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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: KIRILL GERSTEIN


Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite no. 6 in D minor, BWV 811

Bach’s Partitas, English Suites and French Suites – six of each – collectively rank among the glories of the keyboard literature. Each is a four-part sequence of dance movements, all in the same key but varied by rhythm, tempo and mood: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Each has a different national origin, respectively German, French, Spanish and English/Irish. To this basic framework additional movements, usually of French origin (Minuet, Gavotte, Bourrée, Passepied, etc.) are found between the Sarabande and Gigue. These dance movements are generally in two-part form, with each half repeated. An imposing Prelude introduces each of the Partitas and English Suites.

The moniker “English” Suites is a misnomer. Bach did not so designate them, and even if he had, they are stylistically more French than English in their orientation, taking as their point of departure the keyboard style of French harpsichord music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arranged by Ferruccio Busoni
Giga, Bolero e Variazione

Like Franz Liszt two generations before him, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) spent the earlier part of his career on the concert circuit as one of the most sensational piano virtuosos of his time. Also like Liszt, he arranged and transcribed numerous works for piano solo. In 1909, he published four “books” collectively called An die Jugend (each lasts only four or five minutes) of his freely adapted transcriptions of other composers’ music. The third of these was based on the music of Mozart. The three sections are played without pause. The gigue is derived from Mozart’s Gigue K. 574, the “bolero” is actually a free fantasia on the fandango (a courtly Spanish dance) in the third act of The Marriage of Figaro, while the virtuosic variation is developed from the gigue material.

Oliver Knussen
Ophelia’s Last Dance

Ophelia’s Last Dance is a nine-minute work commissioned for Kirill Gerstein by The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The pianist gave the world premiere there on May 3, 2010. When he gave the New York premiere a few days later, Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times that “it begins with a dash of light-textured sparkle and a gently chromatic line, and as it grows more emotionally charged, its language veers toward neo-Romanticism rather than the harmonic density of Mr. Knussen’s earlier music.”

This piece is an expansion of an idea that dates back to 1974 and was initially intended to become part of Knussen’s Third Symphony, which occupied him throughout the 1970s. Fragments then went into his Ophelia Dances, Book I (1975) for chamber ensemble, and finally found their way into the present work for solo piano, thus “continuing the dance in various ways,” as the composer says.

Carl Maria von Weber
Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65

Weber composed his brilliant Aufforderung zum Tanze (Invitation to the Dance) as a solo piano piece in 1819. It may well have been the first concert waltz (one conceived specifically for listening rather than for dancing), but its popularity was ensured through choreographic interpretation, beginning with Berlioz’ orchestration for the Paris Opera in 1841. The “invitation” portion lasts only a small fraction of the entire work. According to Weber’s own explanation, the invitation by the gentleman is made to the lady in the opening passage, followed by her demure responses and eventual acceptance. The dance is a series of contrasting waltzes, during which the dancers declare their love. At the end he thanks her. They part. Silence.

Schubert-Liszt
Soirées de Vienne no. 6: Valse-Caprice d’après Schubert (Allegro con spirit)

Schubert wrote an enormous number of little dance pieces for piano – waltzes, galops, Ländler, Deutsche, écossaises and minuets – to the tune of nearly four hundred. From this vast treasure trove Liszt chose nine waltzes and filtered them through the alembic of his own musical personality, calling them Soirées de Vienne, or Valse-Caprices. Biographer Bryce Morrison notes that Liszt was attracted to Schubert’s waltzes because of “their mix of both subtle and direct qualities,” which resulted in Liszt “tinting their exuberance and melancholy with a stylized command peculiarly his own.” Liszt was obviously fond of these works, first published in 1852, as he performed them often. The sixth is by far the most popular of the Soirées, with its sturdy opening theme, its echt Viennese lilt and its numerous passages of scintillating filigree decorating Schubert’s charming melodic lines.

Robert Schumann
Carnaval, Op. 9

Preambule
Pierrot
Arlequin – Valse noble
Eusebius
Florestan
Coquette
Replique
Papillons
Lettres dansantes
Chiarina
Chopin
Estrella
Reconnaissance – Pantalon et Columbine –
Valse allemande
Paganini
Aveu
Promenade
Pause
March des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins

Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is As, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Schumann met Ernestine at the Leipzig home of the piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, with whom she lodged and studied piano. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month he began writing the music that became Carnaval.

As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Wieck’s daughter Clara. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own. (In German terms, S=Es (E-flat), and H=B-natural.) The coincidence seemed to Schumann like fate knocking at the door. He loved puzzles, ciphers and numerical symbolism. This provided just the stimulus he needed to begin a new, large-scale composition. Schumann arranged the Asch motto into two additional variants – S-C-H-A and AS-C-H (As=A-flat) – and later inserted all three mottos into the score between the eighth and ninth numbers (between “Réplique” and “Papillons”) as double whole notes, calling them “Sphinxes,” meant only to be seen, not heard. Every piece in Carnaval except the “Préambule” is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure.

 The autobiographical element of Carnaval goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Estrella (“Ernestine”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Other images of a masked ball at carnival time (the pre-Lenten season) make fleeting appearances. The final number portrays the rout of cultural philistines by the band of David, marching defiantly in 3/4 metre.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

LEILA GETZ: WHY I LOVE ANDRAS SCHIFF


Yesterday I watched a video on the VRS YouTube channel featuring pianist Shai Wosner playing the concluding portion of Schumann’s “Carnaval”. I enjoyed it very much. As the video concluded, another video on the YouTube sidebar caught my eye: András Schiff playing the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D959. I clicked on it and was transfixed and transported by the majesty and sheer magic of his playing. That video, in turn, led to another, much earlier performance of András playing the Goldberg Variations of Bach. Again, a performance so compelling that I had to immerse myself in it to the end. If you have a moment, go to the Vancouver Recital Society YouTube channel, click on the András Schiff playlist, sit back and enjoy!

I have a confession here. Along with Murray Perahia, András Schiff has been right up there on my list of most special pianists. There is something about the way that András sits, upright, and almost motionless at the keyboard as he weaves his spell. How incredibly lucky we are to be hearing him on May 14 at the Chan Centre with the equally remarkable baritone, Christian Gerhaher, and again at the Chan Centre on October 5 for the opening concert of our 12-13 Season, playing Book 1 of Bach’s “Well Tempered Klavier”. These will be concerts to linger in the memory for a lifetime.

I GUARANTEE it!

Leila Getz

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.

An Interview with Florian Boesch

Florian BoeschThank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. How did the New Year start for you?

The New Year started with a Messiah concert in Zurich and then 5 days skiing with the kids and friends in Vorarlberg. That‘s a very good start! 

Who are the great influences in your life and in your music?

In my life the influences are too many and too complex to mention. However, in music the dominant influences would be (conductor) Nikolaus Harnoncourt and (Dutch bass-baritone) Robert Holl. They are the ones I consider to be masters.

You are well known for your performances of music by Schubert and Schumann. What does this music mean to you as an artist?

In Schubert and Schumann I find the union of poetry and music very strongly to be a language I understand and speak.

Your Vancouver program is built around the poetry of Heinrich Heine, as set to music by Schubert and Schumann. For you, are music and poetry equal partners, or do you consider poetry first when putting together a program, as seems to be the case for your Vancouver recital?

When I put programs together, most of the time I read the poetry first.

Many in your Vancouver audience likely will hear you for the first time. For those who do not familiar with your singing, how would you describe your performances and concert experiences? (or: for those who are not familiar with your singing, what is the one most important experience you wish to convey through your performance?)

I do not know exactly what I am going to do in my recitals. The interesting thing for me is to be open and sensitive enough to take the inspiration of the moment, and tell a story or a feeling as if it was for the first time. So it sometimes ends up being pretty much freestyle in proportion to the discipline.  

For you, what is the role of the piano and the pianist in German art song? Does working with different pianists influence your interpretations and performances?

I see the singer and accompanist as equal partners. I even consider myself the accompanist to the pianist. Each and every pianist brings their own individual influence to the recital. Also, the same pianist will bring new or different ideas on different days. It is like playing ping pong – one serves and, if lucky, someone plays back!

What can you tell us about your collaboration with Roger Vignoles, your pianist for the Vancouver recital?

Roger is one of the greatest accompanists in the world, and he’s also my friend. He is a fantastic pianist and musician with enormous experience and flexibility, and he is always open for something new. It doesn‘t get much better really.  

What is the concert experience like for you, as the performer?

Having the freedom to express myself to an audience, and to be myself in the context of a recital performance. I consider it to be a great privilege. I always discover some place I have not been before.

You are much in demand, and no doubt you travel a lot and often alone. How do you manage to find a balance between the demands on your professional life and your personal life?

One tries! I have a smart wife and a smart manager, that helps a lot.

What are your concert highlights in 2012?

Ask me that in 2013… it could be vancouver!

Thank you for participating in our interview. We are very much looking forward to hearing you in Vancouver on February 19, 2012.

Florian Boesch will perform with pianist Roger Vignoles at The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, February 19 at 3pm.

Florian Boesch: programme notes

Florian BoeschA recital of Lieder set exclusively to poems of Heinrich Heine and composed solely by Schubert and Schumann is particularly apt inasmuch as Heine was born the same year as Schubert (1797) and died the same year as Schumann (1856). He was not only one of Germany’s leading romantic authors, he also wrote about travel, German thought and French politics (he became a staunch liberal, espoused the cause of the French Revolution and spent the last 25 years of his life in Paris). Heine is best remembered for his exquisite lyrics and ballads. His Buch der Lieder (1827) became one of the most popular books of German verse ever published. Nietzsche called Heine “the highest conception of the lyric poet,” and, with no lack of modesty, claimed that “it will one day be said that Heine and I have been by far the first artists of the German language.” In addition to Schubert and Schumann, Mendelssohn, (both Felix and his sister Fanny), Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Orff, among many others, have set his verse to song. Pietro Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria rusticana, made an opera out of Heine’s William Ratcliff.

Just as Goethe was Schubert’s poet of choice, it was Heine to whom Schumann turned most often for verses to set. Both composers were masters at capturing the psychological atmosphere of each poem, and in both, the piano writing is of utmost importance in defining the mood, which is often extended in the postludes.

Robert Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 24

Schumann wrote his first songs the year before Schubert died. Schumann was seventeen at the time, and was already deeply under the spell of the older composer. But he wrote no more works in this genre until 1840, his annus mirabilus of song, during which he wrote more than half of his total output of Lieder (nearly 140 out of more than 250), including most of the best as well.

The impetus that gave birth to such a profusion of songs was Clara Wieck, whom he had been courting for years, but with whom marriage had been barred by Clara’s father. Now with legal entanglements out of the way, the future looked bright and rosy, Schumann was in the most buoyant of moods, and he was ready to flex his musical wings in new directions. His abrupt turn from writing exclusively solo piano music to almost exclusively vocal music reflected this turn of events, and he threw himself into his new pursuit with passionate intensity. “Oh Clara,” he wrote, “what bliss to write songs! Too long I have refrained from doing so.… I should like to sing myself to death like a nightingale.”

If Op. 24 is not strictly speaking a cycle in the sense of an identifiable course of events or a continuous story, there is nevertheless a psychological unity of theme and atmosphere in that all the songs are related to love and nature, and the moods expressed therein show the sequence of thoughts toward a final, exuberant flowering of love’s triumph. Schumann dedicated his first Liederkreis to the famous mezzo Pauline Viardot.

Presumably Schumann was inspired to write the cycle’s first song, “Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage” (Each morning I awake and ask …”) by a prolonged absence from Clara. Over the piano’s “walking” accompaniment, the poet sings with scarcely concealed rapture of the joy of seeing his beloved again.

Es treibt mich hin” (I’m driven this way and that) is another song about separation. Here, the lovers are due to meet in just a few hours, but the pain of waiting is almost unendurable. Frequent, impetuous changes of tempo and dynamics, sometimes in conjunction with unexpected pauses, convey the mental strain on the poet.

Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen” (I roamed under the trees) is steeped in melancholy and nostalgia. It is framed by a prelude and postlude that perfectly capture the gentle mood of a mid-day reverie.

Lieb’ Liebchen, leg’s Händchen” (Put your hand on my heart, darling) is surely one of Schumann’s most fascinating. In less than a minute, the composer captures the sinister picture of a carpenter fashioning a coffin for the lovesick poet. The piano part consists only of carpenter’s hammer, tapping steadily on the offbeats with the exception of two startling moments when it “jumps the gun” to articulate words the singer dreads to utter.

Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” (Cradle of my sorrows) is the most extended song of the cycle save the last. “Lebe wohl” (Farewell), that favorite cry of the Romantic poets, is heard eight times in the course of the song.

Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann” (Wait, wait, wild ferryman) makes its effect less through the vocal line, vigorous though it is, than through the piano writing, which consists mostly of rising scale fragments that dovetail, overlap, and interweave in an almost continuous counterpoint.

Berg’ und Burgen, schaun herunter” (Mountains and castles look down) is another boat song, this one as tender and gentle as the preceding was spirited. The quiet undulation of the boat on sunlit waves is naturally reflected in the piano part, while the singer delivers four verses which to Schumann evoke only happiness and contentment, despite the evil lurking in Heine’s words.

Schumann borrowed the opening of “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen” (At first I was almost in despair) from a chorale melody Bach had used in no fewer than six cantatas. Richard Miller suggests that the text’s opening line – “If you earn God’s blessing, then it is every morning new!” – might have been Schumann’s “way of expressing thankfulness about his relationship with Clara.”

The closing song, “Mit Myrten und Rosen” (With myrtle and roses), is in a sense also the prologue to the cycle that immediately followed the Liederkreis, Myrthen (Op. 25), which Schumann had beautifully bound and gilded as a wedding present for his bride (they were married in September). Schumann gives the performance direction innig (heartfelt, sincere and intimate) for the first time in a song, a fitting embellishment for this tribute to the woman he loved so deeply.

Robert Schumann: selected songs

Both Schumann and Heine were admirers of Napoleon. In “Die beiden Grenadiere,” one of Schumann’s most successful excursions into the ballad form, two of Napoleon’s troops are en route home from the disastrous Russian campaign. Bugle calls, drum rolls and weary tramping are all depicted. To the sounds of the Marseillaise, one of them imagines his heroic deeds in defense of Napoleon. But the ballad’s last moments indicate a far different scenario – death.

“Mein Wagen rollet langsam” (My Carriage Rolls Slowly) consists of three connected parts: the poet dreaming of his beloved as his carriage rumbles peacefully over the uneven country road; the intrusion of three mysterious ghosts into the carriage (or is it just into the poet’s mind?); and a piano postlude that occupies more than a third of the song’s length.

“Abends am Strand” (Evening by the Sea) is short but gives the impression of a full-length ballad. Some girls are sitting by a little seaside shack, gazing out at sea. As the evening mists gather and lights come on in the lighthouse, their minds turn to ships and sailors, to storms and shipwrecks, to faraway lands and strange peoples.

“Belsazar” (Belshazzar) constitutes an opus number by itself, a practice Schumann repeated in several other songs of greater-than-normal length. In this miniature drama, King Belshazzar of Babylon feasts in his splendid palace, gets drunk on wine, blasphemes against God, beholds the  terrifying fiery writing on the wall, and is slain by his vassals – all events Schumann depicts with changes of texture, dynamics and vocal delivery.

“Der arme Peter” (Poor Peter) is actually three songs in one. They tell of the pitiable Peter watching his beloved (Grete) wed another (Hans), with fatal consequences to the bereft.

From the music alone, “Dein Angesicht” (Your face) would seem to be an expression of blissful love, but its text has an ominous ring: the face of the poet’s beloved is sweet but pale; only the lips are red, and those too will soon be white in death.

“Die Lotosblume” (The Lotus Blossom), from the collection Myrthen, is set to Heine’s allegory of chaste love in the form of a flower floating on a lake. The placid surface of the lake is reflected in the unvarying triplets in the piano, but passion seethes just below the surface in the form of Schumann’s constantly changing harmonic palette.

Another flower song from Myrthen is “Du bist wie eine Blume” (Thou art like a flower). Here too the piano provides a pulsing accompaniment (this time in quadruplets) richly decked out in harmonic splendor. Eric Sams describes Schumann’s paean of praise to his wife Clara as “sumptuously sensual.”

Franz Schubert: six songs from Schwanengesang, D. 957

The fourteen songs collected under the rubric Schwanengesang are among Schubert’s last efforts in the genre, mostly written in the final year of his life. They were assembled by the Viennese editor-publisher Tobias Haslinger in the year after Schubert died. The group comprises seven songs set to texts of Ludwig Rellstab, six to Heinrich Heine and one to Johann Seidl. The Heine songs are the only ones Schubert composed to this poet. To Schubert scholar John Reed, “their mood of bitter irony and tragic alienation is much closer to Winterreise than it is to the Rellstab songs. In a real sense, the Heine songs begin where Winterreise leaves off.”

“Das Fischermädchen” (The Fishermaid) is a deceptively pleasant barcarolle in which the gentle lapping of water on the boat encourages the poet’s false trust in the fishermaid.

“Am Meer” (By the Sea) too is a lover’s lament, full of irony and bitterness.

In “Ihr Bild” (Her Picture), a portrait comes to life to remind the forlorn poet of what he has lost.

“Die Stadt” (The Town) is another water picture, this one describing a weary journey across the lake, accomplished to thoughts of a lost love.

The darkly brooding tragedy “Der Doppelgänger” (The Double), more a declamation than a song, is one of Schubert’s most powerful lyric utterances, rising to a heartrending fff as the poet recognizes his double in the moonlight, grieving outside the home of a long-lost beloved.

And finally, “Der Atlas” plunges us again into a world of spiritual turmoil and suffering. Its portrayal of the weary Atlas bearing the world on his shoulder serves as a metaphor for the heaviness of a lover’s broken heart.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

Khatia Buniatishvili: program notes

Khatia BuniatishviliKhatia Buniatishvili, piano
Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Monday, January 23, 2011

Franz Joseph Haydn, piano sonata no. 33 in C minor, Hob. XVI/20

Although Haydn’s role in the development of the symphony and string quartet is secure in the minds of many people, but they are still apt to forget just how important the genre of the piano sonata was to this composer. Haydn wrote about sixty of them, spread across a span of over forty years, from the 1750s to the 1790s.

The C-minor Sonata is an extraordinary work by any means of measure. It is the first sonata Haydn obviously intended as being specifically for the piano as opposed to the harpsichord, and the first to which he assigned the title “sonata” rather than “divertimento” or “partita.” It dates from 1771, when the composer was in his brief but significant Sturm und Drang period.

The Sturm und Drang (usually translated as “storm and stress”) movement originated in literature of the period, emphasizing emotional intensity, dark pathos, stormy moods, restless anxiety and a general avoidance of the elegant and superficial language common to the age. In music, this form of expression manifested itself in the frequent use of minor keys, persistent and dramatic alternations of loud and soft, rich textures, a large harmonic palette, unusual formal designs and wide tessituras (melodic range).

All these qualities can be found in the sonata at hand. It begins unequivocally in C minor, with an elegiac subject filled with expressive “sighs” and an atmosphere of yearning. But the key of the second subject is far more difficult to determine. It begins in A-flat major, moves to E-flat, and seems to resolve in B-flat, but only momentarily. Then it’s off to still more keys, and remote ones at that. Throughout the movement, little cadenzas, unexpected pauses, a profusion of decorative touches (notes ornamented with trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, and the like), rhythmic surprises, and chromatic twists of both harmony and melody keep the attentive ear constantly on edge. A development section worthy of Beethoven and an abrupt pianissimo ending to the movement are additional features of note.

The slow movement, in A-flat major, exists on a somewhat lower emotional plane. A singing melodic line (absent in the first movement) is the first quality to strike the listener. Later we hear long strings of syncopation, the bass line and the upper voice moving independently and at the same pace but in alternation (“out of sync,” in the vernacular).

The Finale returns to the pathos of the opening movement. It is full of restless momentum, daring modulations into distant keys, and abrupt excursions into contrasting, lighthearted moods. Music theorists have a ball analyzing its form, which ambiguously combines development and recapitulation sections.

Franz Liszt: piano sonata in B minor

More words have probably been written about Liszt’s B-minor Sonata than about any other single piano composition of the nineteenth century. Like many works we regard today as indubitable masterpieces, this one suffered a difficult birth.

Liszt completed the sonata on February 2, 1853 and dedicated it to Robert Schumann, who had fifteen years earlier dedicated his great Fantaisie, Op. 17 to Liszt.

In this sonata, Liszt brought to perfection the form Schubert had tried in his Wanderer Fantasy of 1822 – absorption of the four-movement sonata into a gigantic, single-movement work in several sections, all unified through the continuous process of thematic transformation. Liszt was intimately familiar with Schubert’s model, for he had made a transcription for piano and orchestra just a year before he completed his Sonata.

Like a sculpture, the sonata takes on a different character depending on the angle from which it is viewed.  Most commentators agree that the work conforms more or less to a large-scale sonata-allegro design (introduction – exposition – development – recapitulation – coda), though just where the divisions occur is a matter of differing viewpoints. Furthermore, this sonata-allegro design is superimposed onto a traditional four-movement structure as found in the classical symphony or string quartet (fast first movement – slow second movement – scherzo-like third movement – finale).  Hence, at any given moment in the sonata’s design, one can regard it from varying perspectives.

Essentially, the genius of this sonata can be summarized in pianist Louis Kentner’s words: “In the B-minor Sonata Liszt uses the device of presenting, in a short Introduction, three seemingly incongruous elements … and then proceeds to demonstrate how these can be welded into a unity of such compactness, of such compelling power, that it convinces even the unregenerate.” These three elements have no names, but might be identified as follows: a) a quietly gliding downward scale; b) a defiant outburst; c) a sinister ten-note motif preceded by a “drum-roll.” There are two further themes of great significance, a grandiose chorale-like subject first heard shortly after one of the famous double-octave passages, and a quietly reflective Andante sostenuto idea in F-sharp major (Liszt’s “beatific” key).  The initial gliding downward scale serves as a point of demarcation, recurring at major junctures of the sonata’s formal plan: at the beginning, leading into the Grandioso subject, the transition to the fugato, in the recapitulation again leading into the Grandioso subject, and at the very end. Some listeners like to regard it as a curtain used to separate acts of a drama.

As a rough guide, one might regard the exposition as the first movement; the development section as the quiet Andante sostenuto and the demonic fugato (equivalent to the second and third movements of a traditional design); and the recapitulation as the finale, followed by a coda that takes the listener full circle back to the mysterious downward gliding scale with which the sonata opened nearly half an hour before.

Needless to say, the sonata’s appeal lies in more than structural concerns. It is full of virtuosic effects, dramatic outbursts, profoundly meditative passages and intriguing variants of the basic motivic material. Perhaps Louis Kentner’s words will serve as the best approach to listening:  “Analysis should not attempt to break the seal of the mystery that is artistic creation anyway, but should say with humility: ‘We are in the presence of genius.’ The alchemy of genius will, thank God, forever remain a secret.

Sergei Prokofiev: piano sonata no. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83

As Prokofiev was a formidable concert pianist, it is not surprising that he devoted a large part of his output to solo piano music. Nine sonatas appeared throughout his lifetime, though not evenly spaced. The first four (1907-08) came from his conservatory years, though all were later re-written, followed by the fifth in 1923 (revised in 1953). A sixteen-year hiatus separated the fifth from the next three sonatas, sketched simultaneously in 1939 and sometimes referred to as the “war sonatas.” Of the nine, the Seventh is by far the best known.

Prokofiev began working on this sonata in 1939 and completed it in 1942. Sviatoslav Richter gave the first performance on January 18, 1943 in Moscow. Glenn Gould characterized the sonata as “built to last. … With its schizophrenic oscillation of mood and its nervous instability of tonality, it is certainly a war piece. It is full of that uniquely Prokofievian mixture of bittersweet lamentation, percussive intensity and … lyricism.”

Violent contrasts are found throughout the work, beginning on the first page of the score. The opening theme skims nervously and lightly over the keyboard, but culminates in a ruthless pounding figure. Yet even the contrasts within the entire first subject become a collective contrast to the calm and lyrical second subject (Andantino). Much of the tension in this sonata-form movement derives from the large-scale contrasts between the driving restlessness of the first subject and the gentleness of the second. The central movement is marked Andante caloroso (caloroso = warm) and does indeed offer a sweetly ingratiating theme in E major. This gives way to a new section (Poco più animato) that recalls somewhat the restlessness of the first movement. After the music grows to a powerful climax, we hear a brief reminder of the gently lyrical E-major theme, thus setting in strongest juxtaposition the violent harshness of the third movement, which moves relentlessly forward in 7/8 meter with the terrifying power of a musical juggernaut.

Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Stravinsky’s boundless fertility of imagination is nowhere more in evidence than in his ballet score for Petrushka (1911), one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century music. It actually began life as a concert piece for solo piano and orchestra, but when the composer played the passages that later became the “Russian Dance” and “Petrushka’s Cry” (within the section called “In Petrushka’s Room”) for Serge Diaghilev, the legendary impresario of the Ballets russes in Paris, Stravinsky was persuaded to alter the work and turn it into a ballet score.

The scenario involves the carnival scene at Shrove-tide (the three days preceding Ash Wednesday) in early nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, with all its attendant noise, bustle, high spirits, dances, magicians, vendors, side shows and attractions of all sorts – a veritable riot of sound and color. One of these attractions is a puppet show about a poor, unhappy clown found in fairgrounds in nearly every country. In Russia he is called Petrushka.

Ten years after the ballet was introduced in Paris, Arthur Rubinstein persuaded the composer to arrange a “Petrushka Sonata” for solo piano. (Details can be found in Rubinstein’s entertaining autobiography, My Many Years.)  It is dedicated to the pianist, as well it might be, for he paid Stravinsky the hefty fee of 5,000 francs for it, though one also notes that Rubinstein earned many times that amount for recitals in which he featured this dazzling display piece.

The three numbers amount to a bit less than half the complete ballet score. The highly animated “Russian Dance” is the music to which Petrushka and other puppets dance after being brought to life by a magician. “In Petrushka’s Room” was the first music Stravinsky wrote in his original conception of the score for piano and orchestra, wherein the puppet “exasperates the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios, [and] the orchestra retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” In these first two movements the piano part can be lifted largely intact from the complete orchestral score. However, “The Shrove-tide Fair” represents a true piano reduction of orchestral textures and sonorities. So brilliantly did Stravinsky realize this task that the piano “reduction” is scarcely less fascinating and colorful than the original. Here, in a sequence of episodes and dances, is displayed all the excitement and razzle-dazzle of the crowded carnival scene in Admiralty Square of old St. Petersburg.

In listening to this music, one is left with the indelible impression that, to Stravinsky, the piano is indeed a percussive instrument – an object of steel wires and hammers, not an instrument of vocal and lyrical attributes. He and Rubinstein had violent arguments over this matter (again, see My Many Years), but in the end, both emerged victorious with the resounding success of Petrushka in each of its versions.

Program notes by Robert Markow.

Parking at the Chan Centre

parkingMany of our patrons have pointed out the increasing cost of using the Rose Garden Parkade adjacent to the Chan Centre.

In the past, parking at UBC was underwritten by UBC Parking Services with a small charge ($1-$1.50) applied to organizations using the Chan Centre for each ticket that was sold. UBC Parking absorbing the balance of the cost. The result was the appearance of “free” parking at the Chan Centre.

This came to an end in 2009 when the Chan and its clients were informed by UBC Parking that they, on instructions from the UBC Board of Governors, could no longer underwrite the cost of event parking. This began a two year ramp-up to what UBC Parking perceived as revenue neutral rates.

We have discussed ths situation with our colleagues at the Chan Centre a number of times, but they are not in control of the parkade and are not able to offer any cost-reducing solutions.

While we do not have an ideal solution, we would like to suggest a few parking alternatives that you may wish to try. The North Parkade and the Fraser Parkade are short walks (5-7 minutes) from the front doors of the Chan. Neither are likely to have line-ups and they offer evening and weekend parking for $6. Both of these alternate lots are unattended.

You will find UBC parking maps here, and a searchable map can be found here. Additional information, including Translink information, can be found on the Chan Centre website.

Everyone at the Chan Centre and Vancouver Recital Society thank you for your patience and understanding. If you do have comments about this or any other topic, please feel free to send a message to Paul Gravett (VRS executive director).

Picture source: www.more-park.com

A growing apprecition: Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich

Melnikov and ShostakovichPerhaps it has been a deficiency in my musical education, but I have found it hard to warm to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.

Written in 1950-51 and influenced by Bach and in a lineage of prelude collections by Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, these works have generally remained on the outskirts of the repertoire.

This is changing however, in part due to the championing of Alexander Melnikov, who will give us a still rare opportunity to hear a significant portion of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues on November 13. This will certainly be the first time I will hear more than one or two of the prelude-fugue pairs at one time.

Because of Melnikov’s program, and more because I am turning pages for this performance, I thought it incumbent on me to learn more about this great composer’s magnum opus.

My new appreciation began with the arrival of Robert Markow’s programme notes. He wrote: “In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of twentieth-century piano literature.” You can read the full set of notes here.

Alexander Melnikov wrote in the liner notes to his own recording, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.” Hear more about Melnikov’s thoughts on Shostakovich in this video.

There is no doubt all of this is revealed in Melnikov’s 2010 recording, which has contributed to a rediscovery of the Preludes and Fugues and the next stage of my appreciation.

Played with “clarity” and “virtuosity and audacity” (The New York Times), the Neo-Classical elements of the pieces resound, and Shostakovich’s response to his self-imposed aesthetic restriction is endlessly inventive and inspired (imagine writing in a clearly defined tonal centre in the 1950s!).

Each listening of Melnikov’s recording exposes the depth and breadth of these bold works and, as suggested in The Guardian, “Alexander Melnikov makes you wonder why these works are considered monotonous or didactic.”

Indeed, I now have to wonder why it is we do not hear these works more frequently, and how it is they have been missing in my musical appreciation. That has all changed in the hands of Alexander Melnikov.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

Alexander Melnikov performs at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, November 13 at 3pm. Tickets are available from the VRS Box Office, call Cory at 604-602-0363. Tickets are also available from Ticketmaster either online at ticketmaster.ca or call 1-855-985-2787 (service charges apply).

Program Notes: Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues

Dmitri Shostakovich: 12 Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87

Like many of the great composers before him (Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, among others), Shostakovich possessed the skills of a keyboard virtuoso, and might well have sustained a successful career as such. Among his prizes was one from the First International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1927). But Shostakovich’s compositional talent also showed itself early. His graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory, the First Symphony, catapulted him at the age of twenty to worldwide attention, and he decided to devote the bulk of his efforts to composition. Significantly enough, the First Symphony contained a prominent part for the piano. Shostakovich continued to write music for his instrument throughout his twenties – about half his output during these years was for or with piano – which he also performed. Thereafter, coinciding with the sharp reduction of his performing activity, he wrote only seldom for solo piano. Among the works of his later years was the monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, written in late 1950 and early 1951.

The inspiration came principally from Bach, as it has for similar sets from other composers: Hans Huber, Castelnuovo-Tedesco (for guitar duo) and Niels Viggo Bentzon for preludes and fugues together; Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich himself (Op. 34) for preludes alone. In 1950, Shostakovich was sent by his government as the head of a Soviet delegation to East Germany for the ceremonies surrounding the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the events was a piano competition in Leipzig, where Shostakovich sat on the jury. One of the contestants was the 26-year-old Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier so impressed Shostakovich that upon returning to Moscow, he undertook to create a similar work himself. Unlike Bach’s two books of preludes and fugues, each of which proceeds up the steps of the chromatic scale alternating major and minor keys (C – C-sharp – D, etc.), Shostakovich’s (like Chopin’s) move through the so-called “circle of fifths,” which begins with C major and its  relative minor (A), then adds one sharp for G major/E minor, then two sharps, etc. (at this point the flat keys take over in reverse order, decreasing in number down to one – F major/D minor – where the cycle ends).

The first performance presented what amounted only to a teaser: Shostakovich offered four of the preludes and fugues at a recital on November 18, 1951 in Leningrad’s Glinka Hall. The cycle was not given as a unit until a year later when Tatiana Nikolayeva performed it at the same venue in two sessions, on December 23 and 28, 1952. There is conflicting evidence as to Shostakovich’s feelings about whether the 2½-hour cycle should be played complete in performance. He himself never did so, though he recorded all of it. He did often perform the preludes and fugues in groups of three to six, as have many other pianists, notably Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Selected numbers have been arranged for such diverse instruments as organ, accordion, double bass with piano and string orchestra.

In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of  twentieth-century piano literature. To Tatiana Nikolayeva, it is music “of great depth, of unsurpassed mastery and greatness. They are 24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world. …The breadth of images and characterizations is very great: from tragedy to humor, from gaiety to the grotesque.” Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers maintains that “if there is a single work among his large output that assures us that Shostakovich is among the handful of great composers [of the twentieth century], this collection is it.” And for tonight’s pianist, Alexander Melnikov, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.”

In an interview accompanying his recording of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Melnikov suggests that one of Shostakovich’s aims was to see what he could do with the forms beyond Bach, what he could do with material completely unsuitable as a fugal subject. Take for example the first fugue (C major), which employs only the white keys of the piano throughout, or the seventh (A major), whose subject is built entirely from a major triad. In the preludes too, there is in each one a sense of experimentation, of compressing a single idea into a few pages of music to see where it will go. Each one has a “message.”

NO. 1 IN C MAJOR: The cycle gets underway with a sarabande, a stately Baroque dance in slow triple meter with its characteristic rhythmic pattern. Chordal writing alternates with flowing chromatic passages. The fugal subject is built almost entirely from the intervals of the fourth and the fifth.

NO. 2 IN A MINOR: The Prelude is a toccata-like affair (“pure harpsichord textures,” says Melnikov), with a single line of rapid sixteenth-notes running in perpetual motion throughout. The Fugue has been compared to some of Shostakovich’s polkas for its jaunty, humorous mood. The five-note rhythmic cell upon which it is based recalls a jocular passage from the third movement of the Fourth Symphony.

NO. 3 IN G MAJOR: The stern Prelude sounds like its inspiration could have come from a liturgical chant, while the Fugue could not be more different in character – witty, playful, dancelike, and demanding virtuosity and crystalline clarity of execution to make its effect.

NO. 4 IN E MINOR: The Prelude is a three-part texture consisting of (1) ponderous, sustained octaves in the depths of the piano’s range; (2) a continuous, even stream of eighth notes, usually in the middle voice; and (3) a slower-moving melodic line that includes numerous “sighs.” (Bach associated E minor with the Crucifixion.) The Fugue is actually a double fugue. Two separate subjects are introduced in turn (the second in slightly faster tempo), then are combined fortissimo in a towering musical edifice.

NO. 5 IN D MAJOR: “A graceful, wistful dance-song over a lightly arpeggiated accompaniment” is how Wilfrid Mellers describes this Prelude. The Fugue consists of “a theme stuttering in repeated notes, with farcical clownish effect.”

NO. 6 IN B MINOR: A striking Prelude built on the double-dotted rhythmic figure (extra-long notes alternating with extra-short ones) flashes fire and energy in contrast to its Fugue, notable for a flowing, placid surface.

NO. 7 IN A MAJOR: The spirit of Bach hovers over the Prelude. Its meter of 12/8 (four groups of triplets) was far more common in the Baroque era than it is today. The fugal subject is based entirely on the notes of the tonic chord (A – C-sharp – E). This fugue might be considered Shostakovich’s “water music” inasmuch as the texture – glistening, sparkling, gently undulating – not to mention the continuous development of a single arpeggiated chord, bring to mind the opening scene of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold.

NO. 8 IN F SHARP MINOR: One of the briefest preludes sits beside the longest fugue by far of the twelve we hear tonight – nearly nine minutes in Melnikov’s performance. The Prelude is written in simple two-part texture, and in Shostakovich’s inimitable fashion combines a playful ambiance with a touch of the sinister. It is also the first prelude we have encountered to feature Shostakovich’s hallmark rhythmic pattern, short-short-long. The Fugue too incorporates this rhythmic figure into its fold. The subject is exceptionally long – nine measures – and thereafter unwinds in three-part texture to an unrelenting tread and highly dissonant harmony.

NO. 9 IN E MAJOR: In a reversal of the process found in the previous Prelude and Fugue, No. 9’s focal weight rests in its Prelude – longer by far than the Fugue. This Prelude is also notable for its extremes of range, which cover nearly the entire keyboard; three staves are required to notate it. The Fugue is the only one of the 24 in two voices only, and exudes an atmosphere of joy and exuberance. Many listeners hear in it strong reverberations of a Bach two-part invention.

NO. 10 IN C SHARP MINOR: Again the spirit of Bach informs this Prelude. In fact, it, as well as its Fugue, is often regarded as the most Bachian of the set. The words of Bach biographer Philipp Spitta regarding the C sharp minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier might equally apply to Shostakovich’s in the same key: “…it is as though we were drifting rapidly over a wide ocean; wave rises over wave … as far as the eye can reach, and the brooding heavens bend solemnly over the mighty scene.”

NO. 11 IN B MAJOR:  The B major Prelude suggests an orchestral conception, particularly the jocular, light-hearted movements of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9. For sheer, unabashed joy and an almost reckless sense of abandon, the Fugue is hard to beat.

NO. 12 IN G SHARP MINOR: The Prelude is written in passacaglia form (a method of composition in which a set of variations is constructed over a repeating bass line or chord progression). As the key of G sharp minor has five sharps, the meter for the Fugue is appropriately 5/4. The intellectual rigor with which Shostakovich creates a fugue from his angular, raw-boned subject is truly awe-inspiring. Melnikov calls it “the most harmonically complex fugue of the cycle so far, played at a breakneck pace, reaching an impossible degree of emotional strain and desperation. Thus, the stage is set for the culmination of the first volume.”

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.

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