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Program Notes: Ning Feng

Program Notes: Ning Feng

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more sonatas appeared by early 1803, and one more in 1812. Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the harpsichord or fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was the case with most eighteenth-century works of this type, but hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. Graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance. Yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation. This sonata-form movement combines a number of musical ideas in an atmosphere of brilliance and strength. The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set in A major. Four variations, including one (the third) in the minor mode with extremes of dynamic contrast, are built from the sweetly tender theme. The finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and it incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.

Edward Elgar: Violin sonata in E minor, Op. 82
Elgar’s father, in addition to owning a music shop, tuned pianos and played the organ at church, so it was almost inevitable that young Edward would learn these instruments. But the violin was the instrument he truly loved. He played it in many amateur orchestras, and for a time planned on a solo career. Hence, it is not surprising to find a rather large number of works for violin from his early years as a composer. His first published piece was a Romance for violin and orchestra. Opus numbers 3, 4, 9, 12, 15, 17, 22 and 24 are also for violin with either piano or orchestral accompaniment. His Violin concerto (Op. 61) is one of the most significant of the twentieth century. Yet, unaccountably, the Violin sonata is neglected in almost inverse proportion to the fame of the concerto. This sonata, Elgar’s last work for violin, written in 1918, is a 25-minute masterpiece imbued with the spontaneous lyricism of Schubert and the passionate warmth of Brahms.

Elgar himself left this concise description of his sonata: “The first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in the expressive way … the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the Second Symphony.”

Manuel de Falla: Suite Populaires Espagnole
Manuel de Falla regarded the promotion of Spanish music as his mission in life, and his Siete canciónes populaires españoles (Seven Spanish Folkongs) are just one of the many manifestations of this purpose. The texts are anonymous, but the tunes have been traced to actual popular songs from all over Spain. Written in 1914-1915 for voice and piano, the songs were first heard in Madrid sung by Luisa Vela with the composer at the piano on January 14, 1915. They were later orchestrated by the composer’s friend Ernesto Halffter in 1938-1945 and by Luciano Berio in 1978. Additionally there exist arrangements for violin (by the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski in 1924), for viola, and for cello, in each case with the string instrument replacing voice. In this form, the songs are sometimes known as the Suite populaire espagnole (minus the second song, “Seguidilla murciana”).

“El paño moruno” (The Moorish cloth) is set to a pulsating Moorish rhythm from the southeastern province of Murcia. The words to the song deplore the stain on the lovely cloth that will cause its selling price to plummet.

In “Asturiana” a weeping woman seeks consolation under a pine tree, which itself breaks into tears out of compassion. The melody comes from Asturias, in Spain’s far north.

From Aragon, another northern province, comes a “Jota” in rapid triple meter, about two lovers in a clandestine relationship.

“Nana” is a lullaby from the southernmost province of Andalusia, whose songs have a decidedly oriental cast.

“Canción” (song) is another love song, this one about eyes with traitorous qualities.

“Polo” is a wailing lament from Andalusia over the heartache of unrequited love. The fiery flamenco idiom will be familiar to those who know de Falla’s famous ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat.

Igor Stravinsky: Duo Concertante for violin and piano
The Duo Concertant is Stravinsky’s only original work for violin and piano, composed in 1931 and 1932 as one component of a program for the composer and the violinist Samuel Dushkin to play on European concert tours. The first performance was given in Berlin on October 28, 1932. (A 1933 performance with these artists can be heard on YouTube.) George Balanchine choreographed it in 1972.

The titles of the five movements suggest inspiration from the pastoral poets of antiquity, and Stravinsky himself claimed that “the spirit and form” of the Duo Concertant were determined by his love of this poetry. However, as ever with this composer’s comments, one must be wary of taking them too literally. In fact, with the exception of the “Gigue,” there is little to connect the titles with the character of the music. Abram Loft, first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet for many years, suggests that “the Duo Concertante will show to best effect as an oasis of coolness and reserve, surrounded in concert …by works of more outspokenly ‘Romantic’ quality.”

Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasie
Ever since the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen in 1875, composers from A to Z have been creating fantasies, variations, paraphrases and transcriptions based on this opera, probably the most popular ever written. Among the best known works of this type for violin and orchestra (or piano) is the Carmen Fantasie by Franz Waxman, a composer best remembered for his 144 Hollywood film scores (Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, Peyton Place, etc.). Waxman wrote his Carmen Fantasie for Jascha Heifetz in 1946. He also used this music as part of his film score for Humoresque.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

VRSchubert – Day 20: Schubert’s influences

LUDWIG VON BEETHOVEN 1770-1827

 

There is little doubt that Schubert was inspired by the great genius of Beethoven, whose massive influence on music was unavoidable in early 19th century Vienna. While the two composers were contemporaries, Schubert died a mere two years after Beethoven, Schubert was a generation younger.  While there are numerous theories regarding accounts of their meetings, little evidence exists to factually substantiate encounters between the two composers. According to The Observer, there is one famous story that links the respective legacies of  Beethoven and Schubert: after attending Beethoven’s funeral, Schubert and some friends drank until late at a tavern, where a toast was made to the lost genius, and to whomsoever would follow him next. As it turns out the next was, in fact, Schubert himself.

 

 


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PROGRAM NOTES: THE BEETHOVEN PROJECT


Ludwig van Beethoven

The Ten Violin Sonatas

Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more appeared by early 1803, making a fairly compressed time span for a medium in which Beethoven was to write just one more in 1812. All but the tenth were written before the composer was 32 years of age. Yet all of them, to varying degrees, show Beethoven straining at the reins that in his early years still tied him to the genteel world of eighteenth-century classicism.

Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was usually the case with eighteenth-century works of this type, but it was hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. In these ten sonatas, Beethoven explores the ways and means of combining two voices of unequal sound mass into a dramatic partnership and coherent unity, “a colloquy of reciprocal enrichment,” in Louis Biancolli’s words.

Beethoven was renowned in Vienna for his prowess as a pianist, but he was also intimately familiar with the violin. He had taken lessons as a youth in Bonn, and later, at the age of 24, he sought further study with Ignaz Schupannzigh in Vienna. Hence, Beethoven was in an ideal position to explore the expressive potentialities and technical challenges of the violin as well as of the piano, some of which may sound “easy” to the casual listener, but which even today demand superior musicians to do them justice. Violins were undergoing changes in construction during Beethoven’s lifetime (longer neck, fingerboard and strings; higher bridge; greater tension on the strings), resulting in greater range and volume of tone. These did not go unnoticed by Beethoven, who made steadily increasing technical demands on the instrument.

Concertgoers wishing to delve deeper into the intricacies of these sonatas can be directed to books written by two of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Joseph Szigeti (The Ten Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin, 1965), and Abram Loft (Violin and Keyboard, Volume II, 1973).

Program 1 (May 26, 8:00pm)

Sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1

Right from the opening of the first sonata, there is a vigour and urgency to the music nonexistent in the many violin sonatas of Mozart and his contemporaries. Furthermore, there are numerous unconventional key relationships and excursions into remote tonalities. Notice that the violin, not the piano, first presents the lyrical theme that immediately follows the opening gesture. As for the new-found energy and urgency of the music, one can point to but a single pause for breath in the entire first movement (at the repeat of the exposition). The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set, while the finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and which incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.

Sonata no. 2 in A major, Op. 12, no. 2

“Where’s the beef?” Some concertgoers may remember this catchy slogan used for a promotion by a hamburger chain some years back. Similarly, one might well ask, “Where’re the themes?” in the first movement of Beethoven’s second violin sonata. In fact, there really aren’t any. Themes and melodies are not what this movement is “about.” Clearly, however, it is not the meagre musical material Beethoven works with that sets the sonata’s musical standard, but rather how he manipulates it. Not one listener in a hundred is likely to fault Beethoven for lack of a nice tune, such is the music’s jocular tone, harmonic sideswipes, impish humour and fascinating interplay of violin and piano. The slow movement is based on a lyrical, melancholic theme in A minor. Each of its two parts is announced by the piano, then repeated by the violin. The concluding movement is a high-spirited rondo with frequent humourous touches.

Sonata no. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, no. 3

The third sonata features a sense of grandeur, power and majesty found in few other works of Beethoven’s early years. In addition, the piano writing is often of near-heroic proportions, by far the most substantial in the first three sonatas, and scarcely equalled in any of the subsequent sonatas. The violin is far from idle, but much of the piano work might just as well have been channeled into a sonata for solo piano. The second movement constitutes the emotional centre of gravity in this sonata. This is the first adagio we encounter in the traversal of these sonatas, and one of the finest slow movements in early Beethoven. To Abram Loft, it is music of “wonderful, timeless tranquillity … a lovely bouquet, fragrant with gracious melody and luxuriant turns and roulades.” The finale is a rollicking, joyous rondo with a catchy if hardly distinctive main theme. Frequent contrasts of dynamics and register are a constant feature of the movement.

Sonata no. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer)

The ninth of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano is the grandest and most impressive of them all. It is by far the longest, is the most difficult, contains the richest textures, and to a greater extent than any other, puts both musicians on an absolutely equal footing throughout. Beethoven originally wrote his Kreutzer Sonata for a man named Bridgetower, but they had a falling out and Beethoven dedicated it instead to a certain Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the work and even called it “outrageously unintelligible.”

Of the ten sonatas, only the Kreutzer has a slow introduction, a feature usually reserved for grand, imposing works Throughout the opening movement the violinist is called upon to execute numerous chords in triple and quadruple stops (playing across three and four strings simultaneously). The theme of the Andante con variazioni, the longest movement in all ten sonatas, is lofty, elegant and noble in its simplicity. In the finale, the rapid, nearly continuous rhythmic pattern of long-short-long-short belongs to the tarantella, a dance that originated in Italy and, according to legend, served to counteract the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider.

Program 2 (May 27, 11:00am)

Sonata no. 6 in A major, Op. 30, no. 1

Op. 30 dates from1802, the year Beethoven began sketching the mighty Eroica Symphony, a work as far removed as could be imagined from the pervasive geniality and charm of the first of the Op. 30 sonatas. But the two works share a common characteristic in the compositional process at work in their opening subjects. In the sonata, piano and violin share the material, with each hand of the piano part a separate element in itself. This means there are actually three strands of melodic material at work, intertwining and coming together to form a coherent whole. Similarly, in the Eroica, cellos, violins and winds all contribute individual melodic strands to the complex first subject. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement is in ternary form, with the outer sections distinguished by the persistent dotted rhythm (long-slow-long-slow), the inner portion by gently rippling triplets in the accompaniment. The final movement is a theme and variations set in which violin and piano take turns in presenting the melodic strands of the theme.

Violin sonata no. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2

Without question, this sonata is one of the grandest in the violinist’s repertory. It is a work of drama, passion, power and almost symphonic scope. The key of C minor immediately alerts us to music of serious import. Of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, this is the “biggest” in feel and scope. It is also one of just three (Nos. 5 and 10 are the others) to boast four movements rather than the standard three.

The first movement opens with a darkly mysterious, almost menacing subject divided into several epigrammatic components, a subject eminently suitable for development later on. The strongly contrasting second subject in E-flat major, march like yet playful, is introduced by the violin. The slow movement is one of heavenly beauty. The scherzo movement truly lives up to its title (“joke”) – witty, playful, full of rhythmic quirks and rough humour. The finale returns to C minor and, unusually for a large-scale work that opens in the minor tonality, finishes in the minor as well. Relentless dramatic tension and emotional strife mark this uncompromising movement.

Sonata no. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no. 3

This has been dubbed the “charmer” of the Op. 30 sonatas. Like many other works in G major, it breathes the air of unspoiled nature, untroubled emotions, lively spirits and gaiety. Indeed, Beethoven composed the sonata during the pleasant summer days he spent in the beautiful woods outside Vienna at Heiligenstadt.

The first movement is in standard sonata form with two themes in contrasting keys, a development section and a recapitulation. The central movement is neither slow nor a minuet (Beethoven specifies the tempo of a minuet, not a minuet itself). It consists of a series of slightly varied restatements of the opening subject, all set to music of enchanting loveliness and rococo grace. The final movement, a rondo, bubbles along with vivacious good humour and a strong suggestion of a peasant’s bagpipe droning away in the bass.

Program 3 (May 27, 3:00pm)

Sonata no. 4 in A minor, Op. 22

Abram Loft assesses the A-minor sonata in these terms: “In no other Beethoven sonata will the duo find a greater challenge to its sense of drama, of timing, of musical repartee … It is one of the most exciting pieces that amateur or professional can play.”

There is much that is unusual about this sonata. It is one of just two in a minor key (the seventh in C minor is the other) Its relentless first movement is in 6/8 metre, unusual for an opening movement of a sonata, as is the tempo marking of presto. Still another unorthodox point to note is the introduction of a new theme (in F major) within the development section, and still another one (in A minor) at the juncture of the development and recapitulation. The playful second movement is neither a slow movement nor a scherzo, but combines aspects of both and supports three full themes. The rondo finale returns to the driving momentum of the opening movement, its urgent main theme, always initiated by the piano, returning frequently and unvaried while in between statements of this theme are found a wealth of episodes contrasting in mood, texture, key, dynamic level and register.

Sonata no. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (Spring)

In the Spring Sonata of 1801, we see Beethoven poised on the threshold of his second-period style. He has still not completely bid farewell to the genteel world of Classicism – graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance – yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and vigour, a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation.

This is the most popular of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. It opens with a flowing theme of spontaneous lyricism and gentle radiance, suggestive immediately of the freshness and beauty of spring that has earned the sonata its nickname. The second movement is deeply felt, so much so that some listeners find in it an anticipation of some of Schubert’s most expressive pages.

Op. 24 is Beethoven’s first violin sonata to have four movements. The “extra” movement is extremely short (barely a minute), but it perfectly bridges the sublime simplicity of the second movement and the gracious lyricism of the finale. The finale is a more or less conventional rondo.

Sonata no. 10 in G major, Op. 96

A gap of ten years separated Beethoven’s tenth and final violin sonata from his ninth. The biggest differences between this sonata and its predecessor – easily observed when the two are played in tandem, are its more intimate and restrained tone, gentler sonorities, and the avoidance of drama and heroics.

Like the Kreutzer Sonata, the first movement of the tenth contains three themes, the first of which is imbued with the gentle warmth and grace. The slow movement presages Beethoven’s late style – an adagio of ineffable beauty and restrained exaltation. Here, writes violinist Abram Loft, the players are “as close to paradise as one can approach in this world.” The short and jocular Scherzo in G minor brings us down to earth from the rarefied heights of the previous movement. The finale is a theme and variations movement. The theme has a folksy quality, and proceeds with a gentle swagger in unbuttoned (Beethoven liked the term aufgeknöpft for such music) good humor. Beethoven toys with our expectations as the music makes little detours through changes of tempo and ventures into new harmonic regions, as if the composer were reluctant to bid farewell to his last violin sonata.

SOME THOUGHTS ON OUR UPCOMING 12-13 SEASON

 

Today we want to share with you a few thoughts and facts about our recently announced 2012-2013 season:

UP FIRST: On October 5 András Schiff will open the 33rd season with an all-Bach program. In fact, András was one of the first artists who launched the Vancouver Recital Society in 1981. Like so many artists who followed, he made his Canadian debut in Vancouver.

CHEZ NOUS: The earliest performances were presented at the Granville Island Stage, but the Vancouver Playhouse was soon chosen as the ‘home’ for the Vancouver Recital Society. In the upcoming season we will present six afternoon performances at this downtown location.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: The VRS established its second ‘home’ soon after the opening of the Chan Centre at UBC in the spring of 1997. Now going into our 16th (!) season at this venue, we continue to present four afternoon performances along with four evening performances. Of course, Mr. Schiff adds a very special ninth performance at the Chan Centre.

In total, the 2012-2013 consists of 15 performances of which 10 are scheduled on Sunday afternoons.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: we are very excited with our new, low “entry” price. For the first time it is possible to select a series of four performances for only $80 – or $20 for each performance.

AH, TO BE YOUNG AGAIN: our young audience members now have greater access then ever before with our Youth Club and Ru35 programs. Throughout the season, tickets can be had for as little as $16.

A POPULARITY CONTEST?: In our recent survey you ranked your favourite composers and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin came out on top. Happily, our 2012-2013 artists will give us a lovely dose of these top-rankers. As we have seen, Bach is in the best hands with András Schiff. Schubert is well represented throughout the season, most notably by Paul Lewis whose program is dedicated to the monumental three late piano sonatas. Adding to the Schubert repertoire are Simon Trpceski and Behzod Abduraimov. Behzod also brings us the ever-popular “Appassionata” sonata by that ever-popular composer, Beethoven. Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan brings Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, and pianist Stephen Hough includes Nocturnes on his program.

2012-2013 is shaping up to be a most exciting season. Series tickets are currently offered at exceptional prices with fantastic benefits (complimentary parking passes!). Call our office at 604-602-0363 and we’ll be happy to discuss all our subscription options.

LEILA GETZ: ONE OF THE MOST PERFECT CONCERT EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE

 

Last night I had one of the most perfect concert experiences of my life. I have been attending a conference of music managers and presenters in Budapest. I discovered that baritone Christian Gerhaher was singing an all-Schubert song recital in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It was sold out, but after 33 years in the concert presenting world, I was able to pull strings and, to my utter astonishment, I became a guest of the Konzerthaus. So, I hopped on a train and headed back to Vienna (where I’d been just the week before) to hear the performance. The distance between Vienna and Budapest seems similar to the distance between Vancouver and Seattle. Except that, of course, one just sails through borders from one country to the next.

The Konzerthaus was packed to overflowing. There were 750 seats filled in the hall with an additional 50 seats on stage. I know this because I asked the Intendant of the Konzerthaus. I also enquired about their wonderful piano and he told me that they select and rent a new Steinway from the factory every two years.

I am guilty of over-using the word “extraordinary”, but there is simply no other word to describe Gerhaher’s voice (or voices, as he seems to have so many of them). He inhabits the text and the music he is singing. He simply delivered what Schubert intended when he wrote the songs. Nothing more and nothing less. His regular pianist is Gerold Huber and the two of them together are as one. Right down to the tiniest nuance. I can understand why Andras Schiff has chosen to invite Gerhaher to Carnegie Hall for his “Perspectives” Series. And of course, we, at the VRS are the beneficiaries of this collaboration. We jumped at the opportunity when we heard about it.

If you are a serious, discerning music lover you must not miss the Gerhaher/Schiff performance at the Chan on May 14. Don’t expect a larger than life personality like Bryn Terfel (nothing wrong with him!) but expect the most perfect delivery of song you will experience for many, many years to come. It is both deeply gratifying and humbling at the same time.

Leila (en route from Vienna to Budapest).

Program Notes: Christian Gerhaher and Andras Schiff

Ludwig van Beethoven
An die ferne Geliebte
Adelaide, Op. 46

An die ferne Geliebte, composed in 1816, stands proudly at the beginning of Christian Gerhaher’s recital as the first important song cycle from any composer, that is,  a series of songs in which the constituent numbers are linked together by a theme or narrative of some sort to form a cohesive whole. The six songs of An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) are set to poems by a minor poet named Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858). A solitary lover seated on a hillside gazes into the distance and longs for the object of his affection. The lover’s thoughts turn to blue mountains (the second song), a brook (the third), clouds (the fourth) and the glories of springtime in May (the fifth) as he thinks of love filtered through these images of pure, unspoiled nature. The final song brings the listener full cycle, with passages of both text and music from the opening stanza returning for a fulfilling close. The songs are heard without breaks, and piano transitions link some of them. The cycle is further unified by a tonal scheme centered around E-flat major.

“Adelaide,” which closes the program, was Beethoven’s first important song and dates from 1795 or 1796, about the time he was writing his first piano trios and piano sonatas. The text is by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831), a much admired German poet in his day. The song is an expansive, impassioned outpouring of emotion as a man wanders about a garden and sees in his beloved Adelaide as a manifestation of the beauties of nature.

Robert Schumann
Dichterliebe, Op. 48

Schumann composed more than half of his total song output in a single year, 1840. His love affair with Clara Wieck, who was to become his wife in August, provided fertile soil for serious attention to love lyrics. Concurrently, Schumann was beginning to recognize that the larger musical forms (symphony, sonata, string quartet) were not developing in the direction he had expected, and he was prepared to look elsewhere for the full flowering of romantic music. This “elsewhere” became the Lied (song in German). Furthermore, Schumann recognized that the piano could play a highly significant role to play in vocal music – not mere accompaniment, but an equal partner.

Schumann composed Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) in the space of about a week in May. In these sixteen songs, Schumann perfectly captures the psychological atmosphere of each poem. The piano writing, as in Schubert, is of great importance in defining the mood of each song. In Schumann, these moods are often carried to their greatest expressive heights in the piano postludes. All but two of the Dichterliebe songs end with postludes, some of them nearly half the length of the song itself. Another remarkable aspect of these songs is the vocal declamation. The music, with few exceptions, is perfectly welded to the words of the text with regard to metre, observation of punctuation and emphasis on the right word or syllable.

In the opening song, beautiful weather, flowers and birds are all part of the poet’s blissful reverie on love. But this love affair is doomed from the beginning, and the cycle traces a progression of regret, pleading, reconciliation and forgiveness. By the final song, the poet is so disconsolate that he prepares to drown his love, his sorrows and his dreams in a coffin in the deep sea.

Robert Schumann
Gesänge des harfners

The nine songs of 98a are all settings of lyric poems drawn from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1821/1829). Schumann undertook these settings in 1849, the centenary of Goethe’s birth. Of the nine songs, four are sung by the mysterious waif Mignon, one by the promiscuous actress Philene and four (the even-numbered ones) by the Harper, an itinerant musician and a strange, confused, half-crazy, tragic figure who turns out to be Mignon’s father (the mother was the Harper’s sister), though neither character learns this traumatizing fact until late in the novel. One can surmise already that the story is filled with repression, frustration, loneliness, bitterness, withdrawal and skeletons in the closet. So too are the Harper’s songs, aside from the opening Ballad, which he sings “with free, declamatory expression” (as Schumann marked in the score) before a royal gathering.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Five Songs

Haydn was almost fifty before he first turned his attention to song. The reason for this late start is simple: he had had no requests or impetus to write anything of this type. But in 1781 he brought out a set of twelve, some of which were expressly meant to show a certain Leopold Hofmann, Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (Haydn referred to him as a “braggart”) that Haydn could do a much better job at setting the same texts than Hofmann. A second set of twelve followed a few years later. These early songs in German reflect the simple melodic and harmonic style of the Singspiel (German-language stage works with spoken dialogue interspersed with tuneful, folklike songs) and are always strophic in design (two or more verses set to the same music.)

Not until 1794-95, during his second London visit, did Haydn return to song-writing. Again, he produced twelve (this time two sets of six each, published in 1797). These are the English Canzonettas. Here the writing is more chromatic, there is more ornamentation, and the emotional range is greater. “The Wanderer,” for example, is a gloomy but beautifully etched setting of an Anne Hunter poem, with the image of wandering unmistakably portrayed in the piano. “Content” is the only one of the five Haydn songs on this program in a major key and the only one not concerned with loss, despair, death or the afterlife.

“The Spirit’s Song,” is a single, independent number Haydn wrote to another text by his London friend Anne Hunter. Stark in tone, dark in color, its text concerned with lonely ghosts, “The Spirit’s Song” nearly takes on the feeling of a dramatic recitative from an opera.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ANDREAS BRANTELID & SHAI WOSNER


Claude Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano

Few works of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) bear generic titles like symphony, quartet, concerto or sonata. Most have descriptive or evocative titles like Printemps, Jeux, Claire de lune, La mer, Nocturnes or Ibéria. Since chamber music tends, more than any other, to rely on the traditional forms of classical structure, it is scarcely surprising to learn that Debussy composed so little in this category. Most of the exceptions are found either in works of his student years or from the end of his life, when he looked more to Classical models and absolute music for his inspiration. Hence we find him in 1915 embarking on a project to compose six sonatas, each for a different combination of instruments. Only three were actually written, as Debussy’s health was rapidly declining. The first of these was the Cello Sonata. The second was for flute, viola and harp; the third (his last composition) for violin and piano.

On the title page of the original published edition appear the words “Claude Debussy, Musicien français,” no doubt a pointed indication that his sonatas were not going to be cast in the time-honoured mold of the German masters, but would follow a different path, one not characterized by standard exposition, development and recapitulation sections. It is more the classical spirit Debussy is invoking, not its organizational procedures. “The proportions and form of the Sonata were almost classical in the true sense of the word,” he wrote.

Except for the first three measures, the cello plays nearly continuously throughout the Prologue. Debussy took care to advise that “the piano must not fight the cello, but accompany it.” The principal theme is heard as a lyrical, descending line in the cello. This theme returns at the end of the Prologue after a middle section in which the piano momentarily assumes the principal role. Although the sonata is nominally in D minor, the flavour is strongly modal, perhaps in keeping with Debussy’s presumed intent that the sonata evoke the character of old Italian commedia dell’arte.

The two main movements are played without pause. The Sérénade throws out bizarre whorls of sound much in the manner of a moonstruck, crazed harlequin careening about the stage. Sarcasm, banter, and an air of the fantastique are created through the use of special effects for the cello including pizzicato, glissando, sur la touche (bowing over the fingerboard) and flautando (delicate, flute-like sounds).

The Finale, like the previous movements, leaves the cellist scarcely a moment’s rest, but the piano writing is far denser than in the Sérénade. Cello and piano engage in exuberant dialogue and reckless antics, pausing only for a moment of quiet reflection before resuming their drive to the finish.

The first performance of the Cello Sonata was given in the fall of 1915 by Joseph Salmon with the composer at the piano.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata no. 5 in D major, Op. 102, no. 2

Beethoven wrote only five sonatas for cello and piano, but like the 32 sonatas for solo piano, they span most of his creative life. They were written in three spurts of activity: two (Op. 5) in 1796 at the very outset of his career; one (Op. 69) in 1808, squarely in the midst of his career; and two more (Op. 102) in 1815 when he was moving into what musicologists would call his Late Period. As with so many other works by Beethoven, his cello sonatas are of pioneering importance in form, content and the advancement of instrumental technique.

The two sonatas of Op. 102 were Beethoven’s principal works from the year 1815. They were written for Joseph Linke, cellist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet which had premiered many of Beethoven’s string quartets. These works are often regarded as the portals through which Beethoven entered his Late Period. The English scholar Martin Cooper notes that the sonatas of Op. 102 “show a combination of characteristics which do not appear in any earlier works of Beethoven’s with anything like the same consistency of concentration.” These characteristics include the prevalent interest in counterpoint, the use of trills and other ornamental devices as ends in themselves, syncopation, frequent and abrupt contrasts of pitch, bold harmonic progressions, and exploration into new realms of formal design.

The D-major sonata’s impulsive force and scope are announced in the opening bars, which feature a five-note figure that will pervade the entire first movement. Both principal themes reveal soaring lyricism, the first dramatic, the second more vocal in style. Only in the coda does the headlong rush of events subside.

The sublime, deeply introspective second movement is a long-breathed lamentation in D minor that exploits the cello’s most sonorous range. It is one of the most moving slow movements in all Beethoven, comparable to some of the utterances of the great final piano sonatas and string quartets. Its alternation of simple chordal writing and richly embroidered figuration also link it to the composer’s transcendental slow movements of his Late Period.

The Finale is no less astonishing. Here, for the first time, Beethoven incorporates a full-fledged, four-part fugue into an instrumental work, a practice he was to continue almost obsessively in his later works. It is announced in the cello, with the remaining three entries given to the piano. All the traditional fugal techniques are brought into play: statements and counterstatements, inversions, imitations, episodes and stretto. The fugue culminates in a flurry of scales and trills.

Zoltán Kodály: Cello Sonata, Op. 4

Kodály shares with Bartók the reputation for being one of the two greatest Hungarian composers of the twentieth century. Born just a year apart, they also shared during their lifetimes a deep common interest in music of their homeland, and conducted extensive scholarly research into music of the Hungarian gypsies and peasants in addition to that of surrounding countries. As such, they were among the first important ethnomusicologists. Into the sonata we hear today, Kodály poured the essence of his absorption with indigenous Hungarian folk music. To musicologist Harry Halbreich, “the cello seems to speak Hungarian.”

As Kodály had studied the cello as a youth, it is not surprising to learn that he wrote generously for this instrument. For cello and piano his catalogue includes, in addition to the work on this program, a Romance lyrique, a Sonatina and a Hungarian Rondo (originally with orchestra). For unaccompanied cello there is a capriccio and a sonata, and for violin and cello a Duo.

When Kodály began working on the sonata for cello and piano in 1909, he intended it to be a three-movement work in the classical tradition, but he never completed more than the two movements we have today. Many years later, shortly before the two movements were published in 1923, Kodály made a last attempt to write a first movement, but, as he stated near the end of his life, “By 1921 my style had changed so much that I was no longer capable of recapturing the spirit of 1909.” Cellist Jenö Kerpely and pianist Béla Bartók gave the first performance of the two movements on May 17, 1910.

A rhapsodic air prevails in the opening movement as it unfolds in a series of juxtaposed sectional divisions. The first sounds are for the cello alone, a rising motif that will prove to be a key structural element in both movements of the sonata. (Commentators like to note that it is the same motif that opens the slow movement of Brahms’s Double Concerto.) Its descending version is equally important.

In contrast to the darkly ruminative, moody Fantasia, the exuberant second movement is powerfully rhythmic and infused with the spirit of the dance. While most “unfinished” compositions lack endings (Schubert’s Eighth and Bruckner’s Ninth symphonies come to mind), Kodály’s Cello Sonata lacks a beginning. Yet, as in the case of the just-mentioned symphonies, the work seems complete despite its outward appearance as a torso. Kodály closes his sonata with a return to the opening of the Fantasia movement, now somewhat rewritten as if, with the passage of time, this material has now evolved into a new form. It makes for a most satisfying feeling of closure.

Johannes Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano no. 1 in E minor, Op. 38

Brahms’s choice of the cello as the piano’s partner for his first duo sonata is entirely appropriate in view of the composer’s predilection for warm, mellow, tenor-range instruments (clarinet and horn were also instruments he favored). Brahms wrote three movements in 1862, then put the work aside until 1865, when he wrote a finale. However, when the sonata was published in 1866, the composer suppressed the Adagio movement, leaving a sonata in three movements only.

Brahms dedicated the E-minor sonata to his friend Josef Gänsbacher, a cellist of modest talent. According to legend, on one occasion when Gänsbacher and Brahms were playing the sonata, Gänsbacher complained that the piano was drowning out the cello line, whereupon Brahms quipped “Lucky for you!”

Yet Gänsbacher was somewhat justified in his complaint, for there are unequivocally passages where the cello must struggle mightily to be heard above the thick textures and powerful sound of its partner. Balance problems aside, however, the opening movement is one of Brahms’s most impassioned statements, beginning with the gentle arch of the cello’s somber yet noble opening theme, passing to the robust second theme in B minor in which both instruments share equally, and to the radiant third theme in B major, heard first in the piano, then in the cello.

The second movement is entitled Allegretto quasi menuetto, but there is nothing “quasi” about this minuet. There is an almost antique charm to the courtly dance in Brahms’s treatment of it. Two pertinent observations about this movement are its absolute equality of cello and piano (Brahms even published the work as “Sonata for Piano with Cello,” not the other way around) and the delicate, introductory six-note motto that takes on an important role throughout the movement. It also becomes, in a different form, the basis of the flowing central Trio, where, in the words of Henry Cope Colles, Brahms “discards the primness [of the motto] and lets the little motif expand naturally into long, fluent phrases.”

The highly energetic finale takes its cue from Beethoven’s last cello sonata (heard earlier on this program) in its use of fugue in a duo sonata, but to an even greater extent, the movement is a tribute to Bach. The fugal subject strongly resembles that of Contrapunctus XIII from Bach’s Art of Fugue. To carry the Bach connection a step further, some listeners hear in the main theme of the first movement a resemblance to Contrapunctus III as well. But Brahms’s finale is not fugal throughout, for there are elements of sonata form as well, notably the use of a non-fugal second subject (yet derived from the fugue’s own countersubject!). Yet Brahms welds fugue and sonata form into a movement of structural integrity and sustained momentum. Even the concerto principle comes into play, with the two contending forces of cello and piano struggling mightily for supremacy as the sonata races to its tumultuous conclusion.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Murray Perahia…reminiscences

Murray Perahia first came onto my radar in 1972 when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition. I knew Murray’s playing through his recordings but didn’t have the opportunity to hear him live for the first time until 1983, when on a visit to London I was able to attend a recital he gave at the Royal Festival Hall. It was one of the most memorable concert experiences of my life. I was with a friend with whom I had studied music at university in South Africa, and the two of us left the hall speechless. We didn’t speak to one another until we had crossed the bridge over the Thames, to catch our Tube.

Two years later (the VRS was 5 years old) Murray Perahia played a recital in Portland on a small, but wonderful piano series. How envious was I when I found out that the only way the series was able to present Mr. Perahia was through the generosity of one of their subscribers who was a Murray Perahia fan, and was determined to get him to Portland at any cost.

Finally, three years later I plucked up the courage to engage Murray Perahia. Regrettably, he had to cancel as he came down with the flu in New York City. We found out only the afternoon before the concert, as we had been moving offices (pre cellphone days) and his manager couldn’t reach us as our telephone and fax lines hadn’t been installed. First call on the new phone number was “terribly sorry to have to tell you…”

He played his first performance for us the following year at the Orpheum and has returned to our series several times since. I have had the immense pleasure of having him practice in my home, and so has our sponsor, Martha Lou Henley. On one occasion he needed a break and went for a walk. I was panic stricken when he hadn’t returned after an hour and a quarter. Fortunately, back in those days the VRS office was located in the basement of my home, so I was able to leave the house to search for him. I did find him wandering around the side streets of Shaughnessy.

On another occasion he came to Vancouver for a concert at the time of the famous summit. We had booked him into the Four Seasons Hotel, which we then had to cancel as the Summit leaders had taken over the hotel. We re-located him to the Waterfront Hotel and let his management know. Somewhere between his management and his diary there was a ‘disconnect’. I waited at the airport for five hours, calling every hotel in town every 30 minutes to see if he had checked in. Bingo! Finally, the Wedgwood Hotel said that they had just found a room for a Mr. Perahia who hadn’t had a previous reservation but had been insistent that there had been! I asked them to send someone up to lock his door and not let him out until I arrived!

Each and every concert by Murray Perahia is a revelation and a deeply moving experience. I am so thankful that I have been a concert presenter at a time when Murray Perahia is at his prime.

Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., D.F.A.

Artistic Director

Program Notes: Steven Osborne

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata (“Moonlight”) in C sharp minor, Op.27, no.2 (Sonata quasi una Fantasia)

The year 1801 marked not only the dawn of a new century, but also a significant new approach on Beethoven’s part to matters of form and structure in the piano sonata. The bold use of unusual and exotic keys, quasi-programmatic elements, irregular forms and unorthodox ordering of movements all contributed to heralding a new note in Beethoven’s sonatas. The composer called each of his two sonatas Op. 27 quasi una fantasia. In these works, the improvisatory impulse, free flights of fancy and avoidance of conventional forms are carried further than ever before. In Eric Blom’s words, these sonatas “show the composer emancipating himself from the classical sonata pattern and doing it as drastically as possible by substituting pieces in a freely chosen form for the traditional first movement that was always the most important part of a sonata, though not invariably in what we now call sonata form.”

While the first of the two Op. 27 sonatas may be one of Beethoven’s least-known, its sister, the Moonlight, is surely the best-known. The subtitle, as many people are aware, was not given by Beethoven. It came from the German critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab (l799-l860), who once commented that the first movement made him think of “a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.” In point of fact, the composer never saw the Lake of Lucerne, and in any case, the mood ascribed to the sonata fits only the first movement.  Furthermore, Beethoven never even heard of the appellation “Moonlight” Sonata, as it was not affixed until five years after his death. The work was very popular in Beethoven’s lifetime, though the composer himself did not have a particularly high regard for it, and was annoyed that the public afforded it greater status than many of his other works.

The musical and structural (as opposed to the romantic and fictitious) elements of the sonata are considerable. The Moonlight is written in a rarely-used key, especially for the periodC-sharp minor. Mozart did not write a single work in this key, and Haydn did so only once. Also, most unusually, all three movements are based in the tonality of C-sharp: minor for the outer movements, major for the central one, at least to the ear. (The Allegretto is technically in D-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major, and easier to read than C-sharp major; the latter would require seven sharps in its key signature!) Like the two previous sonatas, this one is an experiment in form, with Beethoven attempting to build a successful structure with the main weight at the end, not the beginning, of the sonata.

The opening movement in each of the two previous sonatas had been in slow or moderate tempo, while the finale was not only fast but also the most substantial movement. In the Moonlight, this approach is carried to extremes. In addition, each movement inhabits a single emotional world without contrasts: the unbroken placidity of the first movement gives way to the blithe, innocent charm of the second, which in turn is succeeded by the tempestuous upheavals of the third.

Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit

Gaspard de la nuit ranks as one of the most highly original, imaginative, evocative and technically difficult works in the entire piano repertory. Its composer made no bones about this surreal, hallucinatory music, describing it as “three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity” in which he deliberately set out to surpass even Balakirev’s notorious Islamey in terms of sheer technical difficulty. The great French pianist Alfred Cortot called the composition “one of the most astonishing examples of instrumental ingenuity ever contrived.” Pianist Charles Rosen has called the second of the three pieces (“Le Gibet”) “an assault on the nerves of the listener, a creation of tension through insistence, like the Chinese water torture,” and the composer Henri Gil-Marchex once enumerated 27 different kinds of touch in this one piece alone. Clearly, Gaspard is something special indeed!

Ravel’s inspiration to write Gaspard de la nuit derived from vivid and macabre poems by the French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), to whose work Ravel was introduced by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, a fellow pupil at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1908 Ravel set three poems from Bertrand’s eponymous collection, written in 1830. Viñes gave the first performance on January 9, 1909. Each piece is dedicated to a different musician, respectively Harold Bauer, Jean Marnold and Rudolph Ganz.

ONDINE: Ondine is a beautiful, mischievous water sprite who tries to attract mortal men to her magical kingdom through seductive singing. Ravel portrays her in the rare key of C-sharp major (seven sharps!) with glistening, delicate, “water-music” as befits Bertrand’s description of “Ondine who skims over the drops of water that resonate on the diamond-shaped segments of your window illuminated by the dismal rays of the moon.”

LE GIBET: A sinister atmosphere of desolation and ghostly terror pervades “Le Gibet.” The dynamic markings never rise above mezzo-piano. In some of the eeriest sounds in all music, Ravel portrays a corpse hanging from a gibbet, swaying in the wind against a sky reddened by the setting sun. The implacable tolling of a distant bell, represented throughout by the piano’s persistent B-flat octaves, is set against a richly varied harmonic landscape. So pervasive is this tolling B-flat that “Le Gibet” has been called “a fantasia on one note.”

SCARBO: This piece, no less eerie than “Le Gibet,” portrays the unpredictable, lightning-like appearances and disappearances of the malicious dwarf Scarbo, who changes his shape, size and colour at will. The scintillating, hallucinatory effects require such technical dexterity as to have earned Gaspard an almost mythic status among pianists.

Sergei Prokofiev: Visions fugitives, Op. 22

Like many of the great composers, Sergei Prokofiev showed his talent early. He was composing before he was six, he had produced an opera by twelve, and for his application to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, at thirteen, he submitted four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and several piano works. During his teens he studied with such luminaries as Glière, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Tcherepnin.

As a pianist he was no less sensational. He appeared as soloist in his own First Piano Concerto when he was 21 (July 25, 1912, in Moscow) and less than two years later played the same work, in place of the traditional classical concerto, for his final examination at the St. Petersburg Conservatory before a panel of twenty judges, each of whom had the published score in his hands. Prokofiev considered it his first “more-or-less mature composition,” and it became his first published work. For the piano alone he left a canon of nine completed sonatas and innumerable smaller pieces, including many written as a boy.

The Visions fugitives date from the years 1915-1917. These twenty miniatures (average length about a minute) take their cue from Beethoven’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes, their title and inspiration from these lines by the Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont: “In every fugitive vision I see worlds, / Full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” While overall the expressive range is oriented more toward the restrained end of the emotional spectrum, they nevertheless serve as a workshop for a great variety of colourful, experimental epigrams. Prokofiev’s biographer Israel Nestyev describes them as “something like entries in a diary” and as “experiments from a laboratory, a storehouse of materials to be used in the future large works of a composer always eager to increase the scope of his art.” Moods range from the lyrical to the whimsical, from the spirited to the serene, from the sedate to the seductive.

Sergey Rakhmaninov: Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 26

Rakhmaninov wrote only two piano sonatas, the First in 1907, the Second in 1913. He heavily revised the original version of the Second in 1931, considerably shortening it and lightening the textures in numerous passages. In 1940, with the composer’s permission, Vladimir Horowitz made his own variant, combining elements of both versions, and continued to make additional revisions over the years. Pianists today often feel free to create their own synthesis of Rakhmaninov’s and Horowitz’s versions.

Although not especially long in minutes, this sonata is big in scope and impact, embracing an enormous emotional range, and approaching symphonic proportions in its textures and polyphonic complexities. The sound of heavy, pounding bells, which fascinated the composer all his life, and which found their way into so many of his scores, are evoked frequently over the course of the sonata.

The three movements are not defined as such in the score, and are played without pause, underscoring their close interrelationship. Thematic ideas are shared among the three movements, particularly motifs deriving from the drooping four-note figure first heard in the sonata’s opening gesture under a rapidly pulsating B-flat minor chord. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure, whose second subject (D-flat major) is announced during the first moment of relief from the furious onslaught of dense textures, rhythmic complexities and dramatic flourishes. Nevertheless, upon close investigation, this “new” theme reveals itself as a transformation of the first.

The second movement serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third. Both main themes from the first movement make return appearances.

The third movement is launched with a precipitous plunge, fortissimo, spanning four and a half octaves. The first subject is less a theme than a seismic upheaval. Rakhmaninov saves his “big tune” for later, one that might well have found its way into a concerto instead, characteristically decked out with richly layered accompaniment. The sonata ends with a grand salute to B-flat major.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

George Li: program notes

George LiLi at piano
Programme Notes
Performance: Vancouver Playhouse, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carl Czerny
Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op. 33 (“La Ricordanza”)

Most concertgoers know Carl Czerny only as the early nineteenth-century pedagogue who churned out endless dull exercises that continue to be inflicted upon piano students this day. True, he did compose a tremendous amount – 861 opus numbers and an even greater amount published without opus numbers – and true, the exercises are dull. But Czerny composed much else that is decidedly not dull.

Unlike his teacher Beethoven, and unlike his star pupil Franz Liszt, Czerny was no innovator, but within the parameters of his time much of his music is eminently pleasing, charming, tasteful and sensitively written. He wrote voluminously in nearly every known form and genre of the time: sonatas, fantasias, theme and variation sets, piano concertos, symphonies, sacred choral music, string quartets and much other chamber music. His most frequently recorded composition would seem to be an Andante and Pollaca for horn and piano, with the Variations on this afternoon’s program not far behind.

The variation form and its close cousin the fantasia were immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. Beethoven wrote some twenty sets of variations for piano. Czerny mined dozens of operas, symphonies, overtures, oratorios and ballets by Beethoven, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Weber and others for his variation sets and fantasias. From the famous French violinist Pierre Rode (1774-1830) he borrowed the tune “La Ricordanza” and set it as a theme with five variations for solo piano. A stately one precedes the final and most brilliant variation, which in turn is followed by a return to the theme for a quiet closing.

Arnold Schoenberg
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (Six Little Piano Pieces), Op. 19

Schoenberg, unlike the other composers represented on this program, was not a keyboard virtuoso. Nevertheless, he turned to the piano as a medium of experimentation on more than one occasion. One such occasion came in 1909, when he produced his first atonal composition, the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11.

Essentially what Schoenberg achieved in these pieces was the emancipation of dissonance from its ties to traditional harmony. A “dissonant” note or chord no longer had any contextual relationship to surrounding pitches; it existed in and of itself. It is traditional to view these pieces as a milestone, a break with the past, a giant step forward in the development of music history. Yet Schoenberg always regarded this music as an absolutely logical continuation of the past, something “distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music.”

Schoenberg’s next piano music, Op. 19, appeared in 1911. But whereas the three pieces of Op. 11 require about a quarter of an hour to perform, the six pieces of Op. 19 require barely five minutes. “A novel in a sigh” was the expression coined for such pieces.

Continuing where he left off in Op. 11, Schoenberg made the non-recurrence of thematic material the operating principle in Op. 19. The dynamic level is also telescoped, with emphasis on the softer end of the spectrum. And as David Burge points out, the performance direction mit sehr zartem Ausdruck (with very delicate expression) three bars before the end of the last piece “might well serve as an overall injunction for performance of the entire set.”

The first five pieces were written in February of 1911, possibly all in a single day. Microcosmic wisps of sound flutter about in No. 1, which is played nearly all pianissimo (very quiet). No. 2 features a single interval, the major third, repeated playfully (or obsessively, if that is your response) throughout. The third is notable for its opening bars in which the right hand plays forte (loud), the left hand piano (soft or quiet). No. 4 opens in a mood of frolic, but comes to a crashing end just twenty seconds later in brutally hammered fortissimo chords (very loud). Not even Schoenberg was immune to the waltz – it seems to run in the veins of nearly all Viennese; No. 5 suggests its characteristic rhythmic pattern.

The final piece was written in June, one month after Schoenberg accompanied Mahler to his grave. Bell-like sonorities evoke the remote, pastoral landscapes Mahler conjured up in his symphonies. Paolo Petazzi sees this haunting music as “motionless planes of sound set against one another [to] create a chill, insubstantial timbre which hovers on the edge of silence, as if pointing to a dimension the ear cannot perceive.”

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata no. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)

The “Appassionata” Sonata, composed in 1804-06, remains one of Beethoven’s greatest and most frequently heard works in any medium. The title helps, of course. It does have passion – to a generous degree. But it has much more than that. Czerny regarded the sonata as “the most perfect carrying out of a mighty and colossal plan.” As with so many of Beethoven’s compositions, the title was affixed not by the composer but by a publisher, in this case the Hamburg firm of Cranz, which brought out the sonata in a duet version in 1838. Strange as it may seem today, Czerny thought that an earlier Beethoven sonata ought to bear the title “Appassionata”, Op. 7 in E flat, a relatively tame work compared to Op. 57.

The opening movement is largely music of sound and fury, defined above all by rhythmic insistence. Both the defiantly rising principal subject (opening measures) and the lyrical, rising-and-falling second subject share a similar rhythmic pattern (long-short-long; long-short long), and both are built from arpeggios. “How wondrous that the composer can establish such diverse moods with the same material,” remarks pianist Anton Kuerti, “and especially that he can create such noble tranquility with this bumpy rhythm.” Additionally, there is a rhythmic motto appearing often throughout the movement that corresponds exactly to that of the opening of the Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-daahh).

The second movement offers an oasis of tranquility and repose. It is a theme-and-variations movement, built, like the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, more from a harmonic progression than from a melody. Each of the three variations employs increasingly rapid note values (eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds). Following is a small coda that disintegrates into a mysterious chord, which, as if jolted with an electric shock, reenergizes itself and launches into the finale.

This concluding movement, in sonata form like the first, is one of the most demonic things Beethoven ever wrote, a musical juggernaut of relentless forward momentum and almost frightening power. To Kuerti, “the accompaniment is the very substance of the music; its perpetuum mobile pervades all. It is quiet but chilling, like the waves in the middle of the ocean.  Over this rises a series of desolate, penetrating cries…” Tension builds to almost unbearable levels, finally bursting its bonds in the presto coda, which roars to an apocalyptic conclusion.

Mauric Ravel
Oiseaux tristes
Alborada del gracioso

In 1904-05, Ravel composed a set of five piano pieces collectively entitled Miroirs, which he claimed “marked a change in my harmonic development great enough to disconcert even those most accustomed to my style up to that point.” “Oiseaux tristes” (Sad Birds) is the second of the collection, “Alborada del gracioso” is the fourth. Each of the five Miroirs was dedicated to a different friend or colleague. “Oiseaux tristes” went to the famous Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance of the entire set in 1906. Ravel wrote “in this work, I evoke birds engrossed in the torpor of a dark forest during the peak hours of summer heat.”

“Alborada del gracioso” is one of Ravel’s most brilliant and effective evocations of Spain, richly informed with coloristic detail, evocative images, percussive effects and pyrotechnical displays (particularly the rapidly repeated notes played at all-but-impossible speeds). The title resists direct translation; it implies something along the lines of a court jester singing to his ladylove at dawn, and perhaps dancing a bit as well. Ravel later orchestrated the work, in which form it is often heard at symphony concerts.

The ten-minute work is laid out in three connected sections. The brilliant outer parts are characterized by alternating patterns of vibrant rhythms set to the clack of simulated castanets and raucous strumming of a guitar. Boston Symphony annotator Steven Ledbetter refers to this music as “a glorious racket. As a real ‘dawn song,’ the work would be catastrophic; in addition to waking the lovers, it would arouse the entire neighborhood.” The somewhat meditative central section evokes more the clownish aspect of the work’s title.

Franz Liszt
Waldesrauschen
Gnomenreigen
Consolation no. 3 in D flat major
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2

In 2009 it was Mendelssohn. In 2010, Chopin and Schumann. This year, another giant from the annals of the world’s greatest composer-pianists, Franz Liszt, takes the spotlight on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Liszt was the quintessential figure of nineteenth-century musical Romanticism. His long life encompassed any number of emotional upheavals, quasi-mystical religious experiences, a visit from the Pope, an attempted murder, a cancelled marriage at the eleventh hour, enough love affairs (including with royalty) for any ten normal men, at least half a dozen occupations, visionary ideas of Music of the Future, a compulsion to be different (he was the first to give a complete solo recital without sharing the stage with other artists), an all-consuming sense of destiny, pianistic powers beyond belief, and a mind of near-genius proportions. Liszt was a biographer’s dream.

In 1848 Liszt abandoned his career as a spectacular touring piano virtuoso to settle in Weimar as a conductor. Concurrently, his output for piano slowed considerably, but he did produce two final etudes in 1862-1863. Formally known as Two Concert Etudes, they are more commonly referred to by their poetic subtitles, which, incidentally, do not appear on the autograph manuscript. Both are dedicated to Liszt’s pupil Dionys Prunker.

In Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), the trees rustle almost continuously as portrayed in the sextuplet figuration that alternates from right hand to left while the other hand spins out a single tranquil melody dolce con grazia (sweetly and gracefully). This music comes from the romantic world of the mysterious, dimly-lit forest (Schumann’s Waldszenen appeared just fifteen years earlier, and Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” in the opera Siegfried were just a few years down the road), yet it is nevertheless highly chromatic. As Ben Arnold points out, there are no fewer than ten changes of key within its 97 measures.

While Waldesrauschen is a study in lyricism and tranquility, Gnomenreigen (Round Dance of the Gnomes) glitters and sparkles. Its spiritual ancestors are the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the “Queen Mab” Scherzo from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliet. “One of Liszt’s cleverest and most facetious works,” claims Arnold.

The six Consolations were published as a group in 1850 (all but No. 5 were composed in 1848). “Their reflective, self-communing character reveals a new and much more thoughtful Liszt,” writes Liszt scholar Alan Walker. The title has two possible derivations, both poetic. Most scholars, including Walker, attribute it to a collection of poems by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the Consolations of 1830. Another possibility is Lamartine’s poem “Une larme, ou consolation.”  In either case, a quality of melancholy and introspection permeates the music, as it does the poems (“music tinged with a secret sorrow,” as Walker writes). No. 3, marked Lento placido, is the longest, probably the best known, and the one closest in style to Chopin nocturnes – comparison with the one in the same key, D flat major (Op. 27, No. 2) is almost inevitable.

Liszt was captivated by Hungarian gypsy music all his life, right from childhood. He collected melodies he heard played at campsites and other locations. His writings are peppered with references to them and their music, and he even wrote a 450-page treatise on the subject, published in 1859. Liszt was mistaken in equating “gypsy” music with that of the Hungarian Magyars, as research by Bartók, Kodály and others has proven. The themes he used actually came from “urban” sources, mostly popular tunes recently composed. The gypsy flavor derives from use of the so-called “gypsy scale,” sectional structure punctuated by sudden breaks, abrupt transitions, and a freely improvisatory style. Contrast and gathering momentum are the principal shaping forces of this music.

The nineteen rhapsodies were composed across a span of more than four decades. No. 2, by far the most popular, comes from 1847. Thereafter came arrangements, rearrangements and disarrangements for everything from simplified versions for young piano students to full orchestra, and in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to feature films (100 Men and a Girl).

No. 2, like many of the Rhapsodies, begins with a slow introduction leading into an Andante mesto, which features a lush, passionate theme. The second main part is the friska, which begins quietly and gradually builds in speed, texture and volume.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.

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