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Program Notes: Ema Nikolovska

Mezzo-soprano Eva Nikolovska has curated an intriguing recital program of songs composed in the forty years between 1865 and 1905, a selection that highlights the changing styles of music emanating from three important centres of music-making.

From Vienna there are the contrasting voices of the traditionalist Brahms and his aesthetic adversary Hugo Wolf, from France the varied sound-pictures of Debussy and Ravel, and from Boston a small sample of the astonishing output of the first successful American female composer, Amy Beach.

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Johannes Brahms
Wie Melodien zieht es mir  Op. 105 No. 1
Lerchengesang  Op. 70 No. 2
Der Gang zum Liebchen  Op. 48 No. 1
Ständchen  Op. 106 No. 1

Brahms’ compositional concern with structure and form made him a leading proponent of absolute (i.e., non-programmatic) music, and thus an unlikely contributor to 19th-century European art song, with its story-driven texts and pictorial modes of expression. And yet from his early twenties to his final years Brahms was a prolific composer for the human voice, publishing no less than 190 lieder for solo voice and piano, now staples of the recital repertoire, as well as numerous works for other vocal ensembles.

Like his instrumental works, Brahms’ lieder feature diatonic melodies supported by a strong contrapuntally-conceived bass-line that structures functional (not coloristic) harmonies. But his overriding ideal is really the direct expressiveness and guileless simplicity of traditional folksong which he imbues with an elegance of construction designed to please his audience of Viennese amateur singers. While written for an indoor urban audience, the aesthetic frame of reference of Brahms’ lieder, as with his Hungarian Dances, is the wide outdoors and the life of the country village.

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Wie Melodien zieht es mir (It moves like a melody) features a teasingly abstract text, with a recurring reference to an unexplained “it” (es) that periodically moves the singer but the feeling doesn’t last. “It” wafts away like scent (Duft) when melody calls “it” forth. “It” vanishes like the greyness of mist (Nebelgrau) when captured in words or print. Only in the germinating bud (Keime) of lyrical poetry (Reime) is “it” (the poet’s message) revealed to the moistened eye of the receptive soul. A continuous flow of 8th notes in the piano accompaniment and constant small inflections in the harmony express both the singer’s free flow of thoughts and the way those thoughts evaporate soon after they appear.  The piano’s cascading arpeggios most often move in contrary motion to the melody line, as does the bass line, in keeping with good contrapuntal practice.

Lerchengesang (Song of the larks) is utterly magical in the vividness of its tonal imagery. The “ethereal distant voices” (ätherische ferne Stimmen) of the lark’s song, brilliantly evoked by a delicate two-note figure in the high treble of the piano, envelop the singer in a delicate haze of remembering as she closes her eyes to recall twilights “pervaded with the breath of spring” (durchweht vom Frühlingshauche). The splendid isolation of the singer’s musings is highlighted by intermittent silences from the lark (i.e., piano), allowing the melody line to suddenly stand out alone. The separate realities of the bird and its solitary listener are conveyed in cross-rhythms, with four 8th notes in the piano matched against triplet quarter notes in the singer’s melodic line.

Der Gang zum Liebchen (The walk to the beloved’s home) is an actual folk song text that Brahms found in a collection of  Deutsche Volkslieder and his setting is eminently folksong-like in its use of recurring rhythmic patters and melodic motives. The text describes the worries of a lover as he makes his way to the home of his beloved, tortured by anxious thoughts of her unfaithfulness or even her death, all under the watchful eye of the moon. The flickering changes in mode between minor and major reflect the lightning mood swings of the quickly pacing lover, but there is a fair bit of irony at play, as well.  The piano’s dance-like accompaniment (reminiscent of the famous accelerating passage of Chopin’s C# minor waltz Op. 64 No. 2) might easy represent the lover’s racing thoughts, but equally well conveys the piano’s twinkling sly suggestion that he frets for nothing because merriment aplenty awaits him upon his arrival.

Ständchen (Serenade) presents a very realistic depiction of a natural setting, with the moon shining brightly onto the mountainside, as three students play a serenade with a pretty girl nearby as their audience. Their instruments are a flute, a fiddle and a zither, the strumming of which is evident from the crisp arpeggiated chords of the piano’s opening.  We, as listeners, are witnesses to this scene, hearing how the pretty girl floats off into a reverie — to swirling piano figuration in the middle section. She daydreams of her fair-haired lover, whispering to him “Forget me not!” (Vergiss nicht mein) just before she wakes up with the final “zither strum” from the piano.

 

Amy Beach

Ich sagte nicht  Op. 51 No. 1

Three Browning Songs  Op. 44
The Year’s at the Spring
Ah Love but a Day!
I Send my Heart up to Thee

Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve widespread professional success as a composer of art music. Born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867, she displayed prodigious talent while young as both a pianist and composer. At 18 she married Dr.  Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a wealthy Boston surgeon some 25 years her senior, and henceforth published under the name “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”. Comfortable in the large-scale forms of orchestral, choral and chamber music, she was best known for the 117 songs for solo voice and piano that she published between 1880 and 1941.

Her harmonic idiom was the chromatic language of late Romanticism, with Liszt and Wagner as major influences, and her scores feature a wealth of chromatically altered chords and expressive modulations. She was particularly adept at creating restless, long melodic lines smouldering with lyrical intensity and crowned with impassioned climaxes. As an idealistic Victorian of Wagnerian sensibilities, she was acutely sensitive to the voluptuousness of music, but aimed to use it for a higher societal purpose. Impervious to the violent cross-currents of cultural upheaval transforming the early 20th century, she persisted throughout her career to believe that “the true mission of music is to uplift.”

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The German text of Ich sagte nicht (I didn’t say) from 1903 paints the scene of two lovers blissfully staring into each other eyes, neither of them thinking or needing to say “I love you” (Ich liebe dich). Mrs. Beach’s Wagnerian inspiration is clear from the score’s creeping chromatic voice-leading and long appoggiaturas that recall a similar love-delirium in Tristan und Isolde.

In The Year’s at the Spring, the first of Three Browning Songs (1900), the heaving bosom of a Victorian matron bubbles over with excitement at the change of seasons, symbolized in a continuous chatter of piano triplets, while ecstatic upward leaps of a 4th in the melody line lead in mounting excitement to the famous concluding line: “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”

A more serious note is struck in Ah Love but a Day, which deals with the subject of a wife’s distress at her husband’s losing interest in their marriage. The soulful pining quality of the melodic line as the song opens evokes the kind of wistful pathos that Gershwin would later incorporate into Porgy & Bess. But minor turns to major in the second half of the song as hope springs eternal in the breast of a faithful wife, musing over the thought: “The world has changed, look in my eyes, wilt thou change, too?”  The very last phrase, with its melody line intoning an unchanging 5th note of the scale, is a brilliant touch of dramatic tone-craft.

The rapture of true love returns in the third song of the set, I Send my Heart up to Thee! with a surging piano accompaniment that paints the welling up of tender feelings in the singer’s heart and the waves of the sea that symbolize these emotions in the text.

 

Claude Debussy

Trois chansons de Bilitis 

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to drum up enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality – a fin de siècle fascination of the time – he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho from the famously girl-friendly isle of Lesbos.  I undressed to climb a tree – writes Bilitis, in a mood for sharing as she voluptuates in her own contours – my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897-1898. Using modal scales, especially the Lydian mode with its raised 4th degree, he paints a vivid sonic picture of the ancient world, setting this trio of poems in free-floating speech-like declamation, the melody line often sitting on a single pitch or moving in small intervals. His harmonies are impressionistic, sometimes based on the whole-tone scale, with parallel 5ths in the bass a frequent device for rapidly shifting tone colours.

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La Flûte de Pan (Pan’s flute) presents a scene that Mrs. Beach would hardly consider edifying. As the piano imitates a relaxed strumming of the strings of a lyre, a young woman, who has carelessly let slip her belt, wanders off wide-eyed, alone and belt-less, into a lush natural setting to look for it. There she meets a young man of pedagogical inclinations who kindly offers her a place on his knees for a kind of lap-dance music lesson so that she might learn to play his syrinx, or pan pipes. The wax that binds together the stiff reeds of the instrument, she notes in passing, is as sweet as honey on her lips. In a bid to improve her embouchure, the young man joins her in blowing into the instrument and the two of them remain cheek-to-cheek until their lips meet. As the evening draws on, frogs from a nearby pond are heard in the piano accompaniment, lending a chorus of amphibian approval to the young girl’s sexual awakening.

In La Chevelure (The Tresses of hair) the piano intones a blurry ostinato, preparing us to hear the viewpoint of the young man himself. He has had a dream, he tells the young woman, in which her tresses had coiled round him like a necklace, and mouth-to-mouth they had been united, like two laurel trees that share a single root. (The piano accompaniment perks up considerably here and rises to a surging climax.)  Untangling their limbs as they recover from this insight into forest ecology, the pace slows, the piano returns to the dream-like pulsing of the opening, and it’s all over but for the tender staring into each other’s eyes.

Le Tombeau des naïades (The Tomb of the naiads) commemorates the death of the mythological gods of the forest. A winter frost has overtaken the landscape as the young woman wanders in a daze, her hair caked with icicles and her sandals laden with snow.  The young man informs her that the cloven footprints of the satyrs she is following lead nowhere. The satyrs are all dead, and with them the nymphs who once frolicked nearby. (An echo of their laughter is heard in the piano accompaniment.) Breaking off a piece of ice from the now-frozen spring, he holds it up to gaze through it at the paleness of the sky.

 

Hugo Wolf
Nachtzauber
Nimmersatte Liebe
Auf einer Wanderung

Hugo Wolf  brought a new level of expressive intensity to the German lied. Obsessed with making his musical setting correspond to the poetic text in every dimension – melodic contour, harmonic colouring, voice-piano relationship, etc. – he stands as a miniaturist adherent to the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) ideal of Wagner, whom he adored, and a precursor to similar experiments in ‘absolute control’ carried out by serialist composers in the early 20th century.

In little more than 20 years he contributed a unique body of songs to the repertoire, grouped for the most part in collections focusing on a single poet or a single anthology of folk poems. His settings expanded the psychological dimensions of these texts but often went far beyond the intentions or even imaginings of the original poets.

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Nachtzauber (Night magic) comes from a collection of poems by Germany’s pre-eminent Romantic poet of nature Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), whose recurring themes of wandering, nostalgic longing, and the passage of time are reflected in the text. Eichendorff paints a night-world made magical by an awareness of its mysteries. These he itemizes with a sense of awakening wonder tinted with intimations of the sublime.

A burbling spring is evoked by a murmuring ostinato in the piano as the song opens, an ostinato that will remain an unsettling presence in the harmonic texture throughout, despite a bass-line that often supports the melody with the standard moves of functional harmony. The singer’s melody line wanders chromatically in dream-like fashion, sensually describing the scene: the solitary marble statues beside the lake, the wondrous gleam of the valley as night falls – sights that prompt memories of flowers “that blossomed in the moonlit valley,” and the song of nightingales. But the pain of love is recalled as well, and the steady march of time. The song ends nevertheless in ecstatic defiance of all that has come before: Komm, o komm zum stillen Grund! (Come, oh come to the silent valley!)

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Another collection of Wolf songs sets the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804–75), a Lutheran minister and utterly unclassifiable German poet with a list of literary interests that included erotic poetry. Mörike’s Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable love) is not the sort of thing on which to base a Sunday sermon. Indeed, its sado-masochistic text would quite likely require the application of smelling salts to the fainting frame of Mrs. Beach, should she find herself in the pews listening to spiritual guidance of this kind.

The playful opening gestures in the piano establish a tone of mischievous mockery before the singer introduces us to the notion that trying to satisfy Love with kisses is like trying to fill up a sieve with water. For such is Love (So ist die Lieb’). To the syncopated off-beat interjections of the piano accompaniment, the singer allows as how kisses lead to bites until, like a lamb to the slaughter (Wie’s Lämmlein unter’m Messer), the girl’s eyes will say (with a dramatic octave leap downwards in the melody line): “Do go on, the more it hurts the better!” (nur immer zu, / Je weher, desto beßer!).

The song closes with the self-justifying thought that even wise King Solomon made love this way, to a musical setting that Wolf himself described as “a right old student’s song, damned merry.” While Mörike might well have been sending up these laddish sentiments in his poem, we can’t really be sure of Wolf, whose first sexual experience in a brothel when he was 18 gave him the syphilis that eventually drove him insane, and resulted in his early death at the age of 42 in 1903.

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There is no doubt, however, of the sincerity of the joyous sentiments expressed in the last Wolf song in this recital, his setting of Mörike’s Auf einer Wanderung (On a walk).  Here a pleasure-seeking hiker passes through a small town, its “streets aglow in the red evening light” (In den Strassen liegt roter Abendschein).  From across the rich array of flowers on a window sill comes a voice like a choir of nightingales (Und eine Stimme schient en Nachtigallenchor). With a spring in his step and utterly besotten, he leaves through the town gate, his heart stirred by the Muse with a breath of love (O Muse, du hast mein Herz berührt / Mit einem Leibeshauch!)

Numerous colourful modulations document the miraculous changes in mood of the visitor as he passes through town. The piano’s joyous skippy accompaniment, as in many of Wolf’s songs, lives in a completely separate world from that of the singer, but one that nonetheless here complements the singer’s experience perfectly.

 

Maurice Ravel
Histoires Naturelles 

The 1907 premiere of Ravel’s nature documentary in music about four birds and an insect was an outright scandal. A major part of the pearl-clutching was occasioned by Ravel’s defiance of tradition in setting to music the prose poems of Jules Renard’s Les Histoires naturelles (1896) rather than choosing  verse poetry from the French literary canon. Setting fans even faster aflutter, he had abandoned the aristocratic rules of pronunciation according to which a silent ‘e’ at the end of a word was considered a separate syllable, as it is, for example, in the French version of O Canada: Ter-re de nos aïeux. This, to the French salon set, sounded like the language of the street, or worse, the musical hall.

Renard’s lighthearted anthropomorphizing of common wildlife makes delightful reading, and even more delightful listening in Ravel’s wittily conversational renderings. While caricaturing the poses and manners of these animals, the composer still retains a measure of sympathy for the guileless sincerity with which they live out their lives.

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Le Paon (Peacock) is blissfully ignorant of how silly he looks as he gets stood up at the altar, still dressed in all his finery. Ravel doubles down on the humour by giving him a strutting French overture kind of piano accompaniment, as if he were Louis XIV, the Sun King himself.

The busy housekeeping chores undertaken by Le Grillon (Cricket), magically evoked by Ravel’s clockwork ticking accompaniment, make him out to be so adorable, you just want to pet him.

The pictorial representation of water, a trademark of impressionist musical imagery, is brilliantly accomplished in Le Cygne (Swan).

Le Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher) is the only one of the set in which the human is the animal being observed, wondrously captivated by the appearance of a wild bird on the end of his fishing rod.

La Pintade (Guinea fowl) is hilariously painted as the bully of the aviary world, disturbing every other creature with its loud cackling and enforcing its own pecking order on surrounding hens and turkeys.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis

Gabriel Fauré
Dolly Suite  Op. 56

In the 1890s Gabriel Fauré would often compose or revise small pieces for the infant daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac (1862-1934). These affectionate pieces celebrated a birthday, a pet, or a special person in the life of the young Regina-Hélène, known in the family as “Dolly,” and six of them from the years 1893 to 1896 form the suite for piano duet named after her.

In keeping with their pose of childlike naïveté, the texture of these pieces is music-box light, with little exploration of the lower reaches of the keyboard, but Fauré’s classic qualities are in evidence on every page of the score: refinement of musical gesture, a watery transparency of harmony, and that indefinable French attribute known as charm.

Berceuse marks Dolly’s first birthday in 1893 with a dreamy lullaby. A cozy mood of slumbering repose is created by drone tones in the bass and a cradle-rocking accompaniment.

Dolly’s brother Raoul is commemorated in Mi-a-ou, an approximation of how the young girl pronounced Messieu Aoul. A rambunctious melody with constantly shifting accents describes the restless energy of the young boy.

Le Jardin de Dolly evokes the calm of the perfect garden as a young girl might imagine it, her childlike delight in what she sees symbolized by frequent modulations.

Kitty-valse paints the playful character of the household dog, whose tail-wagging ramblings through the house are gently parodied as a ‘waltz’ of canine choreography.

Tendresse explores the concept of “tenderness” through a very personal lens of introspection, using the lyrical but highly chromatic language used in Fauré’s Nocturnes and other ‘adult’ pieces.

The suite ends with Le Pas espagnol, a tribute to the castanet-clicking sounds and heel-stomping dance rhythms of Spain.

 

Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Piano Duet

The young Francis Poulenc was a naughty boy, a very naughty boy indeed, who dared to inject the musical styles of jazz, cabaret and other popular music genres into ‘serious’ composition. As the gay son of a wealthy family, he roamed freely among the more louche enclaves of Parisian nightlife, picking up a taste for the type of devilish wit and stylish parody that we would probably associate with drag shows today.

Poulenc was still in his late teens when he composed his three-movement Sonata for Piano Duet, a work both serious and anything but. Its modest dimensions and simple presentation of musical ideas qualify it as a miniature sonata at best, so the ‘sonata’ label is likely applied tongue-in-cheek. It does, however, engage seriously with the new trend of musical primitivism introduced by Stravinsky, who in fact was something of a mentor to the young Poulenc and used his influence to get him a publisher for this work.

Stravinsky’s influence is amply apparent in the barbarous repetitive rhythms that open the first movement Prélude, and the lyrical (or at least whistleable) melodies inhabiting the middle section of this movement could have come straight out of Shrovetide Fair.

Most Stravinskian of all is Poulenc’s use of small melodic phrases, usually five notes in range or less, both as the repeating units of an ostinato pattern, or in creating the larger phrase structure of a foreground melody.

The second movement, entitled Rustique, is especially interesting from this point of view. Its simultaneous use of similar melodic material in both 8th-note and 16th-note figuration patterns is reminiscent of the fractal-type layered textures of Balinese gamelan music.

The Final, while still rhythmically propelled, is not quite so static in its use of ‘wallpaper’ patterns of rhythm and melody.  It employs a wider variety of rhythms, and in a nod to (or dig at) Classical tradition, recalls themes from previous movements and seems set to build up momentum for a bang-up finish. But in a gesture of cabaret cheekiness, Poulenc turns on a dime and closes out the movement with a smokey jazz chord as if to say: “Gotcha!”

 

Claude Debussy
Six Épigraphes antiques

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to generate enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality, he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—poems that featured lines such as: I undressed to climb a tree, my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897. Debussy also wrote incidental music for a dramatic reading of the poems that took place in 1901, reusing much of this material in 1914 when composing his similarly themed Six Épigraphes antiques for piano duet.

In each of the six pieces in this set Debussy meditates on a wish, a prayer or a dedication such as those found in the epigraphs on the walls of ancient buildings or tombs.

He begins with a description of pastoral life in the ancient world by invoking Pan, god of the summer wind, who is heard playing his pan pipes as the piece opens. Used throughout is the pentatonic scale, neither major nor minor, symbolizing the call of the natural world.

A quizzical whole-tone scale, however, is used to summon up the mystery surrounding a Tomb without a name, its anonymous occupant mourned by the chromatic descent of distant voices.

A wish That the night may be propitious paints the silence of the night, and the various creatures moving about within it, in a richly layered texture of ostinato patterns and animal calls.

A Dancer with cymbals then appears on the scene, her dainty steps and waving gestures imitated in graceful triplets while exuberant ornamentation conveys the sound of her instrument.

She is followed by the Egyptian woman, as dark and mysterious as the drone tones quietly drumming in the bass register. Sensuous, snaking lines of an oriental flavour, rich in augmented 2nds, accompany her lascivious movements.

The final epigraph expresses a wish To thank the morning rain. It features a delicate imitation of raindrops in a constant patter of 16th notes that only ceases when the the pan pipe melody that opened the work is recalled, marking the return of the sun.

 

Igor Stravinsky
Trois Pièces faciles

The neo-classical style that Stravinsky was to adopt after the Great War can already be seen taking shape in such works as his Three Easy Pieces for piano duet of 1914-1915.  In their stripped down, bare-bones textures and identification with established genres of European music—march, waltz and polka—they foreshadow the treatment that Stravinsky would soon apply to the music of Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella.  The March, in fact, seems to be a prototype of this procedure, based as it is on the old Irish folk melody The Blacksmith and his Son.

What Stravinsky does in these pieces, however, is closer to parody than to hommage, and closely resembles what the Cubist painters did in visual art by presenting conflicting ‘planes of perception’ simultaneously.

The genre of each piece is easily recognizable by its characteristic pulse and rhythmic style: the steady walking beat of the march, the lilt of the waltz, the hop-hop-hop of the polka. Layered on top of that, however, are melodies full of ‘wrong notes,’ melodies that often seem to be in another key.

Stravinsky had already used this polytonal effect before when he combined two key centres a tritone apart (F# major and C major) to create the famous Petrushka chord in his 1911 ballet of the same name. In these pieces, however, this picturesque ‘spot’ effect is transformed into a basic operating procedure.

The result is an exhilarating aural experience as prismatic shimmerings of tonal colour in the primo part are splashed over a mechanical and boringly repetitive accompaniment pattern in the secondo.

 

Maurice Ravel
Mother Goose Suite

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: George and Andrew Li

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in D major K. 381 for Piano Duet 

In the 1760s, when Wolfgang & his sister Nannerl were touring Europe as child prodigies, the keyboard duet was a popular novelty item on their programs, one that offered a fuller range of sound from a single instrument while still allowing each performer the opportunity for individual display.

When the Mozart children were touring, though, they would most likely have been playing the harpsichord, since the hammered fortepiano (progenitor of the modern pianoforte) did not replace in popularity its string-plucking keyboard cousin until the following decade. While the Sonata in D major K. 381 was composed in 1772, the lack of dynamic markings in the manuscript probably indicates that it was still written for harpsichord, not the fortepiano.

In harpsichord writing loud and soft are created by manipulating the texture, ‘loud’ being produced by means of full chordal harmony with a strong bass presence, ‘soft’ by writing single lines thinly accompanied. These qualities are particularly evident in the outer movements of this sonata, which feature strong textural contrasts between consecutive phrases, a pattern that resembles the interplay between various sections of an orchestra. And indeed, this entire sonata has been described as a three-movement Italian symphony composed on the keyboard.

This orchestral style of writing can be heard clearly in the way the first movement opens, with four distinct textures presented in close succession: a full-throated ‘tutti’ chord, a strutting fanfare of unisons, then a demure little skipping melody with panting accompaniment, and finally more fanfare drama in unisons—all in the space of a mere 12 bars. The development section is even more contrasty, with an arresting ‘damsel-on-the-railway-tracks’ tremolo passage as its melodramatic highlight.

Simple songfulness pervades the Andante second movement but here again the play of textures adds an extra dimension to the proceedings, especially in the rich use of low bass tones. There is even an unusual passage in which the top melodic voice is doubled in the tenor range, as if a string or flute melody were being doubled by the bassoons and cellos.

The Allegro molto finale has the character of a scene from comic opera in which separate characters engage in punchline-oriented repartee. It features short question-and-answer phrases in which bright bold chords are answered by frivolous fluttering triplets, and blithe solo melodies by blaring military trumpet calls. Scotch snaps and chirpy grace notes anticipate the comical musical effects that Rossini would use decades later.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Fantaisie Tableaux  Op. 5

Rachmaninoff’s first suite for two pianos, entitled Fantaisie Tableaux, is an early work composed in 1893, just a year after the composer’s graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. Conceived as “a series of musical pictures”, its warmly expressive tone and vivid harmonic colouring reveal the influence of Tchaikovsky, to whom the work is dedicated.

Each of its four movements depicts a scene from nature or from personal life: the lapping of waves against the side of a gondola, bird calls in the wild, tears dropping, the clangorous ringing of church bells. Typical Rachmaninoff stylistic traits such as the use of ostinati and repeated sequences that build to a climax are present throughout.

Barcarolle opens with the delicious quiet rippling of water, soon joined by a simple, mildly obsessive tune that always seeks to return to the same note. The filigree patterns surrounding this foreground melody gradually grow in elaboration to become a lush carpet of harmonic colouring covering a full five octaves of the keyboard as the opening ripples are transformed into great surging waves of piano sonority.

Even more pictorially vivid is the stuttering high-pitched birdcalls of L’amour, la nuit (The night, the love). This movement opens with the repeated motive of a major 3rd representing the warbling of the nightingale, soon paired with a downward sliding chromatic melody embodying the feelings of romantic love. Ecstatic flights of fancy in the high register express the ecstatic emotions of the scene.

Les larmes (Tears) depicts the falling of teardrops with a repetitive four-note motive that opens the movement and pervades it throughout, at times rhythmically displaced from the main beat to suggest the convulsive spasms of sobbing.

The suite ends with Pâques, an evocation of the clamorous joy of a Russian Orthodox Easter morning. In this virtually melody-less movement, open 5ths in the bass convey the weighty resonance of massive swaying church bells while a hammering tintinnabulation of repeated motives in the high register imitates the chiming of metallic overtones above. Almost lost in the near-cacaphony of full-spectrum ringing sounds is the solemn intonation of a Russian liturgical chant in the mid-register.

 

Franz Liszt
Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli

Liszt’s Tarantella is from the collection Venezia e Napoli (published 1861), a revised version of earlier pieces which he issued as a supplement to his Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année devoted to his musical impressions of Italy. Based on dance melodies by the Neapolitan editor and music publisher Guillaume-Louis Cottrau (1797-1847), Liszt’s bravura treatment of this material features many of his trademark tricks of the trade.

It leaves the starting blocks at presto speed, dicing and slicing the agitated tarantella melody into an impressive series of choppy and sparkling pianistic textures, often alternating duple and triple versions of the tune.

The slower middle section, featuring a sensuous and langorous canzona napoletana with Bellini-esque arabesques of vocal ornamentation, serves to interrupt the torrential onslaught of virtuosity, but it too soon erupts into iridescent cascading rainbows of tonal colour and peppery sprays of repeated notes—perhaps in reference to the favourite instrument of the Neapolitans: the mandolin.

The concluding section returns to the bravura frenzy of the opening, upping the tempo to prestissimo and heading off to the horizon like a cat with its tail on fire. The sheer volume of piano tone pulled from the instrument on the final page is eyebrow-raisingly theatrical.

 

Claude Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

The first thing to know about Debussy’s symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is that it is one of the foundational works of the Impressionist movement in French music and is based on the poem by the same name by symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). The second thing to know is that it has nothing at all to do with Bambi.

In Ancient Roman mythology a faun (not ‘fawn’) was a nature spirit with the upper torso of a young man and the bottom half of a goat. Much at home in woodland settings, fauns led an idyllic life with little to do each day but (a) play the pan pipes, (b) chat up the local nymphs, and (c) fall drowsily asleep to dream about (a) and (b).

Debussy’s orchestral score of 1894, which he transcribed for two pianos in the following year, captures the leisurely life of one such faun as he plays his pan pipes, gazes in fascination at the nymphs frolicking around him and finally slips into slumber in the heat of the afternoon. The musical scenes depicted are presented in an ambiguous new musical language that uses whole-tone scales and ‘colour chords’ that float freely in sonic space, unregulated by the established rules of chord progression in Western harmony.

The seemingly improvisatory way in which the piece moves forward, evoking the timeless world of ancient myth, belies the work’s tight organization around a series of melodic cells and motives. One of most important of these is the melody that opens the work, a languorous chromatic descent of a tritone, representing the pan pipe, which establishes no key and has no sharp rhythmic profile.

Other motives emerge with more animation, depicting the stirrings of woodland creatures in the passing scene, but all share in the aimless ‘wandering’ quality that characterizes the work as a whole.

The pianists’ challenge in this piece is to knock every sharp edge off the percussive sound of their instruments to create the hazy, delicately nuanced sound environment that suggests in the listener’s ear the imaginary world of Mallarmé’s text and Debussy’s symphonic poem.

 

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6

Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies pay tribute to the gypsy music of his native Hungary. Like an ancient insect trapped in amber, they encapsulate for posterity the dramatic, improvisatory performance style of the roving bands of Romani musicians that Liszt heard as a boy growing up in the small Hungarian village of Raiding, and whose campfires he eagerly frequented when, as Europe’s most celebrated pianist, he returned to his homeland in 1839 after an 18-year absence.

There are 19 rhapsodies in all, the first 15 composed in the period between 1846 and 1853. Fundamental to the form of each rhapsody is a two-part division into a slow, introductory lassan followed by a quick, dancelike friss. In the soulful and brooding lassan, a handful of folk melodies are repeated over and over, trancelike, in varied forms, blooming from time to time into dazzling cadenza-like flourishes of keyboard sparkle and colour. The friss is sectional, presenting a series of impish dance tunes that in an accelerating pattern of frenetic activity inevitably drive the work to a barn-storming conclusion.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 is unusual in having four sections, each based on a separate Hungarian folk melody. The first two form a kind of introduction, comprised of a great thumping march followed by a fleet-footed dance—both somewhat ‘wild’ and exotic in their use of rhythmic displacement and off-beat accents.

The standard rhapsody lassan begins in the 3rd section, and what a change in tone it brings. Its halting, almost sobbing melodic gestures set the words of a troubled Hungarian poetic text that reads: “My father is dead, my mother is dead, I have no brothers and sisters, and all the money that I have left will just buy a rope to hang myself with.” Liszt’s musical meditation on this chipper text—a classic example of over-sharing—is ruminative and spasmodically emotional by turns, in true Gypsy style.

The friss that follows brings welcome relief with its simple playful tune constantly repeated over a folk-style drone in the bass. Excitement leads to exhilaration as the pace progressively accelerates and thicker textural cladding is added. Eventually, the quarters and eighths of the tune in the right hand morph into a machine-gun-fire of repeated notes—hammered out in octaves, no less—in a severe test of the pianist’s wrist technique. Meanwhile, the left hand accompaniment commutes back and forth from the nether regions as a full-on, octave-spanning stride bass.

All in all, this Hungarian rhapsody displays 19th-century pianistic showmanship at its most extroverted.

 

Maurice Ravel
La Valse

Ravel first made plans to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz in 1906, sketching out a piece he called Wien (Vienna) as a tribute to the “waltz king” Johann Strauss II. But the project lay dormant for many years, and it was only under a commission from impresario Sergei Diaghilev (of the famous Ballets Russes) that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev rejected the work after hearing Ravel’s two-piano version of the score (to be played this afternoon), but the composer orchestrated it anyway and it went on to become a highly successful ballet, premiering in 1926 in Antwerp with the Royal Flemish Opera Ballet and later used in works by Jerome Robbins and Sir Frederick Ashton.

Ravel describes his poème chorégraphique as follows:

Swirling clouds offer glimpses of waltzing couples. As the clouds scatter little by little, an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd comes clearly into view. The scene grows steadily brighter until the chandeliers bursts forth with dazzling light at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.

Given the glittering age it celebrates, one would expect the work to be as bright in mood as the ballrooms it depicts. But this score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass before scraps of waltz rhythm begin to emerge above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between a voluptuous, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.

Being composed immediately after The Great War, Ravel’s La Valse has been heard by some as a Dance of Death, as the calamitous fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ironically played out to the tune of its own best-loved music. The aesthetic stance of the work is ambiguous, to be sure, and that is perhaps the quality that has made it endure in the repertoire since its first performance a century ago.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so, the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.

There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.

It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting and the reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.

The Intermède tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes. The opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.

The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic lines in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, with an arts establishment beholden to the official ideology of socialist realism, the spiky modernisms that we associate with this nerdy, thickly bespectacled composer were not his bread and butter. What paid the bills was his work for the Soviet Union’s mammoth film industry, about three dozen film scores in all, selections of which he entrusted to his friend Lev Atovmian (1901-1973) to arrange for concert performance in order to supplement his income in those periods when he was officially in disfavour.

5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano is simple popular music meant for entertainment. The opening Prelude, with its searingly lyrical violin lines in parallel 6ths and 10ths, inflected from time to time with flecks of Neapolitan (flat-II) harmony, suggests the warmth and sentimentality of Brahms’ Vienna.

The square phrasing and gently persistent pulse of the Gavotte evokes a feeling of simple but relaxed jollity. Elegy returns to the warmth of the Viennese café, unfolding in a series of sighs, with even a little dialogue between the violins.

The sad little Waltz in G minor is a restless affair that rises to surprising heights of passion in its short duration. The concluding Polka is a rollicking village romp full of breathless phrases and stomping cadences that would be perfect music for a carnival ride.

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

Marc-André Hamelin is a brilliant throwback to the 19th century, the age of the virtuoso pianist-composer. As a pianist he is known for his performances of the often devilishly-difficult keyboard works of now-neglected composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji and Samuil Feinberg (whose Sonata No. 4 in E flat minor he performed at the Chan Centre for the VRS in 2018). As a composer his own additions to the keyboard repertoire have included his set of piano etudes in all the minor keys, and his Toccata on ‘L’Homme armé’, which was the required test piece, played by all 30 competitors, at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His Reverie for Two Violins and Piano comes fresh from his pen this summer and he sends us these notes about this new piece:

“This short work owes its existence to a dream which its dedicatee Leila Getz, the soul behind the Vancouver Recital Society, had one night. She emailed me one day saying she’d experienced a vision in which Angela Cheng and the Chooi brothers were performing a piece I’d written. I’d be giving a lot away if I described her dream in any more detail, since the way the resulting piece unfolds is, let’s say, not quite traditional…

The work is simply an attempt at a direct translation of Leila’s dream, trying to imagine what the performing situation Leila described would yield musically. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to try to imagine what Leila heard in her sleep!”

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

You may not know the music of Cécile Chaminade but Queen Victoria did, and invited her to Windsor Castle in 1892 to hear more of it. Chaminade had a successful career as a performing pianist both in Europe and in the United States. Sheet music of her smaller works sold extremely well on both continents, and even spawned the creation of numerous Chaminade Musical Clubs in the US. In 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French nation.

So why isn’t she better remembered?

Her career difficulties were, in the academic jargon of gender studies, intersectional. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, she was French in a music world dominated by Germans, and she was a composer of salon music in an era dominated by musical revolutionaries.

“Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace,” bleated one critic after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1908, “but it is amazingly superficial … While women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.”

To look down one’s nose at salon music—as her critics did—was to look down one’s nose at the middle-class—which her critics also did. But snobbishness aside, there is no mistaking her gifts as a melodist and as a composer for the keyboard.

Her Thème varié Op. 89, first published in 1898, is not a formal set of variations but rather a continuous retelling of two attractively harmonized melodic ideas set in increasingly more involved keyboard textures, culminating in a kind of ‘three-handed effect’ with a trilled pedal point sounding out in the mid-range between the two hands, a texture famously used by Beethoven in the finales of his Waldstein and Op. 111 sonatas, and by Tchaikovsky in the first movement cadenza of his B-flat minor concerto.

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels. (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Jonathan Roozeman

Luigi Boccherini
Sonata in A major G 4

Luigi Boccherini was perhaps the greatest cellist of the 18th century, and like his compatriot of a previous generation, Domenico Scarlatti, he spent the most active portion of his professional life at the court of Spain. His royal patron, the Spanish Infante Don Luis Antonio, younger brother of King Carlos III, was a music-loving prince with his own string quartet. The addition of Boccherini to this ensemble was likely the creative prompt for the more than 100 string quintets – in the unusual configuration of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos – for which he is principally known.

A cellist of extraordinary technical skill, Boccherini, like Paganini after him, wrote for his own hand and acquired a reputation as a virtuoso performer through performances of his own works. One feature of his playing that astonished his contemporaries was his predilection for playing the violin repertoire, at pitch, on the cello, and indeed passages in which the cello plays in the high register are a recurring feature of his own scores.

His musical style stands at the intersection of two eras: floridly ornamental in the late Baroque manner, but early Classical in its slow harmonic rhythm and clear periodic phrasing, with direct repetition of short phrases a prominent characteristic.

The opening Adagio of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major displays well the style of ornamentation for which he was well known. Its gracious but relatively unadventurous melodic lines are set within an elaborate filigree of appoggiaturas, trills and flamboyant scalar flourishes. An ascending arpeggio in the penultimate bar nearly sends the cellist off the fingerboard to reach a high E above the treble staff.

The following Allegro demonstrates Boccherini’s ability to create an entire movement out of the repetition of small phrases and fragmentary motives. His habit of slurring phrases from a weak beat to a strong gives his music a gentle gracefulness that has even been called “effeminate,” a quality noticeable, as well, in the insistent sigh motives of the concluding Affettuoso. It is no wonder, then, that the good-natured charm of his works led to his being called “Haydn’s wife.”

Claude Debussy
Nocturne and Scherzo

Debussy made his first public appearance as a composer in 1882 in a performance of his Nocturne et Scherzo, a work originally scored for violin and piano but later that year revised for cello. This work of his student years was performed only once and then vanished from the public record until the manuscript was rediscovered in the early 1970s and Mstislav Rostropovich gave it a ‘second debut’.

It is comprised of two sections, arranged in a rounded three-part A-B-A form. Despite the titling, the scherzo is actually the first section, imprinted throughout with the 2nd-beat emphasis and drone tones of a mazurka. The second section is the dreamy nocturne, that in its lilting rhythms seems to evoke the nostalgia of a gentle waltz more than the stillness of the night.

Claude Debussy
Sonata in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme, tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by—or superimposed with—long strands of lyrical melody.

Jean Sibelius
Romance Op. 78 No. 2
Malinconia Op. 20

Sibelius, though best known today for his symphonies and Violin Concerto, could not live off these large-scale works alone. And so it was that during The Great War (1914-1918) he composed a set of four pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78, expressly directly at the domestic market. These were simple tuneful pieces intended for amateur performance in the home.

The second of this set, simply entitled Romance, soon became one of his most popular compositions, and this work has remained a staple of both the violin and cello repertoires. The wistful carefree character of its eminently hummable melody encapsulates the period’s nostalgia for an age of parlour music that would soon slip away into memory.

*                      *                      *

In February of 1900 the typhus epidemic that was sweeping through Finland claimed the life of Sibelius’ 15-month-old daughter Kirsti. From the pain of this event came a work shortly thereafter for cello and piano entitled Malinconia (Melancholy), a work in which the composer allowed himself to grieve.

The cello recitative with which it opens struggles upward, step by weary step, to arrive at an anguished cry of grief. In response, the piano rips up and down the keyboard as if to paint the flailing of pleading arms in the wind.

Each instrument is given extended solo cadenzas that exploit the extremes of their range. When playing together, they often play apart: the piano in syncopated pulses of bewilderment deep in the bass against the cello’s wailing melody in the mid-range. Or they quiver at each other in turn, in passages of sustained tremolo. French composer Eric Tanguy has deemed this work “utterly unique in the entire literature of music for cello and piano.”

Franz Schubert
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D 821

Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871, long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.

The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.

The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.

The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor

Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies pay tribute to the gypsy music of his native Hungary. Like an ancient insect trapped in amber, they encapsulate for posterity the dramatic, improvisatory performance style of the roving bands of Romani musicians that Liszt heard as a boy growing up in the small Hungarian village of Raiding, and whose campfires he eagerly frequented when, as Europe’s most celebrated pianist, he returned to his homeland in 1839 after an 18-year absence.

There are 19 rhapsodies in all, the first 15 composed in the period between 1846 and 1853. Fundamental to the form of each rhapsody is a two-part division into a slow, introductory lassan followed by a quick, dancelike friss. In the soulful and brooding lassan, a handful of folk melodies are repeated over and over, trancelike, in varied forms, blooming from time to time into dazzling cadenza-like flourishes of keyboard sparkle and colour. The friss is sectional, presenting a series of impish dance tunes that in an accelerating pattern of frenetic activity inevitably drive the work to a barn-storming conclusion.

The Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor presents trademark features of the style: the so-called “Hungarian cadence” rhythm (DAH-dum-dump … duh-DAH) and the exotically flavourful, gap-toothed Hungarian minor scale, comprised almost entirely of semitones and augmented 2nds, heard unmistakably in the work’s opening recitative.

Liszt’s achievement, here as in the other Hungarian rhapsodies, lies in how authentically he captures on the keyboard what his biographer Alan Walker calls the “sonic surface” of the Gypsy band. In these works you hear the “will-o’-the-wisp” ornamentation style of the gypsy violin, the contralto richness of the low clarinet—when Liszt places the tune in the mid-register, played by the thumbs—and the heartbeat-racing thrum of the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) in textures bristling with repeated notes.

While the 13th Hungarian Rhapsody is not nowadays among the most frequently performed of the set of 19, it did have its admirers in the 19th century. Pablo de Sarasate used a tune from the 13th Rhapsody’s friss section in his famous Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) for violin and orchestra.

Franz Liszt
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude

The intersection of literature and music was one of the hallmarks of the Romantic era. A striking example is Liszt’s Benediction of God in Solitude, part of a cycle of piano pieces composed between 1845 and 1852 entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, that references a collection of poems with the same name by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). In his collection Lamartine waxes rapturous over the divine presence in all creation and Liszt, who as a teenager had wanted to become a priest and who was later to take minor orders in the Catholic Church, could not agree more. He even provides a quote from Lamartine’s poem Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude at the head of his own eponymous keyboard hymn, one that begins: D’où me vient, ô mon Dieu, cette paix qui m’inonde? (Whence comes, oh my God, this peace that floods over me?).

Liszt’s pianistic ode to having some ‘alone time’ with the divine unfolds in an A-B-C-A form: an opening section returns after two intervening episodes. The texture employed in the opening section is identical to that of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3: a single line of melody walks calmly through the mid-register, enveloped by a deliciously dreamy ripple of celestial keyboard colour above, and the fatherly warmth of a deeply sympathetic bass-line below. And as in the Liebestraum, Liszt’s melt-in-your-mouth harmonies provide voluptuous moments of pleasure with virtually every change of chord.

A lunga pausa leads to an episode (Andante) based on a quietly questioning dotted motive and a serenely stable pedal point in the bass, emblematic of the reassuring presence of the divine. A second lunga pausa separates the first from the second episode (Più sostenuto, quasi preludio), that introduces an intimation of yearning, fully exploited at the return of the opening theme. This final section reaches an emotional climax that might seem to be in contradiction with the work’s theme of peaceful contemplation. But this explosion of emotion undoubtedly evokes the last line of the work’s quotation from Lamartine: Un nouvel homme en moi renaît et recommence. (A new man is born within me and starts off anew.)

Franz Liszt
Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H

The creation of musical ciphers (spelling out words by means of musical pitches) was as much fun as playfully-minded composers could have on the job before the arrival of Little Orphan Annie’s secret decoder ring in the 1930s. Bach set the tone for the practice in the last Contrapunctus of his Art of the Fugue, a massive quadruple fugue in which the 3rd subject spells out his own name, B-A-C-H (in German, B refers to what we call B-flat, and H to B-natural).

Liszt uses this musical motive-B-flat, A, C, B-natura-in his own tribute to the Thomaskantor of Leipzig, his Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H. Originally an organ work, composed for the consecration ceremony of a new instrument in the Merseberg Cathedral in Saxony-Anhalt in 1856, Liszt produced a revised version of the work for piano solo in 1870.

This piano solo version in no way tones down the original snarling organ score to suit the more modest sonorous capabilities of the pianoforte but rather, like the organ version, aims to set the walls shaking and the rafters quivering in whichever hall it is performed. Given the commemorative premise of the work, it is a surprisingly angry and at times violent offering of remembrance to the composer who penned Sheep May Safely Graze and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. But then again, self-aggrandizing showmanship and pious humility were ever the poles between which this complex artistic personality so often shuttled.

The work as a whole is characterized by an almost neurotic obsession with the musical motive B-A-C-H, which is thunderously announced in the bass in the opening bars and which permeates the texture of nearly every subsequent measure, whether booming out majestically as fortissimo chords or informing the smallest levels of ornamental passagework. The two descending semitones of this motive, B-flat/A and C/B-natural, give Liszt every excuse to indulge his innate taste for chromaticism and the fugue subject, when it arrives, is a semitone salad: by dint of sequential extension it comes to include all 12 pitches within the octave, creating a subject that is a virtual tone row. Atonality hovers constantly in the air, and indeed it is anyone’s guess just what key this work is in.

But like a Mafia don’s generous donation to the collection plate in Church, Liszt’s musical monument to Bach stands as a testament to how one of the greatest artistic personalities of the 19th century could reconcile his reverence for the past with his mission to create music of the future.

Samuil Feinberg
Sonata No. 4 in E-flat minor Op. 6

“Samuil who?”

This will unfortunately be the reaction of most audience members hearing for the first time of this great early-20th-century Russian musician. Better known, even in Russia, as a pianist than a composer, Samuil Feinberg was an ardent admirer and tireless performer of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the first in his country to perform the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I in public recital.

It should not be surprising, then, to hear that in his own compositions Feinberg favours polyphonic textures with multiple contrapuntal lines competing for the ear’s attention. His harmonic vocabulary, however, could hardly be called “Baroque.”

In his early period, of which his Sonata in E-flat minor Op. 6 (1918) is representative, he was strongly influenced by Scriabin, and like Scriabin he had a keen ear for widely-spaced sonorities, many of them constructed out of 4ths and 9ths. His single-movement E-flat minor Sonata is opulently scored over a wide range of the keyboard, its expansive but well-balanced chord structures unfolding with little sense of harmonic resolution but leaving behind a warm afterglow of emotional resonance.

He also shares with Scriabin a rhythmic suppleness and mysterious murkiness of pulse that results from his extensive use of irregular metrical units within the bar, alternating with moments of hammering emphasis. In short, there is a kind of wild impulsiveness that his music incarnates, a sort of dark ecstasy longing to come out, indicated most clearly by his tempo and performance markings: Presto impetuoso, burrascoso (stormily), poco languido, luminoso.

The erratic pacing of this sonata, combined with its textural richness, makes it somewhat difficult to organize in the ear, especially on a first hearing, but it makes a strong case for an early-20th-century Russian avant-garde that was not limited to Scriabin alone.

Claude Debussy
Images Book 1

The three ‘sonic pictures’ that Debussy published in 1905 as the first book of his Images are remarkably different in tone, but each stands at a distinct distance from the musical practice of its time. Traditional diatonic harmonies have little driving force in these pieces, replaced by modal melodies and harmonic constructions based on whole-tone scales that elicit less hierarchical aural expectations in the listener. Tonal ambiguity and blurred harmonic focus have changed from defects to prized features. The ear thinks it’s an eye, gathering in the ‘impressions’ that give this style of music its common descriptor: Impressionism.

Reflets dans l’eau begins by evoking in gentle splashes of sound colour the outwardly expanding pattern of rippling waves in a pool of water into which a pebble—the opening perfect 5th in the bass—has been tossed. Widely spaced sonorities measure the distance outwardly travelled. The highest register glistens dazzlingly with glints of sunlight. Vivid as the scene is in the ear, the experience of taking it in is ultimately a mysterious enterprise, symbolized by recurring glimpses of the echoing musical motive: A-flat, F, E-flat.

Hommage à Rameau presents an austere but nostalgic remembrance of composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose opera-ballet Les Fêtes de Polymnie (1745) Debussy was editing for publication at the time this piece was composed. The composer is remembered in a slow, purposeful sarabande, moving forward at a processional pace. Its melody walks within the narrow range of the pentatonic scale, and its rhythm is virtually flat. But this apparent surface serenity is made emotional and impactful by the bright harmonic colouring that Debussy attaches to these simple compositional elements.
Mouvement, as its name suggests, is a study in movement-movement propelled forward by a constant whirl of triplets in the mid-range around which fanfare motives blare out on either side. The very obstinacy of these moto perpetuo 16ths suggests mechanized motion, a twirling lathe, perhaps. While the idea is fancifully anachronistic, the present writer can’t repress the image of a dog chasing a car, attempting to nip away at the tires.

Leopold Godowsky
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song

The Polish-American pianist, composer and pedagogue Leopold Godowsky was almost entirely self-taught. His extraordinary technical facility at the keyboard prompted him to write hair-raisingly difficult paraphrases of well-known works in the repertoire, bringing them in line with own florid style of delivery. The best-known of these are his more than 50 reworkings of the Chopin études Opp. 10 and 25, which only a few pianists-Marc-André Hamelin among them-have had the courage to perform in public.

In his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song Godowsky sets his sights on fin-de-siècle Vienna and its waltz culture. This work represents well both the breadth of his musical imagination and the grandeur of his conception of idiomatic writing for the keyboard. Slithering chromatic countermelodies constantly dance attendance upon the work’s lilting principal melodies, which are often nestled in the mid-register while harmonic underpinning and ornamental tracery race off in opposite directions on both sides. The texture is distinctly orchestral in sonority due to the vast range of keyboard real estate covered by the hands in each phrase.

The pianist’s challenge in this work is to find the sweet berries of Viennese melody among the bristling thorns of ornamentation in the score-a score of such scintillating chromatic density that Charles Rosen has described it as “more in the style of Richard [Strauss] than Johann, but still echt Viennese.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: ALBAN GERHARDT & STEVEN OSBORNE

Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008

The instrumental suite, with its predictable allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue sequence of dances and its un-predictable addition of various galanteries (minuets, bourrées, gavottes, etc.), was a staple of the Baroque.

Arising from neither of the period’s two great wellsprings of musical emotion – religious piety and operatic bombast – the subtext of the suite was social gaiety in an intimate setting, but not just any setting. The tone had more than a whiff of aristocratic elegance about it, its imaginary terpsichorean world being one of crisp court etiquette rather than rollicking village merriment. This was the music that housewives of the Baroque era’s rising middle class heard in their head as they reached for Hello magazine, or Majesty, in the checkout line at the local fishmonger’s.

In this context, the second of Bach’s set of six cello suites from ca. 1720 is a remarkable example of the genre. Written in a minor key, it constitutes an exceptionally dark and serious take on the dance culture of the French court, from which the religious and dramatic impulses of Lutheran Germany cannot be excluded as inspirational prompts in its creation.

The opening Prelude is homogenous in its texture of running 16th notes, from which a recurring habit of pausing on the second beat of the bar stands out
as a distinctly sarabande-like feature. Its opening arpeggio spelling out the D minor triad sets out a pattern of similar arpeggiated approaches to this second- beat pause that will pervade the movement as a whole, building tension in waves of melodic and harmonic sequences that seek ever higher ground.

The dances that follow are in binary form, each comprised of a first section that drifts away from the home key followed by a second section that returns to it, with each section played twice. The Allemande begins assertively, with
a quadruple stop that establishes its punchy style of rhythmic emphasis
that, combined with its wide range of motion, provides it an exceptionally rambunctious start to the dance set. The Courante hikes up the intensity a notch further in a driven moto perpetuo of virtually constant 16th-note motion.

The clear harmonic outlines of this breathless movement make it one of the most toe-tapping of the suite.

Darkest of the dark in this collection is the extraordinarily grave Sarabande, set in the deepest register of the instrument. A feeling of intense longing comes through in its long-held dissonances and its bewildered, searching phrases beset with anxious hand-wringing trills.

Minuets I & II form a matched pair of musical contrasts: the first in D minor, thickly scored in multiple stops but with an overtly dancelike lilt; the second in a contrasting D major, sparingly laid out in a single owing line of melody. We see in this pairing a precedent for the future matching of minuet & trio in the Classical era.

The concluding Gigue is true to its origins in the English or Irish jig, characterized by wild leaps, repetitive rhythms, and angular lines of melody that constantly change direction. Sombre as this suite is as a whole, its rollicking finale recaptures some of the genre’s elegant exuberance and élan.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109

The grandeur of Beethoven’s musical imagination is tellingly displayed in his antepenultimate piano sonata, a three-movement work that first dreams, then rages, and finally drifts beyond all mortal care to end at peace with the world. Its first movement is a gentle star-gazing fantasy, its second a sharply focused agitato of nightmarish intensity. To conclude, Beethoven reconciles these emotions – the lyrically expansive and the rhythmically driven – in a theme- and-variations finale that gives each its place in the sun.

The first movement is remarkable for its compactness. It opens with a pleasing sequence of harmonies divided between the hands that seems to oat in the air like the uttering of a bird’s wings until a harmonic surprise leads to an affectionate duet between soprano & tenor voices. This second subject is itself interrupted by a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soaring up and down the keyboard.

These three contrasting elements – uttering broken-chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement. But it is the first of these, the uttering broken-chord harmonies, with which Beethoven is obviously in love. It pulses through the entire development and concludes the movement in a coda that seems to drift to its conclusion, ebbing away rather than emphatically ending.

All the more shocking, then, is the contrast between this improvisatory first movement in E major and the arrival of its evil twin, the turbulent second movement in E minor, that follows without a pause. Here, signs of struggle are evident in the competing aims of a call-to-arms figure urgently rising up in the right hand and a stern passacaglia-like bass line grimly descending in the left.

This is no scherzo: there is no peaceful, contrasting ‘trio’ middle section. Rather, it is an unorthodox sonata-form movement driven to continuous contrapuntal development. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism manages to give a sharp edge of pathos to the movement’s violent outbursts and mysterious murmurings.

And then the clouds part, a warm spirit of peace and reconciliation shines down from the heavens, and the sonata ends with a theme-and-variations movement imbued with more than a hint of religious ecstasy.

And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while the same movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of keyboard-spanning arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to Baroque practice is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hiccupping division of material between the hands. Baroque instincts move into the foreground in the contrapuntal explorations of Variations 3 to 5. In his final variation, Beethoven transforms his theme from
a plain chordal harmonization into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before settling down to earth to take leave of his theme once again, presented once again in all its original simplicity – just the way Bach ended his Goldberg Variations.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D Major Op. 102 No. 2

The second of the two sonatas that Beethoven published as his Op. 102 is a particularly thorny creation: elemental, sinewy, and unyielding in its pursuit of musical ideas at the expense of musical sentiments. This is not the place to look for pleasant tunes to hum in the shower.

It comprises three sharply chiseled movements: a sternly brisk first movement with a drill-sergeant edge to it, an emotional black hole of a slow movement, and a full-on gritty fugue finale to let the duffers know just who they are dealing with. It’s quite a ride, this piece, and coming at the very start of Beethoven’s so-called “late period”, it gives a taste of the denseness and concentration of musical thought to come in future works.

The sonata opens with an arresting fanfare, ideal for deep-sleepers to program into their alarm clocks. These four quick notes and a big leap set the tone of brusqueness and forthright direct statement that characterizes the exposition throughout. The military bearing of its musical manner is reinforced by the frequent use of “snap-to-attention” dotted rhythms, bare-bones unison accompaniments, and the odd feeling that there is a bugle somewhere playing along with its many motives based on the major triad. Even the patriotic second theme sounds like a slow-motion fanfare. Only in the development section in the middle of the movement, and in the suspenseful coda at the end, does one move inside from the military parade square and begin to feel the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic plan, in place of the exposition’s barked-out orders and responses.

The second movement is oppressively Baroque in mood, its dark emotional tenor reinforced by a dirge-like pace and almost Brahmsian fascination with the low register of the piano. The movement’s opening melody of even 8th notes – with a pause at the end of each phrase – suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm that serves to accompany it. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. More expansive lyrical sentiments inhabit the middle section in the major mode, but all in vain, as the Grim Reaper returns to restore the grave tone of the opening, its rhythmic ‘limp’ having now become a twitching ‘tic’.

In keeping with Beethoven’s emerging tendency in his late period to isolate his musical material before developing it, he begins his transition to the finale by spelling out the rising scale figure that will become his fugue subject, first in the solo cello, then echoed back in the piano – like a magician who first shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. This fugue subject, when it arrives, is metrically a bit ‘o ’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar to the advantage of the second. This makes trying to follow the dazzling patchwork of fugal entries a daunting exercise in mental concentration, for which a tapping foot is only a distraction. The buzzing series of trills in the texture near the end point to their successors in the ‘sound-symphony’ finales of the last piano sonatas.

Claude Debussy
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme; tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by – or superimposed with – long strands of lyrical melody.

Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Cello & Piano in E minor Op. 38

Brahms’s first published duo sonata, written between 1862 and 1865, is sombre in tone and antiquarian in inspiration. It is a weighty work – so weighty, in fact, that it stands complete without the emotional ballast of a slow movement at its centre. It features a sonata-form first movement generously proportioned in its three themes, a remarkably dancelike minuet and trio, and a fugal finale.

The shadow of Johann Sebastian Bach hangs long and dark over this sonata. Its opening theme seems to owe much in its outline to an inversion of the opening subject of Bach’s Art of the Fugue while the fugue subject of the finale is a dead ringer for the opening of the Contrapunctus 13 from the same work.

The sonata opens serenely with the cello rising up from its deepest register underneath a plush covering of o -beat chords much akin to those accompanying the opening theme of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, also in E minor. A section of rippling triplets leads to a second theme in the minor mode that is evocative of struggle, with its close imitation between the instruments and its singularly Brahmsian metrical pattern of 3/4 groupings in 4/4 time.

A final theme emerges with the consoling character of a lullaby – and who better to write lullabies than Brahms? These themes are treated in sequence in the development section and reviewed in the recapitulation to complete a template-perfect sonata-form structure.

The second movement minuet is distinctly archaic in flavour, not only in its modal scale patterns and Phrygian cadences, but also in its dainty, genuinely danceable ‘minuettish-ness’. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrasts with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio, that comes replete with its own rhythmic irregularities and slightly gypsyish alternations between major and minor.

Is the last movement a real fugue? It would appear to begin like one, channelling Bach with its dramatic octave-plunge fugue subject. But doubt begins to creep in when a lyrical and owing second theme appears in the relative major. The relaxed graciousness of this theme, an evident contrast to the stern character of the opening fugue subject, puts us squarely in sonata- form territory. And sure enough, both themes are masterfully juxtaposed in the ensuing development section. The manner in which Brahms seems to amalgamate these two very different themes – the Baroque-fugal and the Romantic-lyrical – into one continuous thread of music narrative, switching from one to the other at close range, is the measure of his historical and musical imagination.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: JAVIER PERIANES

Franz Schubert
Piano Sonata in A Major D 664

The salubrious effects of country air on the mind and spirits of the vacationing composer are well known. Witness Schubert’s wonderfully relaxed and lyrical Sonata in A Major D 664 composed in 1819 during a summer sojourn in Steyr, a riverside provincial town set amid the rolling hills of Upper Austria some hundred miles or so west of Vienna.

Lacking a minuet or scherzo, this three-movement work is the shortest of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas. It comprises three moderately paced movements, each of which breathes an air of untroubled songfulness. The extremely wide range of the keyboard over which it is scored, however, shows it to be distinctly pianistic, rather than vocal, in conception.

The leisurely opening theme of the Allegro moderato first movement is a carefree melody that one could easily imagine being whistled on a woodland walk, unfolding innocently over a rich carpet of rolling left-hand harmonies that ripple over the space of several octaves. A slightly more insistent second theme arrives before long, marked by the dactylic rhythm (TAH-tuh-tuh, TAH-tuh-tuh) that Schubert favoured in so many of his works (a homage, perhaps, to the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony). More muscular pianistic writing comes to the fore in the development, with its rising scales in octaves traded between the hands, but musical con ict and argument nd little place to grow in this most congenial of sonata movements. Worthy of note is the indication for both the exposition and development to be repeated, which by the early 19th century had become an archaism in the classical sonata.

Contrasting with the expansive lyricism of the first movement is a second movement Andante of the utmost discretion and intimacy, scored within a relatively small range around the middle of the keyboard. Motivated by a single rhythmic idea (a long note followed by four short notes), it proceeds within a narrow dynamic range from p to pp.

The closing Allegro is a sonata-form movement of considerable charm, with a modest and unassuming opening theme and a more high-profile second theme of an overtly dance-like character that occasionally breaks out into a full-on oom-pah-pah rhythm.

Franz Schubert
Drei Klavierstücke D 946

Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces” were likely composed in 1828, the last year of the composer’s life, and remained in manuscript until they appeared in a published edition in 1868. All three are structured in a rondo-like sequence of contrasting sections and in their wide range of moods and inventive pianistic textures they represent some of the Schubert’s most adventurous keyboard writing.

The first of the set opens in the gloomy key of E flat minor with an agitated rippling of triplets and a breathless melody that evokes the famous forest ride of the horseman who “rides so late through night and wind” in the composer’s Erlkönig ballad. Further developments take the theme into Major mode territory (as in much of Schubert) and eventually to a brashly self-confident chordal theme with the forthright directness of a Schumann march. The slower and more deliberate middle section features moments of drama that with their dazzling runs and swirling tremolos anticipate the improvisatory piano recitatives of Liszt.

The second piece opens with a drone-textured lullaby in a style that Brahms would later make his own. And in this regard, it is perhaps not irrelevant to mention that the editor of the 1868 edition of these pieces was no less than Johannes Brahms himself. The rst contrasting episode is conspiratorial in tone, with strange harmonic shifts and jabbing hemiola accents. The second is tinted in the minor mode, but with a penchant for rapturous melodic expansiveness.

The jubilant syncopations of the third piece in the set will have you wondering where the beat is. The exotic rhythms of Hungarian village music are obviously a point of reference here. The middle section begins grave and hymn-like until it, too, starts to feel a lilt in the loins that leads it back to the stomping rhythms of the village square.

Manuel De Falla
Homenaje “Le tombeau de Claude Debussy”

De Falla’s homenaje (homage) to Claude Debussy was written in 1920 as part of a collection of “tombeau” pieces to honour the great French composer, who died in 1918. Originally written for guitar, the composer later re-worked it for piano and in this piano version you can hear the timbre of the original guitar setting. This is especially noticeable in the vibrantly resonant open-string sounds of its spicy flamenco chords, and the keyboard imitation of the rasgueado fingernail- strumming technique typical of the flamenco performance style.

In the final bars, a quotation of the habanera theme from Debussy’s Soirée dans Grenade makes the dedication of the piece clear.

Claude Debussy
La soirée dans Grenade – La puerta del vino – La sérénade interrompue

Debussy’s Estampes (1903) present musical postcards of exotic locales that with the composer’s fine sense of nuance hint at the sounds local to the landscapes being musically visited. La soirée dans Grenade finds us late in the day in the southern Spanish city of Granada where the lilting rhythm of the habanera drifts indolently up through seven octaves of keyboard space to then simply hang in the air, interrupted only by the augmented melodic intervals of the Arab scale and the hazy strumming of a amenco guitar.

La puerta del vino (the wine gate) from Debussy’s second book of Preludes was inspired by an actual postcard sent to Debussy by Manuel De Falla depicting a gate at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. It also puts the habanera rhythm in our ear, but here the succession of moods is much more … quixotic. The performance indication reads “with abrupt contrasts of extreme violence and passionate sweetness.” While signifiers of guitar strumming and Flamenco singing abound in the score, the harmonic vocabulary is a mix of Spanish rhythms and Debussy’s celebrated streams of parallel chords.

La sérénade interrompue (the interrupted serenade) is even more picturesque – and humorous – in its depiction of a young man attempting to serenade the object of his affections who is continually interrupted by nearby events. We hear him at first tuning up his instrument and then attempting to sing his plaintive lament, but in the end he simply gives up with a sigh.

Isaac Albéniz
El Albayzín from Iberia

The four books of Albéniz’s Iberia (1903-1908) stand at the summit of Spanish music for the piano, combining as they do the harmonic colouring and melodic inflections of traditional Spanish folk idioms with the scintillating textures of late-Romantic keyboard writing, heavily influenced by the pictorial tendencies of French impressionism.

A prominent focus of the collection is the flamenco tradition, an art that developed under gypsy influence in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia to embrace a passionate amalgam of guitar-playing, singing, wailing, dancing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping, the sonic echoes of which Albéniz transfers with great skill to the keyboard.

El Albayzín from the third book of Iberia is named after the gypsy quarter of Granada. It opens with a simple guitar-plucking texture, in the metrically ambiguous dance rhythm known as bulería, a 12-beat pattern that straddles the bar-line to create the impression of both duple and triple metrical stresses. After this base pattern of rhythmic pulse is laid down convincingly, a starkly simple flamenco vocal melody appears in unisons between the hands. These two elements drawn from the worlds of flamenco dance and song dominate the work, wrapped in increasingly voluptuous textures of piano sound.

Of this piece Debussy wrote: “Never before had music assumed such a multi- faceted and dazzlingly colourful guise. One closes one’s eyes and reels from so much imaginative bounty in music.”

Manuel De Falla
El Amor Brujo

Pantomima – El Aparecido – Danza del terror- El círculo mágico – A medianoche – Danza ritual del fuego

El amor brujo (1915) was a one-act stage work with songs, spoken passages and dancing written for the celebrated flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio (1887- 1979) and later arranged by the composer in a version for piano. The story is a dark one, centred on a common theme in gypsy folklore: the fear of a spirit that haunts the living after death.

In El amor brujo, (Love the Magician) a gypsy woman is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, a jealous and vengeful man who was unfaithful to her while alive and torments her as an aparecido (apparition) after his death. In an attempt to rid herself of his visitations, every night she dances the Danza del terror (dance of terror) but remains nevertheless under his spell. In her despair she seeks out ever more demonic rituals, including a círculo mágico (magic circle) and other rites of exorcism A medianoche (at midnight). The most evocatively ghostly of these is the Danza ritual del fuego (ritual fire dance), with its conspiratorial buzz-whisper of trills, flickering with menace, and its hypnotic whirl of ecstatic melodies.

De Falla’s music is deeply rooted in the throbbing drones, modal scales and brutally directs rhythms of the flamenco musical tradition, with obsessive repetition a principal element in its rhythmic design.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

Program Notes: Winterlude – Super Sunday with Alexander Melnikov

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22

Chopin’s funereal, passacaglia-like Prelude in C minor from his collection of 24 Preludes Op. 28 provides the theme for Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale work for solo piano, his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, completed in 1903. Taking as his point of departure the prelude’s hymn-like harmonies and recurring opening motive (one note up, three notes down), Rachmaninoff creates a vehicle for displaying not only his pianistic prowess, but also his compositional moxie.

In these 22 rather abstract but extraordinarily inventive variations we discover a composer who channels the great pianistic traditions of the 19th century: the Slavic melancholy of Chopin, the march rhythms and poetic introspection of Schumann, the keyboard sparkle of Liszt, and the bass-heavy sound palette of Brahms. To these features Rachmaninoff adds his own penchant for multi-layered textures rippling with counter-melodies and understated imitative counterpoint.

This tendency is evident in the first three variations. Variation 1 features a shockingly spare, single line of melody noodling around the prelude’s harmonic pattern. This same melodic line then serves as the accompaniment figure in Variation 2, and the subject of a canon in Variation 3. Similar groupings of variations linked by common motivic patterns occur throughout, providing a sense of organic development within the work.

The developmental urge gets stronger with each variation, as does the inclination to show that the composer’s counterpoint classes at the Moscow Conservatory were not wasted. Variation 12 is an outright fugue, and Variation 14 a kind of chorale prelude, with Chopin’s theme singing out proudly in the tenor in quadruple note values, like the cantus firmus of a Renaissance mass movement. This variation presents unusual technical challenges, even to a pianist with the hand of a Rachmaninoff (who on a cold day, and without mittens, could stretch a 12th) since it is not always possible to play all of its four widely-spaced voices at the same time without using the nose – an expedient that, in the interest of maintaining decorum, we are counting on Mr. Melnikov to eschew.

Variation 15 is a Schumannesque scherzo that would have been at home in that composer’s Symphonic Études Op. 13. Schumannesque, as well, are the marches of Variation 19 and the triumphant Variation 22 finale that emerges in a C major as bright and sunny as the opening C minor theme was stoic and grim. The thrillingly suspenseful build-up of orchestral-style excitement that precedes this last variation, and the shimmering cascade of keyboard sound that ends it reveal, perhaps, how close in inspiration this work was to Rachmaninoff’s recently completed Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

In 1931 Rachmaninoff wrote his last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). This theme was, in fact, a traditional Iberian folk-dance tune, a slow sarabande called La Folia that Corelli had used in his Sonata Op. 5 No. 12 for violin and continuo and that many composers after him had used as well – Vivaldi, Bach and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff’s opening statement of the theme is disarmingly simple, emphasizing the pathos inherent in a melody that moves from phrase to phrase in a series of short sighs. On this theme Rachmaninoff actually writes two sets of variations separated by an Intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13, which begin by leaving the theme largely recognizable within a changing series of rhythmic guises before breaking free in Variation 5 to explore more punchy and energetic versions of its harmonic patterning. After another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9 momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At which point Rachmaninoff offers us a kind of champagne sherbet between courses to cleanse the sonic palette. An Intermezzo unfolds in a free improvisatory style that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of keyboard colour.

Our ears thus refreshed, we begin a second set of variations (14-20), with the theme presented to us once again, only this time lower down on the keyboard, and more richly harmonized. It seems to have aged, this melody, since we heard it last, at the work’s opening. It seems now to evoke the emotions of an aged individual looking back nostalgically on a life fully lived, but almost over.

After a tender daydream in Variation 15 Rachmaninoff returns to the muscular keyboard writing for which he is known. The final variations become increasingly animated, eventually erupting into heaven-storming walls of sound echoing back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

And yet, Rachmaninoff unexpectedly backs away from the tumultuous ending he seemed to be rushing headlong towards. Instead, he a drifts off into a coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the dramatic low pedal point that points implacably to its end.

Lovers of dark (really dark) chocolate will love the bitter but heroic fatalism of this ending.

 

Claude Debussy
Preludes for Piano Book 2

Debussy was the composer who freed Western music from the claustrophobic confines of “functional” harmony, the set of rules that for 300 years had governed which chords fit best with which others according to how well their bass notes got along. In Debussy’s world, the scale degrees named in the famous musical mnemonic by pediatric educator Julie Andrews (“Do, a deer, a female deer”) were of little import. What mattered to Debussy was the colour of each chord and the fleeting impressions that harmonic hues and shading could evoke in the mind of the imaginative listener.

Few works sum up Debussy’s practice in this regard more than his two sets of preludes composed between 1909 and 1913. The second set, like the first, features 12 short pieces, each with a descriptive title. These titles Debussy insisted on having printed, in parentheses, at the end of each piece rather than at the beginning, as if each were the whispered answer to a puzzle. Needless to say, this is music of infinite subtlety, much of it built up out of pianissimo murmurs swimming freely in a watery, finely pedalled haze of blurry piano tone out of which strands of melody occasionally float by the ear before disappearing off to the sonic horizon.

Brouillards (Fog) gives a better description of atmospheric conditions than any TV weatherman could provide, its streams of parallel chords in a polytonal buzz of overlapping sonorities evoking the diaphanous fabric of seasonal mists.

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) offers a picture of autumnal stillness, interrupted from time to time by the odd spate of falling leaves drifting gently down to earth.

La puerta del vino (The Gate of Wine) was inspired by a postcard of a gate in the Alhambra Palace sent to Debussy by Manuel Da Falla. It features a pervasive habañera rhythm, imitations of guitar strumming, and elements of flamenco singing in its description of Spanish life.

A book given to Debussy’s daughter, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, was the inspiration for Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) in which the airy elves of legend and fable put on their dancing shoes to float, flutter and hover like hummingbirds to the trills and tremolos electrifying the air of their sylvan surroundings.

In Bruyères (Heather) we find ourselves out on the moors of the Scottish countryside. Light touches of the pentatonic scale give this prelude its rustic feel, along with the evocative calls of a distant shepherd’s flute.

Debussy displays his sly wit and talent for mimicry in an affectionate portrait of the American comedian Edward Lavine, known to his public as General Lavine – eccentric. Lavine was apparently something of a clown, known for his comic impersonations of a wooden puppet and for playing the piano with his toes. Debussy puts the General’s strutting cakewalk theme comically in the bass, accompanied by by many vaudeville-style ba-duh-BOOM! drum-and-cymbal strokes.

Moonlight is the subject of La terrace des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences), conveyed through shimmering, softly glinting harmonies and the use of extreme registers to express the vast expanses lit up by the moon.

Ondine is a water sprite who tempts fishermen to enjoy her company in the depths of rivers and lakes. This prelude conveys her quick darting movements through the splashes of spray she churns up, as well as hinting at the danger lying in wait for the innocent fly-caster.

Homage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. is a humorous musical portrait of Samuel Pickwick Esq. (Perpetual President, Member of the Pickwick Club), the central character in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Mr. Pickwick’s numerous quaint character traits are given a thorough going over in the many witty details of this piece, chief among them his pomposity, expressed in the opening quotation from God Save the Queen.

A Canope is a canopic jar, the recipient in which the internal organs of mummified individuals was held. The thought of this ancient object prompts a meditation on the death of an exotic civilization, evoked in the dead quiet of a ancient tomb.

Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) is the only prelude in the set without an extramusical title. Passing between meditative and toccata-like sections, this piece is written entirely in thirds alternating between the hands and foreshadows the arrival of Debussy’s piano études of 1915.

More virtuosic still is Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), set at a Bastille Day celebration slyly referenced in the distant strain of La Marseillaise heard in the closing bars. Whether you like Roman candles, spinning pinwheels, or exploding cannonballs of multi-coloured glitter, Debussy keeps you dazzled by sending the pianist off to light wicks at both ends of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Leif Ove Andsnes

Jean Sibelius
Kyllikki, Three Lyric Pieces for Piano Op. 41

Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, has earned an honoured place in the modern canon chiefly on the merits of his orchestral works, notably his seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and the tone poem Finlandia. Less celebrated are the composer’s more than 150 miniatures for piano, 115 of which were published in his lifetime, grouped into sets of varying size.

Writing in the early 20th century against a modernist backdrop of increasing
atonality, Sibelius continued to compose in the tradition of tonal key centres, albeit with a harmonic vocabulary considerably expanded from that of late 19th-century Romanticism. While rooted in the German tradition, his scores, like those of Janáček, often evoke the folk idiom of his native country in textures resonant with pedal points and pulsing with ostinato patterns, occasionally tinged with the timbral vibration of the katele, the traditional Finnish dulcimer.

Kyllikki, composed in 1904, presents a triptych of lyrical scenes possibly linked pictorially with the adventures of a character from Finnish folklore. Its sequence of pacing and moods parallels that of a traditional three-movement sonata. The opening Largamente is heavily textured and projects an aggressive, Lisztian boldness of utterance, its virtuoso pose projected in flying octaves and sweeping arpeggios that alternate with turbulent patches of modal melody swimming in dark pools of tremolos.

The Andantino ‘slow movement’ opens with a grave evocation of stunned grief in a succession of short phrases low in the register that sigh with the fatalist resignation of the Volga Boat Song. More sanguine sentiments pervade the animated middle section, but standing apart from these contrasting moods of despair and renewed hope is a mysterious dulcimer-like trilling, commenting from afar like a bird singing in the woods. By contrast, the Commodo last movement is a leisurely salon-style piece of the utmost clarity of intention, chatty with coy intimations of the dance.

Sibelius’ Op. 75 ‘tree’ pieces are as much about the Finnish landscape as the sturdy botanical specimens that inhabit it. The Birch bends in the wind, a drone bass rooting
it firmly in its native soil as it hums a jaunty little folk tune. The Spruce obviously
grew up in a palace park somewhere in the Austrian capital. In a reverie of nostalgic reminiscence, it recalls those warm summer nights when, as a sapling, it learned to sway to the strains of the Viennese waltz.

The Five Esquisses Op. 114 are Sibelius’ last works for solo piano, each a portrait
of some aspect of nature. The Forest Lake ripples in continuous 8th-note motion,
its disturbingly dark harmonic colouring impervious to the concerns of the human observer. Song in the Forest poetically journeys to the centre of a shaded wood to find a hymn-like melody amid the lush overgrowth of Scriabin-like tritones tracing patterns of light and shade far above. Spring Vision is a walk in the park to the beat of a gentle little Schumannesque march rejoicing in the arrival of April.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E flat major Op. 31 No. 3

Beethoven’s 18th sonata, written in 1802, is a remarkably relaxed work from a composer better known for his turbulent musical impulses and revolutionary spirit. More rambunctious than rebellious, it quarrels little with the pose of classical poise expected in a traditional four-movement sonata, seeking instead to engage its listeners through expressive tenderness and mischievous merriment.

The work opens with a coy serving of bite-sized motives: two wistful sighs (falling 5ths), answered by solemn chords below, concluding in an anticlimactic cadence that seems to say: “Just kidding!” Unfolding with devil-may-care breeziness, it arrives at a chipper second theme pertly singing out over a left hand accompaniment churning with bustle. The development section sets out frowningly in the minor mode but soon lightens up and joins the fun as motives get tossed, in comic opera style, between a gruff growling bass and a chirpy echoing treble. A perfectly normal recapitulation wraps up the movement with few surprises.

The second movement Scherzo eschews the muscular vigour, relentless energy, and even the ternary (A-B-A) form characteristic of the most famous Beethoven scherzos in favour of a return to the original Italian meaning of the term: a “joke”. Unexpected pauses and sudden outbursts abound to great comic effect, both sly and slapstick. Beethoven’s humour is very dry here, with a chorale-like marching hymn in the right hand playing out deadpan against a constant left-hand patter of 16th notes, trotting in mock-military precision. Peppery fanfares and “oops-a-daisy” glissando-like pratfalls add to the fun.

Beethoven reveals his immense gifts as a melodist in a Menuetto of the utmost dignity and lyrical grace, worthy of a noble aria by Gluck. The register-leaping Trio ensures that the movement’s smoothness doesn’t devolve into smarminess.

The Presto con fuoco finale is an exhilarating moto perpetuo that has been variously called a gallop or a tarantella. Its breathless pace, prominent horn-call motives, and slightly off-kilter rocking pattern in the left hand, reminiscent of horseback riding, have given the sonata as a whole the nickname The Hunt.

 

Claude Debussy
La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes

Claude Debussy’s first book of “prints” or “engravings” (Estampes) dates from 1905 and features stylized musical postcards of exotic locales and memorable landscapes, assembled from the musical traces they have left in the composer’s imagination.

The second musical portrait in the series evokes an evening spent in the Spanish city of Granada. The soul of the city is summoned up first by the lilting rhythm of the habañera (DUM-da-dum-dum) that echoes through every octave as the piece opens. Soon the spicy Arab scale, with its augmented melodic intervals, comes into earshot, mixed with the strumming of a Flamenco guitar. The piece ends in a drowsy sonic haze as these aural emblems of Iberian life fade into memory.

Études 7, 11, and 5 from Douze Études

It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano etudes, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with pedagogical drudgery and musical monotony, since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic narcissism and shamanistic showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection and his public persona was light years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.

So his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, a means of building endurance for when it is needed in “real” music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedaling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.

Etude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques is a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings, out of the sound-swirl of which emerges, in the left hand, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an etude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.

Etude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of “composite arpeggios” (i.e., multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.

Etude 5 Pour les octaves finds Debussy in the most extroverted mood, summoning up the spirit of the waltz in voluptuous eruptions of sound echoing up from the bass, reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse or Scriabin at his most manic. The undulating mix of octave leaps both large and small requires a jack-hammer hand in a velvet glove.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Impromptu in A flat Major Op. 29

Spontaneity is the feature most prized in the genre named for it, the impromptu. Chopin projects an air of extemporaneous improvisation in his Impromptu in A flat (1837) by means of swirling arabesques of triplets spun effortlessly out of a simple harmonic pattern, the very image of a bubbling fountain of inspiration. Deeper waters are plumbed in the more pensive middle section in F minor, but here, too, the notion of fresh musical thoughts, spontaneously imagined, is upheld by the lavishly decorative, operatic-style ornamentation of a starkly simple melody.

Étude in A flat Major from Trois Nouvelles Études

In 1839 Chopin composed three etudes for inclusion in the Méthode des méthodes (1840), a comprehensive piano instruction manual published by the Belgian music educator François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) and the Bohemian pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). By no means as technically challenging as the composer’s daunting Op. 10 and Op. 25 sets, these “new” etudes assigned the aspiring pianist tasks of a more concentrated, distinctly musical nature: how to maintain interest in a melodic line set within accompaniment patterns that vie with it for the listener’s attention.

In the Etude in A flat an expressive, vocally-inspired melody floats freely within a two-against-three pattern of gently pulsing figuration, outlining melt-in-your-mouth harmonies of a delicate, sometimes aching poignancy. With melody spilling luxuriantly out of all voices in the texture, Chopin in this etude blurs the line between harmony and melody, between melody and accompaniment.

Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 No. 1

Chopin’s early Nocturne in F major Op. 15 No. 1 (1830-31) is a study in contrasts. Its tender opening melody, warmly doubled in the mid-range by the tenor voice, floats serenely over sympathetic harmonies in pulsing triplets, the pure soul of innocence in song. But then, like a daydream broken off by the intrusion of a stray thought,

it pauses… and plunges into a nightmarish middle section in F minor boiling up in turbulence and torment from the bass. This too gradually ebbs, however, and we drift back to the opening melody, as if waking from a bad dream. There is something eerie, almost surreal, about both daydream and nightmare in this piece.

Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52

Chopin’s ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of storytelling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they

are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842- 43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems the order of the day but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones of the opening carry real pathos, made more plangent, and then more urgent, upon repetition with a countermelody in the alto.

The second theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the first theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then… magic! The very first bars of introduction return, in
a different key, and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.

But the first theme’s lament returns, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The second theme follows,
but it too finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in
a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until… magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.

After what seems like a reprieve—five angelic chords descending from heaven—all hell breaks loose and the work rides its fury to a final, fateful conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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