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PROGRAM NOTES: GEORGE LI

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

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

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

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: BENJAMIN GROSVENOR

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?

Alexander Scriabin
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.

Enrique Granados
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…

Franz Liszt
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

 

PROGRAM NOTES: MURRAY PERAHIA

Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817

The spirit of the dance can be felt across a wide range of Bach’s works, from the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Mass in B minor. For Bach lovers with toes eager to tap, then, an entire suite of dance pieces comes as veritable picnic for the ear. In this regard, the French Suites are among Bach’s most immediately appealing keyboard works and the Sixth Suite especially so for the wide range of dance genres represented in it.

The standard Baroque suite as practiced in German lands comprised an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, with any number of other dances filling out the space between sarabande and gigue – the so-called galanteries. These latter Bach lays on with a liberal hand, giving us in his French Suite No. 6 in E Major a largely French-inflected list of additional dances, including a gavotte, a polonaise, a minuet and a bourrée.

The influence of French lute music is apparent in the opening allemande with its pervasive pattern of arpeggiated chord guration. Broken chord gures in the so-called style brisé (“broken style”) were a staple of the lute repertoire and widely adopted in the harpsichord literature of the late Baroque era because they provided a means for implying a multi-voice texture within a continuous stream of short-value notes. The peppier courante, while also unfolding in a steady stream of 16ths, relies far more on the impressive effects to be gained from standard idiomatic keyboard writing, especially runs and single lines passed between the hands.

The dignified sarabande expresses its grandeur by means of a gradual widening of the distance separating left and right hands, extending out to more than three and a half octaves at its height in the second half. It is also the most ornamentally decorated of the dances in this suite, simply rippling with trills in its melodic line against more philosophical ruminations in the bass.

The galanteries (gavotte, polonaise, minuet & bourrée) are typically French, with all the fashionable frills and ruffles of the early-18th-century style galant on full display. The gavotte hops while the polonaise purrs and twinkles, with an abundance of mordents. The minuet is a moderately paced sequence of short elegant phrases, breathlessly outpaced by the more rustic bourrée that follows.

The gigue nale displays the traditional mix of leaps and scales that normally characterize this exuberant English dance, with its opening theme turned upside down, as is the custom, at the start of the second half.

Franz Schubert
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935

Schubert was a pianist, but not a touring virtuoso trying to carve out a career for himself by burning up the keyboard in front of an ever-changing audience of strangers in the various capitals of Europe. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and his smaller pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

The first impromptu in F minor is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern introduction that soon dissolves into the kinds of buoyant, quivering keyboard textures that “spoke” very well on the Viennese piano, with its relatively light action. The utterly enchanting B section features a whispering murmur of broken chords in the right hand over top of which the left hand enacts a dialogue between bass and treble on either side.

The second impromptu, in the form of a minuet and trio, is simplicity itself, dividing its attention between an anthem-like chordal opening theme, of small range and intimate character, and a wide-ranging middle section of rippling broken chords that drives (lovingly) to a sonorous climax.

Impromptu No. 3 in B at is theme and five variations. The theme is a gently toe-tapping melody of balanced phrases, varied in all the standard ways: rhythmic subdivision, textural infilling, elegant ornamentation, and a thickly scored, passionately throbbing minore variant. The last variation resembles a Czerny piano etude of unusual elegance and élan.

The impromptu with the most personality in the set is the last one in F minor, a rondo that really wants to be a scherzo. It hops and bounces, twinkling away in the minor mode, full of restless energy that erupts from time to time into overt displays of keyboard moxie in sudden outbursts of jarring trills and dazzling runs.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece as a whole are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn gure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos-tinged whimpering of chromatic half steps and the mood of forthright self-assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the Major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale gures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last piano sonata presents the composer in the two guises that characterized his musical genius: as earth-bound raging titan and heaven-seeking poet of the human spirit. Its two movements correspondingly display the widest possible contrast in structure and mood, comprising a restless and argumentative sonata-form allegro in the minor mode followed by a placidly serene variation-form adagio in the tonic major. Both movements strive to push musical expression beyond known limits with an almost religious intensity of feeling, but they address different gods. Dionysus provokes the frenzied ravings of the first movement, Apollo the mystical contemplations of the second.

The first movement’s maestoso introduction presents the ear with a defiant gesture, a jagged downward leap of the harmonically unstable interval of a diminished 7th, answered by a jangling trill higher up. There seem to be volcanic forces at play in the way that much of this movement’s turbulent musical material rises abruptly to the surface after suspenseful passages of eerie calm. Scurrying passages of unison between the hands lend a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric while contrapuntal episodes of fugato only seem to concentrate its fury, not tame it. Emblematic of the extremes within which the argumentation of this movement operates is the sheer amount of sonic distance that often separates the hands. One climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass takes place over 6 octaves, and the movement’s final chord, which arrives more out of emotional exhaustion than from a sense of resolution, extends over a space of 5 octaves.

This spaciousness of sound distribution characterizes the way in which the second movement’s opening theme is harmonized, with a good two octaves separating the angelic melody of the right hand from the bass tones giving it harmonic meaning down below. The movement begins in a mood of elegy and contemplative repose, moving by small steps in its initial variations into more animated figuration, each growing naturally out of the previous. Contrast and variety is not the aim here, but rather organic development. Particularly spectacular is the arrival of a sparkling and jazzy third variation out of the dotted rhythms of the second. From this point on, however, the mood turns increasingly poetic, with a concentration on the heavenly timbres of the high register lovingly supported, from time to time, by a plush carpet of rumbles from the deep bass. Beethoven seems to be speaking to us outside of the world of normal harmony, in pure sound. In a blurry texture of tremolos and trills spanning the full range of the keyboard, his theme rises above all earthly cares, as if transfigured, leading the movement to a serene close.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) inserted right before the zinger finale, the gigue. Each dance is in binary (two-part) form, and performance tradition has it that each part will be played twice. When the galanteries consist of a matched pair of the same dance form, another tradition says that the first will be played again after the second to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern.

Bach’s partitas are much grander and more technically challenging than his English Suites and French Suites, with larger individual movements. The Partita No. 1 in B flat, published in 1726, is quite an upbeat affair, ranging in mood from cheerful and celebratory in the opening movements to ecstatic, almost manic, in its closing gigue. Even when the pace is slow, as in the sarabande, the tone remains distinctly bright and chipper.

A prelude is intended to introduce the listener to the key they will be hearing a lot of in the course of the work and Bach’s Praeludium does a bang-up job of this, feeling its way methodically through the various scale degrees of B flat until we think we know them as old friends. It blithely ignores its other task, however: to warm up the player’s hands with simple passagework. Anyone who has attempted the opening mordent on a 32nd note without first dipping his fingertips in a hot double espresso will know exactly what I mean.

The fireworks begin in earnest in the Allemande, a toccata-like romp of 16th-note chatter up and down the keyboard, often split between the hands. The following movement is not the usual ‘flowing’ French Courante but its more lively Italian cousin, the Corrente, with enough hops, leaps and swagger to almost classify it as a gigue.

The Sarabande is the longest movement in the work, clocking in at a robust 4-5 minutes of performance time. Normally a slow stately dance in triple meter with a distinct inclination to “sit” with some sense of ownership on the 2nd beat of the bar, this sarabande diverts our attention away from the slow pace of harmonic movement in the bass by means of pertly alive and florid elaboration in the treble.

As galanteries Bach puts in a brace of menuets (the fashionable French spelling of “minuet”). The first ticks along in a constant flow of 8th notes like a mechanical clock while the second is all soothing and sustained in a rhythmically even succession of quarter notes.

The Gigue is a breathless vehicle for the keyboardist’s acrobatic skill, as impressive to watch as it is to hear, with hand-crossings between the bass and treble in every bar to create an antiphonal ‘echo’ effect throughout.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major Op. 7

The title page of Beethoven’s fourth sonata, published in 1797, proclaims this work as a Grande Sonate, a title it richly deserves, not only for its technical demands and extravagant length (Beethoven’s longest sonata until the Hammerklavier Op. 106), but also for its panoramic range of expression. It comprises a sonata-form first movement churning with rhythmic bumps and dynamic surprises, a slow movement of extraordinary expressive grandeur, an unusually lyrical scherzo and a rondo finale with robust contrasts of tone and mood.

Noticeable right off the bat in the first movement is how melody-making takes a back seat to the manipulation of raw sound. The movement opens with a rhythmic tapping in the bass that morphs into a series of scale passages in contrary motion. Rude shocks interrupt the flow until a smoothly flowing second theme can establish a more lyrical train of thought. The development section mulls over the contrast between this lyrical strain and more disruptive impulses, especially Beethoven’s trademark elbow-jabs of syncopation, and the recapitulation is remarkable for an even more forthright assertion of the kind of “rough” texture that the piano is capable of providing with sufficient prodding.

The contrast between the fortissimo ending of the first movement and the piano opening of the second, marked Largo con gran espressione, is shockingly dramatic. This movement, too, makes use of dynamic contrasts but in a different way. It is the silences and pauses inserted into the opening theme, combined with its deep resonance in the lower registers of the keyboard, that give this movement its immense gravitas and extraordinary depth of feeling. Its middle section is full of harmonic tension and an almost operatic sense of drama.

The 3rd movement scherzo Allegro opens in a soothing vein, its gently playful phrases of irregular length toying with the listener’s expectations while still maintaining a distinctly lyrical tone. The Trio in the monstrous key of E flat minor is a real piece of work, murmuring away conspiratorially in a rippling shimmer of broken chords punctuated regularly by sharp ffp accents.

The rondo finale is by turns gracious and volcanic, an odd combination that Beethoven pulls off with aplomb. The opening theme is lovingly endowed with many little sigh motives and colourfully orchestrated in both the mid and high registers of the keyboard. Its main thematic foil in the movement is a stormy patch of heavy chords over a surging left-hand accompaniment of rolling broken chords in the minor mode. These two poles of musical emotion, the gracious and the grumbly—Sir András Schiff calls them “Beauty and the Beast”—somehow manage to be reconciled when the churning left-hand accompaniment figure turns to the major mode to walk the sonata home in its final cadencing gestures.

Frédéric Chopin
Waltz in A minor Op. 32 No. 2
Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2
Waltz in A flat major Op. 42

 In the early 19th century the growing popularity of the waltz occasioned a fair bit of pearl-clutching among the ‘better’ classes of European society, with old maiden aunts and celibate priests leading the scolding with choruses of “Get a room!” Viewed as scandalously risqué for its daring combination of embracing couples and whirling movements, it nevertheless climbed the social ladder until it emerged by the end of the century as the very symbol of elegance, sophistication and social refinement.

The waltz developed in the last half of the 18th century out of country dances from Austria and Southern Germany, and in the Romantic era was absorbed into the world of salon music for the well-heeled. While it maintained its essential musical characteristics—triple meter with one chord to the bar—various nuances congenial to the Romantic spirit were introduced.

Chopin’s cultivation of the “sad waltz,” the waltz in a minor key, was one of these. Another was the amount of melodic content he saw fit to give to the left hand. His wistful, almost moping Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2 displays both of these qualities. It opens with a texture that sees the normal role of the hands reversed: it is the right hand playing the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern while the left sings out a mournful melody in the cello range tinged with pathos. While the major mode does appear to provide a bit of sunshine from time to time, the mood remains nostalgic, with more than a hint of melancholy.

The alternation of minor and major seems more evenly matched in the Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2, a sad piece that stops just short of whimpering by maintaining a nobility of sentiment throughout, especially in its gracious use of melodic ornaments.

The Waltz in A flat Op. 42 is popularly known as “the two-four waltz,” on account of its intriguing matching of duple rhythm in the right hand with the traditional “bass-chord-chord” triplets of the waltz in the left. Register-spanning arabesques of keyboard effervescence make for some ear-tickling listening, interrupted from time to time by outbursts of passion that justify the grand manner of its apotheosis on the final page.

Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat Op. 39

The piano music of Carl Maria von Weber was a fashionable pillar of the repertoire in the first half of the 19th century and much played, both at public concerts and in the home. It suffered eclipse, however, with the rise to prominence of those piano composers of the following generation who were most influenced by it: Liszt, Chopin & Mendelssohn. It stands as a curious cross-breed of stern Beethovenian high-seriousness, polished salon charm, and the exotic wildness of German Romanticism that made Weber famous across Europe as the composer of the opera Der Freischütz (1821).

His Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat, begun in 1814 and completed in 1816, was obviously intended as a display vehicle for the composer’s considerable talents as a pianist. Weber had a huge mitt of a hand, which made the daredevil leaps and elephantine chords of the score much easier to manage for him than for mere mortals. Brilliance is the dominant characteristic of the keyboard writing in this sonata, combined with a preference for getting a full sound out of the instrument by dint of throbbing chords in the mid-range while the right hand frolicks high in the treble like a sportive child at a water park. The colourful, scintillating textures of Chopin can be heard on the horizon in this kind of keyboard writing.

More captivating still is Weber’s sheer delight in piano tone, allied to what his biographer John Warrack described as “the new expressive content he showed that music could hold.” This emphasis on the poetic is evident from the opening bar of the Piano Sonata No. 2: a hushed tremolo in the left hand intoning an infinitely soft quivering octave on A flat that allows a horn-like broken-chord melody to blossom above it. These tremolos are more than just incidental colouring. They recur with dramatic force in the tumultuous development section, both at its outset and its climactic conclusion, giving the impression of a sonata movement that is really aspiring to be a dramatic scene from one of Weber’s operas.

The second movement Andante is a theme and variations that begins with an unusual texture of sustained melody notes in the treble over a sparse harmonic accompaniment that vanishes as soon as it sounds, like a kind of musical ‘Snapchat’ message. The variations are as ingenious for their keyboard textures as for the musical ideas they develop.

The third movement is called a Minuetto but it is really an outrageously theatrical scherzo, full of off-beat rhythms and razz-ma-tazz, out-of-the-blue sound gags. The Trio is somewhat more lyrical, but hardly soothing, with its rapturous flights of passion in the right hand urged on by anxiously throbbing chords in the left.

The rondo finale, with its chromatically dribbly main theme, graciously disposed in neatly balanced phrases, is remarkable for the amount of important thematic play it gives to the left hand, although right-hand sparkle is certainly not lacking in the more display-oriented sections of this movement. What is unusual in such a showpiece is how Weber ends the work quietly, with a modest tapering off of the piano sound he loves so much.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

 

Program Notes: Paul Lewis

 

Paul Lewis performs the Late Schubert Sonatas

The year of Schubert’s death, 1828, saw the birth of an extraordinary number of masterpieces from the pen of this master lyricist: the “Great” C major Symphony, the Mass in E-flat, the String Quintet in C, thirteen of his finest songs, and the final trilogy of great piano sonatas. This trilogy might be compared with the last three symphonies of Mozart. Each trilogy was written within a short period during the last year of its composer’s short life; each is a compact picture of its creator’s musical personality comprising three works of markedly differing character; each is a distillation of its composer’s last years of suffering and was written in a period of despair and deprivation; all the sonatas and symphonies are spacious in design, noble in concept and almost epic in scale; and each trilogy contains one stormy work in a prevailing minor key.

These sonatas also prompt thoughts on Beethoven’s last works in the genre, “final pronouncements of great minds,” as Ernest Porter puts it. “The sense of finality,” writes Porter, “is with us who cannot imagine any greater succeeding works and who perceive in these a summation of the composer’s output. Both had gone through trial and tribulation and the passions of sorrow and joy, and had arrived at that period when they could meditate on the inner meaning of life while still expressing its heights and depths. … The sequence of emotional thought is more highly controlled and resolved with persuasive logic.”

Schubert died before the sonatas were published. Diabelli published them only in 1838, with the dedication going to Schumann, an apt choice in light of his championship of Schubert’s music.

With regard to Schubert’s treatment of form, it is worth quoting Joseph Machlis’ observation on the sonatas in general: Schubert “was not the master builder Beethoven was. Inevitably he loosened the form, introducing into its flexible architecture the elements of caprice and whimsy, improvisation and inspired lyricism. His sonatas are spacious, fantasy-like compositions that display all the characteristics of the Schubertian style – spontaneous melody, richly expressive harmonies, rhythmic vitality, charming changes of key, emotion-charged shifts from major to minor, figuration that is almost always fresh and personal (with an occasional tendency to ramble), and great freedom in the handling of classical form.”

Piano sonata in C minor, D. 958

The opening subject of the C minor sonata – tragic, stormy and brusque – is often compared with the theme of Beethoven’s 32 Variations for Piano in the same key. The second subject, however, is a gracious, utterly beguiling melody in E flat major that only Schubert could have written, and probably the most memorable theme in the entire sonata. Yet Schubert devotes little time to it in the course of the first movement’s development section, preferring instead to focus on the defiant opening idea and even more so to a new, serpentine motif which becomes the predominant material of the development.

The Adagio opens with a solemn, hymn-like theme in four-part harmony in the key of A flat major. Two unsettled interludes, both derived from the same contrasting material in this A-B-A-B-A-form movement, interrupt the placid mood.

The Menuetto returns to C minor. The tempo marking of Allegro (rather brisk for a minuet) helps avoid what otherwise might have been a somber movement. The central Trio, reminiscent of a Ländler (a rustic Austrian dance in triple meter), has “Schubert” written all over it.

The finale is infused with a touch of the demonic. On paper, the rhythmic pattern suggests a tarantella (a lively Italian dance), but the effect in performance is closer to a gallop – of a ride to the abyss.

 Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959

The A major sonata opens with a grand, majestic subject that breaks off at the end to introduce one of the movement’s most characteristic features, gentle cascades of triplets. Schubert extends both the opening subject and the triplets for some time, spinning out his lyric ideas with ineffable ease. Eventually he introduces the second subject, a serenely reposeful theme as notable for its simplicity as for its charm.

The slow movement is a three-part structure. A gently rocking theme of almost hypnotic power slowly unfolds in F sharp minor. By contrast, the central section is highly dramatic, full of clashing dissonances, long trills, chromatic scales and rumbling bass.

The Scherzo is one of Schubert’s most delightful, and its lighthearted, bouncy mood all the more welcome after the seriousness of the two preceding movements.

The long rondo-finale reveals Schubert at his most endearing and congenial, calling to mind Schumann’s famous comment about Schubert’s C major Symphony: music of “heavenly length.”

Piano sonata in B flat major, D. 960

Olympian in scope, expansive yet coherently organized in its concern for proportion and balance, saturated with gorgeous lyricism and often discussed in terms of hushed reverence by its admirers, the B flat sonata stands as a landmark in the history of musical achievements. The first movement opens with one of Schubert’s most heavenly themes – a tender, reflective progression of smoothly-connected chords suggesting vast spaces and extended time spans. The sublime beauty of this theme is underscored by its utter simplicity. It closes on a low, mysterious trill, as if from a distant region. Three more times we hear the theme, each one slightly altered, but no less ingratiating. “Schubert’s piano melodies are not involved with struggles, metamorphoses and chasms,” said pianist Jörg Demus; “they wander along with gentle corpulence – likenesses of their creator – through the musical keys as through countrysides, changing by means of an apparently abrupt harmonic inflection, appearing suddenly in another light and assuming a new countenance from one measure to another.”

The deeply contemplative second movement is no less sublime than the first, but is cast in a simple A-B-A mold. The accompaniment consists of a constantly repeated four-note figure that in itself contributes to the music’s hypnotic effect.

After two long and profound movements, some lighthearted relief is needed. This Schubert provides in the form of an elfin Scherzo in which the single theme darts about, touching briefly on various keys. The brief central Trio relies on syncopation and a darker mood for its effect.

The finale’s main theme is announced by a one-note “call to attention,” which is associated with the theme upon nearly every subsequent appearance in the movement. On and on flows the music, propelled by endlessly repeated rhythmic patterns and a natural power of melodious invention.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

Program Notes: Andras Schiff performs Bach

 

J. S. Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier

One of the monumental landmarks in the history of music, Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier (the WTC for short) has come to represent the “Old Testament” of the pianist’s repertory (Hans von Bülow) and his “daily bread” (Robert Schumann).   “For more than 250 years,” states Davitt Moroney, “Das wohltemperierte Clavier has trained the fingers of innumerable keyboard players, and has also trained the judgment of composers seeking to understand the complex relationship between creative freedom and formal discipline.”

The two books of preludes and fugues in alternately major and minor keys – twenty-four in each – were not written in sequence or as a single concerted effort. They occupied Bach across most of his creative life, from his late twenties to about sixty. He completed Book I in 1722 and Book II a generation later in 1742. The significance of the title lies in Bach’s intent to prove the practicality of adopting a new system of tuning the clavier (a generic term for keyboard instruments at the time, but referring mostly to the harpsichord), namely by means of artificially dividing the scale into twelve equal semitones, hence overriding its natural acoustic divisions into unequal semitones which produced severe problems of intonation.

A prelude can mean so many things that a single definition is impossible. As found in the WTC, each prelude is a free, improvisatory piece that examines from various angles a figuration, texture, melodic motif, rhythmic idea or some combination of these in a continuously unfolding musical discourse.

A fugue is a somewhat more complex matter. The fugue’s “subject” is announced in the opening bars in one of the fugue’s three or four voices (on rare occasions, two or even five voices are found). This subject is then stated in a second voice while the first continues with a “countersubject”. Succeeding voices are treated similarly, quickly establishing a dense contrapuntal web which continues for the duration of the fugue. Often near the end, but also at various points along the way, the composer might use the technique of “stretto,” in which the subject makes overlapping entries in each voice in quick succession. Additionally, the subject may be inverted (turned upside down), augmented (played twice or four times as slowly), or diminished (played at double or quadruple speed) at any point following its initial presentation.

The listener’s interest in a fugue lays both in following the composer’s continuous manipulation of the subject and in observing the grand design of the whole. Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler (a contemporary of Mozart) made this entirely apt observation: “The fugue is a conversation … a musical artwork where no one accompanies, no one submits, where no one plays a secondary role, but each a principal part.”

The Prelude and Fugue in C major, the portal through which we enter the Well-tempered Clavier, is technically extremely simple. Amateur pianists who can play nothing else from the WTC can play this prelude. It is seemingly nothing more than a series of gently rippled broken chords. It is “fine-spun like a spider’s web” (Cecil Gray), yet written in full-textured, five-part harmony throughout. The first great Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta, called this prelude “a piece of indescribable fascination, in which a grand and beatific melody seems to float past like the song of an angel heard in the silence of night through the murmur of trees, groves and waters.”

In contrast to the simplicity of the first prelude, the first fugue is one of the most intricate, tightly woven and masterfully constructed. There is no countersubject. Instead, Bach indulges in much stretto, using it not just at the end but also throughout the entire fugue, starting as early as the seventh bar. Only a composer (or a frustrated student) can fully appreciate just how difficult it is to fit together all the elements of a proper stretto while maintaining a continuously flowing melodic line and avoiding tedium.

At the other end of our traversal, for the final Prelude and Fugue in B minor, we would expect Bach to produce something truly exceptional, and he does not disappoint us. The prelude moves inexorably forward like a huge musical juggernaut. In form it is unique in the First Book, with each of its two sections delineated with repeat signs (not always observed in performance) in the manner common to a movement from a suite. Also unique are the performance directions. The manuscript score contains tempo indications (Andante for the prelude, Largo for the fugue) for this pair alone. The fugue is the longest in the entire First Book. Its subject is remarkable for containing every one of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, thus forming a fitting conclusion to a collection of pieces whose avowed intent is to demonstrate the validity of each of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. Moreover, there is no denying the fugue’s extreme chromaticism that looks forward to the world of Wagner’s Tristan and Parsifal. How Bach weaves the fierce power of his subject into a continuously fascinating, 75-bar tapestry of mesmerizing force is one of the miracles of Baroque music.

“To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colors,” writes András Schiff. “In my imagination, each tonality corresponds to a colour. The WTC … provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy. Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence and therefore C major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in B minor, which is the key of death. Compare the fugue of Book I to the Kyrie of the B-minor Mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles we have all the other colors – first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between C minor and D minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to E minor), the greens (F major to G minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to A minor), browns (B-flat), grey (B major) and finally black. Of course this is a very personal interpretation, and each listener may have a different opinion. Nevertheless, if some of us happen to believe that music is more than just a series of notes and sounds, then a little bit of fantasy is welcome.”

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