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Program notes: Paul Lewis

Beethoven’s Late Piano Sonatas

If ever a composer were to be remembered as going out swinging, that composer would be Beethoven. As ‘sunset’ periods go, the blaze of glory that the late piano sonatas and quartets, the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony lit up in the historical firmament can still be felt warming the programs of concerts around the globe.

The sonatas of Opp. 109, 110 and 111, the composer’s last hurrah in the piano sonata genre, were written between 1820 and 1822. As his sketchbooks show, these three sonatas were worked on all at the same time and may thus be thought to form a triptych, if you will, of Beethoven’s last thoughts on the piano sonata as a genre.

A strong feature of the late instrumental works is their increased concentration of musical thought. Compressed into brief utterances of compelling significance, they seem reduced to their essentials, their composer quite unconcerned about the rules of polite aristocratic musical conversation that characterized his early period.

Emblematic of this increased density of thought is an increased density of texture that often tends towards the contrapuntal, and in particular towards the fugal, as in the finale to the Sonata in A flat Op. 110. Curiously paralleling this phenomenon is an increased density of pure sound, audible in the flamboyant use of trills as pedal sonorities, not just in the bass, but in the top and middle registers, as well. The gradual build-up of sound generated in this way can be heard happening, bar by bar, in the final pages of the Sonata in E major Op. 109.

All this creates not just interpretive challenges for musicians courageous enough to take on these sonatas, but daunting technical challenges, as well. Paul Lewis is brutally honest in this regard, summarizing as follows the gauntlet thrown down by “that belligerent, outspoken, deaf German.”

You know, he’s too bloody-minded to make what he writes convenient for the piano. When he has an idea, he just writes what he wants to, and if sometimes it almost doesn’t work on the instrument – well, that’s your problem. You just have to find a way through it.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, grim resolve and technical grit are exactly the right qualities to bring to works that, despite their eccentricities, have not just remained in the piano repertoire, but crowned it.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven creates in this three-movement sonata an imaginative journey between contradictory emotional states that arrives, in the end, at a reconciliation of opposites. The first movement is a dreamy star- gazing fantasy in moderate tempo that segues into a frighteningly focussed agitato second movement of nightmarish intensity. All divisions are healed, however, in a theme and variations finale that gives voice to both lyrically expansive and contrapuntally driven emotions in turn.

The first movement is remarkable for its compactness, with an exposition that completes its run in a mere
16 bars. The work opens with a succession of amiable harmonies, divided between the hands, that seem to float in the air, fluttering like the wings of a fledgling bird. But a startling diminished 7th arpeggio calls a halt to these innocent musings to introduce a little cheek-to- cheek duet between the soprano & tenor as a second subject before a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soars up and down the keyboard to complete the thought. And that’s it. The exposition is over. On the first page of the score.

These three contrasting elements – fluttering broken- chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement, dominating its development, recapitulation and coda.

In a move deliberately designed to heighten the contrast between the improvisatory-sounding first movement and the pointedly purposeful second, Beethoven moves from E major to its evil twin,

E minor. The musical drama of this movement comes from the struggle of a frantically rising right-hand figure and a sternly descending passacaglia-like bass line, an opposition that summons up a mood of high seriousness and relentless forward drive. This is no scherzo (there is no ‘trio’ middle section) but rather another sonata-form movement, and a highly unorthodox one at that. It seems more concerned with continuous contrapuntal development than the contrast between first and second subjects, and their respective key centres. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism serves to give a sharp edge of pathos to this movement’s sometimes mysterious murmurings and frequent violent outbursts.

The last movement theme and variations ends this sonata in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, flecked at times with a tinge of religious ecstasy. And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while this movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to the Baroque master of Leipzig is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a Lutheran four-voice chorale setting.

The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hocket-style alternation of the hands that outlines the theme in interlocking stroboscopic flashes of melody. Baroque instincts come more fervently to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in two-voice double counterpoint. Variation 4 thickens the texture to a full four imitative voices, leading to the even more severely imitative texture of Variation 5.

In his final variation Beethoven moves to transform his theme, ever so gradually, from a plain chordal harmonisation into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before finally presenting the original melody once again in all its original simplicity.

A nod to Bach’s way of ending the Goldberg Variations, perhaps?


Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s second-last piano sonata shares much of the goodwill and warmth of its Op. 109 antecedent but offers us a much rougher ride on the emotional plane. Its three movements pass from human sympathy to rough country humour, then finally from operatic despair to the safe harbour of consolation, resolve and triumph.

The warmth of emotion radiating out from the first movement of this sonata is evident not only in its unhurried pace and the vocal nature of its themes, but explicitly referred to in Beethoven’s first-bar indication: con amabilità (likably). Especially ingratiating in this movement is the passage that leads from the first to the second theme: an ear-tickling, delicate tracery of arpeggios that lovingly spans four octaves up and down the keyboard, even transcending its lowly status as transition when, in the recapitulation, it richly envelops the first theme’s return appearance, like a luxuriant wrap of costly fur.

One has to wonder if Beethoven is just buttering us up for mischief, though, given the pranks he has prepared in the second movement, a scherzo and trio in 2/4 time. This movement, full of shuffle and bustle, is made all the more raucous by what some musicologists politely call Beethoven’s ‘antiphonal dynamics’ but which others less diplomatically refer to simply as ‘shouting’. The first example comes in the response to the opening phrase which, if performed authentically in period style, should sound like a toddler bringing his rubber ducky joyfully and repeatedly into contact with his bath water.

This is not a coincidence. The childlike humour of this movement derives from the use of melodies from
two popular songs in German dialect: Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich (I’m a dissolute slob, and so are you). An odd brace of sentiments, to be sure, mixing domestic rejoicing on the feline front with a blithe lack of concern in matters of personal hygiene. Calls for further enquiry into the relationship between these two semiotic signifiers has gone unheeded in the scholarly community, but perhaps that is all for the best.

The multi-sectioned third movement divides its sympathies between the world of lyrical operatic complaint and that enlivening burst of hope that a right proper fugue never fails to inspire in the downtrodden. This movement, in short, is one of those resounding happy endings that Beethoven in his late period was famous for. But the good news isn’t announced right away as it is in the last movement of, say, the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven makes us work for our victory plum in a succession of sombre soliloquies and plaintive laments.

First comes an exploratory recitative, Adagio ma non troppo, that tests the waters before a sadly songful

Arioso dolente of some emotional urgency pleads its mournful case to our ears. Not to worry, however. A bold three-voice fugue, studded with rising fourths and other optimistic signals of new beginnings, strides forth to the rescue. Gathering an organ-like authority when its bass begins to boom out in octaves, it suddenly loses heart and yields to a second arioso dolente even more halting, more sobbing and despairing than the first. But liking what it hears in the growing sonority of a major chord, repeated over and over, it issues into a second fugue, this time with the theme turned upside down, in inversion. Here is where Beethoven pulls out all the stops, giving full rein to his fugal fury in passages of thematic diminution and augmentation. Finally, this figuration blends imperceptibly into a kind of throbbing accompaniment that allows the fugue subject to soar out and dominate the texture as pure melody.
A final flourish of arpeggios, reminiscent of the first movement’s engaging tracery but much more resolute, ends the sonata on a note of triumph.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s farewell to the piano sonata genre is a two-movement work of striking contrasts – contrasts of form (sonata-form vs. variation form), of key (C minor vs. C major), of tempo (allegro vs. adagio) and of mood (restless argument vs. transcendent serenity).

The work opens with a slow introduction in grandstyle, Maestoso, in the double-dotted manner of a Baroque French overture. But disturbingly, its first chord is a diminished 7th, casting deep uncertainty onto its harmonic intentions. More grand gestures, just as unsettling, sweep up from the bass like a lumbering dinosaur waving its massive tail, but then the tension goes underground. A mysterious passage ruminates with menacing portent until a rumbling crescendo in the bass issues into the movement’s forthright first subject, a ‘call of fate’ theme worthy of the Fifth Symphony (also written in the composer’s famous ‘C minor mood’). Betokening the seriousness of the proceedings, the transition passage that follows launches directly into a driving fugato to which the brief appearance of a fleeting moment of lyricism, in the second subject, provides little relief.

The textures in this movement are unusually stark, often reduced to mere unisons between the hands ranging over vast swathes of the keyboard, or grittily gnawing away at a contrapuntal conundrum in a feral frenzy of frustration. All fury spent, whether purged or repressed, the movement seethes to its conclusion, ending in a C major chord that seems more a reprieve than a resolution.

This, of course, is the key of the theme and variations that follow, but there the resemblance ends. Constructed out of the simplest harmonic materials, the theme of this finale, with its bland harmonies and open melodic intervals of 4ths and 5ths, seems more a canvas left intentionally blank than a melody of sharply defined character to be exploited and embellished.

Variation movements were traditionally the ‘light fare’ in a collection of sonata movements, sandwiched between movements of greater discursive weight laid out in more complex formal patterns. This variation movement outweighs all previous Beethoven piano finales in its seemingly impossible pairing of earthly profundity and celestial radiance.

‘Forget what you know of the piano,’ Beethoven seems to be saying, ‘let us converse in pure sound.’ While
many variation sets had aimed to start over with each new ‘take’ on the theme, emphasizing the variety of guises in which it could be dressed up, Beethoven drives his variations forward with a simple, unified purpose, achieved principally by a gradual, but continual increase in the pace and complexity of rhythmic patterning.

What begins as a simple skeleton of a theme in relatively stable note values is slowly transformed into a luminous multi-layered wall of sound, shimmering with high trills and pulsing with the thrill of low tremolos. That he should bid farewell to the piano sonata with as soft, as simple, and as eloquent an ending as concludes this sonata confirms his place in music history as not just one of the great rebels, but one of the great poets, as well.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015


Program notes: Ian Bostridge & Wenwen Du

Franz Schubert

It is a fact of musical life that there are commonly accepted ‘right’ ways (and even more ‘wrong’ ways) of performing the great works of past. These works arrive on our music stands embedded with notions of ‘stylistic correctness’ that guide our first attempts at interpretation, serving the same function as the lines in a colouring book beyond which aspiring daycare Dürers and kindergarten Caravaggios, crayons in hand, are admonished not to stray.

In the musical world such stylistic guidelines have massive inertia, acquired through the respect that a long performing tradition grants, and so shifting them is not a task for dull minds. And yet, it has been done. Glenn Gould sent powder flying from the wigs of the Baroque establishment with his startling new vision of how Bach should be performed. More recently, fortepianist Robert Levin has attempted to liberate Mozart from the plaster cast of ‘elegant prettiness’ in which he believes this composer has been mummified since the Romantic era.

And now something similar may also be happening to Schubert.

Schubert has always been thought of as a ‘nice’ composer, the sort that you could bring home to meet your mother and tell her you were taking up with, without awakening the kind of worries that an interest in, say, late Scriabin might provoke in the mind of a fretful parent. No, rosy-cheeked Schubert, the composer of blithe and radiant mood, has always remained a kind of Julie Andrews avant la lettre, whistling a happy tune in the face of the challenging circumstances of his life. Was there a care in the world that the soothing balm of the G flat Impromptu could not dissipate? A reversal of fortune that the Ave Maria could not banish from present thought? Generations of Schubert venerators have thought not.

Yet if ever there were a work to challenge the view of Schubert as a composer of buoyant good spirits, light but not deep, it is his song cycle Winterreise, which, with its themes of lost love and the imminent approach of death, would be hard to mistake for a pep talk from a Rogers & Hammerstein musical. Its dark psychological probings and often sombre tone truly shocked the group of Viennese friends before whom Schubert first performed these schauerliche Lieder (horrifying songs), as he called them. And it still has the power to shock us today.

Few musicians have taken their interpretive flashlights into its dark corners quite so fearlessly as Ian Bostridge has done. He stands apart from the crowd of Winterreise performers for the degree of modern anxiety and psychological urgency that he pulls from the score, an approach that has even caused his interpretation to be called ‘expressionist’.

Bostridge performs these songs in heightened psychological relief, as it were, and this approach has much to recommend it, for while simple melodies in balanced four-bar phrases are not lacking in this collection, more striking and memorable by far are the dramatic declamatory monologues that approach in psychological intensity the Sprechstimme of Pierrot Lunaire.

It should not be surprising, then, that shades of Samuel Beckett, Arnold Schoenberg and other modernist innovators haunt Bostridge’s interpretation of this work. He brings notes of biting sarcasm and palpable anger to the score, as well as an occasionally rasping quality of voice not typically found in ‘art song’. And by so doing, he expands our idea of the range of real, intense, lived emotions which this composer was capable of expressing.

Those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of this work through Ian Bostridge’s extensive historical research into its origins and meaning, may wish to consult his newly published tome entitled Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber, 2015).

Conceived as a journey into the cold of winter, Schubert’s Winterreise is a musical setting of poems selected from those published in 1823 and 1824 by German Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller under the title Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn-Player. The narrative thread is sketchy, at best, resembling more a slide show than a plot, since all the important action has taken place before the narration begins.

We know that the singer’s journey is prompted by a love affair gone wrong but one of the more vexing questions bedevilling this musical slide show is that of the singer’s status within the house from which he announces his departure as the cycle opens. He leaves in the dead of night, while everyone else is sleeping. What, enquiring minds will ask, was he doing in the family home of his beloved so late at night? Here Ian Bostridge steps forward with a brilliant suggestion that finds much resonance in the social customs of the time: our protagonist is a private live-in tutor of low economic status who had developed feelings for, and perhaps even an understanding with, his young student. (Schubert had at one time been employed as just such a live-in tutor.) Marriage, we learn from the text of the second song, was a live possibility until the young woman’s mother switched her allegiance to a wealthier potential son-in-law.

In the course of the work, the narrator-singer is heard in conversation with his own heart, by turns reflective, questioning, ironic, and finally resigned. In this speculative frame of mind, he drifts fluidly between the world of his dreams and the bitter reality he faces. Despairing and alone with his thoughts, he travels through dark emotional territory, traversing a wide range of village and country settings before finally encountering the forlorn organ-frinder at the end of his journey, symbolic of the death that awaits him. The poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection provide apt imagery for such a bleak journey, with their recurring themes of loneliness and isolation, watchwords of the emerging Romantic movement in art.

This work was composed in two separate parts in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, making the terminal illness from which he was suffering one obvious point of reference. The cast of characters with whom the narrator interacts are elements of the natural landscape (sun, wind, trees and leaves, flowers, rivers and snow, crows and ravens), elements that form symbolic company for his journey. Schubert’s achievement in setting these poems is to give musical life to these images, not only in the contours of the singer’s melody, but especially in the pictorial vividness of the piano writing, in a score that is both richly allusive and unusually austere.

Gute Nacht (Good Night)

Our traveller’s grim journey begins at an even walking pace, punctuated by recurring sudden off-beat accents in the piano, emblematic of his inner turmoil. The narration drifts between his present unhappy state (in the minor mode) and happier thoughts (in the major). The poetic theme tying the song cycle together, alienation from emotional fulfillment and earthly existence, is summarized in the very first line: “A stranger I came, a stranger I depart.”

Die Wetterfahne (The weather-vane)

The piano imitates a weather-vane spinning atop his beloved’s house as the singer wonders about those inside. Do their affections also change with the wind? The musical texture is brilliantly evocative, with unisons between piano and singer making you feel the bitter chill in the air and trills evoking the wind blowing the weather-vane around on its spindle.

Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen tears)

This song mixes an eeriness and daintiness, anger and irony. Against a steady backdrop of drip-drip sounds
in the piano, often punctuated by a sudden sforzando accent, the singer asks how his tears can have frozen to his cheek so soon. They were hot enough to melt ice when they poured from his heart. Alternating major & minor harmonies evoke both the warmth of feeling and the chill in the air of this scene.

Erstarrung (Numbness)

Stunned by the loss of his love, he searches frantically for any piece of green grass beneath the snow to remind him of happier times. But all is dead around, like his frozen heart. In this strange take on the classic Petrarchan figures of fire and ice, the agitated piano accompaniment portrays the protagonist’s raging inner turmoil.

Der Lindenbaum (The linden tree)

We hear the first intimation of death in this song. As a chill wind blows through the fluttering leaves evoked by the piano, he passes by a tree into which he once carved words of love. Once the emblem of his happiness, it now offers him eternal rest beneath its branches. Bostridge has pointed out that the linden tree was popular meeting place for townsfolk, giving this song a resonance of German nationalism. It is not surprising, then, that this simple tuneful melody lives on outside of Schubert’s song cycle as the well-known German folksong, Am Brunnen vor dem Tore.

Wasserflut (Flood)

In this eerily calm, almost stately song, the protagonist muses on how the snow will absorb his tears, then thaw in the spring and flow with them into the stream. The flow of this stream will feel their warmth once again as it passes his beloved’s house. Here we find a classic example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ in Romantic poetry, in which Nature is imagined as reflecting and experiencing human emotions.

Auf Dem Flusse (On the river)

The strange tiptoe pace of this song gives it an aura of mystery, or perhaps merely tentativeness. The ice covering the river, on which he has carved the story of his love affair, is like his heart: it rages with a torrent beneath. Changes from minor to major and back again are chilling, and near the end, the piano pulses with signs of his inner torment.

Rückblick (A backward glance)

Pursued by crows as he breathlessly escapes, the wanderer casts a nostalgic glance back at the town he is leaving, once so pleasant to his memory. And looking back, he still longs to stand in front of her house once again. Like many of the songs in this cycle, this one is divided clearly into major- and minor-mode sections.

Irrlicht (Will-o’-the-wisp)

The flickering light of a will-o’-the-wisp, imitated in the fast repeated notes in the piano, leads him astray into
a mountain chasm. He has no worries, though, for as rivers lead to the sea, so human miseries, like will-o’-the- wisp, are but a game, all leading to the grave.

Rast (Rest)

A drowsy opening piano introduction finds him pausing from the fatigue of his journey. He shelters in a little hut, but this bodily respite from the cold and wind only allows him to feel more keenly the burning sting of jealousy in his heart. The concentration of thought that has overtaken the singer is conveyed in an often speech-like, un-’melodic’ vocal line.

Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)

In one of the happiest of Schubertian melodies, we find our protagonist lost in a dream of springtime, then awakened by the rooster’s call and the shrieking of crows. Drifting between a dream state and harsh reality, he longs to feel once again the warmth of love. The piano score paints in turn the sudden shrieks of birds and the torpor of his drowsy eyelids. The change of mode from major to minor at the very end conveys his hopelessness. When will the ice-flowers in the window turn green? When will he hold her in his arms? The answer to both questions is: never.

Einsamkeit (Loneliness)

The slow trudging pace of the piano’s opening paints his despair as he travels on his way, lonely as the cloud drifting overhead above the tops of the trees. The stillness in the air, the brightness of the scene, are no help to his pain. When storms raged he was less miserable than this.

Die Post (The mail-coach)

The gallop of horses’ hooves and the triadic call of the post-horn sets the second half of the song cycle in motion as our wanderer’s heart leaps with the arrival of the mail-coach. Does it bring a letter from her? The upbeat tone of this song is an ironic set-up for emotional travails to follow.

Der Greise Kopf (The hoary head)

Eeriness returns in a song shrink-wrapped around the text rather than arranged in stanzas. The frost on his head has made him look like an old man, a welcome thought. Then horror sets in as he realizes he is still young, with so very far yet to travel to the grave. The sparseness of the piano part creates a chilling stillness as sonic backdrop to these dark thoughts.

Die Krähe (The crow)

Circling overhead, a crow has been following the wanderer. Is it waiting to feast on his carcass? Will this crow, unlike his beloved, stay with him till he dies? The piano, brilliantly imitating the circling path of the crow, twinkles and wafts above the singer, who stoops very low in his range, creating a pictorial image in music of the two figures, one in the sky, the other walking below on the earth.

Letzte Hoffnung (Last hope)

The traveller identifies with a lone leaf hanging on a barren tree, waiting to fall. If it falls, so too do his hopes fall to their grave. The piano paints a vivid picture of leaves falling all around him. There is so little rapport between the piano and the voice, the piano seems so convincingly exterior to the singer’s concerns, that one thinks of the tone and texture of Pierrot Lunaire.

Im Dorfe (In the village)

As he passes through a village, dogs growl at him from the lower regions of the piano texture, rattling their chains. Everyone is in their beds, dreaming. Why should he stay with these dreamers, when his own dreams are all over?

Der Stürmische Morgen (The stormy morning)

With the courage of desperation, the traveller faces an early morning storm that tears the heavens apart. Raging in the cold of winter, it is the very image of his own heart. Unisons between piano and singer again evoke the blowing of the wind and bitter chill in the air.

Täuschung (Delusion)

He sees a light dancing in the distance, which might be a warm house with a loving soul inside. In the dream world he inhabits, even a delusion brings him some comfort.

Der Wegweiser (The signpost)

Avoiding the busy byways, he heads for wild and desolate places, ignoring every signpost but one: the one leading him to a place from which no one returns. Here is another foreboding of approaching death: the path indicated to him is one “from which no one returned.”

Das Wirtshaus (The inn)

Liturgical solemnity, combined with a grim determination, pervades the scene as the traveller stops at a cemetery filled with garland-bedecked graves that beckon him like a welcoming inn. All its rooms, however, are taken and he is turned away, so he resolutely resigns himself to continue on his journey.

Mut (Courage!)

A plucky spirit overtakes him, as he dispels defeatism to face wind and weather, feeling like a God on earth. Quick changes between major and minor tonalities from phrase to phrase embody the difficulties he faces and the courage he uses to face them.

Die Nebensonnen (Phantom suns)

He sees three suns in the sky, and stares at them. He, too, had three suns once, but having lost the two he cherished most (her eyes), he now has only one, and he wishes that would go dark, too.

Der Leiermann (The organ grinder)

A drone in the piano announces the forlorn figure of an old organ grinder playing with numb fingers, barefoot in the cold, his begging plate lying empty as dogs growl at him. This is the only human being the traveller meets on his winter journey. Shall he go with this strange man? Will the organ grinder play his songs? The symbolic resonance of this final scene is quietly shattering.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015



Program Notes: Joseph Moog

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 13 (Pathétique)

At the end of the 18th century, a young Ludwig van Beethoven burst upon the scene with a musical personality that mixed brooding machismo with emotional vulnerability. This unusual combination soon established him as the Marlon Brando of Viennese composers, with the key of C minor as his black leather jacket.

This dark and troubled key, evil twin of the blameless and angelic C major, was in the next three decades to host a series of restless, turbulent works such as the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, 32 Variations in C minor and the last piano sonata Op. 111, all written in what would come to be known as Beethoven’s “C minor mood.” At the head of this list, however, stands the Pathétique Sonata of 1798, ominously indexed as the composer’s Op. 13, a breakthrough work so impactful that it went through 17 editions during his lifetime.

The rough terrain of this sonata’s high-relief emotional landscape is announced in the opening slow introduction, with its startling contrasts of loud and soft, of high and low register, of fragile hopeful recitative sternly answered by implacable thick chordal rebuke. The mood of heightened emotional tension continues in the Allegro that follows, newly animated by a throbbing tremolo in the bass and a headlong rushing theme above.

The unusual feature of this movement is its lack of modal contrast: it remains doggedly stuck in the minor mode for virtually its entire duration, relieved only rarely by momentary glimmers of major tonality. The second theme, normally a source of daisy-sniffing tra-la-la lyricism in a sonata-form movement, enters here in the dark key of E flat minor (instead of the expected E flat major) and is just as nervously fidgety as the first, even adding an element of daring with its repeated hand-crossings. More unusual still is the way in which the grim deliberations of the slow introduction bring the proceedings to a grinding halt at major articulating points in the structure. These thickly scored minor chords and grave dotted rhythms interject a moment of worrying caution at the end of the exposition before the listener is swept headlong into the tumult of the development section. The same ominous admonitions recur at the end of the recapitulation, as well, setting up the mad race to the movement’s dramatic final chords, which arrive with the abruptness of an incensed dinner guest who stands up, throws down his serviette, and storms away from the table.

It is left to the Adagio cantabile to smooth over the listener’s ruffled feathers with the healing balm of a lyrical long-limbed melody worlds apart in shape and construction from the breathless motivic fragments of which the first movement was composed. Laid out in the A-B-A-C-A pattern of a rondo, it alternates between reverential major-mode serenity and passing shadows of minor-mode introspection. While the propulsive quality of the first movement stands emblematic of a distinctly masculine musical energy, the undulating triplets in which this slow movement’s melody is eventually draped unerringly betoken the fluttering of the female heart.

The arrival of a rondo finale is normally the signal for sonata aficionados to prepare their toes for some serious tapping, but Beethoven’s finale is anything but merry. This is a vigorous movement that repeatedly contrasts its sullen opening tune in the minor mode with intervening episodes in the major. These episodes begin innocently enough but gradually work themselves into a churning froth of excitement which climaxes in a spectacular run descending from the highest regions of the keyboard.

All the greater, then, is the contrast provided by the central episode, a solemn study in academic counterpoint of unimpeachable rigour that nonetheless finds itself drawn into the fast-paced vortex. It thus falls to the quarrelling musical forces to meet at high noon in the Coda Corale to have it out for good in a great slugging match of off-beat sforzando accents, swept along on a wave of irresistible harmonic momentum.

Connoisseurs of the concept of ‘cyclical form’ will no doubt notice how cleverly Beethoven has slipped in sly references to the preceding movements in this finale, the opening refrain tune beginning as a copy of the first movement’s fidgety second theme in E flat minor, and the contrapuntal episode drawing its numerous 4ths from the melody of the Adagio.


Franz Liszt
Réminiscences de Norma

In the 1830s a swarm of pianists descended like a biblical plague on the city of Paris, attracted by the rich harvest of opera tunes produced each autumn on which to feed when concocting the potpourris, fantasies and paraphrases that were their chief stock in trade.

Each vied for public favour with his own bag of keyboard tricks, but two contenders stood head and shoulders above the rest. First there was Sigismund Thalberg, of aristocratic bearing, born seemingly without sweat glands, who sat perfectly motionless at the keyboard while astonishing audiences with his famous ‘three-hand effect’ (a clear melody sounding out in the mid-range surrounded by wide-ranging accompaniments above and below). And then there was Franz Liszt, an earthy Hungarian, born with an excess of hair follicles, whose theatrical performing style gave him the idea of turning the piano sideways on the stage (where it remains today) so that audiences might be prompted to even greater admiration of the trills, repeated notes and other sparkling ear candy that spilled from the instrument when he played.

All Paris was eager to hear these two titans perform together on the same program, but Liszt was scornful of the prospect of appearing with a man he called “a failed aristocrat and a failed artist” (ouch!) while Thalberg sniffed scornfully, “I do not like to be accompanied” (me-ow!). But then Princess Cristina Belgiojoso, an Italian emigrée in Paris, scored the social coup of the season when she managed to engage both pianists for a charity concert (and pianistic cage match) that took place in her salon on March 31, 1837, at which opera fantasies were front and centre on the bill. Thalberg played his fantasy on Rossini’s Moses in Egypt and Liszt played his own on Pacini’s Niobe. The result? The Princess declared afterwards that “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world—Liszt is the only one.”

Flash forward to the 1840s, when Liszt was enthroned as King of the Piano and touring Europe in regal style, astonishing the multitudes in concerts that frequently included one of his growing list of paraphrases based on tunes from operas by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, including his Réminiscences de Norma.

Bellini’s Norma, made famous since its premiere in 1831 by its celebrated aria Casta diva, tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who, in a time of popular insurrection, is called upon to chose between her love for the Roman governor and her duty to the gods and to her nation. Liszt offers a concentrated summary of the dramatic core of the opera by selecting melodies from the opening of Act I to evoke Norma’s exaltation as her people’s great hope for victory over the Roman occupiers, and from the last scene finale of Act II to represent her selfless renunciation of love, and of life itself, to further the cause of her warlike people.

The work opens with a series of stern chords and martial drumbeats, echoed high above by sparkling arpeggiations, to set the stage for a tale of war on earth and reward in heaven. These musical motifs recur midway through the piece to transition between opera’s Act I mood of heroic resolve and its tragic outcome in Act II.

Liszt’s inventiveness in creating novel pianistic textures in this piece is remarkable, and one can only imagine rows of countesses dropping like fainting goats in the first row at its first performance. In addition to scintillating cadenzas shooting up to the high register, and muscular displays of bravura octaves, Liszt offers up generous quantities of Thalberg’s famous ‘three-hand effect’, especially in the second half of the work, where the majority of the most outrageous pyrotechnics are concentrated.

His treatment of the lyrical Qual cor tradisti, with its three simultaneous layers—melody, pulsing chordal accompaniment, and martial triplet drumbeat—has been described by musicologist Charles Suttoni as “one of the most ingenious and sublime pages ever written for the piano.”


Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op. 4

Chopin’s first sonata dates from the time when he was still a student of Joseph Elsner at the Conservatory in Warsaw. While it bears many of the traits of a student composition, we should remember that not all students are created equal. Elsner’s remarks on this student’s graduating report card in 1829 read simply: “Chopin F., third-year student, exceptional talent, musical genius.”

Many of the characteristics of Chopin’s mature style are already present in this four-movement work. It is written for a large hand and takes for granted a virtuoso’s mastery of octave and double-note technique. Its heavy and imposing first movement features a melodically active bass line, strongly imitative texture, and a desire for rhythmic fulness that keeps up a chatter of 8th notes in practically every bar, aided and abetted by a certain contrapuntal chumminess of melody and countermelody that lends a charmingly conversational quality to the right-hand writing, in particular.

Unusual in this movement, however, is its lack of a lyrical second theme in a different key: the work opens by planting its flag in C minor and sits there in lawn chair for the entire exposition. But the development section, by way of compensation, is as chromatically colourful as a bowl of Smarties.

The second movement is the only minuet that Chopin ever wrote and the indication scherzando gives us a hint that crinoline petticoats and powdered wigs were not what he had in mind when writing it. The acrobatic triplet figures in the opening section and mock-seriousness of the E flat minor trio point more in the direction of sly parody than courtly hommage.

The Larghetto that follows, however, is in dead earnest in its lyrical intentions although experimental in their implementation. Written in a highly unusual 5/4 meter, its rhythmic pulse is somewhat difficult to pin down. The ornamentation of the right-hand melody into prime-number groupings of 3s, 5s and 7s against a stable left-hand accompaniment of duple 8th notes presages the operatic arias of the concerti slow movements and the moonlit meditations of the nocturnes.

A tumultuous rondo finale ends the work with a virtuoso display of scintillating passagework regularly interrupted by its thumping principal theme, a kind of Wanderer Fantasy gone over to the dark side in the minor mode. Eruptive surges from the depths of the keyboard, much akin to the deleterious effects of acid reflux, alternate with brilliant cascades of keyboard colour in the treble to end this sonata in a style worthy of a full-on concerto.


Gabriel Fauré
Theme and Variations in C# minor Op. 73

Francis Poulenc once famously remarked that the modulations in some of Gabriel Fauré’s music made him feel woozy, almost physically ill. While sales of Pepto-Bismol at concession stands in major concert venues has experienced no significant up-tick when the music of Fauré is performed, it is nonetheless true that this composer remains something of a specialty taste for concert-goers, regardless of their level of digestive resilience.

Fauré was at once a typical and yet an enigmatic figure in French music of the turn of the 19th century. The charm, elegance and delicacy of his musical style was distinctly French while his relative indifference to musical picture-painting and pianistic display set him apart from the predominating trends of his age. That he should be interested in modal harmonies and polyphonic textures should be no surprise, given the strict diet of contrapuntal music that he was fed as a youth at the ultra-traditional École Niedermeyer along with his morning gruel. Less surprising still given his subsequent career as an organist, a line of work in which an interest in polyphonic music is an occupational hazard few manage to avoid.

Fauré wrote a considerable amount of music for the piano and was much influenced by the accomplishments of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. In keeping with the quality of moderation and restraint that characterized his own personality, his piano music is characterized by an emphasis on melodies placed in the middle of the keyboard, often divided into gossamer textures of arpeggiated filigree. More given to understatement than exaggeration, he was possessed of an artistic personality closer to that of Verlaine and Proust in literature, than to the more direct theatricality of Gounod or Massenet, the virtuoso exuberance of Saint-Saëns, in music.

His Variations in C# minor were written in 1895 and may well have been inspired, in general spirit and occasionally in texture, by the example of Schumann’s Symphonic Études in the same key. The theme is a kind of march of imposing gravity, modally inflected, in a rhythmically repetitive pattern, and curiously configured with accents on weak beats of the bar. It consists of a simple C sharp minor scale rising up an octave and then lurching back down again by stages. Eleven variations follow, beginning at first with simple ornamentations and textural elaborations, but soon developing into something much more distant from its initial melodic and harmonic outline.

There are no ‘genre’ variations, as such, although dancelike elements do occur. Rather, the very DNA of the theme is spun out in fantastical ways, some passing through a time warp to don the apparel of a Bach invention, others floating more freely in sonic space, held together by strands of imitative counterpoint unimaginable in the era of the Cantor of Leipzig. The ninth variation seems to be walking on the moon. Typical of Fauré, he avoids ending with a bombastic ‘crowd-pleasing’ variation as a cue for audience applause, but rather exits softly, in refined style, in a final meditative variation in the major mode.


Anton Rubenstein
Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies (arr. Joseph Moog)

The pianist, composer, and conductor Anton Rubinstein has until recently held but a tenuous grasp on the affections of classical musicians and their audiences. Among his large catalogue of compositions, comprising a vast output of symphonies, operas, works for piano and chamber music, only his Melody in F for piano has remained with any constancy in the repertoire, although his Piano Concerto No. 4 was popular with pianistic titans such as Rachmaninoff and Hoffman in the early part of the 20th century (and has recently been recorded by Joseph Moog). A curious state of affairs, this, given the write-up that Rubinstein receives in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians describing him as “one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century,” whose playing “was compared with Liszt’s, to the disadvantage of neither.”

Like Liszt, his talent was spotted early. He was thus trotted about Europe as a child prodigy as soon as his age reached double digits, and before he had started shaving he had a Rolodex that included the names of Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn, not to mention the pats on the head he received from the Russian imperial family and Queen Victoria herself. It was connections such as these that allowed him in 1862 to found Russia’s first music conservatory, in St. Petersburg, and to serve as its first director, with Tschaikovsky as one of his students.

As a youth he had studied the exaggerated stage mannerisms of Liszt, whose mystical magnetic hold on his audiences Rubinstein attempted to imitate, both in his comportment on stage and in his pianistic style. From the point of view of stage presence, it certainly did not hurt that his facial features bore a striking resemblance to those of Beethoven, causing Liszt to give him the nickname “Ludwig II” (punning on the name of Wagner’s royal patron).

Like Liszt, he had an upbringing that had exposed him to the folk-music idioms of Central Europe and his catalogue of compositions includes many fantasies, variations and dances based on the memory of these folk melodies and their characteristic rhythms.

His Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies dates from 1858 and uses the same slow-fast structure that Liszt used in his Hungarian rhapsodies. Its first section is strongly improvisatory in character, and makes much of the ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm (a short accented note followed by a longer one) typical of certain types of folk music. Rubinstein the virtuoso makes no attempt to hide his light under a bushel here, as he unleashes volley after volley of arpeggios up to the high register culminating in quicksilver janglings of tremolo, richly suggestive of the metallic thrumming of the Hungarian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer).

The second section is more rhythmically regular and features melodies purled out in chains of trills, batteries of octaves, and other trademarks of sonic mayhem typical of mid-19th-century pianistic exhibitionism.

Joseph Moog’s idea of ‘arranging’ a piece which is already, itself, an arrangement lies eminently within mainstream practice of the period. Indeed, Rubinstein specialist Larry Sitsky of the Australian National University (Canberra) heartily commends the practice, insisting that the performer “must have the bravery to add to or contradict the composer’s own markings.” (Period performance enthusiasts might need smelling salts administered after reading this.)

Rubinstein, you see, had various ‘quality control’ issues accruing from his manner of composition—so similar to his manner of performing—that stressed capturing an evanescent moment of inspiration on the fly, without causing too much heat to accumulate in the space between his ears. As of press time, the nature of Mr. Moog’s ‘arranging’ activities are unknown but in the spirit of creating the authentic atmosphere of a genuine 19th-century piano recital, nor should it be.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015


Program notes: Yun-Chin Zhou

Domenico Scarlatti
Three Sonatas

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 Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves 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 that ends 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 Sonata in D minor K. 9 has long been among the most popular of Scarlatti’s sonatas, acquiring its nickname, the Pastorale, from a concert arrangement with that title published by pianist Karl Tausig (1841- 1871). Tausig’s title may well have originated in the impression of rural peacefulness summoned up by the sonata’s gently flowing melody in 6/8 time, with its Pan-flute-like trills and breathless runs up to the high register. Whoever this flute-playing shepherd is, though, he seems to have acquired a little drummer boy following hard behind, arguing via leaps in the bass that the piece would make a nice courtly march.

Drums are heard, as well, accompanied by trumpets, in the very fanfare-like Sonata in E major K. 380, with its many open fifth sonorities. We hear in this sonata an echo, in miniature, of the music of court ritual that must have been part of the everyday life of Scarlatti’s patron, employer and pupil, the Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal and Spain. And yet this piece arrives at a surprisingly intimate level of expression, given the ceremonial premise from which it sets out.

The Sonata in G major K. 455, by contrast, is unabashedly dancelike and popular in tone, filled with the rhythmic click and snap of the castanets. The idiomatic figurations of the guitar are heard in the repeated-note patterns that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity while it evokes Spanish popular musical culture in the most vividly direct way.


Franz Liszt
Sposalizio from Années de Pèlerinage II

The three books of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) detail the cultural impressions left on the Hungarian pianist-composer by his travels through Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Sposalizio is the first entry in the second book of this musical diary, a collection of pieces devoted to Italy. It takes its name from the 1504 painting by Raphael, Lo Sposalizio della Vergine (The Wedding of the Virgin), a representation of the joining of the Virgin Mary and Joseph in holy matrimony, pictured as taking place in the open square of an Italian city with numerous witnesses gathered round.

Liszt’s builds his evocation of this scene out of two simple motives presented at the outset: a wandering collection of notes in the pentatonic scale (remarkably similar to the opening of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, also in E major) and a short, slightly hesitant dotted figure. These two figures permeate the texture ever more urgently until a bell-ringing climax is reached with crashing octaves in the left hand to create what Alfred Brendel has called “an aura of elated innocence.”


Alexander Scriabin
Valse in A flat Major Op. 38 Vers la flamme Op. 72
Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 Fantasy in B minor Op.28

It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” He wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études, just like his Polish musical forebear.

The influence of Chopin is most readily seen in his Valse in A flat Op. 38 with its achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass clarifying the underlying harmony. Unlike Chopin, however, is the rhythmic pulse, which is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern expected of a well-behaved waltz. This is a waltz that ‘flutters’. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand will have none of it, and cheerfully ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy by wandering widely in 4-to-the- bar and 5-to-the-bar melodic units to create a perfumed distillation of waltz gestures, interrupted by bold outbursts of inner passion.

The ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (Towards the flame) is far from the salon demeanour of Scriabin’s early ‘Chopin’ period, being among the last works that he composed. It represents a psychedelic aural imagining of the world moving slowly and inexorably ‘towards the flame,’ heating up until it is finally consumed in a great conflagration of fire and light. The harmonic vocabulary of this piece is extremely advanced, based on chromatically modified dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in fourths rather than thirds. The harmonically subversive sound of tritones rings in the ear from the very start of the piece, when time seems to stand still, frowning in worry at what is to come. A second stage is reached when deep bass rumblings arise in a murky 5-against-9 rhythm, while the treble remains obsessed with the semitone motive that pervades the piece. Tongues of flame arrive in the treble when double tremolos curl around the middle register, eventually breaking out into silvery flashes of brilliance above until the piece ends in a dazzling aural snapshot of pure white light.

The piano textures of Chopin are apparent once again in the Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 with its sweeping left-hand accompaniment figures, studded with countermelodies in the tenor. And yet its wistfully lyrical melody, doled out in poised, evenly balanced phrases, barely ranges over more than an octave.

A much more muscular posture, very much at odds with Scriabin’s reputation for finely shaded melodic nuance and perfumed harmonies, is presented in his mid-career Fantasy in B minor Op. 28. While moments of lyric relief do arrive in this piece (and in canon, no less) it is overwhelmingly dominated by Lisztian figurations of flying octaves, thick chordal textures, disruptive rhythmic convulsions and flamboyant multi- octave arpeggiations in both hands. Swaying between a brooding restlessness and a search for ecstatic release, the mystic side of Scriabin comes clearly to the fore in this work, a worthy successor to the deeply chromatic yearnings of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.


Charles Trenet
6 Songs
(arr. Alexis Weissenberg)

The history of the 20th-century poetic chanson, long associated with the names of Edith Piaf, Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, would not be complete without Charles Trenet, familiar to music- lovers in North America as the author of La Mer, recorded in the 1960s by Bobby Darrin as Beyond the Sea. Known for his velvety baritone voice and slightly loopy singing style, he was called le fou chantant (the singing madman) and enjoyed immense popularity in a career that flourished between the 1930s and 1950s, although he continued to perform and record virtually up till his death in 2001.

Charles Trenet’s success was not only due to the charm of his nostalgic songs about young love and the city of Paris, but also to the unique blend of swing, jazz, waltz and tropical dance elements that characterized his musical style. This was music that was ideal for the ‘piano stylings’ of a jazz musician and, sure enough, sometime in the 1950s an extended-play 45 rpm record appeared on the market entitled Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet. But who was this Mr. Nobody?

The name of the musician responsible for these exuberantly lavish arrangements and improvisations has only recently come to light, and the name surprised (and delighted) many in the classical music community. It was the Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. At a time when classical musicians would sooner have eaten wood shavings on toast than be caught performing (let alone recording!) songs from the French music-hall repertory, Weissenberg had evidently shimmered unobserved into a recording studio in a curly wig and nose-and-moustache glasses to secretly record this tribute to one of his favourite popular singers.

Coin de rue (Street corner) evokes memories of the old neighbourhood and pleasant daydreams of days long past. Its nostalgic tone is captured in the blur of slightly ‘watery’ harmonies.

Boum! imitates the pounding heartbeat of those newly smitten with the joys of love. It begins in a very modernist style before launching into an extroverted keyboard-chuckling texture of added-tone jazz chords and sparkling fill-in figurations.

Vous qui passez sans me voir (You pass by without seeing me) is a love song about a young man who can’t even get the woman of his dreams to notice him. His awkwardness is cleverly expressed in the bass drones with crushed-note ornaments.

En avril à Paris (April in Paris) is a waltzing tribute to the City of Lights, with sweeping figuration swirling around each melody note.

Vous oubliez votre cheval (You’re forgetting your horse) is a surreal ditty about trying to leave your horse at the coat check. It’s homage to the Roaring Twenties hit tune Ain’t she sweet is just one of the inexplicable features of this song.

Ménilmontant pays tribute to the vitality of the working class quartier of Paris where Maurice Chevalier was born, in a moto perpetuo style with many a clever reference to the Flight of the Bumblebee.


Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, premiered by the composer in Moscow in 1913, is an ambitious large-scale work in three movements bound together by elements of cyclic form and thematic reminiscence. Indeed, the quiet ending of its first movement and the bridge leading directly from the second movement to the finale make it seem like one continuous work in three parts.

This sonata was obviously written for the massive ‘mitt’ of Rachmaninoff himself, who is said to have been able to stretch a 12th (an octave and a 5th), and it represents virtually a compendium of the lush keyboard textures characteristic of the composer’s best work. It also contains large-scale formal features typical of the piano concertos, viz., a frenetic speed- up of tempo in the middle of the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis-style summing up of lyrical thematic material at the end of the finale—prominent features of both his second and his third piano concertos.

The work opens with a dramatic gesture emblematic of the formal grandeur underlying Rachmaninoff’s conception of the sonata as a whole: an arpeggio plunging down to the abyss, answered by a cannon- echo of a theme comprised of a falling 3rd (was he inspired by a similar opening to Beethoven’s equally grand Hammerklavier sonata?), a chromatically descending melody and chordal outline, all chiselled out over a quivering tremolo accompaniment. Nothing is small-scale in this opening theme. Virtually the entire span of keyboard real estate available to the pianist is traversed in a series of cadenzas before a much more modest and intimate second theme appears.

This tentative, delicate, chromatically descending second theme is obviously derived from the first. Its contrasting nature lies not just in its being in the major mode, but also in how it represents a complete scaling down, texturally, of the amount of sound coming out of the piano. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fistfuls of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a feverish rage that has ebbed, but not ended.

The second movement begins with a series of questioning phrases before a sadly lilting, almost apologetic theme appears. This down-in-the-mouth theme, however, leads to happier thoughts in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright ringing bell- strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The swelling, heart-breaking series of sequences that follows is the lyric climax of the movement from which a ruminative middle section mulls over memories of the first movement and churns itself into quite a froth.

The opening of the second movement ends as it began, with the same exploratory harmonic questioning, but this time answers itself by plunging into one of the most heaven-storming finales in the Rachmaninoff canon, one in which the lowest B flat on the keyboard booms out like cannon-fire, over and over again. Gradually cooler heads prevail and there blossoms, under the generous tone-giving care of the right-hand pinky finger, a nostalgic and lyrical second-theme melody to melt the heart of a tyrant. The development section thunders with renewed vigour as the first theme rushes headlong back onto the scene. But it is the achingly heartfelt second theme that triumphs in the end in a glorious hymn to all that is right with the world, leading to a coda bristling with pianistic fireworks that lights a path to the work’s final chords.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

Program notes: Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin — Performance 2

Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Wo046

Beethoven’s second set of cello and piano variations on a tune derived from Mozart’s Magic Flute was composed in 1801, five years after his previous Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen variations of 1796. In this set, Beethoven picks another simple folk-like tune, a duet between Pamina, who has just learned that Tamino loves her, and Papageno, who laments that he can’t even get a Friday-night date. Despite this difference in their amatory status, there is one thing they can both agree on in song, and that is that “Love sure is grand, isn’t it?”

The original form of the duet – with each singer presenting the tune separately, then both singing together – is preserved in the variations that follow. Of course, when you are ‘covering’ a Mozart tune, the bar for wit and elegance is set rather high. So Beethoven is on his best behaviour here, combining the twin virtues of contrapuntal ingenuity and textural variety in the best Austrian tradition. Thus, while fulfilling the formal expectations of the genre – figural ornament, a variation in the minor mode, a lyrical adagio preceding a toe- tapping finale – he makes sure that each variation is as different as possible from its neighbours, by giving each a distinct rhythmic and textural profile.

A good example is the first variation, which treats the theme like chopped liver, doling it out in punchy little rhythmic chunks and leaving you dazzled by a musical mosaic that echoes the opening four-note motive in virtually every bar. Variation 2 can’t get enough of runs while Variation 3 sings the praises of the melodic ornament known as the turn. Variation 4, the inevitable minore, takes a walk on the dark side in the unusual key of E flat minor to offer a portrait of psychological fragility and lyrical introspection. Here is where the cello gets to unburden itself emotionally in the deep bass register, accompanied by a rather spooky, bare-bones accompaniment in the piano. Variation 5 has no time
for moping and picks up the pace in a merry game of tag between the instruments. The variations reach their emotional epicentre in the lavishly ornamented and lyrical Adagio of Variation 6 before the expansive Variation 7 finale skips its way home – not without a bit of minor- mode turbulence, mind you, in its middle section.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 5 No. 2

Beethoven’s two cello sonatas of Op. 5 share many characteristics. Each, for example, has a two-movement plan comprising an introductory adagio leading directly to a sonata-form allegro, followed by a rondo finale. But if the first of the set, the cello sonata in F major, is distinctly ‘Mozartean’ in inspiration, the second in G minor is more than a little ‘Handelian,’ and understandably so.

Both were written in 1796 at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, where a production of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was on offer at the Berlin Singakademie in the same year that Beethoven visited. King Friedrich Wilhelm was a charter member of the Handel fan club who had introduced George Frederick’s oratorios to the Prussian capital. He was also a more- than-passable cellist to boot, having been taught while still a princeling-in-short-pants by the virtuoso court cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818), for whom the Op. 5 sonatas were written. What more attractive model could he adopt for a sonata to be performed by Duport himself in front of the King?

What Beethoven admired most in Handel was his ability to evoke an emotion, or construct an entire dramatic scene, out of the merest scrap of a motive, such as the three-note descending phrase that occurs so often in Judas Maccabaeus. Angus Watson finds that this motive structures much of the melodic material in Beethoven’s G minor sonata, as well. But more telling still is Beethoven’s pervasive use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms in the sonata’s opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, in clear imitation of the French overture (also in G minor) that begins Handel’s oratorio.

Despite its mere two movements, there is nothing small-scale about this sonata. Beethoven’s austere and pathos-filled Adagio, dominated by a descending scale pattern and marked by many dramatic pauses, is just one of the ways in which Beethoven adds structural heft to its first movement. The exposition of the immediately following sonata-form movement virtually overflows with melodic ideas: there are two in its first theme group and two in its second, while the development section erupts with an intensity of emotion and virtuosity of piano writing that hint at Beethoven’s mature ‘heroic’ style. Capping off the first movement is a coda in which Beethoven lets his instrumentalists mull over what they have just played for the last time before the movement ends, grimly and grudgingly, with a stiffly Baroque tierce de Picardie in G major.

After all that heavy drama, Beethoven serves up a good-natured rondo finale with a sturdy opening refrain of small range that manages to thump and twinkle in turn. With a repetitive structure playfully phrased in alternating fragments of forte and piano, it drums its way into your head to become the most memorable melody of the movement. The intervening episodes, and even the refrain theme itself are continually developed and varied – sometimes cast in the minor mode, sometimes with the instruments chasing each other in canon – as if in a sonata movement. This finale simply overflows with rhythmic vitality, due to a near-constant chatter of rapid passagework on the part of both piano and cello.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in C major Op. 102 No. 1

At Op. 102 we have arrived at ‘late’ Beethoven, a period in the composer’s life in which his deafness left him alone to dream in a sonic world all his own where he expressed his musical thoughts in ever more concentrated form, yet with ever greater freedom. The world of late Beethoven is a world of contrapuntal textures, fluid formal boundaries, and not infrequently of ear-filling trills. It is the wilful inner world of a composer who has retreated from the realm of sound, but with his love of that realm intact.

The first of the Op. 102 sonatas is in two movements, like the sonatas for cello and piano of Op. 5, but in this work each movement begins with a slow introduction, or rather a free fantasy. The dreamy and meditative theme announced teneramente by the solo cello gives out in its first bar the main motives – a stepwise descent of a 4th followed by a stepwise ascent of the same interval – that will recur throughout the work as a whole. With the indication dolce cantabile, this Andante introduction is a virtual love-duet between the two instruments, that sing together in 3rds, or echo back to each other their billing and cooing, in a placid C major.

All the more is the surprise, then, when the Allegro arrives with an aggressive theme in octaves and unisons between cello and piano, in A minor. This theme has an urgent, restless quality that dominates the rest of the movement, but seems ‘misshapen’ somehow, with its sudden downward leap and awkward run-up ornament at the end of the phrase. All anxiety and bustle, with little time for lyrical repose, it rushes through a compressed development section and even its coda is tense and seems to end abruptly and wilfully.

The slow introduction that begins the second movement is more poised and seriously reflective. The piano and cello seem at first to be in duet, trading florid phrases back and forth, then each heads in its own direction, the cello ruminating deeply in the bass while the piano seeks ever higher terrain. They are brought together when they both ‘remember’ the opening Andante theme, eventually dissolving together into a chummy triple trill.

The cheek-to-cheek rhapsodizing is interrupted, though, by the perky motive that will pervade the finale: a stepwise rising 4th. Once this movement starts, we are on psychologically healthy ground. Beethoven uses the nimble rising-4th motive in many, mostly humorous or ironic ways. One of the most ingenious is when the cello plays a drone in the bass, as if it’s slowly looking around for the piano then quickly turns around and just misses ‘tagging’ it (imitatively) with the motive. In this context the fugato that follows is anything but dead serious. Another game of tag follows later and the two instruments end the movement best of friends.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in D major Op. 102 No. 2

Beethoven’s last cello sonata presents us with a more traditional layout of three movements, widely contrasting both in compositional style and in mood. A brisk and confident sonata-form first movement is succeeded by a deeply lyrical slow movement, and the sonata ends with a fugue.

The perky fanfares that open the work – four 16th notes and a big leap – prepare us for surprises but the cello immediately strikes a more conciliatory lyrical tone and the entire exposition proceeds in spurts, alternating between forthright bravado strutting cheek by jowl at close quarters with less aggressive melodic impulses. A development section is where you expect a composer to mix things up a bit but this movement’s development section is actually where you start to feel for the first time the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic unfolding in place of the expositions’ stop-and-go pattern of delivery. This new ‘can’t we all just get along’ mood continues into a recapitulation where the gaps are filled in and the pulse remains more continuous. The harmonic wanderings
of the coda promise mystery, but then – like an adult amusing a child by hiding his face behind his hands only to spring out gleefully into full view – Beethoven steers the movement at the last moment to a resolute cadence in the home key.

What follows is the only real traditional slow movement in all the cello sonatas, a place where the cello gets to display its lyrical gifts in a pool of light at centre stage. The movement’s solemnly paced melody of even 8th notes, with a pause at the end of each phrase, suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm accompaniment it soon receives from the piano. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and with melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. Relief arrives in a middle section in the major mode that restores a happier tone to the proceedings. When the opening section returns, however, the gravity of its ominous message is reinforced by low-register rumblings in the piano, and its ‘limping tic’ has only got worse.

The last movement begins with a simple rising scale presented in turn by the cello and the piano, a musical gesture reminiscent of how a magician innocently shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. The magic trick here is that this cheerful little melodic fragment, which comes as such a break from all the eye-brow-knitting seriousness of the slow movement, is soon revealed to be the start of a right proper, ‘learned’, fugue subject. It’s as if you had just witnessed a circus clown pulling off his multi- coloured uniform to reveal a diplomat’s tie-and-tails outfit, complete with dangling medals, underneath.

This fugue subject is metrically a bit ‘off’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar, giving it ample forward momentum but without a regular rhythmic patterning. It is a theme both dainty and merry, at the same time. The merriment gets a bit crowded after a while, though, like too many people crammed into a Volkswagen, and the counterpoint gets quite gritty, leading to a traffic jam of strettos in contrary motion. When the dust settles, a less jumpy, more serene countersubject in long note values arrives at the door to lead everyone into a concluding section vibrating with trills to celebrate the newfound spirit of contrapuntal amity with which the work ends.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

Program notes: Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin — Performance 1

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on a Theme
from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus Wo0 45

In 1796 Beethoven paid a visit to the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, and cellists the world over are glad that he did. From this visit resulted a number of works for cello and piano that set the world of between- the-knees string playing on a new path with three masterful compositions: the Variations on a Theme from Handel’s ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ and the cello sonatas Op. 5 No. 1 in F major and No. 2 in G minor.

Beethoven’s reverence for Handel is well documented, and his choice of the stirring chorus “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” for his variations might well have been prompted by a recent production of Judas Maccabaeus in Vienna organized by Baron von Swieten in 1794. His choice of the cello to pair with the piano was undoubtedly influenced by the King’s own preference for this instrument. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist and a notable patron of the arts, His Berlin court glistened with the lustre of cellists Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) and his brother Jean-Louis Duport (1749- 1819), one of whom (historians can’t decide which) collaborated with Beethoven in performing his new cello and piano works before the King.

If the theme of this set of variations sounds familiar, it might well be because you have sung it in church, as the Easter hymn “Thine Be the Glory”. The tune has a three- part A-B-A structure, with the B-section dipping briefly into the minor mode. In his variations Beethoven leaves the harmonies and phrase structure largely intact, preferring to let the dramatic narrative unfold through accelerations in tempo and alternations between solo melody and more conversational imitative textures.

A dramatic coup de théâtre arrives right away when the first variation is played by the piano … alone. This makes the audience wait till the second variation for the entrance of the cello, now cast in the role of an opera diva introduced by a long ritornello. While there is a lot of brilliant writing for the piano – Beethoven was writing for his own hand, after all – the cellist, too, gets his place in the sun as a virtuoso in the rapid-fire triplets of Variation 7.

The apogee of lyrical intensity comes in the poised and elegant Variation 11 Adagio, the longest variation of the set, with its highly ornamented melody and harp-like arpeggios in the piano. The cello lives up to its opera- diva billing in the B-section with an intense outburst of emotion worthy (and reminiscent) of Albinoni’s famous Adagio. Calculating that the the King’s toes tap better in threes, Beethoven changes the time signature to 3/8 for the final rondo-like romp that ends with a thrilling high trill in the piano before the final chords.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in F Op. 5 No. 1

Beethoven’s two sonatas Op. 5 of 1796 signal a growth spurt in the development of the cello repertoire, as they represent the first examples of a sonata in which the cello and piano act as equal partners, neither being reduced to a simple accompaniment to the other. Previous cello and piano sonatas had featured one

of the two instruments in a ‘sidekick’ role. Either the piano played continuo in what was essentially a cello sonata, improvising harmonic side-chatter from a score consisting of no more than a figured bass, or else the cello played obbligato, reinforcing the bass line in what was really just a piano sonata with a bit more ‘oomph’ in the lower register.

The sonatas of Op. 5, with their fully written-out piano parts, are thus the founding works of the cello sonata genre such as we know it today. And what an impressive foundation they are. In the words of Steven Isserlis, these sonatas are “real concert pieces, large in scale, full of exciting effects that would have left the Berliners gasping”, while Joseph Kerman calls them “almost miniature concertos”.

The Sonata in F Op. 5 No. 1 is comprised of only two movements: an exploratory Adagio leading to a grand- scale Allegro, followed by a playful rondo finale. The opening Adagio piques the listener’s curiosity with mysterious, strangely non-committal ruminations over small melodic phrases and gestures, occasionally interrupted by passionate outbursts that predict emotional volatility in what is to follow. And yet the Allegro, when it begins, is the soul of musical propriety, much in the style of Mozart – and in this regard it is useful to remember that Mozart wrote his ‘Prussian’ quartets for this same monarch, the amateur cellist King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Particularly Mozartean are the balanced phrase units of its opening theme, the cadential trills, and cadencing patterns repeated for emphasis at major articulation points in the form.

More Beethovenian, and more ‘gasp-worthy’ are the extreme range explored by the two instruments, the emotionally charged atmosphere (especially in the development), the striking contrasts of mood and unexpected changes of harmony, as well as the extraordinarily ‘thick’ writing for the piano.

The last movement is a gentle toe-tapper of a rondo with a Haydnesque feel to it, especially noticeable in the simple playfulness of its repeated-note principal theme. The contrasting episodes are particularly intriguing: one features a darkly merry, gypsy-like tune in the minor mode while another begins with a double- stop bass drone in the cello supporting eerie harmonic explorations in the piano. The cello is put through its paces in passages replete with multi-octave arpeggios, double stops and repeated leaps, but it is the piano that dominates in the end, with the massive sonority of its rolling arpeggios in both hands at the work’s end.


Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations in F on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”

from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op. 66

Compared with Beethoven’s ‘Handel’ variations, his variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute are much more sharply chiselled, more widely differentiated in character, like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the complaint of Papageno, who sings of how much he is in need of female company. But he’s not fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.

After Mozart has masterfully captured in melody the uncomplicated outlook and endearing simplicity of this rural bird-catcher, Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty and one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone. The learned trappings of imitative counterpoint that interlard the stately set of ‘Handel’ variations have no place in this little musical comedy.

Like the ‘Handel’ set, the first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its division of the melody into nifty little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear – all in a comic texture in which the piano plays far below it in the bass, like a plodding basso buffo.

The work proceeds in this manner through the following variations, with a distinctly different figuration pattern or rhythmic outline defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale. To provide a modicum
of contrast to what has, so far, been a remarkably chipper succession of musical sentiments, these slow movements are both in the minor mode. The first, Variation 10, uses double-dotted rhythms to lend an air of grim fatalism to its pronouncements, very much in the style of the Commendatore’s address to Don Giovanni. The second offers the cello a chance to hold forth with a bass aria, accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano.

The time signature is changed to 3/4 in the last variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the tune with which it begins and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends sweetly and softly.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Horn Sonata in F Op. 17

Beethoven’s only horn sonata was written in short order for the celebrated horn-player Giovanni Punto (1746-1800), one of the leading exponents of the hand- stopping technique that expands the number of notes playable on the natural horn. It was performed for the first time at a concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 18 April 1800, with Beethoven at the keyboard, and later published in a version for either horn or cello.

The original scoring for horn means that when played by the cello the solo instrument will not be confined to melodic gestures idiomatic to the horn. No matter, Beethoven writes a fulsome and elaborate part for the piano, laying down a rich carpet of harmonic fill when his performing partner is holding forth in lyrical melodic fashion, and ensuring that the entire room is filled with sound when drama is needed in more intense passages.

The first movement begins with a proud, triadic horn call for the cello, answered by the most blithely innocent, naively optimistic response from the piano. You can tell, right from the start, that these two are going to get along. And get along they do in this first movement, which is remarkable for its conversational manner. By the time the second theme rolls around they are completing each other’s sentences, like an old married couple. The development section brings their collaboration to a high pitch of emotional intensity as the piano answers in the bass register the cello’s triadic horn calls while sending broken chord figures up to the Gods in the opposite direction.

The second movement carries none of the emotional weight of an extended lyrical slow movement,
being rather a palette-cleansing introduction to the concluding rondo, with the dotted rhythm of a slow march. The finale opens with the strange bedfellowing of an academic succession of staid half-notes covering large leaps but concluding with a coy scale pattern twinkling with mordents. The intervening episodes in this rondo allow the cello to shine in a lyrical solo role, and while some of this contrasting material is in the minor mode, there is never any doubt that buoyant good spirits will prevail in the end.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in A Op. 69

The moody Beethoven of struggle and revolt is nowhere to be found in his radiantly serene Sonata in
A major Op. 69. This is Beethoven in his happy place, composing effortlessly in the mainstream manner of high Classicism, constructing melody after melody from the same basic building blocks, and roaming in carefree leisure from section to formal section as if exploring the various rooms of an interesting museum or art gallery.

Like a well-mannered child at a birthday party, he doesn’t hog all of the cake for himself but creates a perfectly balanced equilibrium between the roles of pianist and cellist (which in the Op. 5 sonatas were, admittedly, a bit skewed toward the 88-keyed side of things). He even allows the cello to begin the work, with the piano only entering the conversation once its colleague has finished presenting the solidly constructed melody that will contribute phrases and motives to the rest of the movement.

While the work as a whole is remarkable for its motivic economy, the first movement is especially so. The essential features of the first theme contribute Lego pieces not only to the construction of the following transitional passage in the minor mode (with its similar opening leap of a 5th), but also to the calm, measured pace of the second theme, so similar to that of the first. And because an atmosphere of sweetness and light can be cloying after a while, in the development section he transforms this theme into an outpouring of minor-mode pathos in the Italian manner before unleashing a stream of four-string arpeggios in the cello against equally stirring tremolo figures in the piano. The recapitulation is a shortened version of the exposition, but is extended by a coda that pensively lingers over motivic memories of the movement’s major moments.

The second movement scherzo is an elegantly playful game of ‘Where’s the beat?’ with syncopations poking you in the shoulder with such wilful insistence that you could easily lose track of the rhythmic thread. Measured relief comes (twice!) in the more stable trio sections, introduced by double stops in the cello.

Beethoven is having far too much fun to indulge in an intensely operatic slow movement, with all the dramatic contrasts that would involve, so he contents himself with a scant few phrases of lyrical reflection before moving on to his finale. This last movement, in sonata- form, splits its attention between a bustling first theme and a more poised, ‘stop-to-smell-the-roses’ second theme, with a few chromatic twists and turns in the development section to add a hedge-maze piquancy to its harmonic unfolding.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015





Program notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay. Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin. It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies. These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C. The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than that with which he began.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor
from Violin Partita No. 2 BWV 1004, arr. by Ferruccio Busoni

The Italian pianist, composer and conductor Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a tireless champion of the cause of contemporary music. His most important contributions to the modern concert repertoire, however, are retrospective, consisting of his popularizing keyboard transcriptions of works by J. S. Bach. Such, indeed, was his fame in this regard that his wife Gerda often found herself introduced at social occasions as ‘Mrs. Bach-Busoni’.

It is natural that Busoni should have been attracted to the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, as this work stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges it poses for the performer and the crystalline brilliance of its formal design. Musicologist Susan McClary calls it “the chaconne to end all chaconnes” while violinist Yehudi Menuhin referred to it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.”

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 that follow. Bach’s chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande (with emphasis on the second beat of the bar), followed by 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

Busoni’s adaptation of 1893 is a vivid re-imagining of the structure of Bach’s violin score for the larger forces available on the modern piano keyboard. It should not be surprising that his conception of the Chaconne is so sonically grandiose, as the work itself only surfaced into public view at the height of the Romantic era. After waiting until 1802 to be published in a complete edition of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, its first recorded public performance came in 1841, with violinist Ferdinand David holding forth on his instrument next to Felix Mendelssohn improvising an accompaniment on the piano. Numerous other arrangements were to follow, including those of Schumann for violin and piano and Brahms for piano left hand.

Busoni grants himself full licence to take advantage of the complete range of sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even while writing multiple- register chord spacings more typical of the organ. His approach to transcribing was no doubt based on J. S. Bach’s own activities as a transcriber of other composers’ works. As Sara Davis Buechner tells us, “for Busoni, all music was a transcription of the composer’s original artistic idea anyway.”

While Busoni’s adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception, there are clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of the timbre of an orchestral brass section is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, followed not long after by the sounds of the timpani (in the variation with repeated notes), not to mention the many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the instrument for which the work was originally scored.

César Franck
Prelude, Chorale and Fugue M. 21

César Franck’s Prélude, Chorale and Fugue of 1884 is widely recognized as one of the highest achievements of 19th-century French piano writing. That such a work should come from the pen of a musician employed for most of his professional career as an organist might well be surprising. But as Stephen Hough points out, Franck’s unhappy early career as a young piano prodigy, thrust unwillingly into the public spotlight by an exploitative father, could well have warned him away from composing for the piano when he finally gained his independence as an adult.

Certainly the compositional models for this work, looking back as they do to the era of Bach and Handel, served well to distinguish the composer from the roving bands of circus-act piano virtuosi that he had narrowly escaped joining as a youth. The influence of Bach, in particular, is felt in the pervasive motive of the two-note sighing appoggiatura, so similar to its equally pervasive use at the opening of Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). Not to mention the variant of the melodic outline of Bach’s own name (when played according to the German naming system as B-A-C-H: ‘H’ being B natural), heard in the opening bars of the Prelude.

But this work also reveals itself as very much a product of its own time in the rich carpeting of its expansive keyboard writing – no mean feat in a work of overtly contrapuntal inspiration. Contemporary in reference, as well, is its use of the falling fourths of Wagner’s ‘bell motif’ from Parsifal, first announced in sweeping multi- octave arpeggios in the Chorale. This ‘motto’ theme recurs in the concluding fugue, along with the sighing appoggiaturas of the Prelude to mark this work as a classic example of ‘cyclical form’.

Frédéric Chopin
Barcarolle in F-sharp Major Op. 60

Chopin’s ‘fifth ballade’, as his Barcarolle of 1845 is sometimes called, transcends both in scale and dramatic intensity the models set for him in the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and the examples given in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Chopin had never been to Venice, so his evocation of the song of the gondoliers derives not from the recall of a musical memory, but rather from an imaginative journey into moonlight. Half dreamy nocturne, half heart-wringing love cry, it alternates between poetic reflection and restless passionate outburst. It seems to encapsulate in a single work the full range of Chopin’s musical sensibility, and he obviously was proud of it, as he played it frequently in his concerts in Paris, London and in Scotland.

The standard characteristics of the piano barcarolle, as announced by Mendelssohn in his Venetianisiches Gondellied of 1830, are all there: the 12/8 meter and repetitive rocking-boat rhythm stabilized by pedal points in the bass, and a love-duet texture of double 3rds and 6ths. But Chopin adds so much more to the mix, including a harmonic sensitivity to colour that makes you feel the chill of a fresh wind over the water at the point where the harmony suddenly turns to the minor. Scintillating flashes of iridescence sparkle from the tips of the waves up to the high register of the keyboard, and sumptuous trills (double trills, even) make you shimmer inside with the fire-and-ice pangs of young love. This is poetic writing for the piano of the highest order.

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63, No. 2 Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30, No. 4

The 19th century was an age in which musicians from Eastern Europe wore their national musical heritage on their sleeves: Liszt wrote Hungarian rhapsodies, Dvorak wrote Slavonic Dances, and Chopin wrote polonaises and mazurkas. The polonaise was an aristocratic dance, a ceremonial public dance: Bach and Mozart had written polonaises. The mazurka, however, was more intimately connected with the very essence of the Polish soul, its oddly arrhythmic pulse a measure of the very heartbeat of Poland.

The Mazurka in F minor Op. 62 No. 2 is a fine example of the sentimental, melancholy potential of this dance. It begins with a painful, plangent leap of a minor 9th and ranges restlessly and chromatically over its melodic ambitus in search of a respite that never seems to come.

The Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4, while inly wrapped with a dark cast of thought, still displays an inner strength of will that drives it from a slyly lilting dance pace on to exaltations of ecstasy.

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major Op. 47

Chopin’s four ballades all share a tone of epic narration but the third of the set, the Ballade in A flat Op. 47, stands apart for its bright sonorities and healthy, optimistic mood. It lacks the vehemence of expression that characterizes the other three ballades, Opp. 23, 38 and 52, with their terrifying codas of whirlwind intensity.

The work is dominated by two principal themes of contrasting character but united by common elements of basic melodic structure. The first, announced at the outset, is a songful melody that begins by rising up six scale notes, echoed by antiphonal responses in the left hand. Its contrapuntal profile is of two voices expanding out in opposite directions from a central point, a pattern that intensifies on the following page into celebratory cadences exploding out into ecstatic arpeggios to the low and high registers simultaneously.

The second theme changes the mood completely. It is a dancelike melody of instrumental character that descends six scale notes, outlined in a series of coquettish leaps made all the more coy by the constantly syncopated rhythm in which they are presented. While this second theme dips often into the minor mode, it rarely stays there long, often slipping back into the major when cadencing. The minor mode in thus constantly restrained from taking on the mask of tragedy.

While the first theme remains elegantly static throughout the work, the second undergoes considerable development in a texture of ornamental figuration that dances alternately above it and then resonantly rumbles below. This development is the dramatic heart of the piece, and immediately follows a third theme area of remarkable flamboyance, with extroverted multi-octave arpeggios issuing into joyously rambunctious passagework over large swaths of the keyboard.

The work ends with an ‘apotheosis’ of the songful first theme in massively thickened chordal harmonies and a recall of the rambunctious spirit and exuberant figuration of the contrasting middle section.

Enrique Granados
Three pieces from Goyescas

Enrique Granados’ colourful Goyescas suite, completed in 1911, was inspired by the works of the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Bearing the subtitle Los majos enamorados (Majos in love), it depicts the joys and struggles of a bohemian segment of Spanish society often painted by Goya, the majos, a lower-class stratum of the Madrid population known for their colourful style of national dress and saucy, self- assured manner. Later in the 19th century, majas would appear on the stage as the cigarette girls in Bizet’s Carmen.

Granados’ style of writing builds on the pianism of Chopin and Liszt but is highly charged with the sounds of castanets, the strumming of guitars, and other timbral reminders of Spain. Almost improvisatory in style with violent mood swings, his multilayered and deeply sensuous textures range widely over the keyboard, and like Debussy are sometimes written on three staves.

Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor (Lament, or the maja and the nightingale) is based on a Valencian folk tune. Its sad theme may be intuited from the situation in which it is used in the opera Granados composed from the Goyescas suite: a young woman, fearing for the life of her jealous lover who has gone off to fight a duel, pours out her soul to the nightingale. Her lament is presented in the simplest possible form at first, followed by five voluptuous variations. The nightingale has the last word in a coda replete with warbling trills and bird calls.

El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) is perhaps Granados’ greatest work. Both philosophical and deeply emotional, savagely raw and wondrously mysterious, it paints its two protagonists in stark contrasts of register, the inevitability of death resonating up from deep bass, the pleadings of love shimmering down from the high treble. Granados said that all of the themes of the entire suite are united in this piece, “intense pain, nostalgic love and final tragedy – death.”

El pelele depicts a game played by young women in which they would toss a life-sized straw man up in the air using a blanket held at the corners in the manner of a trampoline. The trills occurring frequently on the third beat of the bar express the giddy pleasure and sheer exuberance of the young women as they send the straw man aloft.

Donald G. Gíslason





Program notes: Sir András Schiff

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 60 in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI:50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London of 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi whom Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a distracted husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say: “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

Nonetheless, a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops it opened with, but now with new frilly ornaments, in the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements, in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of different textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those whose eyelids might droop.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic wrong turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly ends up making a wrong turn.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, exist in a world of their own, governed only by the formal rules they themselves invent for their own unfolding. The Sonata in E major Op. 109, despite its three-movement structure, may be thought of in two halves. First comes a complementary pair of emotionally contrasting movements, both in sonata form, played together without a pause, the first a dreamy star-gazing fantasy in moderate tempo, the second a frighteningly focussed agitato of nightmarish intensity. The emotional volatility of these two movements is balanced and resolved by the poised and serene set of variations which serves as the sonata’s finale. These variations are based on a melody of such quiet dignity that they virtually erase all memory of the emotional wanderings of the previous movements.

The compression of form of which Beethoven is capable in his late works is evident in the first movement, the exposition of which is complete in a mere 16 bars. It opens with a melody buried within a delicate tracery of broken chord figuration that flutters innocently as if floating suspended in the air. It has barely breathed out its first two phrases and is moving to cadence, when it is interrupted by a disorienting diminished seventh chord that leads nonetheless to a lovingly lyrical duet, adagio espressivo, between left and right hand. But this second theme only has time to sing out a few bars itself before breaking out, cadenza-like, into a keyboard-spanning series of rapturous arpeggios and scale figures. And then the exposition is over, on the first page of the score. The development deals exclusively with the broken chord figuration but with the melody line more clearly exposed, and builds to a climax for the return of the opening material, presented this time with the hands at the extreme ends of the keyboard, after which a coda extends the dreamlike reverie.

The expansive mood of rhapsodic wonder is brought quickly down to earth, however, when E major changes to E minor and the second movement, marked Prestissimo, stomps defiantly into the ear. This is no scherzo: there is no trio, no contrast of mood. The development section may murmur sullenly, but this is only a momentary lull before the defiant tone of the opening, flickering with menace, returns to close the movement in the same uncompromising spirit in which it began. Remarkable in this movement is the way in which Beethoven manages to express such extremes of emotional violence within a texture so starkly ruled by the strictures of imitative counterpoint.

This is not a coincidence. The musical spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach has been hovering over this sonata since it began. The broken chord figuration of the opening movement looks back to similar homogeneously ‘patterned’ textures in the preludes of Bach, and the movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in the concluding movement, we encounter a variation melody characterized by an almost religious serenity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

Beethoven is not attempting to rehabilitate the outdated styles and procedures of the Baroque, but rather enriching the music of his own time with the density of musical thought typical of that bygone
era. And as Sir András has so aptly pointed out in his Wigmore Hall lecture on this sonata, it would be difficult to think that Beethoven was not inspired by the example of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when constructing his own for this sonata finale. The recall of the simple, unadorned theme at the end of Beethoven’s sonata has the same commemorative resonance as this same gesture at the end of the Goldbergs. Not to mention the textures of many of the variations that parallel those found in Bach’s famous set.

The first variation is not one of them, however. There is no hint of contrapuntal interest in this Italian opera aria for keyboard, marked molto espressivo, with its elegantly expressive melody and clear bass-and-chord left-hand accompaniment. Variation 2 lightens the texture with a hocket-style alternation of the hands that presents the harmonic and melodic outlines of the theme in interlocking 16th-note flashes of sound, similar to the texture of the Goldberg variation 20 and the second variation of Beethoven’s own sonata of Op. 26 (first movement).

The yeast of Baroque ferment comes overtly to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in double counterpoint, with the right and left hands regularly swapping melodies in the course of presenting the theme. Variation 4 moves the time signature to 9/8 for a change of pace to present a full four-voice texture of imitation, much in the style of Goldberg variation 3. The contrapuntal impulse emerges even more clearly in the more strictly structured imitative texture of Variation 5, richly suggestive of similar textures in Goldberg variations 18 and 22.

Beethoven’s own synthesis of old and new emerges in the final variation, which moves from a simple chordal statement of the theme to a gradual accumulation of rhythmic energy that finally emerges into a texture of whirling trills and flecks of melody flickering in the high register, before a simple re-statement of the original theme ends the sonata in a mood of spiritual peace.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C major K.545

There is a reason most piano students know this sonata. It is listed in Mozart’s own personal catalogue of his works as being für Anfänger (for beginners) and its unpretentious texture of scales, broken chords and Alberti basses, not to mention the choice of the simplest possible key (C major, with no black keys), seem to confirm Mozart’s intention to write a small-scale piece that would be ideal for teaching the musical novice the basic building blocks of keyboard technique.

But because this is Mozart (and not Czerny) the level of musical sophistication in this sonata is noteworthy. The first movement opens with a melody of the utmost simplicity, its outlines based on the three notes of the major chord, which issues into a series of rising and falling runs. These runs, however, cleverly mask the fact that the opening theme and the transition to the second theme are merged together, so that the second theme area, in G major, seems to arrive in the most natural manner possible. This more perky theme leads to a series of harmonic sequences in broken chords which summon up general agreement that a cadence would now be in order and the cadencing pattern chosen is one from which a closing thematic motive in rocking arpeggios emerges to end the exposition.

Nothing to wonder at, one might suppose, unless of course you happen to notice that the second theme is constructed by inverting the melodic outline of the the first, and that the closing theme is merely a rearrangement of the notes in the broken-chord sequences that preceded it. No, nothing to notice here.

The development immediately takes up the rocking arpeggio figure and goes minor with it, to provoke the appropriate level of eyebrow-knitting concentration that a good, roiling development section is wont to inspire. Advanced beginners in the class will no doubt notice that the recapitulation begins in the subdominant (F major) instead of the C major tonic. But is it such a bad thing to give students a little practice in a different scale pattern, one requiring their 4th finger to hit a
B flat on the way up, as well as on the way down? Pedagogical minds with hearts that beat for the general welfare of their pupils think not.

The second movement Andante is a three-part song with a development section in the middle, all ticking along over the steady rhythmic guidance of an Alberti bass in the left hand throughout. It seems gifted with an endless supply of variations for the scant few melodic and rhythmic patterns that characterize its theme, the triadic outline and dotted rhythm of which (just between us) make it a sibling to the second theme of the first movement. The middle section, which is more like the B section of a Baroque da capo aria than a real sonata-form development, dips into the shade of the minor mode to mull over a few more serious thoughts but fails to stay there long and the sunshine of the major mode soon returns to end things off with a rosy- cheeked smile.

The last movement, a miniature rondo of diminutive proportions, features a symmetrically structured playful theme alternating with two intervening episodes. As is common in Mozart, the episodes are not entirely contrasting in thematic material as the little imitative hops of the opening theme seem to keep poking their heads in the door at every opportunity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D. 958

In September 1828, as Schubert lay suffering the debilitating effects of the tertiary syphilis that would fell him only two months later, he managed a feat of compositional prowess that speaks to the steely will that coexisted with the delicacy of sentiment in the personality of this Viennese composer of distinctly bohemian habits of life. The 130 manuscript pages of his monumental three last piano sonatas, the Sonatas in C minor, A major and B flat major (D. 958-960) were all produced within this single month.

The Sonata in C minor D. 958 is undoubtedly one of his most serious works, for which he chose the key associated with so many of the greatest achievements of his idol Beethoven, at whose funeral he had served
as a pallbearer the previous year. C minor is the key of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the Symphony No. 5 and the great Piano Sonata Op. 111, as well as the 32 Variations in C minor from which the defiant opening subject of this sonata is quite obviously derived. But while Beethoven’s mind bent ever towards compactness and density in musical expression, it was Schubert’s gift to stretch, extend and elaborate his musical material in a poetic search for its inner psychological meaning.

This he does with telling effect when he transitions the uncompromising stance and abrupt rhetoric of the sonata’s opening pronouncements into less heroic territory to prepare for his lyrical second subject in E flat major. Here is where Schubert’s ability to ‘orchestrate’ on the piano is most evident. The repeated pedal tone in this simply harmonized melody, at first confined to the alto, soon shines out in the treble like a beacon of hope over all that passes on beneath it. But E flat major soon turns to E flat minor in a sprightly and slightly wicked variant of this theme.

The development begins in an expansively modulatory frame of mind, ranging widely through various keys until its interest settles on a distinctly un-settling voice of small range and ominous import in the bass, that ruminates and builds, marked with the rhythmic stamp of the opening chords to prepare for the recapitulation. This motive recurs again in the coda, emerging into the light of day in treble octaves that carry its worrisome preoccupations to the final bars of the movement.

The second movement is one of the few genuine adagios that Schubert wrote, given as he was to more moderate- tempo slow movements. It unfolds in a 5-part scheme of alternating themes in an A-B-A-B-A pattern. These themes are of opposing emotional valence, however, the first exuding elegiac tranquillity, the second more disquieting in its deliberations. Each is elaborated in a series of different textures, which only increases the emotional distance between them when they are juxtaposed in this way. The Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata seemed to have been an inspiring point of reference in the elaboration of this movement.

The restless Menuetto that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. Dance-inspired enjoyment seems impossible to achieve as each successive idea is undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in irregular phrase lengths, as a small deviation into the minor mode, or in mysterious pauses, as if the flow of emotion were cut off in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale. Here the spirit of the dance is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling, but strangely ominous rondo with the developmental features of the sonata. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback, of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig, and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short bursts of melodic ideas are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015





Program notes: Steven Osborne

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E minor, Op. 90

The use of the piano sonata in marriage counselling has not found wide adoption in the profession since Beethoven first introduced the practice with his Sonata in E minor Op. 90. The curious story associated this sonata is as follows.

Beethoven’s biographer Anton Schindler relates that in 1814 the composer’s boon companion, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, was having girl troubles. The Count, younger brother of Beethoven’s patron Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, was romantically entangled with a stage actress many years his junior – a woman of undoubted charms but few dynastic connections – whom he wanted to marry. The Count’s family, of course, took a dim view of this prospect, but marry her he did, and it was not long afterwards that Beethoven informed the Count that a new sonata, dedicated to him, was soon to be published. Do tell, replied the Count, or wordsto that effect. And what might it be about? Making obvious jocular reference to the Count’s recent marital deliberations, Beethoven said that the first movement of his Op. 90 sonata was “a struggle between the head and the heart” while the second depicted “a conversation with the beloved.”

Now any musicologist worth his salt – whether Maldon flaked or Windsor free-pouring – would have reason to sniff at this account published, as it was, some years after both Beethoven and Lichnowsky had joined the Choir Immortal, and by a biographer with a less than sterling reputation for truthfulness in reporting. (Schindler actually forged conversations in the notebooks that the deaf composer had used to communicate with the outside world.) Besides, had not Beethoven been a student of Haydn, was he not a master of classical form and motivic development in the tradition of pure ‘absolute’ music? Are we to believe that this sonata from the late pen of such a master was intended as no more than a kind of film score to a Viennese ‘Pretty Woman’ rom com?

Absolute music and program music, its quarrelling proponents would have us believe, are as different as chalk and cheese. And yet both have valid claims to make in this unusual work. Partisans of the ‘chalk’ faction might rightly defend the two-movement structure as a perfectly normal inheritance from Haydn, who wrote many a two-movement sonata. They might point to the formal clarity of each movement: the traditional sonata-form structure of the first movement and sonata-rondo layout of the second. They might, not without justice, remark further on the intensity of motivic development in this sonata, particularly the importance of the first movement’s falling-third motive (G-F#-E) that not only opens the work, but also appears at important sectional divisions within it. They might even note how it recurs, transformed as a rising-third motive (E-F#-G#), at the start of the second movement: proof positive of the ‘absolute’ music composer’s mind at work.

Those of the ‘cheese’ persuasion, however, would see the two-movement layout as narrative in structure, with a tumultuously argumentative first movement resolving into a second movement lyrically evocative of marital bliss. For those steeped in the ‘cheesy’ faith, then, the transformation of the first movement’s falling (minor) third motive into the rising (major) third motive that opens the last movement is not simply an abstract musical transformation, but rather emblematic of the personal transformation of Count Moritz from a torn and tormented lover into a happy contented husband. While noting the traditional formal outlines of the two movements, they would see Beethoven working within these established forms to tell his romantic story in the smaller-level details: how the work opens with a gruff, head-strong pronouncement only to be answered immediately by a more submissive heart-felt restatement of it. Indeed, the whole first movement seems to alternate between forceful statements of irremovable principle made by the head and more submissive, emotionally inflected phrases (pathetically evoked in sigh motives with suspensions over the bar line) pleaded by the heart. To the esprit de fromage, then, the presence of such pervasive contrasts as these vividly suggests the interior dialogue of a mind in conflict, one that reaches its peak of argumentative intensity in the development section.

Especially intriguing in this movement is the retransition (the end of the development section leading to the return of the opening thematic material), which features two lone voices in stretto, like the opposing sides of an argument speaking on top of each other, repeating over and over the falling scale motive G-F#-E, slower and slower, as if gradually coming to the realization that they don’t disagree at all, since they are arguing the same point.

The second movement evokes the logical consequence of such agreement: the honeymoon, a period in which the maritally conjoined are given to staring languorously at each other with the eyes of dairy cows when together, and singing tra-la-la to themselves when alone. Pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, the first pianist to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas in the 19th century, described the difference between the two movements of this sonata as the difference between ‘speech’ and ‘song’. And Beethoven’s performance indication singbar (songfully) reinforces the eminently songlike character of the second movement. Indeed, one might almost suspect Beethoven of channelling Schubert here, but for the fact that young Franz was only 16 at the time that this sonata was composed, so the influence is more likely to have flowed in the other direction.

The other indication, Nicht zu geschwind (not too fast), was aimed squarely at pianists who considered every rondo coming under their fingers a rondo brilliant, to be taken at a breathless clip with the aim of bringing down the house and prompting riotous applause. Nothing could be further from the gentle onward pulse of this movement’s classically balanced, simply harmonized opening melody, that flows effortlessly between sections of episode and refrain without glaring contrasts of mood or tone. The last appearance of the refrain, presented in a ‘love duet’ alternation of tenor and soprano voices, confirms this match as a happy one, and the aptness of Beethoven’s own happy marriage of ‘absolute’ and ‘program’ music in this sonata.

Franz Schubert
Klavierstück in A major D. 604

This isolated movement, found amongst Schubert’s papers, is generally believed to be the Andante of a sonata composed in 1817 and published after the composer’s death as his Sonata in F# minor, D. 571. Its connection to the proposed sonata is not only based on manuscript evidence, but on its opening harmonic progression, a deceptive cadence in F# minor, presumably linking it to the opening movement of a sonata in that same key.

Structured in a sort of sonata form without development, it places its second theme, unusually, in the subdominant of D major. Maintaining an almost constant pulse of 16th notes throughout its entire course, it draws its principal musical interest from its harmonic fullness, textural variation (the melody is often placed in a middle voice), and imaginative filigree of ornamental figuration in the high register. Its pervasive chromaticism points to a Romantic style that would later emerge in the works of Chopin and Liszt.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A major Op. 101

In the Sonata in E minor Op. 90 a rough and argumentative first movement gives way to a sentimentally luxuriant last movement, but Beethoven’s next piano sonata does not make us wait quite so long for his lyrical side to emerge. In the Sonata in A major Op. 101, composed in 1817, lyrical effusion comes to the fore with a remarkable tenderness in the very first bars, stretching out its languorous melodic line to a length that won this sonata the admiration of Richard Wagner, that great champion of the ‘infinite’ melody. There is also a feminine grace to this opening melody that perhaps relates to the character of its dedicatee, Dorotea von Ertmann, a close friend of the composer as well as his student, whom he admired both personally and as a pianist.

And yet, despite its emotionally generous tone and mood, this first movement dallies little over its thematic material and is remarkably compact in form. After a few tuneful lines of melody that seem to be constantly searching for a home tonality, Beethoven emerges magically, like Esther Williams surfacing from the depths of her swimming pool, in the dominant (E major), without so much as a whiff of transition. Then, after a series of simple but wide-spanning gestures of almost Brahmsian dignity, he calls it a day and the exposition closes with a clutch of soothing cadences, the insistent syncopations of which blur the bar line out of existence (much to the delight Wagner, no doubt). Before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle!’ the exposition is over – on the very first page. But the development is even shorter, pulsing along with the aforementioned syncopations until the recapitulation sets things back on a more regular rhythmic track. A surprising moment of high drama arrives just before the coda when unusually thick 9-note chords loudly call a temporary halt to the proceedings, but calm is soon restored and the movement concludes quietly, with a cadence at the extreme ends of the keyboard.

Another example of Beethoven’s influence on the following generation of composers is given in the scherzo that follows. While the last movement of the Op. 90 sonata glows with the congenial songfulness of Schubert, this march of stirring patriotic fervour is more than a little reminiscent of Schumann, especially the second movement of his Fantasy in C major of 1838. What makes Beethoven’s march even more interestingly complex is the combination of a pervasive dotted rhythm with an equally pervasive texture of imitation and contrapuntal by-play between the voices. This intensely contrapuntal constructive principle is distilled, in the trio, into a mock two-part invention à la Bach, complete with little points of imitation in strict canon, a strange bedfellowing of the lively and the learned in a movement meant to be the ‘lightest’ of the sonata as a whole.

The slow introduction to the last movement, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (slow and with yearning), is one of those free-form intermezzos that Beethoven uses (in the Waldstein sonata, for example) to set up a weighty but exuberant finale. Its task is to make you stop and look the night sky for a while before the fireworks go off to rival the stars, and so its mood is introspective, its formal patterning improvisatory. It begins with a phrase containing a triplet motive that wanders, lonely as a cloud, though the various registers of the keyboard, sometimes ruminating in the bass, at other times pleading its case in the high register, until it loses all track of time in a dreamlike unmeasured cadenza, waking up to a reminiscence of the opening theme of the first movement.

The pace then picks up and after a few rousing trills we immediately find ourselves in the middle of the action, with a proud strutting theme that is continually leaping downward and then scurrying off in a series of runs. This sonata-form movement is packed with variety and no shortage of humour. Among its invited guests in the melody department are an Austrian yodel and a rollicking German country dance, all rubbing shoulders at the ball, of course, with a full-on fugue as a development section. Apart from the humorous incongruity of its melodic material, much of this movement’s knee-slapping merriment comes from Beethoven’s outrageous use of the low register, almost in imitation of a comic opera basso buffo.

The fugue, for example, begins low down in the bass, and ends in a trill that goes absolutely nowhere: it has no following note to resolve into, just an empty rest. And when it’s time for a good old-fashioned pedal point on the dominant, Beethoven stomps on the lowest E he can find, combining it with a few extra notes down there, just to goose up the ‘mud’ factor in the sound. This movement shows Beethoven at his most brilliantly infantile, sitting in his composer’s high-chair and gleefully flinging his sonic porridge with unerring aim against the wall.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in B flat major Op. 106 (Hammerklavier)

It has often been remarked that Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata of 1819 is a work more respected than loved. Many admire it as magnificently ‘expressive,’ but few hold it to be ‘beautiful’ in the classical sense. Its status as a monument of Western classical music is justifiably founded on the sheer grandeur of its musical ideas and the vast expanse of emotional space that these ideas both define and occupy: the explosive heroism of its first movement, the wilful caprice of its scherzo, the profound lyrical introspection of its Adagio, and the dazzling intellectual vigour of its massively intricate fugal finale.

The sonata is dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, a longtime friend and former student of Beethoven. An earlier sketch reveals that Beethoven had originally planned the dramatic opening of this sonata as the melody of a birthday greeting, for chorus, addressed to the Archduke with the Latin words: VI-vat, VI-vat Ru-DOLPH-us! (Long live Rudolph!)

But bypassing for a moment the high-minded dedication of this work, its extraordinary length (the Adagio alone is more than a quarter of an hour), and its vast emotional range, if we lift the lid and look at the compositional ‘plumbing’ that ties it together we find something very odd. We find the musical interval of the third, occurring over and over again, from the small-scale patterns of its melodies to the large-scale harmonic organization of its grand formal outlines. The musical space defined by three scale steps occurs so often, in fact, as almost to qualify as a constructive principle in this sonata, the steel rods in its reinforced concrete, if you will. When Beethoven thinks of what kind of melody to create, he thinks of using thirds. When he wonders what tonality to modulate to for the next section, he thinks that three notes away might do the job. When he thinks of the key to put the next movement in, he puts it three notes away. While he is careful not to to be too obvious about it – his choices are always effective musically – one thing is clear: the man has thirds on the brain.

The work opens with two arresting statements in the Vivat Rudolphus rhythm, each initiated by a cannon echo booming up from the bass and proclaimed by a brassy fanfare in the high register. These gestures cover virtually the entire range of the piano of Beethoven’s time, and lay out the extraordinarily wide tonal range within which his musical thoughts will travel in this sonata.

The work’s wide emotional range is hinted at, however, by the immediate change to a more lyrical tone of utterance, expressed in a much smaller tonal range, leading to a thoughtful pause. In a handful of bars we have gone from the explosive to the intimate, and we then head back into heroic territory as the opening salvos take centre stage again. A surprising cadence awaits, however, in D major, that grabs our attention, and as the dominant of G major, it leads us into that key for the second group of themes.

Without our noticing it, Beethoven, through all this, has been hammering thirds into our ears. The opening fanfares end ringingly and emphatically on two falling thirds (D to B flat and F to D). The melody of the lyrical passage which follows reverses these into a series of rising 3rds (as little 3-step runs). And the D major cadence is not coincidentally three notes up from the home key of B flat, and leads to G major, a key three notes down from it. (Normally the second theme area would be in the dominant, F major.) And as if to dispel all doubt, this second group of themes is largely occupied with a gracious series of descending running figures, figures that tumble by … thirds. And just to hammer the point home, the exposition ends with bluntly emphatic octaves in both hands, rising up three notes by step, with a big fat goose-egg pause at the end to let slower members of the audience catch up to the plot.

The development section begins by making much of the dramatic leap that began the work, but soon settles down to put its main centre of interest – three little descending scale steps – through the ringer in an extended fugato in E flat (three notes down from G major). No one should be surprised, of course, when even these little three-step motives begin confronting each other in double … thirds. The recapitulation solemnly reviews the ground covered in the exposition, but after a climactic passage buzzing with double trills, adds a coda that resounds with the opening volley of Vivat Rudolphus to bring the movement to a close as it began.

Although Beethoven had not written a full four- movement piano sonata since Op. 31 No. 3, he shows in the second movement of this work that he had not lost his knack for writing quirky, whimsical scherzos. The opening is spun out miraculously from a single one- bar cell of melodic material – a perky third up, followed by a third down – that extends itself out in a series of harmonic sequences, and then finds contrast in a moody trio in B flat minor with rolling accompaniment. This trio burbles along with grim determination until it suddenly finds itself emerging into a disorderly near-riot that hammers its way up and down until issuing into a breathtaking keyboard-spanning run to the high register. After a cutesy little measured tremolo to add a bit of camp flair to the proceedings (a twinkly sidelong glance at the audience would not come amiss here), we return to the opening material. But the tricks are not over. A stand-off breaks out in the coda over what the last note should be: B flat, or B natural. After a lot of hammering, B flat ducks ahead at the last minute and crosses the finish line in the key the movement started in.

The Adagio is a gigantic sonata form, without repeat, in F# minor, enharmonically G flat minor (three notes down from B flat). Exuding a grave tranquillity, its opening melody (which starts with a rising third, followed by two falling thirds) extends for a full 25 bars before contrasting material, scarcely less emotionally intense, appears. Despite its great length, and generally subdued tone, it achieves a remarkable degree of variety through its many changes in texture and rises to a quite passionate level of expression through its operatic style of ornamentation. One notable feature is the use of Bebung, a pattern of off-beat repeated notes that reproduce the syncopated effect of sobs. In some passages the style of melodic variation is almost reminiscent of Chopin, but then Chopin’s own style of ornamentation was also operatic, influenced as it was by the melodic style of Bellini. The extended filigree of 32nd notes in the development is the most magical passage of the movement, evoking perhaps a lonely nocturnal figure staring at the moon, cold and desolate but still admirably radiant.

The last movement, with its mighty fugue that weakens the knees of all but the most intrepid of pianists, begins with a palette-cleansing Largo of improvisatory character, spiritually much akin to the kinds of fantasias that Bach was wont to place before his titanic organ fugues. After many changes of tempo and mood, a series of high trills announces the arrival of the fugue subject, a half-note trill approached by leap from far below (parodying the opening fanfares of the first movement) followed by a series of small runs that descend by intervals of – you knew this was coming – thirds.

While Beethoven pursues his own musical agenda in this early-19th-century re-invention of the fugue, a musical form that had essentially died out with the deaths of Bach and Handel more than 50 years previous, he leaves us in no doubt that the time he had spent studying fugal procedure with Albrechtsberger and Haydn was not wasted. All of the most arcane contrapuntal devices and manners of treating a theme – augmentation, stretto, inversion, even cancrizans (playing it backwards) – sooner or later make their appearance in this mother of all fugues.

The performing pianist tasked with keeping all of this clear to his listeners, a task that may reasonably be compared to juggling chainsaws while reciting Shakespeare, must not only balance sounds at the extreme ends of the keyboard, but often do so while playing extended trills paired with contrapuntal countermelodies – in the same hand!

Just at the point, though, when both hands are chasing trills high and low at a firecracker pace, a moment of calm arrives, a moment in which the skies seem to open and a heavenly melody in even quarter notes descends from on high to spread soothing oil on the troubled waters of contrapuntal discord. But not 30 bars later, however, the old contrapuntal itch returns, and Beethoven begins to combine his fidgety fugue subject with this new peace negotiator in the texture, sweeping it along into the vortex of swirling melodies and melody fragments, with the omnipresent buzzing of trills leering incessantly through the texture with dogged persistence.

In the end, the trills win out. Beethoven concludes his sonata by reducing our focus down to the most ear- catching motives that have marked its first and last movements in a great series of leaping octaves that trill, and trill, and trill their way to a final cadence.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015





Program notes: Emanuel Ax

Georges Bizet
Variations Chromatiques de concert

For those that like to feather-dust humming the habanera from Carmen with a rose clenched between their teeth might be surprised to learn that Georges Bizet was not only an opera composer, but also a pianist.

Anecdotal accounts of the period reveal that the keyboard skills of Georges Bizet verged on the miraculous. His sight-reading skills, in particular, were a cause for astonishment. It was said that he could read anything put in front of him, making him a rehearsal pianist much in demand in the lyric theatres of Paris where, in fact, he found ready employment assisting in the production of operas by Berlioz and Gounod, among others. Collateral damage to this sort of day job was the fact that, in the words of musicologist Hugh MacDonald, “he devoted an alarmingly high proportion of his short life to arranging other people’s music.” In fact, more than 6,000 pages of piano transcriptions & piano-vocal arrangements were published under Bizet’s name during his lifetime, compared with a scant 1,500 pages of his own compositions.

The style of these opera arrangements weighs heavily on his Variations chromatiques, composed in 1868, which are operatic in intensity and orchestral in texture, leaving the poor performing pianist with the unenviable task of attempting to convey the sound of musical forces much larger than those his mere 10 fingers were meant to project. Needless to say, the keyboard writing in this work is not ‘pianistic’ in the normal sense: there are chords that extend beyond the stretch of the human hand, pedalling challenges reminiscent of walking on hot coals, and numerous textures typical of orchestral transcription. “Double tremolos”, as Winton Dean wryly observes, “are not the way to the pianist’s heart”. And yet these rather odd variations, the ugly duckling amid a gaggle of contemporary works with finer plumage, have attracted the attention of Glenn Gould, who recorded them, and Felix Weingartner, who arranged them for orchestra.

One obvious point of interest is the work’s alleged spiritual descent from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor for piano, a work which Bizet played and greatly admired. Both works, in C, feature a chromatically- structured chaconne-like theme, and similar variation textures link the two works, as well, not the least of which is the teeter-totter pattern of dizzying runs up and down the keyboard towards the end. Bizet’s starting point, however, is a theme so abstract as to be almost a parody of an academic exercise: a chromatic scale that slowly climbs up one octave then descends the same distance back down, the entire process chaperoned by a constant pedal on the circuit’s home base of C.

As it turns out, however, it is Beethoven’s variation process that turns out to be the more abstract. Bizet’s variations, 7 in the minor mode, followed by 7 in the major, are more reflective of the musical styles and genres at play in the Paris of the 1860s in which he lived. The opening melodic gesture of Variation 1 suggests a similar opening in Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 while Variation 11 enchants with the parallel thirds and sixths of his G major Nocturne, Op. 37 No. 2. Variations 3 and 4 evoke the keyboard bravado of Liszt. Variation 10 dances with the characteristic rhythm of the polonaise, while Variation 13 quotes the love theme from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

Far from being the exercise in musical transcendence that its theme would predict, Bizet’s variations give us a slice of mid-century musical France, flavourfully assembled under the influence of popular taste and skillfully regulated by his masterful command of chromatic harmony.


Jean-Philippe Rameau
Suite in G major/minor
from Nouvelles Pièces de clavecin

Jean-Philippe Rameau counts as one of the greatest musicians of the French Baroque, whose operas, beginning with Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), dominated the French stage of his time, and whose Treatise on Harmony (1722) revolutionized 18th-century thinking on the subject, making clear the fundamental principles that would determine the large-scale tonal architecture of major works of the Classical era. While the pioneering work of William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants have in recent decades made Rameau’s operas available to modern audiences, it is by the three collections of harpsichord pieces from 1706, 1724 and ca. 1727 that Rameau is best known today.

The works contained in these collections may be divided into two types. There are the courtly dances that form the constituent elements of the suite genre that Rameau inherited from the 17th century, and there are what are known as character or genre pieces (a French specialty), each labelled with a colourful title identifying a person, object, or activity meant to be described by the music so labelled. These latter play to the French national expectation that music will not just float freely in a world of its own, but rather be descriptive of something, be classified, anchored in some pre-existing impression already stored in the imagination. These titles, however, should not be taken too literally, as they were often applied afterwards, or invented by others, and as such constitute a variety of “inside baseball” in the French Baroque that little rewards sustained study or research.

The pieces are structured either in binary form, in which a first part moves from the home key to the dominant, moving back to the home in the second part, or in the form of a rondeau, comprised of a refrain, stated at the outset, the successive appearances of which are interlarded with a series of contrasting couplets.

Rameau’s keyboard writing was very advanced for the time, and he was very proud of various innovations which he claimed to have introduced in keyboard technique, although some of these were actually developed independently by Scarlatti, as well. Many of the showy batteries (styles of keyboard attack) which he describes in the the introductions to his published collections involve hand-crossings or nimble tag-team trade-offs between the hands. And because he is writing in the decorative age of the French Rococo, his melodies are garlanded with as many ornaments as Imelda Marcos has shoes.

Les Tricotets refers to a quick-paced dance of the same name, so called because in dancing it the feet are thought to move with the speed of an experienced knitter’s hands. Rameau’s batterie in this piece features a single melodic line with a common note played successively by the two hands. Its form is a rondeau with two contrasting sections, the second in the minor mode to provide a change of tone colour. Its rhythmic piquancy comes from the overlay of 3/4 and 6/8 groupings.

L’Indifférente is in binary form, with each half repeated. It features even 8th-note motion, unperturbed by rhythmic emphasis. This, perhaps, is the clue that explains the austere “indifference” referred to in its title.

Minuets I & II take a stereo look at the same opening melodic gesture, the first in the major mode, the second in the minor. These are real danceable minuets, the first used later in Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux (1737), the second in La Princesse de Navarre (1745).

La Poule attempts to forge a link between the disparate worlds of concert performance and animal husbandry. If the number of works inspired by farmyard animals
is understandably low on most recital programs, the number directly descriptive of chickens, in particular, is even lower. (We pass over in silence the indecorous “Chicken Dance” so lamentably popular at weddings.) Rameau’s The Hen struts and frets its four minutes upon the stage and then is heard no more. And yet by dint of repetition and development of the simple opening motif (five repeated notes and an arpeggio), the composer manages to enlarge his caricature into a riveting portrait of considerable tragicomic grandeur.

Rameau’s status as a music theorist is given high relief in L’Enharmonique, a work of extraordinary experimental daring for its time which plays upon the (enharmonic) equivalence of pitches such as those notated B# and C to effect modulations that his contemporaries would have been quick to label “learned”. The effect of these progressions would be all the more wig-curling on harpsichords not tuned in equal temperament.

L’Égyptienne is a character study of a female inhabitant of Egypt, which was the land of the Gypsies, according to legend, and this young woman dances in the wild manner assumed to be characteristic of that race of merry, but emotionally volatile nomads. The broken- chord texture that ranges over wide swaths of the keyboard is orchestral in style and is meant to suggest the extravagant gestures of this exotic performer.


Claude Debussy
Les Estampes, L 100

The keyboard world of Claude Debussy is a world of sensuousness, of voluptuousness even, a dreamlike world pulsing with mysterious sounds and dappled with suggestive sonic shadows. What separates him from the Romantic and late-Romantic eras that preceded him is not just that he flouts the rules of traditional harmony and voice-leading: he ignores them completely, because they are not the point at all. Dissonance, in Debussy, is no longer the midwife of harmonic motion, no longer the prime cause of a work’s momentum, its forward movement, but rather just another sound colour like any other. His harmonies might be diatonic, chromatic, or boldly atonal; they might be used alternately in a sustained manner, or together in rapid alternation.

The melodies and chord structures of preceding musical eras are merely small elements in the much larger sound world that he is creating and their appearance often has the emotional valence of a quotation. Although he admired the piano music of Chopin, his sensibility was of a different order entirely, and his aesthetic aims entirely different from that of the Romantic-era composer. The self-aggrandizing concentration on the individual, introspective and isolated from society, so typical of the Romantic pose in Art, was anathema to him. His imagination was stirred more easily by the simple things he experienced in his natural environment, the things we can all experience: the sound of rain, the passing of clouds, the faint echo of some music in the distance.

His Estampes (“prints” or “engravings”), composed in 1903, offer three examples of Debussy’s pictorial rhetoric. They take us on an exotic journey from the Far East, to the centre of Spain, then home to France again, each stop on the way saturated with local colour, and treated as the subject of a sonic reverie.

In Pagodes we hear the pentatonic scale of Asian music (the scale represented by all the black notes on the piano) and a suggestion of the metallophone and gong timbres of a Javanese gamelan orchestra, of the kind that Debussy heard at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. The lack of a leading tone in the pentatonic scale (the ti leading to doh) gives a magic stillness and serenity to this music. This is reinforced by the interchangeability of its two- and four-bar phrases, which could easily be transposed in modular fashion without spoiling the effect. This piece exudes a languid calm, infinitely suggestive of the gentle movement of waves in a pond, or the slow swaying of native dancers. The indication presque sans nuance (almost without nuance) expresses, more than anything else, Debussy’s desire to distance the scene presented from the pianist’s personal whim or interpretive passion.

La Soirée dans Grenade (An evening in Grenada) brings us within range of the folk music of Spain, represented at the outset by the lilting rhythm of the habanera echoing in virtually every octave of the keyboard before we enter into the musical scene before us. The uniquely savoury flavour of the Spanish folk idiom is sharply sketched in the melody that emerges, stamped with the augmented intervals of the Arabic scale. The sound of guitar strumming blends in, interrupted by a few quick flashes of horse’s hooves, but in the end it is the drowsy sonic haze of siesta time that envelops us, fading into the distance.

Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain) is both a picture postcard of a windy, rainy day and a bustling toccata to finish off this triptych of musical prints with a flourish. The constant chatter of 16th notes creates a powerful image of falling rain, the sudden leaps of harmony contributing to the impression that a force of nature is at work, beyond human control. Within this sparkling texture, Debussy quotes two French folksongs, Nous n’irons plus aux bois (We’ll not return to the woods) and Dodo, l’enfant do, that add a dimension of childlike wonder and innocence to the scene. The ending is a bright splash-in-the-face flash of pianistic puddle- jumping.


Claude Debussy
Hommage à Rameau L110 No. 2

Debussy was busy editing Les Fêtes de Polymnie for the complete Rameau edition of 1908 when he composed this piece as part of the second series of triptychs published under the name Images. In it he pays tribute to a composer whom he considered quintessentially ‘French,’ his reverential offering taking the form of a serious and solemn sarabande. There is a monumental quality to its austere texture of bare octaves, yet a dreamy reflective world of genuine emotion expands within the texture and rises to the surface as these octaves thicken into a stream of parallel augmented chords, heading for a grand climax from which they are pulled back at the last moment.


Claude Debussy
L’Isle Joyeuse L 106

Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse (The Island of Joy) is surely his happiest, his most overtly exuberant and thrilling work. Allegedly inspired by a Rococo painting of Jean-Antoine Watteau entitled L’Embarquement pour Cythère (The Embarkation for Cythera), it describes the voluptuous love revels of a party of aristocrats on the island sacred to Venus, goddess of love.

The first sound we hear is a delicate vibration in the air, a trill, rippling through sonic space in patterns of figuration that outline the whole-tone scale, a 6-note scale pattern that runs through the piece as a whole. Soon a sprightly tune in a dotted rhythm presents itself, a melody more than a little similar to the jaunty tune of The Little Shepherd (also in A major) from the composer’s Children’s Corner suite. This tune is in the Lydian mode (a major scale with a sharpened fourth degree), which gives it a rustic flavour richly suggestive of the goat-footed glee of Pan the piper in an enchanted wood. A more familiar scale pattern, a clear diatonic A major, shines through in the lyrical second melody of the piece, an undulating evocation of the sea and the waves of voluptuous emotion sweeping over the lovers on their island paradise.

Both themes are tossed about in a rush of increasing gaiety and gradually building exhilaration, slipping easily between tonal centres in a bright tonal world brimming with melodic major thirds, augmented chords and whole tone scales. After a bustling march builds up to a sonorous fanfare of triumph, the lyrical second theme reaches its apotheosis in an explosion of orchestral thunder that issues into a luminous vibration of shimmering tremolos, to end the piece with a plunge from the top to the very bottom of the keyboard.


Frédéric Chopin
Four Scherzos, Opp. 20, 31, 39 and 54

The Scherzos of Chopin are a long way from the ‘joke’ movements that substituted for the minuet in Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies. While Beethoven replaced the conformity of courtly decorum with a newfound freedom of idiosyncratic utterance, opening the door to a display of personal whimsy and jovial, good-natured ribbing, Chopin kicked down the door to announce a new level of emotional intensity, a new wider playing field for what was possible on the keyboard at the extremes of musical expression.

Belying his popular image as the composer of exotic, delicately perfumed salon pieces, Chopin’s scherzos are muscular essays in pure pianistic power, projecting real anger, defiance, and even ferocity, with only the last of them, the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, displaying any of the mischievous but innocent scamper that would define the genre in the hands of Mendelssohn or Henri Litolff (whose Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique in D minor virtually defines ‘cuteness’ in music).

The Scherzo No. 1 in B minor dates from Chopin’s early trip to Vienna at the age of 20, during which the Warsaw uprising against Russia, often associated with the composer’s Revolutionary Étude, made return to his Polish homeland impossible and his exile in Paris virtually inevitable. Is there bitterness in this piece, an angry resolve? The stinging opening chords leave us room to suspect both. The main musical idea pursued from the outset is a nervous, petulant figuration split between the hands that rises from the lowest to the highest reaches of the keyboard in the space of a single phrase, alternating in its impetuous course with pauses for moments of reflection and pathos. Rapid figuration of this sort, stretching over a 10th in each hand, defines the new world of technique that Chopin was introducing into modernism pianism, first glimpsed in the wide- spanning arpeggios of the C major étude from the composer’s collection of Op. 10.

The trio middle section provides extreme dramatic contrast in the form of a lullaby: the old Polish Christmas carol Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, Little Jesus), with its hypnotically lulling rhythm and comforting pedal note in the bass. The return of the agitated opening section brings a take-no-prisoners approach to the proceedings when it drives forward into a coda of unusual vehemence, nipping like a mad dog at the heels of the advancing harmonies in a series of off-beat accents. The work finishes as it began, with a pair of dramatic chords providing an uncompromising minor- mode ‘Amen’ to this turbulent piece.

The Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor is a study in extreme contrasts of keyboard register and of mood. It opens with a dramatic exchange of gestures between a mysterious triplet figure in the middle range and an echoing broadside of piano sonority, leading eventually to an ecstatic exclamation from both sides of the keyboard that simultaneously rush headlong into the mid-range. Needless to say, this piece does not lack drama. A long-limbed lyrical melody then supervenes to ease the tension, holding forth for phrase after yearning phrase above a wide-spaced rippling arpeggio accompaniment in the left hand. Contrast comes in a middle section that begins in an atmosphere of introspective calm but soon yields to the rhythm of a lilting three-step waltz, shadowed by an obsessive triplet figure in the alto that becomes the driving force behind a full-on development section. The reprise of the first section takes its lyrical melody into new chromatic territory that brings on a rush to the finish, ceremonially crowned with a chord that begins in the mid-register but leaps instantly to both ends of the keyboard.

The Scherzo No. 3 in C# minor begins with a mysterious melodic mumble in the mid-range followed by a trumpet-like echo in the high register. Octaves in unison in both hands soon spell out the defiant tone, the uncompromising bravado that will characterize the more active sections of this work. This is balanced by a lyrical middle section remarkable for its reverential tone, embodied in the antiphonal exchanges between a simple hymn-like tune in the mid-range and the delicious cascade of piano figuration that arrives from above like a gentle rain from Heaven. This response from on high has almost a religious feel to it, with the pauses that follow each strain resembling those of a Lutheran chorale. Chopin’s chromatic treatment of his wide-ranging figuration produces a host of dramatic surprises as the work proceeds, sometimes dazzling with the brilliance of a rotated kaleidoscope, sometimes masterfully intimating the presence of danger and menace lurking round the corner. The emotional volatility of the piece is captured spectacularly at the approach to the coda, when a soothing pedal figuration in the bass wells up to reassure you that all will be well, only to turn on a dime into a raging fury that re-asserts an unstoppable resolve to end in the minor mode. The final chord, although major, almost glistens with malice.

The Scherzo No. 4 in E major stands out for its unusually carefree mood and psychological buoyancy. This is a piece that definitely knows how to stop and smell the roses. Beginning with a simple five-note motive, it flits this way and that, indulging its every capricious whim, until settling into a slower tempo to ruminate soulfully and introspectively on the melancholy side of its gypsy soul. Unable to stay down for long, though, its opening sprightliness returns, with an enriched sonority of trills bubbling up from the middle of the texture, before heading for the finish line in a flurry of octaves and a dazzling multi-octave scale to the high register.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015