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Valse Op. 38
It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” Like his Polish musical forebear he wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études. In this Valse we catch the composer near the end of his early Chopin period, before he went all ‘Star Trek’ on the Western harmonic system and started writing chords in 4ths rather than 3rds.
A dichotomy of musical styles outlines for us the traits of the couple dancing this waltz. There is a feminine coyness and delicacy in many passages, with achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass that clarify the underlying harmony. Alternating with this a more red-blooded and masculine ‘grand style’ of piano-playing that exploits the full range of the keyboard.
The rhythmic pulse, however, is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern of a traditional Viennese waltz. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy. This is a waltz that flutters and flies, free as a bird. It often wanders in wide-ranging melodic curves, framed in 4-to-the-bar and 5-to-the-bar units evocative of a kind of perfumed ecstasy – often interrupted, of course, by more propulsive rhythmic gestures and explosive outbursts of passion.
Whatever champagne these walzers are sipping, chances are it was spiked.
Sonata No. 3 in F minor Op. 14
In the summer of 1836 Robert Schumann was pining for his new love, the sixteen-year-old piano prodigy Clara Wieck. Her father Friedrich Wieck (Schumann’s erstwhile piano teacher) had arranged a concert tour for her, thinking to break up the romance and avoid acquiring a son-in-law he considered too emotionally volatile and psychologically unstable.
Schumann, of course, would not be so easily discouraged, and contrived to have his beloved with him, at least in spirit, by sewing her into the very musical fabric of his Sonata in F minor. Clara is represented by a five-note descending scale figure that appears in all four movements, obviously derived from the opening of the 3rd movement, the famous “Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck,” later to become a favourite encore piece of Vladimir Horowitz.
The importance of this motive is underscored by its appearance at the dramatic opening of the first movement Allegro, thundering in octaves to the nether regions of the keyboard. Schumann’s expressive passion and almost manic wildness of focus in this movement might well serve to justify his future father-in-law’s concerns about his mental stability. Its first theme is both ponderous, with that tumbling-boulder crash of an opening, and flighty, in the rapid passagework that flows directly out of it. Its lyrical second theme has an equally split personality, proceeding at first in an even succession of singable quarter notes before turning into a parody of itself in the kind of jerky dotted rhythms that characterize so many of Schumann’s marches. Throughout, the listener’s ear is continually kept off-balance by spiky syncopations and phrasing patterns that effectively turn the orienting strongest beat of the bar into the weakest.
This rhythmic quirkiness is even more evident in the 2nd movement Scherzo, that likes to begin its descending scale figures on an accented 3rd beat of the bar, but intermittently switches it back to the “proper” first beat. Sorting out this rhythmic mayhem is the main teasing pleasure for the ear in this movement, which is dominated by constant 8th-note scale patterns and imitative textures. The Trio middle section is a calmer, less punchy variant of all this rhythmic irregularity and its ever-so-gradual reintegration into the opening material for the reprise is a compositional tour de force.
The descending scale figures of the Scherzo set the stage for their presentation as a solemn processional in the 3rd movement Andantino de Clara Wieck. There is a ceremonial sadness to this haunting theme, rendered especially ghoulish by the austere coldness and bare-bones texture of its second phrase, like footsteps echoing above the tombs of the dead in an empty cathedral. The first two variations let the theme speak out over the murmurings of gargoyle voices in the bass below. An antic mood dominates the third variation, that is peppered with constant syncopations. The tragic heart of the movement comes in the final variation, which pleads its case in whimpering phrases and cries of heart-rending despair, alternating with poetic daydreams and expressions of intimate tenderness.
The fourth movement, marked Prestissimo possible, is the sort of thing that keeps potential fathers-in-law up at night. It contains some of the most insanely scattered passagework in the piano repertoire, inflected with ricocheting syncopations but blessedly interrupted by regularly recurring passages of songful lyricism. A breathless patter of 16th notes, maintained throughout, gives impetus, forward momentum, and a compelling sense of urgency to this madcap finale.
Lento from Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28 (1908) is not as well known and is much less played than his popular Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36 (1913), although both abound in the type of lush textures, soulful melodies, and contrapuntal accompaniments that are the trademarks of the composer’s keyboard style.
Composed in Germany while the composer was living with his family in Dresden, the Sonata in D minor was originally conceived as a programmatic work based on the characters from that most German of tales: Goethe’s Faust. This idea was then abandoned, but traces of the philosophical origins of the sonata’s conception remained, most notably in the prominent use of the ‘elemental’ interval of the perfect 5th in every movement of the work.
The central slow movement begins, in fact, with a chain of falling 5ths in the bass that finally arrive at the F major tonic and its fifth, which endure as pedal points for the next 25 bars. Not surprisingly, a sense of stillness pervades the movement as a whole, its gently rocking triplets evoking the cosy warmth of a berceuse.
This is one of Rachmaninoff’s most intimate, inward-looking slow movements, crafted within a small range of motion in the middle of the keyboard and fluctuating modestly in dynamic range – for the most part, between piano and mezzoforte. Its tone is one of quiet reflection, reminiscent of the placid mood of the Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4.
The texture is intricately wrought, a piece of compositional lacework with at times a full four-part murmuring of contrapuntal lines, and with so many overlapping voices that it leaves the ear wondering what to listen to, and the pianist perplexed as to what to bring out.
Unlike in the slow movements of other major works such as the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos and the Sonata No. 2, Rachmaninoff eschews a contrasting middle section that sends the heart racing at break-neck speed, favouring instead a slight intensification in the left hand’s rippling accompaniment and a more wide-ranging palette of harmonic colours, culminating in a cadenza that shimmers softly up the keyboard rather than seeking to dazzle.
The reprise of the opening material features a series of luscious trills in the inner voices of the right hand – oscillating, of course, in 5ths – to close out the movement in the spirit of the exquisite repose with which it began.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020
Andante from the Sonata in C major
The Venetian musician Baldassare Galuppi was one of the most successful composers of the 18th century. While his prodigious output of vocal music, comprising more than 100 operas, did not survive in the repertoire, interest in his keyboard music was revived in the last half of the 20th century, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1965 recording of the Sonata in C major providing an important stimulus for the resurgence.
The Andante first movement of this sonata displays all the major characteristics of Galuppi’s pre-Classical galant style of keyboard writing. It features a naively simple melody bejewelled with ornament supported by a broken-chord accompaniment moving placidly through a series of stock harmonic progressions.
Grace, charm and a childlike simplicity of affect are the principal aesthetic aims of this style, with the steady tick-tock of the Alberti bass suggesting the innocent chiming of a toy music-box.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata in C minor BWV 911
The toccata originated in the 17th century as a display vehicle that highlighted the “touch” of the keyboard player. It was laid out in a sequence of rhapsodic or improvisatory passages alternating with more learned passages of imitative counterpoint. Bach’s seven toccatas for harpsichord most likely date from his twenties, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player.
To begin his Toccata in C minor BWV 911, Bach takes the measure of his instrument with a pepper spray of 32nd-note runs spanning its entire range from high to low. Soon, however, the ruminative Adagio of imitative counterpoint, full of yearning dissonances and based loosely on the rising harmonic minor scale, lurches pleadingly towards a cadence.
The first fugue is a real toe-tapper, with a subject created almost exclusively out of notes of the C-minor triad. Its countersubject (the melody frequently accompanying it) is by contrast constructed out of octave leaps and scalar runs. Both feature an extraordinary amount of sequential repetition, which as the fugue continues on almost blurs the distinction between subject entries and episodes.
A reminder of the fantasy-laden improvisations that began the work intervenes to cleanse the palate before the fugue continues on with the same subject. But this time Bach, the clever lad, shows off with a countersubject that is mostly an inversion of the previous one.
The second edition of the fugue gets an added boost of rhythmic ginger from the use of figure corte: fleet little melodic nibbles in 32nd notes that ornament the interplay of contrapuntal lines. The work ends with a weighty and solemn reminder of the opening, with the initial pepper spray transformed into a bear spray of keyboard sonority across the entire range of the instrument.
Selected Mazurkas Opp. 30, 67 and 68
Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi, from the melancholy to the exuberant. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.
Characteristic features retained from the original dances include drone tones in the bass, rhythmic emphasis on the second or third beat of the bar, and melodies using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major). The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated units of rhythm and recurring melodic motives. As examples of European “art music,” though, Chopin’s mazurkas are mostly in ternary (ABA) form and often colourfully chromatic.
Chromatic inflection is a prominent melodic characteristic of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4. Its sinewy, winding melody, gentle oom-pah-pah accompaniment and major-mode middle section are reminiscent of the composer’s Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2.
The mysterious Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4 is thicker in texture and more heavily scored than most but still light on its feet thanks to a number of teasing rhythmic anomalies. First amongst these is the irregular accent pattern of its two “tambourine shake” figures: a shivering triplet-trill leading to the 2nd beat of one bar followed by a mordent emphasizing the 1st beat of the next. The descending chromatic sequence of parallel 5ths and 7ths leading up to its conclusion must have shocked conservative audiences of the time.
The Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 is a product of Chopin’s early years, before he arrived in Paris, and must surely count as one of the most naively simple pieces he ever wrote. The uniform chordal texture and repetitive military rhythm of its opening section suggests a patriotic march, perhaps of a village band, while its crude contrasts of tonal colour bespeak the limited harmonic vocabulary of rural music-making. Most clearly folk-like are the drone 5ths of its middle section, supporting a fife-like lydian melody (with sharpened 4th degree) in the treble high above.
Late Piano Pieces Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119
Brahms’ late piano 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.
While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’ musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.
The Intermezzo in A Minor Op. 116 No. 2 is reflective but serene, quietly rippling with 2-against-3 polyrhythms. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of minor-mode wistfulness and major-mode contentment. A livelier middle section seeks higher ground in the treble register but the sense of yearning only becomes more intense.
A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor Op. 119 No. 2, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.
The Intermezzo in C# minor Op. 117 No. 3 is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.
The Romanze in F major Op. 118 No. 5 sounds vaguely archaic. Its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode while its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op. 30
In this short two-movement work from 1903—the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas—we find the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.
A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th and the tripping little rising scale figure that follows it. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable three-hand effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the upper mid-register, surrounded on either side by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic pulsations in the other voices.
The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie and the breathless, ‘panting-puppy’ quality of its playful two-note ‘hiccup’ motives make one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.
The apotheosis-style ending of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Op. 47 provides the model for the final section of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the first movement’s delicate, tentative opening theme reframed as the object of throbbing jubilation in a triumphant display of pianistic fireworks.
Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs
Une Barque sur l’Océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.
Sonata Op. 1
The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key, a key from which they would depart, and to which they would return at the end—in a way “that will bring us – back to – doh,” to quote child-minding music theorist Julie Andrews. And it was furthermore understood that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed, at a minimum, from a root, a third and a fifth.
The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric. This is most evident in his graduation exercise for Schoenberg, the Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910, a work described by Glenn Gould as “expansive, pessimistic and unquestionably ecstatic.”
This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. However, its principal melodic motives, presented in its two opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, announced in the opening bar in a dotted rhythm, and (b) a sequence of falling thirds in the following bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.
And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.
What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, in the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.
Catalan composer Federico Mompou described himself as “a man of few words and music of few notes.” Best known as a miniaturist, he was much influenced by French impressionism and developed an intimate and subdued style that owes much to the shy, discreet charm of Fauré, the spare textures and repetitive accompaniments of Erik Satie.
The very Satie-like Secreto comes from Mompou’s first set of piano pieces entitled Impresiones intimas (1911-1914) and displays what pianist Arkady Volodos describes as his “Zen spirit,” a meditative musical aesthetic that treasures silence as much as sound.
Sonata No. 5 in F# major Op. 53
Early in his career Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” As he developed as a composer, however, he moved away from the Romantic style of Chopin to embrace a more mystical, ecstatic conception of music, becoming the first real “crazy man” of classical music. His aesthetic aims were in fact so expansive as to hardly fit within the scope of piano music, and as he advanced in years his solo sonatas became more and more like seances, channelling mystical forces through the fingers of the pianist.
Long before the arrival of LSD and Dr. Timothy Leary, Scriabin established “trippy-ness” as an aesthetic goal in his music. And in his first single-movement sonata, the Sonata No. 5 in F# major from 1907, we catch him tripping in mid-flight.
The first thing to know as you fasten your seat-belts to hear this work is that it displays an extreme volatility of moods that represent the ever-changing cosmic forces that Scriabin feels moving through him as he composes. Listening to some of the slower, more vaporous passages, you get the eerie feeling that you’re walking around in a trance, as he repeats the same simple motive—a third rocking back and forth—over and over again.
Another mood that strikes the composer in this sonata is a kind of jumpy excitement, a prelude to the extravagant gesture of ecstasy that will overtake him before this work is finished. This sense of mounting excitement is conveyed in the way that successive passages keep leaping up to a higher register as they repeat. In this way, Scriabin uses the registers of the keyboard to create his own Stairway to Heaven.
But the most memorable mood of all in this sonata is Scriabin’s portrayal of a kind of languid voluptuousness, created by his unique harmonic vocabulary of chromatically altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for added resonance. These spacious chords allow him to spread a lush carpet of sonorities over a wide swath of the keyboard, and it is their perfumed overtones floating mystically in the air that paint the altered psychological state he wishes to evoke.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020
Sonata in B minor K 197
Sonata in G major K 455
“Probably one of the most outrageously individual compositional outputs of the Baroque era is to be found in the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti,” writes Yevgeny Sudbin in the liner notes to his 2004 Scarlatti album.
This may explain why Scarlatti’s 550-odd sonatas 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.
Scarlatti’s early career was based in Naples, and his introverted Sonata in B minor K 197 displays the recurring streaks of pathos that Neapolitan music revels in. The melodic line whimpers with plaintive little appoggiaturas as harmonic tension accumulates from the use of stubbornly immovable pedal points in the bass.
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. Guitar idioms are heard in the repeated notes that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity for the performer.
In his Scarlatti liner notes, Yevgeny Sudbin lays stress on the spontaneous, improvisatory quality of these sonatas. “It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas,” he writes, “there were 50 or so other versions.” His performance this afternoon may well pay tribute to these “plausible other versions.” As to where this might occur, the smart money is on the repeats.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Bagatelles Op. 126
Throughout his career Beethoven had found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience members knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some of these he published in collections, such as his seven bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119 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 as he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that characterizes his late style.
Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing, a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, and the boldness 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 small 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 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 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, other verging on pure sound theatre.
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 that 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 is 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.
YEVGENY SUDBIN: NOTES ON SCRIABIN
Piano Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp major, Op.53
Oh how easy it is to become possessed by Scriabin, one of the most enigmatic and controversial artistic personalities of all time. Once one is bitten and the venom, in the form of his sound world, enters the body and soul, the e ects become all-encompassing, even life-threatening! Not only emotionally – as one’s desperate quest for answers only results in more questions – but also physically, the reactions can be severe. Scriabin was not only the rst to introduce madness into music; he also managed to synthesise it into an infectious virus that is entirely music-borne and a ects the psyche in a highly irrational way. Thus ‘mystical experiences’ have been reported by listeners. One London critic described: “In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant ashes of blinding coloured lights during performances of Scriabin’s music… It was totally di erent from the “thrill” of sensation or “tears” of pleasure, those emotions more commonly associated with conventional music… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.” Others describe having visions of waves of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of re during performances, even without the help of LSD. In all seriousness, however, if the e ects are as radical on the receiving end, they are certainly no less intense on the performer’s part.
The Sonata No.5, Op.53 was written in 1907 and is often referred to as a glorious afterthought to his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905- 08). In fact, the sonata is headed with an extract from the poem, which accompanied the symphonic work:
I summon you to life, hidden longings!
You, sunken in the sombre depths of creative spirit, You timid embryos of life,
To you bring I daring!
The basic idea behind the symphonic poem was to permit the freedom of unconstrained action to su use the entire world and dissolve it into ecstasy. Just like the poem itself, some of Scriabin’s score markings for both the orchestral piece and the sonata provide a memorable, naughty read: accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed) and avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic). The key word in the sonata, however, is the final estàtico (ecstatically), which signals self-assertion. Scriabin triumphs in ‘light and ecstasy’. ‘I am’ would be the corresponding passage in the poem, only reached after the full range of emotions and experiences has been exhausted: luscious stimulation followed by soothing languor, doubt,‘the maggot of satiety… the bite of hyenas… sting of serpent’, intoxication, burning kisses, love-making and finally, the all-encompassing experience of ecstasy. (Scriabin wrote: “the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…”) The Fifth Sonata, regrettably, is only a do-it- yourself version of all this.
The delirious Fifth sonata was his quickest composition – it only took him six days. Although nominally in F-sharp major, this one-movement sonata proudly announces a new, atonal era in Scriabin’s development, as it cuts the moorings to tonality. From this moment, there are no more compulsory modulations; cadences vanish and the elements that constitute the sonata form become more di use. Unusual clusters of chords based on tritones and diminished sevenths begin to appear, foreboding Scriabin’s ‘Mystic Chord’ that he developed and used extensively later, particularly in Prometheus and his 9th Sonata (Messe noire) sonata. From this point, Scriabin’s harmony becomes impossible to comprehend under traditional tonal rules; melody and harmony become one indivisible whole. For 60 years musicologists tried to break the code behind his harmonic system and only in 1968 did the Soviet musicologist Dernova managed it. The reason the code was unbreakable was mainly because the chords were thought to relate to some kind of a tonal centre. But the key was to view the chords themselves as independent, self-sustaining tonal centres with their own implied or expressed simultaneous ‘tonics’.
Scriabin’s chords have a sound similar to Debussy’s post-Wagnerian ‘enhanced’ dominant seventh chords and even share characteristics with the typical ‘terminal’ chord in jazz and ragtime which was starting to blossom around the same time (c.1900). The actual ‘Mystic Chord’ can be broken up into six notes to produce simultaneously harmonies, chords and melodies in a serialist manner – a term not coined until 1947. Scriabin did exactly that in Poème, Op. 59 No.1 (1910), before Schoenberg came up with his twelve-tone technique, one of the main di erences being that Scriabin did not use his system as rigidly. It is obvious, however: had Scriabin lived a little longer, the twelve-tone technique that sparked a whole new movement could easily have been conceived under his pen, instead of Schoenberg’s.
Apart from its architectonic properties, another perplexing quality of a Scriabin chord is the sheer variety of moods it can induce, depending on the context: in the Fifth Sonata the same chord can sound icy, cosmic and even frightening (bar 23) or warm, hopeful and nostalgic (bar 183). The warmth radiating from this particular chord – the ‘warmest’ place in the piece – feels like a heated blanket gently enfolding the cold universe. This is where, for me, Scriabin wins over serialism where any potential variety of moods is mostly a by-product of randomness within the limits of the simplistic rules applied.
Danse Macabre arr. Yevgeny Sudbin
Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.
Such is the scene of the Danse Macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.
Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.
Liszt’s transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout. Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement but Yevgeny Sudbin takes a middle path, pruning some of the textural additions of Horowitz while adding a few of his own.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Robert Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18
In the autumn of 1838 Robert Schumann made a career decision. He would move from his native Leipzig to Vienna to find a publisher and a sympathetic public for his piano compositions. The public he hoped to attract in his year in the Austrian capital was a public of the fair sex, to whom he directed his “little rondo” Op. 18, “written for the ladies,” as he put it.
In keeping with the kind of gentle ears he was addressing, the title he chose was a term more associated with interior decorating than the taxonomy of musical forms. He called it Arabesque, perhaps in reference to the gently swirling curves and owing, intertwined lines of the piano texture in the work’s opening theme.
Structured in alternating sections of recurring refrain and contrasting episodes in an A-B-A-C-A pattern, the work begins with a section of whispering small phrase fragments in an utterly pure and chaste C Major. Two episodes of a more serious character in the minor mode o er alternative heart fodder for the heaving breast, the rst lled with longing, the second (surprise, surprise) a pert little march. Could Schumann ever the resist the urge to march?
This elegant little miniature concludes with a typically Schumannesque postlude, a wistful daydream that in its final phrase wakes up to remember the delicate motive of the work’s opening bar.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in B- at Major K. 333 “Linz”
To the ears of modern audiences, given to admiring the thunderous eruptions
of a 9-foot grand projecting the well-upholstered scores of 19th-century pianist- composers, the crystalline perfection of Mozart’s almost minimalist keyboard writing might seem thin broth indeed. But then again, Mozart was not about making boom-box music for the powdered-wig set. He had little taste for sonic padding. He wrote only the notes necessary to outline his musical idea with clarity.
Which is not to say that he had no larger sound palette in mind, and no care for ‘effect’ when composing for the keyboard. His Sonata in B at K 333 shows clearly the in uence of the concerto style in the contrasts between ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ textures of its rst movement, and more strikingly still in the way its last movement rondo stops dead in its tracks on a cadential 6-4 chord to set the stage for a full-on ‘soloist’ cadenza. This was not a work aimed at the market for home music-making or study. It was music for public performance, meant to display the composer’s skill, and above all his taste.
In this regard, the in uence of Mozart’s mentor, Johann Christian Bach, is evident in the composer’s borrowing from J. C. Bach’s Sonata in G Major Op. 17 No. 4 to create the 6-note descending scale figure used in both the first and second themes of the first movement of this sonata. The “London Bach” was a leading exponent of the style galant and elements of this style are apparent in the short balanced phrases of the rst movement’s themes, and in its pervasive use of coy little two-note sigh motives throughout. This movement is an elegant amalgam of textbook sonata-form construction, Italianate vocal melodies and sparkling keyboard figuration.
The sonata’s emotional centre of gravity is the second movement Andante cantabile, an operatic aria transferred to the keyboard idiom. Its mood of dignified lyrical reflection is enlivened by frequent decorations of the melodic line and unified by the recurrence of the repeated-note rhythmic motif: duh- duh-duh DAH. Its development section wades into deep waters indeed with its probing chromatic explorations.
A playful lightness of tone returns in the Allegretto grazioso nale, a toe-tapping sonata rondo with a blithely carefree, eminently whistleable opening refrain tune featuring a whimsical downward hop of a 7th. The concerto spirit pushes this movement to ever-greater heights of rhythmic animation that culminate in the keyboard-spanning exertions of its exuberant showpiece cadenza.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2
When German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) first compared Beethoven’s C# minor Sonata quasi una fantasia to the dreamy glimmerings of Lake Lucerne bathed in moonlight, he was blissfully unaware of what pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960) would discover more than a century later. While examining a sketch in Beethoven’s own hand, Fischer realized that the famous triplets and polyrhythmic overlay of this sonata’s rst movement were taken directly from the scene in which Donna Anna’s father is killed by Don Giovanni in Mozart’s eponymous opera. What had passed for lunar luminescence was in fact commendatory commemoration.
Viewed in this new light, it would be easy to see the ‘tolling bell’ dotted rhythm of this movement as funereal, a sibling to the same rhythm in Beethoven’s Marcia funebre of his Sonata in A at, one opus number back. Or to Chopin’s own famous dotted-rhythm dirge, for that matter. And the lacerating dissonances of the soprano line as the movement develops become more plangent, as well.
Fortunately, the mood of suspended animation in grief that the first movement evokes is relieved by a consoling, dancelike Allegretto in the Major mode, a scherzo & trio emphatically grounded in the swaying body-rhythms of its insistent syncopations.
The pace picks up with a vengeance, of course, in the restorm nale, the only sonata-form movement in this work. If this music sounds scary, it’s meant to. This is Beethoven “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore,” a fist-clenching, pound-on-the-table protagonist, bent on musical violence. The agitato mood is unrelenting, what contrast there is being provided only by brief lapses into sullenness and simmering anger. At its climax, the movement explodes into a heaven-storming cadenza releasing lava ows of sonority across the entire keyboard.
Who could have foreseen that the rst movement’s quietly undulating broken chords would form the template for the raging fury of those in the finale?
Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor Op. 19 “Fantasy”
It would be difficult to exaggerate the service done to posterity by composers who write their own program notes. Faced with an enigmatic two-movement work such as Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G# minor (1892-1897), the scribbling musicological drudge will no doubt rst listen with his eyes closed, con dent that the programmatic thread of a work labelled Fantasy must surely yield its secrets to the drifting imagination of the cultivated mind. Upon registering a mild to severe case of seasickness in the attempt, he will feel both relieved and validated to read the following words by the composer himself:
The second sonata reflects the in uence of the seashore. The development section is the dark agitation of the deep, deep ocean. The E Major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement, presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.
It would not be fake news to venture a guess at what the composer’s meaning is here: this sonata is about the sea. Its swells and undulations nd expression in the score’s many abrupt transitions between and pp, its choppy whitecaps in the ever-present rhythmic dislocations of accent between left and right hands, beginning in the very opening bars.
For the adventurous listener booking passage on the SS Scriabin, rhythmic uncertainty is a malaise for which no therapy has yet been invented. If the right hand sings out a fragrant melody in triplets, the left hand will surely keep company in groups of 4s or 5s, sometimes phrased across the bar line to generate added metrical dysphoria. Only when the wind dies down at nightfall, as described in the lusciously textured second theme of the first movement, can a regular metrical pulse reveal the glints of “caressing moonlight” of a melody glowing in the mid-range, enveloped by the most delicate tracery spun out above and below.
Those without their sea legs, however, would be advised to retreat imaginatively below decks for the following Presto, a swaying squall of a movement sure to revive memories of stomach upsets past.
Goyescas Op. 11
No. 1 Los Requiebros
No. 3 El Fandango de Candil
The extreme emotions portrayed in and provoked by the canvasses and etchings of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) have attracted many admirers, but few as musically gifted as the Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados, whose Goyescas (1911) draw their inspiration from the works of an artist often described as “the last of the Old Masters and the first of the new.” The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates its intention to depict the amorous adventures of working-class swains, and the maids who have caught their eye, in the poorer neighbourhoods of Madrid.
The first piece in the set, Requiebros (flirtatious compliments) begins with the tale of a pick-up line and its reception. A guitar-like ourish opens the piece with the 8-syllable rhythm of the jota, a form of Spanish popular music danced and sung to the accompaniment of castanets. These latter are picturesquely represented in the score by means of twinkling mordents, snappy triplet gures and scurrying inner voices, the throwaway character of which gures among the major technical challenges of this piece. Tempo changes of a stop-and- start character mark the various stages of the negotiation, but the sumptuous tonal banquet o ered on the last page of the score leaves listeners in no doubt whatsoever as to how rapturously the attering initiatives referred to in the title were welcomed.
El Fandango de Candil (the fandango by candlelight) presents a more advanced stage of the relationship, in which the couple are presented as dancing my candlelight to the infectious, ever-present rhythm of the fandango. The implication of the scene is that when the candle burn out, the dance continues by other means…
Rhapsodie espagnole S. 254
Liszt’s unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures is on full display in his Rhapsodie espagnole completed in 1863, an exuberant tribute to the musical heritage of Spain. Everything about this piece bespeaks the dramatic stage presence he cultivated as his trademark.
The work opens with a series of de ant gestures that see bass rumblings sweep up to the high register, where the delicious strumming of celestial harps whet our appetite for what is to come. And what comes is the traditional Folies d’Espagne, a tune used by numerous composers, including Rachmaninov in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, this tune gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its gural texture extends over the entire range of the keyboard.
At the peak of its exuberance a childlike jota aragonesa, announced with an almost music-box-like innocence in the high register, interrupts the proceedings, its popular character frequently enriched with a drone tone in the mid-range. Then after a tender recitative and a sentimental pause for lyrical re ection Liszt unleashes his feverish imagination in a muscular apotheosis of his two themes that may cause chips of stucco to fall from the ceiling and threaten the structural integrity of the rafters.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantasy in C minor K. 475
The year 1785 was a good one for Mozart. In the words of musicologist John Irving, he had become something of a ‘hot property’ in Vienna, enjoying considerable success both as a published composer and as a performing musician. But Mozart had also acquired a reputation as a gifted improviser, if we are to believe the swooning testimony of Johann Friedrich Schink in his Literarische Fragmente of 1785:
And his improvisations, what a wealth of ideas! What variety! What contrasts in passionate sounds! One swims away with him unresistingly on the stream of his emotions.
One notable occasion on which the ecstatic Schink might have needed his swim trunks and inner tube was a benefit concert which took place on 15 December, 1785, at one of Vienna’s Masonic lodges. Mozart had become a Mason the previous year and for this concert contributed a cantata as well as a piano concerto, and for the grand finale of the evening held forth with his own fantasias, i.e., improvisations.
Was it by coincidence that, just the week before, an advertisement had appeared in the Wiener Zeitung announcing the publication by Viennese publishing house Artaria of Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor (K. 475) paired with a keyboard sonata in the same key (K. 457), or was it merely clever marketing?
This original pairing of fantasy and sonata in the same publication has led many pianists to perform the two works together as a single unit, the fantasy serving as an elaborate ‘slow introduction’ to the sonata. The young Beethoven may have thought the pairing aesthetically effective when he composed his Sonata in C minor Op. 13 in 1798. Apart from the shared key, the Pathétique shares many characteristics with the fantasy- sonata publication, its fp opening followed by a sigh motive being only the most obvious.
Then again, the original joint publication might simply have been for commercial convenience, since the two works were composed a good half-year apart, and Mozart is known to have performed the fantasy as an independent work. Indeed, the Fantasy seems to have had an unusually high profile in the decade after its publication, spawning pirate editions in Mannheim and Berlin, and even making a cameo appearance in contemporary literature when performed by a character in Wilhelm Heinse’s experimental novel Hildegard von Hohenthal (1795).
Mozart’s Fantasy is comprised of six sections of contrasting character, alternating between deeply expressive, modulating passages and more harmonically stable sections of melody and accompaniment that would be perfectly at home in any sonata movement. Remarkable in this work is the unusual vehemence of expression in the two central modulating sections. The first of these, with its jangling tremolos of alarm in the treble, would not be out of place accompanying a silent movie in which a young girl is being tied to the railroad tracks. (The emotional intensity of the ‘escape operas’ of the 1790s was already on the horizon.) Remarkable as well is how Mozart exploits the full range of the keyboard in the cadenza-like sections, especially the deep bass register. Indeed, passages occur in which both hands play below middle C.
Despite its harmonic wanderings to remote key centres, the final section of this work is in a solid C minor, providing a degree of symmetry to balance the wild turbulence that characterizes its emotional trajectory.
Fantasie in C major, Op. 17
Schumann began his career as a composer by writing exclusively for the piano. He wrote for no other instrument until 1840. The measure of his ambition and his sense of mission in this regard may be gauged in his massive Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, which he began in 1836 as a single-movement work inspired by his longing for the young Clara Wieck, his future wife.
The work was soon re-purposed, however, into a three-movement ‘grand sonata’ to be offered to the public with the aim of raising funds for a monument in honour of Beethoven, to be erected in his native city of Bonn. This was a project energetically supported, and substantially underwritten, by Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s Fantasy is dedicated. Eventually published in 1839, it makes for a rather strange ‘sonata’ but a meaty, imaginative and poetic ‘fantasy’, its three movements being of widely differing character and emotional content.
The passion of young love is immediately communicated in the first movement’s opening, with its rolling dominant 9th chord, expressively parallel to the composer’s romantic yearning, that never seems to find resolution or rest. A middle section Im Legenden-Ton (In the character of a legend) begins in a subdued manner but before long, it too builds into extravagant outbursts of passion before the opening material returns. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a melodic phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”
The second movement is a patriotically stirring march, worthy of leading the composer’s famous Davidsbund (his imaginary friends in the League of David) into battle against the barbarous hordes of musical philistinism. While a slower interlude provides some lyrical contrast, a pervasive dotted rhythm maintains the martial drum beat through virtually the entire movement. The virtuoso exuberance of the coda, with its wild leaps in opposite directions, stands as a test of pianistic marksmanship unique in the piano literature.
The work concludes with a poetic reverie which is the emotional inverse of the expressively explosive first movement. This final movement stands in awe of all Creation, carried along by the poetic force of its luminous rolling harmonies, intermittently interrupted by snatches of melody that struggle to achieve utterance, then fall back into dreaming. The simple, yet resonant scoring of the piano texture between the two hands masterfully evokes the power of human wonder in moments of exaltation and transcendence. This is Schumann the Poet at his most inspired.
Nachtstücke Op. 23
This collection of four pieces was composed in 1839, at a time in which the composer (never really in the pink of mental health at the best of times) was particularly beset with fears of death. In March of that year, obsessed with thoughts of coffins and funeral processions, he was in the throes of composing a so-called Corpse Fantasy (Leichenfantasie) when a letter arrived which he took as confirmation of his premonitions: his older brother Eduard, head of the family publishing firm, lay dying. The effect of this news on the work in progress can only be imagined, but when it was finished, his intended, Clara Wieck, wisely steered him clear of his initial morbid title in favour of Night Pieces (Nachtstücke), after the well-known collection of dark tales by E. T. A. Hoffman.
These, then, are not nocturnes à la John Field, painting the poetic stillness of the late evening as an intimate setting for lyrical introspection, but enigmatic works evoking the night as a place of dark mystery, abnormal occurrences, and psychological danger.
All four pieces are in rondo form, i.e., they alternate their opening thematic material with a series of contrasting episodes. Schumann had proposed names for the four pieces, which subsequently did not appear in the printed edition, but which are nonetheless suggestive of the imaginative world he wished to evoke.
The first was to be called Trauerzug (funeral procession) but what a strange little funeral march it would be. Hesitating between major and minor, its short, sharp pulses evoke furtive mischief more than dignified commemoration. And its dotted rhythm, characteristic of the famous funeral marches of Beethoven and Chopin, is oddly configured to emphasize the fourth beat of the bar, perhaps to enforce the curious indication oft zurückhaltend (often holding back).
It has been suggested that the descending bass-line motif is taken from the Marche au supplice from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a nightmarish reference to death that puts this piece squarely in the realm of the ghoulish. But could this be a grotesque parody? The idea cannot be excluded, given the relationship between this collection and another work composed in the same year, the distinctly whimsical Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Indeed, the Intermezzo of the Faschingsschwank was originally written for the Nachtstücke, suggesting a certain overlap in intention between the two works.
The second piece, Kuriose Gesellschaft (curious company) is a study in mood swings, from a composer personally well versed in the phenomenon. It throws together the oddest assortment of modes of expression, from the festive to the lyrically sentimental and the mechanically clownish.
The third piece, Nächtliches Gelage (night revels), bursts with an explosive yearning alternating with, but unrelieved by, episodes of intoxicated but slightly disturbing elation.
In the simple tunefulness of the fourth piece, Rundgesang mit Solostimmen (round with solo voices), we finally arrive at a simpler, less psychologically complex expression of emotion. While the texture of short notes interspersed with rests recalls the furtive steps of the opening ‘march’, the widely spaced arpeggios imply accompaniment by a strummed string instrument such as a guitar or lute, suggesting a more peaceful and intimate setting for these final musical thoughts on the experience of nighttime.
Vers la flamme Op. 72
The aesthetic aims of Scriabin were so expansive as to be hardly containable within the scope of the piano keyboard. As he advanced in years his mystical inclinations narrowed considerably the gap between solo sonata and sonic séance, with his last works showing him at his most manically grandiose. Left unfinished at his death in 1915, for example, is a work called Mysterium for mixed chorus and orchestra, intended to be enacted over the course of a week in the foothills of the Himalayas with the aid of dancers, a light show, and the release of appropriately apocalyptic scents into the air, after which the world was roundly expected to dissolve into a state of eternal bliss.
Meanwhile, back home at the keyboard, pianists attempting to sustain the legacy of his piano music (without the aid of sherpas) have had their hands full dealing with the equally ambitious textures of his late works, with their flamboyant arpeggiations down to the nether regions, eddying swirls of finger fodder in the mid-range, and luminous echoes up in the gods of the high register.
His ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (‘Towards the flame’), composed in 1914, is precisely of this stamp. What constitutes ‘melody’ in the piece is virtually limited to the obsessively repeated semitone motif announced at the opening, and present throughout at the top of the texture. The composer’s unique harmonic vocabulary of altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for maximum resonance, ensures such an abundance of tritones (there seems to be one in virtually every chord) that in the end they all begin to sound like consonances.
According to Vladimir Horowitz, who played for the composer at the age of 11 and became one of the major proponents his music, the title of the work relates to the composer’s conviction that the world as a whole was edging ‘toward the flame’ and would gradually heat up until it erupted into a fiery cosmic conflagration.
“He was crazy, you know,” Horowitz adds, dryly.
Prescient intimations of global warming aside, Scriabin’s incendiary vision is communicated in this piece through a gradual increase in the complexity and animation of the keyboard texture. At its opening, time seems suspended as long-held chords interspersed with rhythmically uncertain phrase fragments obviate any sense of regular pulse. Soon the mid-range begins to oscillate with conspiratorial murmurings as an ominous 5-against-9 rhythm rumbles in the bass. A third and final stage is reached when tongues of flame, in the form of blurry double tremolos, begin to lick the sonic spaces around middle C, leading to a final burst of bright light at the extreme ends of the keyboard.
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op 30
In this short two-movement work from 1903, the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas, we catch the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.
A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable ‘three-hand’ effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the high mid- register, surrounded by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic helpers in the other voices.
The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie combined with the breathless, ‘panting puppy’ quality of its playful two-note sigh motives makes one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.
The piano textures of Chopin are a major influence on this movement. Pianists will recognize the piano writing of the climactic ending of the Ballade in A flat Op. 47 in the corresponding apotheosis of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the main melody from the first movement for a final bow.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014
Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor
J. S. Bach: Five transcriptions
Benjamin Grosvenor opens his program with a series of piano transcriptions, a genre that was wildly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then went out of fashion, and is now making something of a comeback. Transcription – the transferal from one medium to another – is as old as music itself. Many of our greatest composers – Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and a host of others – practiced it. “The beauty of the transcription,” writes critic Andrew Farach-Colton (Gramophone, July 2010), “is that (at its best) it opens two windows simultaneously: one onto the world of the composer and another onto the world of the transcriber.”
Today we hear five examples of transcriptions from Bach, an inveterate transcriber himself. In fact, the last of these, the instrumental “Sinfonia” from Cantata no. 29, is itself already a transcription Bach had made from the Prelude to his E-major solo violin partita (no. 3, BWV 1006). On today’s program it is fittingly preceded by another of Saint-Saëns’ many transcriptions, the reposeful, gently flowing Largo movement from the C major solo violin sonata (no. 3, BWV 1005). From another Bach cantata (No. 22, Ertödt’ uns durch dein Güte) we hear the final movement, which Walter Rummel transcribed precisely from the original – a continuously flowing line in the violins punctuated by five phrases of the chorale text sung by four-part chorus. “Bach-Siloti” is a hyphenation well known to pianists. Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) was a Russian-born pianist, composer and teacher and one of Liszt’s last students. He created over two hundred piano transcriptions, one of the most famous being the Prelude we hear today. However, its provenance is in doubt; Johann Tobias Krebs is often cited as the most probable author. The program begins with one of the numerous Bach transcriptions by the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991).
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7
Beethoven began writing piano sonatas in earnest in 1793 (the three so-called “Electoral” Sonatas are juvenilia, written by a thirteen-year-old), shortly after the move from Bonn to his adopted city of Vienna. The first three sonatas were published as a group (Op. 2), but for his next work in the genre, written in 1796-1797, Beethoven had this “Grande Sonate,” as he called it, published under its own opus number. The designation is appropriate, for it is the longest (slightly over half an hour) of all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas save the Hammerklavier.
Spaciousness of design and an almost symphonic aura also contribute to the justification for calling this a “Grand Sonata.” Orchestrally conceived touches abound, right from the opening measures where the steadily repeated E flats in the bass would almost surely go to violas or cellos. Wide leaps, frequent use of resounding six- and even seven-note chords, smoothly gliding octaves in the right hand alone and lightning-fast scale passages all suggest the resources of a symphony orchestra. As pianist Anton Kuerti notes, “The richness and diversity of material, the dovetailing of lines, the antiphonal responses and the sumptuousness of design … all reinforce this impression.”
The first movement opens with a surge of energy that persists until the final chord. Beethoven’s characteristic gestures, such as startling contrasts of loud and soft, pregnant pauses, and strong attacks on weak beats, are found in abundance. The coda is announced with another typically Beethovenian gesture: the sudden, almost violent wrenching of the tonality into new territory by means of a simple harmonic sideslip.
The word “grand” turns up again in association with the slow movement specifically, whose performance direction is con gran espressione – with deep expression. With its aura of profound reverence, hymn-like writing, long silences that speak as eloquently as sound, a dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo, and a duration of about ten minutes, this movement encompasses a small world by itself. Formally it is a simple ABA structure, with the contrasting central episode in the warm key of A flat major. Again there is a coda of significant length.
The third movement combines features of the courtly minuet and the more playful scherzo. Beethoven called it neither, allowing a simple Allegro to serve as its title. The constant overlapping and dovetailing of voices imply the interplay of orchestral instruments. Pianist Charles Rosen calls the contrasting Trio, written in the rare key of E flat minor, “an atmospheric exercise in tone color, with the melody hidden in an arpeggiated motion of triplets.”
The light-hearted, gracious tone of the finale, a sonata-rondo design (ABA-C-ABA), gives way to a fiery central episode in C minor pervaded with rushing thirty-second notes in perpetual motion. In a surprise move, Beethoven ends this “grand” sonata not with an imposing flourish but with a quiet bow.
Alexander Scriabin: Mazurkas, Op. 3, and Valse, Op. 38
The life of Alexander Scriabin was one of the strangest in the history of music. He started out by writing graceful, sensuous, quasi-Chopinesque little piano pieces and ended up totally, even maniacally, absorbed in mysticism and the occult. As with Chopin, most of Scriabin’s music is for solo piano (the balance is for orchestra). Also like Chopin, there are nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas, etudes, impromptus, waltzes and sonatas. The ten mazurkas of Op. 3 date from 1888-1889 when Scriabin was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory and very much under the influence of Chopin, though one could never mistake the Scriabinesque harmonic palette for Chopin’s. All are in ternary (ABA) form, each has a character of its own, which might range from gently wistful to exuberantly joyous, and all exhibit the characteristic rhythmic impulses of the mazurka.
Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin poetically describes the Waltz Op. 38 of 1903 (one of the few Scriabin wrote in this form) as “a fugacious memory of a distant past. … This piece is a magic box. Opened slowly, the intensifying, blinding light emitting from inside sets the universe ablaze just to vanish again at the end, leaving but a luscious trace.”
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Nowhere in Chopin’s output do the national pride, dignified grandeur and defiant power of Poland find greater expression than in the polonaises. The polonaise originated in the late sixteenth century as a stately processional dance in triple metre. It was the polonaise that served as processional music for the lords and ladies to parade past the newly enthroned King of Poland in 1574 (Henry III of Anjou). Pianist Garrick Ohlsson calls the F sharp minor polonaise Op. 44 of 1841 “tragic, compulsive and complex.” Chopin himself referred to it as “a fantasy in the form of a polonaise.” Embedded in this polonaise – the longest by far of any Chopin polonaise excepting the unique Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61 – is another dance form entirely, a mazurka. Preceding this is a long passage featuring an incessant rhythmic pattern reminiscent of drum rolls, and virtually devoid of melody. Framing the entire structure is thematic material that few will deny is some of the grandest Chopin ever conceived. The music’s epic scale and tragic tone, the powerful sonority drawn from the piano, and the striking contrast between the majestic polonaise and the gentle mazurka contained therein (the critic James Huneker called it “a flower between two abysses”) all contribute to making this one of Chopin’s grandest creations.
J. Strauss II: Blue Danube arranged by A. Schulz-Evler
or Arabesques On Themes from Johann Strauss’s Waltz “On The Beautiful Blue Danube”, Op. 12
NOTE: Title taken directly from the title page as first published in Vienna, c. 1900, translated from German into English
More than any other kind of music, it is the waltz that conjures up visions of Vienna as a kind of romantic never-never land. Of all the composers who contributed to the rich heritage of Vienna’s dance music, it is Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King,” who reigns supreme. Leading the list of his many waltzes is the immortal On the Beautiful Blue Danube, (The Blue Danube, for short). Originally written in 1867 as a choral piece for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association, the words were soon discarded in favor of a purely instrumental version, the form in which it is most familiar today.
Naturally, anything so popular has been subjected to countless arrangements. One of these, created in or about 1900, is for solo piano by the Polish pianist and composer Adolf (or Andrei or Andrej) Schulz-Evler (1852-1905). The rather cumbersome title, Arabesques on Themes from the Waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” is nevertheless an accurate description, for indeed, what Schulz-Evler has done is essentially to follow the same sequence of themes from Strauss’s original (in itself, in fact, a whole string of waltzes), while copiously adorning the music with arabesques, filigree and other decorative touches. The result is a tour de force that captivates with its charm and dazzles with its outlandish virtuosity, sweeping listeners into the music’s magical orbit and sending them home radiantly happy.
In an article devoted to “The Return of the Piano Transcription” some years ago (Classical Pulse!, June/July 1994), Philip Kennicott had these words to offer about Schulz-Evler’s contribution: “Strauss’s familiar waltz themes are decadently encrusted with a staggering amount of frippery and frills. The piece lurches from one insane technical hurtle to another. One wants to shout both ‘Stop this madness!’ and ‘More! More!’ at the same time. And underneath it all there is an elegance, a coy gracefulness; one marvels that any human being would train himself so thoroughly as to be able to accomplish this kind of playing.”
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.