Claude Debussy | Vancouver Recital Society

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Program Notes: Caroline Goulding & Wenwen Du

Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in A major, BWV 1015

Before taking up his post as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728). The young Prince was of the Calvinist persuasion, and thus had little need for church music, but he was also an avid music-lover and a competent viola da gamba player who spent lavishly on a musical establishment, his Kapelle, that Bach directed from 1717 to 1723. And so it was that during his tenure there Bach composed the majority of his works for violin, including a good half-dozen sonatas for violin and keyboard.

The four movements of the Sonata in A major are laid out in the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the ‘church’ sonata (sonata da chiesa), so named for its generally abstract style, considered more suitable for performance in a solemn setting than the dance-dominated ‘chamber’ sonata (sonata da camera). In this work Bach writes in the prevailing style of the trio sonata—normally featuring a lead solo instrument accompanied by clearly subordinate harmonic in-fill on the keyboard and bass reinforcement by some low-sounding instrument—but he enriches the genre by creating three independent melodic lines on two instruments: the violin and the two hands of the keyboard player.

This is evident in the warmly gracious first movement (without tempo indication) which opens with a luxuriantly long-limbed melody, deliciously ambivalent in its rhythmic pulse (is it 6/8 or 3/4?), answered immediately in the keyboard’s right hand, and then again in the left. The deliberately varied mixture of note lengths and beat patterns encourages you to forget the passage of time while gracious details such as simultaneous chains of trills in both instruments add a decorative element of Roccoco refinement to the texture.

The Allegro assai second movement is much more strongly rhythmic and features the propulsive motoric rhythms of the concerto grosso, with the keyboard often taking the lead in a constant chatter of 16ths while the violin trots blithely along commenting in a uniform pattern of 8ths. The violin’s breathless volley of rapid-fire arpeggios in the middle section is reminiscent of a Brandenburg Concerto cadenza.

Gentle pathos and lyrical introspection mark the Andante un poco third movement in the minor mode. Plaintively vocal in style, this movement is nevertheless structured with astonishing rigour. Listen for the strict two-voice canon between the violin and keyboard’s right hand.

The final Presto is in two-part form (with repeats) like a dance movement, but elaborated in a free three-voice fugue texture in each half. In this concluding movement Bach manages to gift his pleasure-loving prince with a finale that combines regal dignity and courtly decorum with the toe-tapping cheerfulness of a folk tune suitable for whistling.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2

In this sonata we catch Beethoven at the top of his game in a work of remarkable coherence, despite its wide variety of moods and wildly divergent styles of expression. Its outer movements, in particular, are chock-full of emotional mood swings while its inner movements simply wade ever deeper and deeper into the emotional tone they establish at their outset.

The piano is more than a full partner in the proceedings and its tone dominates the sonata as a whole. All four movements open with solo statements from the piano, and while the violin participates fully in the presentation and development of themes, it merely adds to, but never overshadows, the piano’s potential to create sonic theatre on its own terms. The piano purrs and growls in this work. It skips, it hops. By turns it whistles a merry tune and then tenderly pleads for understanding. The work of giving a place to the keyboard in the violin sonata, begun by Bach, is complete in this C minor sonata.

Of course, the key signature of C minor in Beethoven is tantamount to an in-flight announcement to fasten your seat-belt and expect turbulence. And Ludwig van B. does not disappoint. The work opens in a mood of mystery and quiet urgency with a furtive chordal motive in the piano that turns into a menacing murmur surging up from the bass at the entry of the violin. Strident, sabre-slashing chords mark the transition to the second theme that (anticlimactically) turns out to be a pert little military march, reminiscent of Non più andrai, the bass aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro evoking Cherubino’s future life in the army. The opera parallel continues as this theme then moves to the bass to rumble around in classic opera buffa style. Throughout the movement high drama plays out next to good-natured buffoonery, interspersed with passages of sheer rhythmic exhilaration. Beethoven clearly loves his material here and won’t let it go, plunging into an almost developmental coda of some length before the final chords of this movement.

The Adagio cantabile that follows paints a noble portrait of deep-seated emotion lacquered over, and held in check, by aristocratic restraint, its opening gesture of pleading repeated notes suggesting far more than the elegant, balanced phrases of its melody can express. Violin and piano become ever more texturally entwined as the movement progresses, with the piano eventually contributing a rich carpet of sweeping and swirling figurations beneath the cantilena of the violin above.

The Scherzo simply oozes with personality of a goofy, knuckle-headed sort that wins you over immediately. Its chirpy high spirits and galumphing rhythm, with phrases neatly cut up into bite-size pieces, bespeaks the country yokel but its playful toying with the metrical accent gives a hint of a winking intelligence lurking behind this pose, especially when the trio turns out to be in canon.

The sonata-rondo finale returns to the arena of high-tension theatre, beginning with its very first bars: a bass rumble that crescendos to explode into an exclamation point in the higher register, followed by hushed chords tiptoeing through the mid-range. It is hard not to think that in the many contrasting sections of this rondo, in its quicksilver alternations of major and minor mode, its deadpan changes of mood between high drama and skippy-dippy cheerfulness, Beethoven might well be having a laugh at the expense of sonata form itself.

 

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. 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 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.

It has been suggested that the title ‘sonata’ is equivalent here to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting. It simply refers to an absence of acknowledged subject matter, meaning that there was no ‘picture’ in mind when writing it. Others see Debussy as returning to the time of Rameau, when the term ‘sonata’ was used to mean simply a purely instrumental piece, something played rather than sung, but not necessarily a work following a prescribed formal plan.

Whatever the significance of the label, we find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this work, 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.

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. This melodic rocking motion—in 3rds, in 4ths and then in 5ths— repeats often in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone.

The second movement 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 finale, Très animé, opens with a display of piano bravura, answered in the violin with the opening melody of the first movement. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Béla Bartók
Rhapsody No.
1 Sz. 87

Bartók was not only a gifted composer and an accomplished pianist but also a dedicated ethnomusicologist who travelled deep into the rural outback of his native Hungary and surrounding regions to make recordings of villagers singing and playing the traditional music of their local areas. The authentic, raw-edged musical culture of turn-of-the-century peasant life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is captured in these recordings, but it is also heard in the many works that Bartók composed based on the melodies and rhythms collected on these ethnomusicological field trips.

His first Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, composed in 1928, is one of these. Structured in two movements in the slow-fast (lassú-friss) pattern of Hungarian folk music, this work seeks to meld the disparate worlds of Eastern European village fiddling and Western European concert life. The style of violin playing is heavily influenced by the capricious improvisatory showmanship of Gypsy fiddle-playing while the piano, resonant with dense tone clusters, jangles with the metallic timbre of a rag-tag village band.

The first movement Lassú presents a strutting rising-scale melody in the Lydian mode (think: C major scale with F# instead of F) over a plodding piano part rife with drone tones, often more a sonic drum-beat than a melodic line. A middle section offers lyric contrast with a plangent lament derived from a Transylvanian folk tune, full of rhythmic ‘snaps’ in a quick short-long pattern.

The Friss is a series of dance tunes with no overall formal structure other than that of continually building up excitement, accelerando, till the end. The violin in this movement is pushed to ever greater exertions of virtuosic showmanship in pursuit of its rhapsodic goals. (Is it just me, or is the first tune not a dead ringer for the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”?)

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program Notes: Raphaël Sévère & Paul Montag

Alexander Borodin
Sonata for Cello and Piano in B Minor
(adapted for clarinet & piano by Raphaël Sévère)

The role of the noisy neighbour in music history is an unjustly neglected theme for research but well worth considering in the case of Alexander Borodin’s Sonata for Cello & Piano in B minor (c.1860). Deeply imprinted on this work, from its first bars to its last, are the memorable strains of the fugue subject from Bach’s Sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin BWV 1001, which Borodin kept hearing coming through the walls of his apartment during an extended stay in Heidelberg.

Adapting Baroque thematic materials to the needs of 19th-century sonata form can be a tricky business, so after a bare-bones literal statement of Bach’s punchy, door- knocking theme, Borodin wastes no time in massaging its motivic play-dough into something more closely resembling a lyrical Russian folksong for his second theme.

Here, in the wistfully falling phrases and exotic harmonies of the Russian folk idiom is where Borodin finds the beating heart of his first movement, and he stays in touch with its lyrical pulse throughout in a constant flow of singable melodies and lush carpets of rolling harmonic underlay.

The Pastorale second movement strikes an even more intimate tone with a tender melody of the utmost innocence and simplicity, temporarily darkened by more troubling thoughts in a middle section that features a solo cadenza.

The finale opens with a ponderously solemn statement of Bach’s original fugue subject, but after a rhythmic makeover and a change of pace, it takes off as a sprightly drawing- room dance tune in the style of Mendelssohn. Cutting in, from time to time, is an achingly sentimental tune simply surging with a breast-heaving need to share. Bach’s fugue subject looks in again about halfway through to see how everyone is getting on, and after getting dragged into the party, finally gets the last word.

 

Witold Lutosławski
Dance Preludes

Witold Lutosławski’s engaging collection of dancelike pieces is written in the modernist idiom of Bartók and Stravinsky, using folk melodies popular in the north of Poland. Thinly scored and sparse in texture, this collection features frequent changes of time signature that evoke the improvised quality of village dance music. The suite is arranged in an alternating pattern of fast and slow movements.

The opening Allegro molto seems inordinately proud of the arpeggiated E-flat chord that it trumpets at the outset, but then oscillates continually between major and minor, chasing its own tail in a staccato game of “What’s my key?” The same ambiguity is present in the pensive Andantino but here a long-legged melody creates a sustained mood of elegy and reflection.

The Allegro giocoso returns to the village playground with a skipping beat that straddles the divide between exhilaration and humour, unlike the following Andante, in which the clarinet mopes in the low range of the instrument while the piano marks time in even quarter notes. The concluding Allegro molto moves upbeat again, adding a note of merry taunting with its obsessive repetitions in the clarinet that seem to say to the piano: “I’m in E flat and you’re not!”

 

Claude Debussy
Première Rhapsodie

In 1909 Paris Conservatoire director Gabriel Fauré asked Debussy to write a clarinet piece for the next year’s student performance exams. The result was the First Rhapsody, a vigorous test of the clarinetist’s ability to project a lyrical singing tone and demonstrate command of technical challenges ranging from quicksilver chromatic runs to chains of trills and rapid changes of articulation, all the while scrupulously following Debussy’s sometimes-fluid, sometimes-florid rhythmic patterning—without the aid of unseemly foot-tapping, of course.

This work is far more than a simple étude, however. Its balanced sectional contrasts and ingenious construction around the opening motif announced by the clarinet, developed thorough a panoply of moods from dreamy reverie to scherzando friskiness, reveal how Debussy’s burgeoning interest in structure was replacing the pictorialism of his earlier works.

 

Alban Berg
Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5

The so-called Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg (the First School being that of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven) formed at the beginning of the 20th century in reaction to the diminishing aesthetic returns being pocketed from the smouldering remains of Late Romanticism, with its chronic chromaticism and

severely weakened sense of tonality. At base atonal, and eventually coalescing around the abstract compositional procedures of the 12-tone system, its proponents existed on a continuum of extremes, from the grandiose, hair-pulling, dental-procedure expressionism of Schoenberg to the almost-Canadian-level politeness of musical gesture in the silk-spun miniatures of Anton Webern. Of the three, Alban Berg was the composer who ranged most freely among the options presented by the new movement, even venturing back, at times, into a 19th-century sense of tonality.

In his early Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1913, we catch him opting for a Schoenbergian atonal vocabulary and embrace of extreme dynamics (from fff down to pppp) but with a Webernian concision and clear sense of dramatic shaping.

This is music for close listening, especially the endings, which recede into a sonic horizon too distant for words. What these pieces lack in shower-humming tunefulness they amply make up for in atmosphere, and an almost indefinable Viennese charm.

 

Leonard Bernstein
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

The prodigious musical gifts of pianist, conductor, composer, and music educator Leonard Bernstein can already be heard in this, his first published work, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, written between 1941 and 1942 while he was still a young twenty- something student attending the Tanglewood summer music school where Paul Hindemith taught.

Hinting at the astonishing diversity of musical styles that Bernstein would later adopt as his own, this sonata moves confidently between the rarefied language of mid-20th- century “serious” composition and the more direct appeal of the musical vernacular. It has been described as

a haunting work whose sonorities remind one alternately of religious incantation, the opening theme of Stravinsky’s Firebird and smoke-filled jazz clubs.

The first movement opens with a wandering clarinet tune chaperoned by modernist counterpoint in the piano part, reminiscent of Hindemith. As the pace picks up, the piano’s chugging rhythmic ostinato give us the first clues that West Side Story is only a decade away. While the movement’s formal outlines are quite loose, and development kept to a minimum, this movement’s melodic lines evoke a kind of cool yearning that presages the composer’s urbane Broadway creations of the 1950s.

An austere lyricism marks the opening of the second movement Andantino, which achieves intimacy by means of its slow tempo, steady pace, and sparse, almost spooky scoring.

The nimble pulse of Latino-inflected jazz (Vivace e leggiero) soon makes its appearance, however, and these two modes of musical appeal—the soulful and the syncopated—play alternately for the listener’s attention until both the clarinet and the piano get into it in a big way, trading riffs and taking their increasingly exuberant dialogue up to the high register for an exclamation-point ending.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program notes: Emanuel Ax

Georges Bizet
Variations Chromatiques de concert

For those that like to feather-dust humming the habanera from Carmen with a rose clenched between their teeth might be surprised to learn that Georges Bizet was not only an opera composer, but also a pianist.

Anecdotal accounts of the period reveal that the keyboard skills of Georges Bizet verged on the miraculous. His sight-reading skills, in particular, were a cause for astonishment. It was said that he could read anything put in front of him, making him a rehearsal pianist much in demand in the lyric theatres of Paris where, in fact, he found ready employment assisting in the production of operas by Berlioz and Gounod, among others. Collateral damage to this sort of day job was the fact that, in the words of musicologist Hugh MacDonald, “he devoted an alarmingly high proportion of his short life to arranging other people’s music.” In fact, more than 6,000 pages of piano transcriptions & piano-vocal arrangements were published under Bizet’s name during his lifetime, compared with a scant 1,500 pages of his own compositions.

The style of these opera arrangements weighs heavily on his Variations chromatiques, composed in 1868, which are operatic in intensity and orchestral in texture, leaving the poor performing pianist with the unenviable task of attempting to convey the sound of musical forces much larger than those his mere 10 fingers were meant to project. Needless to say, the keyboard writing in this work is not ‘pianistic’ in the normal sense: there are chords that extend beyond the stretch of the human hand, pedalling challenges reminiscent of walking on hot coals, and numerous textures typical of orchestral transcription. “Double tremolos”, as Winton Dean wryly observes, “are not the way to the pianist’s heart”. And yet these rather odd variations, the ugly duckling amid a gaggle of contemporary works with finer plumage, have attracted the attention of Glenn Gould, who recorded them, and Felix Weingartner, who arranged them for orchestra.

One obvious point of interest is the work’s alleged spiritual descent from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor for piano, a work which Bizet played and greatly admired. Both works, in C, feature a chromatically- structured chaconne-like theme, and similar variation textures link the two works, as well, not the least of which is the teeter-totter pattern of dizzying runs up and down the keyboard towards the end. Bizet’s starting point, however, is a theme so abstract as to be almost a parody of an academic exercise: a chromatic scale that slowly climbs up one octave then descends the same distance back down, the entire process chaperoned by a constant pedal on the circuit’s home base of C.

As it turns out, however, it is Beethoven’s variation process that turns out to be the more abstract. Bizet’s variations, 7 in the minor mode, followed by 7 in the major, are more reflective of the musical styles and genres at play in the Paris of the 1860s in which he lived. The opening melodic gesture of Variation 1 suggests a similar opening in Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 while Variation 11 enchants with the parallel thirds and sixths of his G major Nocturne, Op. 37 No. 2. Variations 3 and 4 evoke the keyboard bravado of Liszt. Variation 10 dances with the characteristic rhythm of the polonaise, while Variation 13 quotes the love theme from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

Far from being the exercise in musical transcendence that its theme would predict, Bizet’s variations give us a slice of mid-century musical France, flavourfully assembled under the influence of popular taste and skillfully regulated by his masterful command of chromatic harmony.

 

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Suite in G major/minor
from Nouvelles Pièces de clavecin

Jean-Philippe Rameau counts as one of the greatest musicians of the French Baroque, whose operas, beginning with Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), dominated the French stage of his time, and whose Treatise on Harmony (1722) revolutionized 18th-century thinking on the subject, making clear the fundamental principles that would determine the large-scale tonal architecture of major works of the Classical era. While the pioneering work of William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants have in recent decades made Rameau’s operas available to modern audiences, it is by the three collections of harpsichord pieces from 1706, 1724 and ca. 1727 that Rameau is best known today.

The works contained in these collections may be divided into two types. There are the courtly dances that form the constituent elements of the suite genre that Rameau inherited from the 17th century, and there are what are known as character or genre pieces (a French specialty), each labelled with a colourful title identifying a person, object, or activity meant to be described by the music so labelled. These latter play to the French national expectation that music will not just float freely in a world of its own, but rather be descriptive of something, be classified, anchored in some pre-existing impression already stored in the imagination. These titles, however, should not be taken too literally, as they were often applied afterwards, or invented by others, and as such constitute a variety of “inside baseball” in the French Baroque that little rewards sustained study or research.

The pieces are structured either in binary form, in which a first part moves from the home key to the dominant, moving back to the home in the second part, or in the form of a rondeau, comprised of a refrain, stated at the outset, the successive appearances of which are interlarded with a series of contrasting couplets.

Rameau’s keyboard writing was very advanced for the time, and he was very proud of various innovations which he claimed to have introduced in keyboard technique, although some of these were actually developed independently by Scarlatti, as well. Many of the showy batteries (styles of keyboard attack) which he describes in the the introductions to his published collections involve hand-crossings or nimble tag-team trade-offs between the hands. And because he is writing in the decorative age of the French Rococo, his melodies are garlanded with as many ornaments as Imelda Marcos has shoes.

Les Tricotets refers to a quick-paced dance of the same name, so called because in dancing it the feet are thought to move with the speed of an experienced knitter’s hands. Rameau’s batterie in this piece features a single melodic line with a common note played successively by the two hands. Its form is a rondeau with two contrasting sections, the second in the minor mode to provide a change of tone colour. Its rhythmic piquancy comes from the overlay of 3/4 and 6/8 groupings.

L’Indifférente is in binary form, with each half repeated. It features even 8th-note motion, unperturbed by rhythmic emphasis. This, perhaps, is the clue that explains the austere “indifference” referred to in its title.

Minuets I & II take a stereo look at the same opening melodic gesture, the first in the major mode, the second in the minor. These are real danceable minuets, the first used later in Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux (1737), the second in La Princesse de Navarre (1745).

La Poule attempts to forge a link between the disparate worlds of concert performance and animal husbandry. If the number of works inspired by farmyard animals
is understandably low on most recital programs, the number directly descriptive of chickens, in particular, is even lower. (We pass over in silence the indecorous “Chicken Dance” so lamentably popular at weddings.) Rameau’s The Hen struts and frets its four minutes upon the stage and then is heard no more. And yet by dint of repetition and development of the simple opening motif (five repeated notes and an arpeggio), the composer manages to enlarge his caricature into a riveting portrait of considerable tragicomic grandeur.

Rameau’s status as a music theorist is given high relief in L’Enharmonique, a work of extraordinary experimental daring for its time which plays upon the (enharmonic) equivalence of pitches such as those notated B# and C to effect modulations that his contemporaries would have been quick to label “learned”. The effect of these progressions would be all the more wig-curling on harpsichords not tuned in equal temperament.

L’Égyptienne is a character study of a female inhabitant of Egypt, which was the land of the Gypsies, according to legend, and this young woman dances in the wild manner assumed to be characteristic of that race of merry, but emotionally volatile nomads. The broken- chord texture that ranges over wide swaths of the keyboard is orchestral in style and is meant to suggest the extravagant gestures of this exotic performer.

 

Claude Debussy
Les Estampes, L 100

The keyboard world of Claude Debussy is a world of sensuousness, of voluptuousness even, a dreamlike world pulsing with mysterious sounds and dappled with suggestive sonic shadows. What separates him from the Romantic and late-Romantic eras that preceded him is not just that he flouts the rules of traditional harmony and voice-leading: he ignores them completely, because they are not the point at all. Dissonance, in Debussy, is no longer the midwife of harmonic motion, no longer the prime cause of a work’s momentum, its forward movement, but rather just another sound colour like any other. His harmonies might be diatonic, chromatic, or boldly atonal; they might be used alternately in a sustained manner, or together in rapid alternation.

The melodies and chord structures of preceding musical eras are merely small elements in the much larger sound world that he is creating and their appearance often has the emotional valence of a quotation. Although he admired the piano music of Chopin, his sensibility was of a different order entirely, and his aesthetic aims entirely different from that of the Romantic-era composer. The self-aggrandizing concentration on the individual, introspective and isolated from society, so typical of the Romantic pose in Art, was anathema to him. His imagination was stirred more easily by the simple things he experienced in his natural environment, the things we can all experience: the sound of rain, the passing of clouds, the faint echo of some music in the distance.

His Estampes (“prints” or “engravings”), composed in 1903, offer three examples of Debussy’s pictorial rhetoric. They take us on an exotic journey from the Far East, to the centre of Spain, then home to France again, each stop on the way saturated with local colour, and treated as the subject of a sonic reverie.

In Pagodes we hear the pentatonic scale of Asian music (the scale represented by all the black notes on the piano) and a suggestion of the metallophone and gong timbres of a Javanese gamelan orchestra, of the kind that Debussy heard at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. The lack of a leading tone in the pentatonic scale (the ti leading to doh) gives a magic stillness and serenity to this music. This is reinforced by the interchangeability of its two- and four-bar phrases, which could easily be transposed in modular fashion without spoiling the effect. This piece exudes a languid calm, infinitely suggestive of the gentle movement of waves in a pond, or the slow swaying of native dancers. The indication presque sans nuance (almost without nuance) expresses, more than anything else, Debussy’s desire to distance the scene presented from the pianist’s personal whim or interpretive passion.

La Soirée dans Grenade (An evening in Grenada) brings us within range of the folk music of Spain, represented at the outset by the lilting rhythm of the habanera echoing in virtually every octave of the keyboard before we enter into the musical scene before us. The uniquely savoury flavour of the Spanish folk idiom is sharply sketched in the melody that emerges, stamped with the augmented intervals of the Arabic scale. The sound of guitar strumming blends in, interrupted by a few quick flashes of horse’s hooves, but in the end it is the drowsy sonic haze of siesta time that envelops us, fading into the distance.

Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain) is both a picture postcard of a windy, rainy day and a bustling toccata to finish off this triptych of musical prints with a flourish. The constant chatter of 16th notes creates a powerful image of falling rain, the sudden leaps of harmony contributing to the impression that a force of nature is at work, beyond human control. Within this sparkling texture, Debussy quotes two French folksongs, Nous n’irons plus aux bois (We’ll not return to the woods) and Dodo, l’enfant do, that add a dimension of childlike wonder and innocence to the scene. The ending is a bright splash-in-the-face flash of pianistic puddle- jumping.

 

Claude Debussy
Hommage à Rameau L110 No. 2

Debussy was busy editing Les Fêtes de Polymnie for the complete Rameau edition of 1908 when he composed this piece as part of the second series of triptychs published under the name Images. In it he pays tribute to a composer whom he considered quintessentially ‘French,’ his reverential offering taking the form of a serious and solemn sarabande. There is a monumental quality to its austere texture of bare octaves, yet a dreamy reflective world of genuine emotion expands within the texture and rises to the surface as these octaves thicken into a stream of parallel augmented chords, heading for a grand climax from which they are pulled back at the last moment.

 

Claude Debussy
L’Isle Joyeuse L 106

Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse (The Island of Joy) is surely his happiest, his most overtly exuberant and thrilling work. Allegedly inspired by a Rococo painting of Jean-Antoine Watteau entitled L’Embarquement pour Cythère (The Embarkation for Cythera), it describes the voluptuous love revels of a party of aristocrats on the island sacred to Venus, goddess of love.

The first sound we hear is a delicate vibration in the air, a trill, rippling through sonic space in patterns of figuration that outline the whole-tone scale, a 6-note scale pattern that runs through the piece as a whole. Soon a sprightly tune in a dotted rhythm presents itself, a melody more than a little similar to the jaunty tune of The Little Shepherd (also in A major) from the composer’s Children’s Corner suite. This tune is in the Lydian mode (a major scale with a sharpened fourth degree), which gives it a rustic flavour richly suggestive of the goat-footed glee of Pan the piper in an enchanted wood. A more familiar scale pattern, a clear diatonic A major, shines through in the lyrical second melody of the piece, an undulating evocation of the sea and the waves of voluptuous emotion sweeping over the lovers on their island paradise.

Both themes are tossed about in a rush of increasing gaiety and gradually building exhilaration, slipping easily between tonal centres in a bright tonal world brimming with melodic major thirds, augmented chords and whole tone scales. After a bustling march builds up to a sonorous fanfare of triumph, the lyrical second theme reaches its apotheosis in an explosion of orchestral thunder that issues into a luminous vibration of shimmering tremolos, to end the piece with a plunge from the top to the very bottom of the keyboard.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Four Scherzos, Opp. 20, 31, 39 and 54

The Scherzos of Chopin are a long way from the ‘joke’ movements that substituted for the minuet in Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies. While Beethoven replaced the conformity of courtly decorum with a newfound freedom of idiosyncratic utterance, opening the door to a display of personal whimsy and jovial, good-natured ribbing, Chopin kicked down the door to announce a new level of emotional intensity, a new wider playing field for what was possible on the keyboard at the extremes of musical expression.

Belying his popular image as the composer of exotic, delicately perfumed salon pieces, Chopin’s scherzos are muscular essays in pure pianistic power, projecting real anger, defiance, and even ferocity, with only the last of them, the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, displaying any of the mischievous but innocent scamper that would define the genre in the hands of Mendelssohn or Henri Litolff (whose Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique in D minor virtually defines ‘cuteness’ in music).

The Scherzo No. 1 in B minor dates from Chopin’s early trip to Vienna at the age of 20, during which the Warsaw uprising against Russia, often associated with the composer’s Revolutionary Étude, made return to his Polish homeland impossible and his exile in Paris virtually inevitable. Is there bitterness in this piece, an angry resolve? The stinging opening chords leave us room to suspect both. The main musical idea pursued from the outset is a nervous, petulant figuration split between the hands that rises from the lowest to the highest reaches of the keyboard in the space of a single phrase, alternating in its impetuous course with pauses for moments of reflection and pathos. Rapid figuration of this sort, stretching over a 10th in each hand, defines the new world of technique that Chopin was introducing into modernism pianism, first glimpsed in the wide- spanning arpeggios of the C major étude from the composer’s collection of Op. 10.

The trio middle section provides extreme dramatic contrast in the form of a lullaby: the old Polish Christmas carol Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, Little Jesus), with its hypnotically lulling rhythm and comforting pedal note in the bass. The return of the agitated opening section brings a take-no-prisoners approach to the proceedings when it drives forward into a coda of unusual vehemence, nipping like a mad dog at the heels of the advancing harmonies in a series of off-beat accents. The work finishes as it began, with a pair of dramatic chords providing an uncompromising minor- mode ‘Amen’ to this turbulent piece.

The Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor is a study in extreme contrasts of keyboard register and of mood. It opens with a dramatic exchange of gestures between a mysterious triplet figure in the middle range and an echoing broadside of piano sonority, leading eventually to an ecstatic exclamation from both sides of the keyboard that simultaneously rush headlong into the mid-range. Needless to say, this piece does not lack drama. A long-limbed lyrical melody then supervenes to ease the tension, holding forth for phrase after yearning phrase above a wide-spaced rippling arpeggio accompaniment in the left hand. Contrast comes in a middle section that begins in an atmosphere of introspective calm but soon yields to the rhythm of a lilting three-step waltz, shadowed by an obsessive triplet figure in the alto that becomes the driving force behind a full-on development section. The reprise of the first section takes its lyrical melody into new chromatic territory that brings on a rush to the finish, ceremonially crowned with a chord that begins in the mid-register but leaps instantly to both ends of the keyboard.

The Scherzo No. 3 in C# minor begins with a mysterious melodic mumble in the mid-range followed by a trumpet-like echo in the high register. Octaves in unison in both hands soon spell out the defiant tone, the uncompromising bravado that will characterize the more active sections of this work. This is balanced by a lyrical middle section remarkable for its reverential tone, embodied in the antiphonal exchanges between a simple hymn-like tune in the mid-range and the delicious cascade of piano figuration that arrives from above like a gentle rain from Heaven. This response from on high has almost a religious feel to it, with the pauses that follow each strain resembling those of a Lutheran chorale. Chopin’s chromatic treatment of his wide-ranging figuration produces a host of dramatic surprises as the work proceeds, sometimes dazzling with the brilliance of a rotated kaleidoscope, sometimes masterfully intimating the presence of danger and menace lurking round the corner. The emotional volatility of the piece is captured spectacularly at the approach to the coda, when a soothing pedal figuration in the bass wells up to reassure you that all will be well, only to turn on a dime into a raging fury that re-asserts an unstoppable resolve to end in the minor mode. The final chord, although major, almost glistens with malice.

The Scherzo No. 4 in E major stands out for its unusually carefree mood and psychological buoyancy. This is a piece that definitely knows how to stop and smell the roses. Beginning with a simple five-note motive, it flits this way and that, indulging its every capricious whim, until settling into a slower tempo to ruminate soulfully and introspectively on the melancholy side of its gypsy soul. Unable to stay down for long, though, its opening sprightliness returns, with an enriched sonority of trills bubbling up from the middle of the texture, before heading for the finish line in a flurry of octaves and a dazzling multi-octave scale to the high register.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

 

 

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

 

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

Alban Berg: Piano sonata, Op. 1

“Among the most auspicious Opus Ones ever written,” was Glenn Gould’s assessment of Alban Berg’s piano sonata. Berg wrote this work in 1907-08 while studying with Arnold Schönberg. Originally it was intended to have three movements but, after completing the first, Berg found that “for a long time nothing worthwhile occurred to me, whereupon Schoenberg remarked, “In that case, you have said everything there was to be said.”

Schönberg’s instincts were correct, for Berg’s fourteen-minute, one-movement sonata is indeed a totally unified dramatic event that speaks volumes with the utmost economy. In spite of the music’s modern sound, it is nevertheless grounded in the formal classical layout consisting of a repeated exposition, development and recapitulation. Although a principal subject (opening phrase) and a subordinate theme (possibly two subordinate themes, depending on how you regard Berg’s “developing variation” procedure) can be identified, it is more through tempo changes than through contrasting tonalities or moods that they are recognizable. The second theme is slower, the third slower still. The moment of greatest tension arrives registrally, dynamically and texturally at just about the midpoint, which Berg marks ffff. By the end, the listener has experienced a sense of fulfillment, a sense that Berg has indeed said everything there was to say, and that he has left, in Gould’s words again, “the impression of great peaks and lesser crests, calibrated as carefully and achieved as inevitably as in music of a more orthodox nature.”

 

Gabriel Fauré: Impromptu no. 2 in F minor, Op. 31; Barcarolle no. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

Like Chopin, Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms. For both, the piano was central to their mode of expression, and both excelled in harmonic sophistication and in advanced techniques of modulation.

The term impromptu implies something conceived on the spur of the moment, born of poetic fancy, giving less heed to structure and formal procedures than to delicacy of ornamentation and casual style. Nevertheless, Fauré’s five works in the genre, like Chopin’s, exhibit well-defined formal balance. The second (1883) is one of his most beloved and frequently heard piano pieces, written in the tarantella rhythm (a pulse of two triplets per bar in a rapidly swirling pattern). The third of Fauré’s thirteen barcarolles (1885) is filled with a sense of languor, but one spiked with piquant dissonances. The tonality weaves in and out between major and minor, while the delicate and pervasive ornaments to the melodic line caused the famous French pianist Marguerite Long to poetically remark that, in one instance, they “crown the theme like sea foam on the edge of a wave.”

 

Claude Debussy: Images, book 1; L’isle joyeuse

“I love pictures (images) almost as much as music,” Debussy once wrote. Hence, we find not only a great many sound pictures throughout his music, but no fewer than three groups of pieces actually entitled “Images,” each a triptych in itself: two for piano (1905 and 1907) and one for orchestra (1906-1912).

Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) represents one of the finest examples of musical Impressionism. Whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales, floating blocks of parallel chords, vague washes of tonal color, subtly blurred sonorities, long pedal-points and a new kind of “harmonic chemistry,” as Debussy called it, all are elements in the world of musical Impressionism. In the second piece, Debussy pays his respects to the eighteenth-century master Jean-Philippe Rameau. The choice of the sarabande (a slow, stately dance in triple meter) is in itself an act of homage to Rameau’s predilection for classic dance forms. Impish humor, gaiety and a sense of irony infuse Mouvement.

L’isle joyeuse (1904) ranks as one of Debussy’s most ambitious, sensual and dazzling piano works. It is sometimes regarded as a musical representation of Watteau’s Embarquement pour Cythère, for, like the painting, it is richly imbued with gaiety and animation.

 

Marc-André Hamelin: Variation on a Theme of Paganini

In the tradition of so many great pianists of the past (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Rachmaninoff … ), Marc-André Hamelin the virtuoso is also a composer. To showcase his diabolical virtuosity, Hamelin wrote in 2011 a ten-minute series of variations based on the famous theme of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other composers have also been stirred to this task, but none with greater panache and brilliance than Hamelin. Even the likes of Liszt and Rachmaninoff would surely blanch in face of the fiendishly difficult technical acrobatics found in Hamelin’s work. By turns, devilish, mischievous, playful, coy, mysterious and convulsive, it remains continuously fascinating. Hamelin himself concedes that it “breaks the mold; it constantly tries to push the envelope as far as what may be esthetically acceptable!”

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff: two Preludes; Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36

In 1903, Rachmaninoff brought out a group of ten preludes (Op. 23) which, as one writer ventured, was an act of self-defense, an attempt to channel the overwhelming popularity of the C sharp minor prelude of 1892, into other, similar pieces. A further group of thirteen was published as Op. 32 in 1910. Each seeks to capture the essence of a mood through the elaboration of a specific figuration, motif, or rhythmic pattern. The G major Prelude is one of the most sublime, reposed and sheerly beautiful. “A feeling of tranquility dwells here,” writes biographer Max Harrison, “and this piece stands with the G-sharp minor prelude [the one we hear next on Mr. Hamelin’s program] as the purest expression of lyricism in all Rachmaninoff’s piano music. The melody sings limpidly above evanescent arpeggios [in the left hand].” The G sharp minor prelude, another popular favorite, shimmers throughout with coruscating brilliance.

Rachmaninoff wrote only two piano sonatas, the First in 1907, the Second in 1913. He heavily revised the original version of the Second in 1931, considerably shortening it and lightening the textures in numerous passages. Although not especially long in minutes, this sonata is big in scope and impact, embracing an enormous emotional range, and approaching symphonic proportions in its textures and polyphonic complexities. The sound of heavy, pounding bells, which fascinated the composer all his life, and which found their way into so many of his scores, is evoked frequently over the course of the sonata.

The three movements are not defined as such in the score, and are played without pause, underscoring their close interrelationship. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure. The second serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third.

 

Program Notes by Richard Markow, 2012

 

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