Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata 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 in 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 that 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 musicologist 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 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.”
But a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops with which it opened, but now with new frilly ornaments, 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 textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication of “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 of his aristocratic audience whose eyelids might be drooping.
The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic hairpin turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly gets lost on the way.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Six Bagatelles Op. 126
Throughout his career Beethoven found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience member knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some he published in collections, such as his Seven Bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119, which Paul Lewis will be playing at his spring recital next year, came out in 1823.
The Six Bagatelles of Op. 126, though, were more than just a collection: they were a matched set, conceived of as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. More importantly, the set constitutes Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they were no mere baubles. Composed at the same time that he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that typifies his late style.
Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing paired with a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, along with a willingness to write his contrapuntal voices several octaves apart. Beethoven, the architect of massive great formal structures, shows himself in these pieces to be equally a master of the miniature, deftly creating an immediate impression with his opening gestures and developing his motives with unfettered originality.
No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is a noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section.
No. 4 in B minor has character and personality in spades. It contrasts a strongly driven contrapuntal opening section with a dreamy section that alternates with it. No. 5 in G major is quietly expressive, its continuous pattern of triplets gently varied by syncopations across the bar line. No. 6 in E flat opens and closes with a riotous churn of piano sound that sandwiches a much more poised in main section. This section starts out like a barcarolle, but then drifts off to explore a wealth of musical ideas, some of them coy and playful, others verging on pure sound theatre.
Sechs Klavierstücke Op. 118
Brahms’ late works are often described as “autumnal.” They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.
Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces of 1893 are intensely concentrated representatives of the composer’s late period, with all the classic features of his compositional style: motivic density, rippling polyrhythms, an intimate familiarity with the lowest regions of the keyboard, and above all, an ability to create musical textures of heartbreaking lyrical intensity richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. All but the first are in a clear ternary A-B-A form.
The opening Intermezzo in A minor, arrives as if in mid-thought, a musical thought of restless harmonic change and heavy melodic sighs riding atop a surging accompaniment that constantly threatens to overwhelm the very melodies it accompanies.
The second Intermezzo sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded. Its opening phrase eventually yields to its own melodic inversion and its middle section is woven through with canons.
The Ballade in G minor is the most extroverted of the set. Its heroic and vigorous opening section is contrasted with a gently undulating B section that, despite its tender lyricism, can’t help but dream in its own lyrical way of the opening bars.
In the Intermezzo in F minor, a simple repeating triplet figure echoing back and forth between the hands gives rise to canons that play out through the whole texture. Even the poised and elegiac middle section, with its bass notes plumbing the very bottom of the keyboard, unfolds in canonic imitation, just as the opening.
The Romanza sounds vaguely archaic, as its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode. Its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.
The Intermezzo that closes the set is enigmatic. Proceeding at first in whispers over a rolling carpet of arpeggios originating deep in the bass, it gathers forcefulness in its middle section, revealing in its spirit of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahm’s ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40
Haydn’s Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40 is the first of three keyboard sonatas written in 1784 for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each sonata in the set is a two-movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young princess for lighter fare.
The G major Sonata’s first movement is a set of double variations, alternating between major and minor. Its Italian marking Allegretto innocente promises a theme of the utmost naiveté – and Haydn does not disappoint. The movement opens with a lilting tune of a pastoral character in 6/8 time, modestly proportioned and tastefully ornamented – the sort of thing that shepherdesses, and princesses, might delight in humming to themselves.
What follows is a study in character contrasts. The major variations noodle around the flowing 8th notes of the theme in lively patterns of 16ths, but the minor variations seem to be their evil twin. Concentrating instead on the detached notes of the theme, they use off beat accents, chromatic harmonies, extreme dynamic contrasts and sudden rhythmic accelerations to create moments of high drama.
The Presto finale is a gleefully zany romp that opens with two sections of mischievous scamper in the right hand over a steady pulse of chordal harmony in the left. After an episode of minor-mode drama in which the two hands fence for control of the narrative, the scampering sections return in full force. Haydn’s trademark wit shines through with deadpan silences, diversions to unexpected keys, and an absolutely preposterous cadence featuring a chirping crush-note in the high register comically answered by a booming echo in the bass, three octaves below.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017