of cascading imitative entries gracing the score, and even a full-on fugue in the finale.

*                      *                      *

The sonata-form first movement bursts onto the scene with the brash, bold confidence of a gypsy violinist leaping over a campfire. The first sound to hit your ear is a minor 9th chord, a tart burst of harmonic flavouring that snaps you awake like the bracing first bite into a Granny Smith apple. The movement’s first theme is a hearty thumping romp with numerous rhythmic quirks, backed up by an oscillating oom-pah-pah accompaniment that owes much to the string textures of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. The second theme, by contrast, soars serenely in long held notes over a rambunctious accompaniment. The development is entirely in the mould of contrapuntally obsessed development sections of the Classical era while the recapitulation’s race-to-the-finish coda prompts a return to the minor mode—a tonally colouring that had been virtually forgotten in all the previous merriment.

The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto begins with a richly textured slow introduction followed by a naively simple tune in the 1st violin suitable for singing under an Italian window sill. Certainly the pizzicato string accompaniment offers a ready-made substitute for a guitar or mandolin. But the serenade turns into a duet when the a solo cello joins in. Hardly less enchanting is the ‘whispering wind’ middle section, played by all instruments a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow).

The third movement is heavily inflected with the folk music idiom. It opens with a modest little tune in the dorian mode marked by bird-calls of repeated notes and plaintively inconclusive cadences. Its moderate pace and overlapping thematic entrances almost suggest a ceremonial dance ritual, but Tchaikovsky has other plans, driving the repeated-note motif into much more energetic territory, a direction confirmed by a middle section strongly reminiscent of the Trepak from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite.

The musical scent of Russian country life is even stronger in the last movement, as indicated by the drone-like accompaniment pattern that strums on alone for four bars at its opening. The theme that arrives to float on top of it is eminently folk-like in its small range and modal character. Tchaikovsky is quick off the mark to capitalize on its rhythmic potential, adding punchy off-beat accents, exhilarating runs and large leaps to its developing character until a long-limbed and wide-ranging lyrical tune brings a measure of breezy relaxation to the proceedings. The star attraction in this movement is the fugue, perhaps matched only in vigour and sheer visceral exhilaration by the Beethoven’s-Ninth-style final page where, even if Tchaikovsky didn’t write a blaring brass section into the score, you could almost swear you hear one, anyway.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: EVGENY KISSIN

Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann

“…calling it a sonata is a caprice if not a jest for Chopin seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into company where them might not be considered individually presentable.”

That’s the perceptive way Robert Schumann – composer, critic, and journalist – referred to Frédéric Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in 1841.

Schumann and Chopin knew each other and each other’s work. How intriguing, then, to compare music by both in the revised first half of Evgeny Kissin’s long-awaited return to the Vancouver Recital Society.

Chopin was born in March 1810, Schumann in June of the same year. They started out as fellow poets of the piano. By the 1830s the piano had become a bourgeois status symbol; there was a reliable market for published piano compositions and an appetite for recitals by piano virtuosi.

Chopin’s career played out in two decades that were a charmed moment for the piano and piano composers. He released small-scale works regularly; the more accessible of his pieces fueled demand for his more adventurous works. When he withdrew from active concertizing, his compositional desire to explore, innovate, and experiment had free rein. Robert Schumann might have followed a similar path had he not abandoned piano performance even before his intended career trajectory was launched (due, so the legend goes, to a hand injury).

Many new fans of the VRS may not know of the long, rich history of VRS Schumann performances dating back to the earliest days of the society. British cellist Stephen Isserlis, for example, interested the organization in “Schumann and his Circle performances” that included music not just by Robert but by his wife Clara, his brother-in-law Woldemar Barqiel, and others connected with that charmed group of Romantic-era talents.

The VRS has heard remarkable Schumann performances by Sir András Schiff, Radu Lupo, and Maria Tipo. Indeed, for a while it seemed that all young pianists offered Schumann’s magisterial Fantasy Op. 17 on their debut VRS programs.

What VRS fans have not heard with any regularity are Schuman’s three piano sonatas. And it is where piano sonatas are concerned that some of the telling distinctions between Chopin and Schumann become clear – distinctions which will no doubt be explored as Evgeny Kissin presents a uniquely interesting first half program consisting of two Chopin nocturnes and Schumann’s third and final piano sonata.

Chopin had something of a problem with (and possibly not that much interest in), the idea of extended and/or multiple movement compositions. He did create a pair of concertos that were early calling-card pieces, very useful for a touring pianist/composer; there’s a piano trio, a cello sonata, and a pair of piano sonatas. But all are considered to some degree – problematic.

Much of Chopin’s most effective music consists of relatively short pieces that define a particular sub-genre of keyboard music in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. There are dances: waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises; there are “narrative” pieces in a type of glorified but non-specific storytelling, like the ballades and the scherzos.

Then there are the nocturnes. Simple enough to call them “night pieces”, but this misses two important bits of their musical DNA. Chopin transferred the singing lines of opera into keyboard guise – pianistic bel canto, if you will. The many and varied nocturnes can be considered prime examples of cavatinas for piano: plenty of emphasis on a singing right hand, with lots of flourishes and subtle bits of decorative embellishment.

Then there is the unabashedly erotic content of the nocturnes and barcarolles. While the proper bourgeois of his era were disinclined to discuss this impulse in the frank post-Freudian terms we use today, they certainly understood the thoughts and feelings music could evoke.

The two nocturnes on Evgeny Kissin’s revised program appear to have been written in 1843 and 1846, respectively. (Intriguingly, Chopin’s last sonata, and his second last large-scale work, was written between the two.) The Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 #1 is one of the most popular, a staple of the keyboard repertoire. The Nocturne in E major Op. 62 #2 is most likely the last nocturne Chopin composed, a fundamentally quiet and introspective piece; as such, it’s far less frequently performed than the F minor. Both are relatively straightforward and focus on depth of feeling, not virtuoso display.

Robert Schumann loved Chopin’s music (the favour was not reciprocated, apparently) and his 1841 assessment isn’t as harsh as it might first seem. Rather, it’s what a fellow composer saw in the work: it may not quite fit the standard definition of a sonata, but it’s not without interest.

Schumann certainly knew firsthand the struggle to go from poetic aphorisms to more substantial and formal (in every sense) compositions. He wrote his three piano sonatas right after he had created a trilogy of his most popular “anthology” compositions, the multi movement collection of miniatures: Papillons Op. 2, Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 and Carnaval Op. 9.

Many have speculated that Schuman’s move to sonatas, chamber music and symphonies came at the enthusiastic urging of his soul mate and, ultimately, wife Clara, a remarkable if conservative talent in her own right. Clara worshiped tradition. She was the first pianist to play all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in public. She composed preludes and fugues. It’s easy to think that she encouraged Robert to work in all the great classical forms.

Robert’s trio of piano sonatas predate his first attempts at extended chamber works and symphonies by about half a decade. The Grand Sonata #3, in F minor Op. 14 had a troubled launch. Schumann initially conceived of it in five movements with two different scherzo sections but he was “persuaded” by his Viennese publisher to release it in a three-movement version. No doubt the publisher was concerned with commercial possibilities: a five-movement behemoth was just too long for most amateurs to bother with. The same publisher thought up the name “concert sans orchestra” which has bedeviled the work ever since.

For close to two decades, Schumann left well enough alone. Then in 1853, the year Robert and Clara met the twenty-year-old Brahms, he decided revisions were in order, ultimately deciding on a four-movement structure, shortening the central Quasi variazioni: Andantino de Clara Wieck movement but reinstating one of the pairs of scherzos cut in the initial publication.

It was one of Schumann’s last artistic decisions. After 1853, he was unable to complete any further compositions. He died in 1856. Johannes Brahms gave the revised composition its premiere in 1861.

David Gordon Duke 2018

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Preludes Opp. 23 and 32

The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff seems to glimmer out from somewhere deep in the Russian soul. With the minor mode as his preferred tonal colouring, Rachmaninoff crafted achingly nostalgic melodies à la Tchaikovsky alongside sharply chiselled passages of muscular pianism that evoke the heel-clicking traditions of the Russian military. Prominent in his sound world is the ringing of bells large and small, from the tintinnabulation of sleigh bells to the weighty pendulum swings of cathedral bells evoked so dramatically in the opening of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex two-hand textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament. These traits are particularly concentrated in his two sets of Preludes Op. 23 (1902) and Op. 32 (1910), works more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 & 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

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The Op. 23 set of preludes begins with a whimper. The hauntingly fragile melody of the Prelude in F sharp minor Op. 23 No. 1 calls out tenderly in timid, tentative phrases to an almost indifferent accompaniment of constantly wavering chromatic figures. This is Rachmaninoff at his most intimate, his most confessional, his most vulnerable.

The majestic Prelude in B flat major Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and bravura of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over 3 octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied – but equally tumultuous – middle section.

While the Prelude in D minor Op. 23 No. 3 is marked Tempo di minuetto, there is a ‘snap-to-attention’ military crispness to its dotted rhythms and stop-and-go pacing that points more to the parade ground than to the palace ballroom.

The Prelude in D major Op. 23 No. 4 is a lulling nocturne. Its melody sings out from the middle of the texture, swaddled at first by a sonic glow of bell-like overtones, then topped with a gently undulating descant, and finally crowned with echoing chimes in the highest register.

The real jackboot-strutting military march of the set is the Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5, perhaps second in fame only to the celebrated Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2. Punchy, menacing, and triumphant by turns, it yields in its middle section to a bout of soldierly homesickness to spin out a lyrical melody of yearning sighs and wistful countermelodies.

Unruffled calm reigns over the elegiac musings of the Prelude in E flat major Op. 23 No. 6, that offers as much melodic and contrapuntal interest in its ornately winding accompaniment in 16ths as in the 8ths and quarters of the placid melody floating on top of it.

The Prelude in C minor Op. 23 No. 7 is a tour de force of whirlwind energy and boldly flickering tonal colour that sweeps across vast swathes of the keyboard in myriad dark figurations, a moto perpetuo prelude that emerges from the darkness for a triumphant final cadence in C major.

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The Prelude in B minor Op. 32 No. 10 is Russian to the core. Pianist Benno Moisevitch, in conversation with Rachmaninoff, wisely guessed its emotional wellspring: the yearning for a homecoming that would never come. Its principal motive is a dotted figure, wavering modally between major and minor, that is soon accompanied – and then overwhelmed – by an utterly heartbreaking storm of throbbing triplets that reverberate clangorously like massive swaying church bells, thundering towards a resolution that never arrives.

The sound of sleigh bells greets the ear in the jangling accompaniment figure of open 5ths that begins the Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12, tempting and taunting a pensive baritone melody that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency in the darker regions of the keyboard below.

The Prelude in D flat major, 13th and concluding prelude of the Op. 32 set, has a reflective, commemorative quality to it, rehearsing in its musing dotted rhythms and rich, wide-ranging sonorities the inner feelings of a composer who would soon be forced into exile from his native Russia.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: CASTALIAN STRING QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5

Having recently returned from his hugely successful visits to England and been liberated from financial woes, Haydn composed a set of six String Quartets, Op. 76 which were commissioned by Hungarian Count, Joseph Erdödy in 1797. Deviating from more traditional forms and establishing a new treatment of thematic material, these innovative features secured their place amongst his most ambitious chamber works. While employed under the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy II, his relatively light duties allowed him to compose multiple works, including the ever-popular Creation oratorio, published in 1799. Not only was this an intensification of his prior achievements, the added weight, character, and instant successes also ensured the resulting “Erdödy” quartets were considered a triumph.

The opening Allegretto, an elegant and dignified dance in triple time, is a typically Haydnian movement flourishing entirely out of a single melody. Serenity is soon lost, however, as a fiery outburst in D minor using rapidly furious scalar runs creates a desire for the unknown with a delightfully energetic coda in faster tempo that ends the movement. The tenderness of the largo in the remote key of F Sharp minor ensues with a particularly prominent singing and mournful nature. The lack of open strings results in an ethereal sound with both the cello and viola taking prominent melancholic solo roles before the opening theme returns. The minuet and trio is perhaps more mysterious and insecure, with duplet figures constantly disrupting the expected triple time. The cello opens the trio with grumbling scale material aplenty concealing deep secrets before an opening of light occurs as all parts join in homophony. Followed by the unbounded joy of a turbulent folk scene, the finale has the character of bagpipe music as the open fifths in the accompaniment allow each part takes their turn to gallop into the limelight. Its rapid pace and jagged phrasing makes it particularly challenging to pull off; however, its outright declamatory nature ensures the quartet ends on a high.

Gabriel Fauré
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

The sole string quartet of Gabriel Fauré, completed shortly before his death, was composed in the summer of 1923. Keeping the work under wraps, wary of his declining health and uninvited comparisons to great composers of the past, Fauré wrote to his wife from Annecy-le-Vieux, Savoy admitting “I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!” Trained in the formal tradition of counterpoint since the age of 9, it is perhaps unsurprising that the work owes much to the weight of tradition while also incorporating youthful creativity that he perhaps so craved as he neared the end of his life.

The viola’s rising opening phrase answered by the first violin sets the tone for the Allegro with lamenting and contouring lines interacting in a form of ebb and flow ending in exhaustion. Although the tonality often feels murky, the defined sonata form provides structure as the development section proposes a more concise and contrapuntal construction with the viola once again having a particularly eloquent role. The central Andante (the most extensive movement) is contemplative, comprised of rising chromatic scales that simultaneously radiate youthful curiosity but also a sense of nostalgia. The owing melody is accompanied by pulsating quavers that eventually lead to individual parts emerging before sinking back into the reweaving of previous material. With the Allegro, the combined function of scherzo, as well as finale, is clear. The angular theme is introduced in the cello over a pizzicato accompaniment flitting between duple and triple beat divisions as a serenade and dance. Eventually reaching a jubilant E major conclusion, the work casts a distinct view of life and love regarded as a true representative of the composer himself as he seeks a quiet but profound farewell to life.

Robert Schumann
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1

Dedicated to his dear friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn, the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1 was composed in the space of a few weeks during the summer of 1842. A man of habit during his most productive periods, Schumann’s intense focus on a single genre at a time notably led to the composition of over 150 songs in 1840, which were succeeded by several large-orchestral works merely a year later. In that so-called chamber-music year of 1842, alongside the three quartets of Op. 41, he also wrote a piano quintet, a piano quartet and a set of Fantasy Pieces for Piano Trio inspired by the works of the masters before him: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. While Schumann’s string quartets are less frequently programmed, they have often been cited as the ‘missing links’ between the quartets of Mendelssohn and Brahms, a testament to his unique gifts as a composer.

As one of the finest contributions to the genre, the first quartet of Op. 41 begins in A minor, using falling motifs engaged in imitative counterpoint at every turn, wrought in anguish and sorrow. The curling lines are eventually unravelled breaking into a sunny Allegro in 6/8 and the submediant key of F major. A sense of rhythmic simplicity and classical restraint is finely nuanced before the galloping scherzo follows, vividly contrasting in character. Szforzando accents are abundant, immediately suggesting Mendelssohn- inspired sprightliness combined with fiery passion. The trio is in the major mode providing some lyrical contrast in a more genteel character. The divine theme of the Adagio follows, bringing together notions of idealised romance and lust particularly as the cello acquires the melody accompanied by pizzicato violins. However, the elegant sentiment is soon lost as the Presto plunges into forceful abandon, surging towards the unexpected interlude in A major. Quickly cast aside, the deluge of mighty textural celebration returns drawing the work to a finale of legendary proportions.

Program notes © Jessica Bryden

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Ludwig van Beethoven
11 Bagatelles Op. 119

Beethoven’s Op. 119 is a catch-all collection of pieces written without any preconceived formal plan for the enjoyment of amateur piano enthusiasts. The last five were published first as a contribution to a pedagogical publication called the Wiener Piano-Forte Schule (1821), with the first six added to that set for a separate publication in 1823.

The popular market into which they were lightly tossed may account for the dance-like pieces in the set: No. 1 is a minuet, No. 3 an allemande and No. 9 a frenetic little waltz. Some of the two-voice writing in these pieces has an archaic, baroque feel to it, especially in the florid ornamentation of No. 5.

Beethoven may not have always had the amateur performer in mind, however, given the technical challenges written into some of these short “Kleinigkeiten” (trifles), as he called them in German. Some feature sustained passages of awkward hand-crossings (Nos. 2 and 7) and casually inserted left-hand trills. No. 7 even demands the pianist to play sustained trills and a separate melody line, all in the same hand – a texture found in the composer’s most advanced piano works, such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 111. Others, like No. 8, are harmonically adventurous in a manner that anticipates the character pieces of Schumann.

It is obvious that Beethoven granted himself free rein in composing these pieces, and the prize for eccentricity goes to the laconic Bagatelle No. 10. In its short frantic 13 bars of staggered left- and right-hand entries, it pants away like a family dog leaping up at the dinner table for treats.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat Hob. XVI:49

This sonata was dedicated to Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s personal physician at the Esterhazy court, where Haydn was employed. From their correspondence, it appears that Haydn was carrying on something of a dalliance with her and this sonata, composed between 1789 and 1790, seems designed to address both her feminine sensibility and her considerable skills as an amateur pianist.

And yet there is a Beethovenian directness to the way that the first movement’s thematic material is thrown out in bitesized bits, similar to the brusque opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, Op. 2 No. 3. Haydn does us a favour here by isolating these short motivic units – two snappy questions and a lyrical reply – because virtually the entire range of ideas explored in this movement derives from them.

When Haydn got an idea in his head, he liked to run with it as far as he could go. So many of this sonata’s movements are monothematic, their nominally contrasting themes all variations on a small sequence of motives declared at the outset. In this sonata movement, the mere rhythm of the ‘lyrical reply’ – dum-dum-dum DUM – becomes an important motivic element throughout, and in fact, in its stripped down form becomes the obsession of the development section.

The Andante cantabile second movement is in a simple A-B-A formal layout, with its A section a poised and perky slow melody dolled up from the get-go with frilly ornaments of a distinctly feminine stamp. Its B section takes the melodic curve of the opening bar of the movement and plunges it dramatically into the minor mode, with a visual drama created, as well, by the many hand- crossings effected by the left hand.

The finale combines the repeating refrain and contrasting episodes of a rondo with the minuet structure featuring a contrasting trio (hinted at in its Italian indication Tempo di minuetto). The breezy whistling-in-the-wind quality of the opening tune has a folk-like simplicity about it, reinforced by its drone bass. But Haydn widens the range of theatrical roles that his dedicatee-performer can play when, halfway through the movement, he casts this blithe little tune into the minor mode.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

The jovial, witty and ever-cheerful ‘Papa’ Haydn writing in a minor key? What brought that on?

The 1770s, when Haydn’s Sonata in B minor was composed, was the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in German culture, an age when aberrant emotions were all the rage in music; and what better tonal avouring than the minor mode to convey these emotions? Composers such as C. P. E. Bach rode this cultural wave with enthusiasm, writing works that elicited powerful, sometimes worrisome, emotions by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps and poignant harmonies of the type that minor keys were especially adept at providing.

It is also important to note that the 1770s was the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you find in the first movement, especially, is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

This cross-over period between harpsichord and fortepiano plays out in the nature of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. The first is austere and slightly mysterious, amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style mordents on its opening melody notes. The second churns away in constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious Sturm und Drang tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a lyrical slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio – but where is the emotional drama in that? Haydn has a plan. His minuet and trio feature thematic material as dramatically contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps everywhere, one as large as a 14th. The trio, normally con gured as sugary relief from the sti formality of courtly dance ritual, is daringly in the minor mode, set low, and grinds grimly away in constant 16th-note motion.

Haydn wouldn’t be Haydn if he didn’t send you away with a toe-tapping finale and such a movement ends this sonata. To that end, Haydn’s go-to rhythmic device is repeated notes, and this nale chatters on constantly at an 8th-note patter, interrupted at random, it would seem, by surprising silences and dramatic pauses – as if to allow the performer to turn sideways and wink at his audience.

Johannes Brahms
Vier Klavierstücke Op. 119

Brahms’s last works for the piano were a set of Four Keyboard Pieces, Op.119. Like the previous short piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117 and 118, they are complex, dense and deeply introspective works, full of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities but by no means obscure. They are works to be savoured for Brahms’s mastery of compositional technique and for the bountiful wellspring of Viennese sentiment and charm that animates them from within.

Written with complete disregard for the kinds of piano textures considered normal in the late 19th century, the piano pieces of Op. 119 explore new possibilities in harmonic and rhythmic practice, as well. Harmonic changes frequently occur on weak beats, and metrical regularity is often attenuated by harmony notes held over from the previous bar.

The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set is a prime example. Its glacially descending arpeggios in chains of falling thirds create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between left and right hand.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.

The Rhapsody in E at major is the longest of Brahms’s late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet gures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of a debonaire A at major section in the classic style of late-19th-century salon music. A amboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece, surprisingly, with a triumphant cadence in E at minor.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.

A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major   BWV 828

The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.

Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.

Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.

One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.

François Couperin
L’Atalante

It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.

Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.

The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.

Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.

This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.

The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”

Samuel Barber
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26

In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.

The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.

Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.

The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.

Johannes Brahms
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.

Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.

In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.

Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?

The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.

The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

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