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PROGRAM NOTES: IGOR LEVIT

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms)

The Bach revival of the 19th century began with a performance of the
 St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, conducted by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It reached its stride at mid-century with the founding, by Robert Schumann and others, of the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society tasked with the publication of Bach’s complete works. Over the next 50 years, European musicians had ever-greater access, at a pace of almost one new volume a year, to the complete range of Bach’s creative output: cantatas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral suites, as well as works for harpsichord, clavichord and organ – the whole lot of it.

Only one problem remained: getting the public on their side. The most popular solo instrument of the 19th century, both on the concert stage and in the family home, was the piano, and while Bach wrote for virtually every performing instrument of his time, the piano was not one of them. The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel- framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription.

And the transcribers were many. Each saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own individual aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a lonely, moody, solitary figure capable of making the stone walls of his great church tremble with the force of his musical personality. Brahms, who became a subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft edition in 1856, took another view. For him, Bach was a musical craftsman whose surpassing merit resided deep in the formal structures of his scores, not in their surface effect.

His transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004 is thus an attempt to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sound of the violin on the piano. And in keeping with the severity of his approach, he wrote for the left hand alone, in order to reproduce for the performing pianist the challenges this polyphonic work would have originally posed for the solo violinist.

These challenges were not trivial. The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations. Bach’s Chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic pro le of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor.

The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavichord. Those used to hearing the Chaconne played in the more popular Busoni transcription will hear a new work in this rendition, one much more dependent on the musician’s ability to convey with fewer notes the greatness of its musical design through nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and expressive detail.

Ferruccio Busoni
Fantasia after J. S. Bach KiV 253

Busoni’s Fantasia was written in 1909 as an expression of personal grief at the death of his father, Ferdinando Busoni, the person who first introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is a hybrid between transcription and original composition, containing elements of both in equal measure.

Bach is present in fairly literal quotations from three works: the organ chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, who art the light of the day), from which the ‘tolling bell’ motive of four long repeated notes comes; the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen (God’s son is come) from the Kirnberger chorale settings; and the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to Almighty God) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.

Busoni’s own writing in the Fantasia envelops the quotations from Bach in shrouds of downcast rumination, as symbolized by deep explorations of the low range, and by recurring gentle echoes in the high range that are emblematic of a mystical contemplation of the Beyond. How earthly pain vies with religious faith for the mourner’s cast of mind is easily grasped

in the way that some of the chorale melodies are rhythmically displaced relative to the regular beat structure of the bass, especially in the dark and brooding introduction.

The high degree of harmonic indeterminacy in the writing gives it a ‘floating’ quality, as if the thoughts behind it were struggling through a fog of confused emotions. At times piercing, patterns of falling semitones evoke the stabbing pain of mourning. This heightened degree of expressiveness, and the means used to convey it, are much akin to the pianistic rhetoric of Scriabin.

The composer’s emotional ambivalence in this liturgical collection of consecrated memories is evident in the work’s closing gestures: a pair of echoes, the first up high, in the major mode, symbolizing heavenly peace, the last down in the bass, in the minor mode, symbolizing earthly grief.

Robert Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme in E at major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24

In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter, or perhaps because of it, he wrote down a theme o ered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.

The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized
hymn that in its downward-seeking phrases blends the pious fervour
of communal singing with the tenderness of personal reflection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring to vary instead its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices, the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.

It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment, the aural traces of a mental window gently closing on the world .

Richard Wagner
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal (arr. Liszt)

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual, glorifying the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood owing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined, military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera
in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of the actions and psychological states of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mood of mystery and the religious symbolism radiating out from the rst great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

Franz Liszt
Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam (arr. Busoni)

In 1847, Franz Liszt ended his career as a touring virtuoso pianist and took up residence in Weimar to concentrate on composition. Perhaps it was the experience of living in a place where Bach had lived and worked that prompted his interest in organ music, or perhaps it was the awakening of the religious feelings that would later see him take minor orders in the Catholic Church. Or indeed, perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t resist the temptation of writing for an instrument that could make even more noise than the iron-framed Érard pianos on which he broke so many strings in his concert career.

His first major composition for organ came in 1850, a gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue (lasting a good half hour) based on a chorale melody from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, which had premiered in Paris in 1849. In the opera, three evil Anabaptist fanatics in 16th-century Holland connive to convince the Dutch population that they all need to be re- baptized in order to get on the right side of the Almighty. Their recruiting song Ad nos ad salutarem undam (Come to us, to the waves of salvation) is a snivelling little tune in the minor mode with numerous awkward intervals in a demonic dotted rhythm.

Liszt’s treatment of this theme unfolds in three distinct sections. In the opening section the theme is teased out in small dramatic fragments, bit by bit, its character hinted at strongly by menacing snippets of dotted rhythm that unfold in a wide variety of styles, from bombastic assertion to hushed recitative, over vast swathes of the keyboard.

The placid and quietly lyrical Adagio second movement provides much welcome relief from the rough-textured and rambunctious Fantasy preceding it. This movement presents the theme in its entirety, in the major mode, and calmly meditates on its melodic character.

All this daydreaming, however, is interrupted by a sweeping cadenza that announces a return to the minor mode and the last movement’s fugue. Liszt’s fugue subject is a nasty piece of work, highlighting the aberrant intervals and pointed dotted rhythms of the original theme. Of course, Liszt can’t stay long in a purely contrapuntal texture and his fugue soon devolves once again into free fantasy to end in a blaze of triumphalism that would make even Napoleon blush.

Busoni does a masterful job of translating Liszt’s somewhat awkward and unidiomatic organ figurations into the virtuoso language of the piano paraphrase. Mimicking characteristic keyboard textures from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Réminiscences de Norma to convey the sonic heft of the original organ work, he seems at every turn to ask: Why use just one note when ten will do?

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

Program notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay. Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin. It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies. These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C. The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than that with which he began.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor
from Violin Partita No. 2 BWV 1004, arr. by Ferruccio Busoni

The Italian pianist, composer and conductor Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a tireless champion of the cause of contemporary music. His most important contributions to the modern concert repertoire, however, are retrospective, consisting of his popularizing keyboard transcriptions of works by J. S. Bach. Such, indeed, was his fame in this regard that his wife Gerda often found herself introduced at social occasions as ‘Mrs. Bach-Busoni’.

It is natural that Busoni should have been attracted to the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, as this work stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges it poses for the performer and the crystalline brilliance of its formal design. Musicologist Susan McClary calls it “the chaconne to end all chaconnes” while violinist Yehudi Menuhin referred to it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.”

The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande (with emphasis on the second beat of the bar), followed by 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

Busoni’s adaptation of 1893 is a vivid re-imagining of the structure of Bach’s violin score for the larger forces available on the modern piano keyboard. It should not be surprising that his conception of the Chaconne is so sonically grandiose, as the work itself only surfaced into public view at the height of the Romantic era. After waiting until 1802 to be published in a complete edition of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, its first recorded public performance came in 1841, with violinist Ferdinand David holding forth on his instrument next to Felix Mendelssohn improvising an accompaniment on the piano. Numerous other arrangements were to follow, including those of Schumann for violin and piano and Brahms for piano left hand.

Busoni grants himself full licence to take advantage of the complete range of sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even while writing multiple- register chord spacings more typical of the organ. His approach to transcribing was no doubt based on J. S. Bach’s own activities as a transcriber of other composers’ works. As Sara Davis Buechner tells us, “for Busoni, all music was a transcription of the composer’s original artistic idea anyway.”

While Busoni’s adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception, there are clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of the timbre of an orchestral brass section is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, followed not long after by the sounds of the timpani (in the variation with repeated notes), not to mention the many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the instrument for which the work was originally scored.

César Franck
Prelude, Chorale and Fugue M. 21

César Franck’s Prélude, Chorale and Fugue of 1884 is widely recognized as one of the highest achievements of 19th-century French piano writing. That such a work should come from the pen of a musician employed for most of his professional career as an organist might well be surprising. But as Stephen Hough points out, Franck’s unhappy early career as a young piano prodigy, thrust unwillingly into the public spotlight by an exploitative father, could well have warned him away from composing for the piano when he finally gained his independence as an adult.

Certainly the compositional models for this work, looking back as they do to the era of Bach and Handel, served well to distinguish the composer from the roving bands of circus-act piano virtuosi that he had narrowly escaped joining as a youth. The influence of Bach, in particular, is felt in the pervasive motive of the two-note sighing appoggiatura, so similar to its equally pervasive use at the opening of Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). Not to mention the variant of the melodic outline of Bach’s own name (when played according to the German naming system as B-A-C-H: ‘H’ being B natural), heard in the opening bars of the Prelude.

But this work also reveals itself as very much a product of its own time in the rich carpeting of its expansive keyboard writing – no mean feat in a work of overtly contrapuntal inspiration. Contemporary in reference, as well, is its use of the falling fourths of Wagner’s ‘bell motif’ from Parsifal, first announced in sweeping multi- octave arpeggios in the Chorale. This ‘motto’ theme recurs in the concluding fugue, along with the sighing appoggiaturas of the Prelude to mark this work as a classic example of ‘cyclical form’.

Frédéric Chopin
Barcarolle in F-sharp Major Op. 60

Chopin’s ‘fifth ballade’, as his Barcarolle of 1845 is sometimes called, transcends both in scale and dramatic intensity the models set for him in the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and the examples given in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Chopin had never been to Venice, so his evocation of the song of the gondoliers derives not from the recall of a musical memory, but rather from an imaginative journey into moonlight. Half dreamy nocturne, half heart-wringing love cry, it alternates between poetic reflection and restless passionate outburst. It seems to encapsulate in a single work the full range of Chopin’s musical sensibility, and he obviously was proud of it, as he played it frequently in his concerts in Paris, London and in Scotland.

The standard characteristics of the piano barcarolle, as announced by Mendelssohn in his Venetianisiches Gondellied of 1830, are all there: the 12/8 meter and repetitive rocking-boat rhythm stabilized by pedal points in the bass, and a love-duet texture of double 3rds and 6ths. But Chopin adds so much more to the mix, including a harmonic sensitivity to colour that makes you feel the chill of a fresh wind over the water at the point where the harmony suddenly turns to the minor. Scintillating flashes of iridescence sparkle from the tips of the waves up to the high register of the keyboard, and sumptuous trills (double trills, even) make you shimmer inside with the fire-and-ice pangs of young love. This is poetic writing for the piano of the highest order.

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63, No. 2 Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30, No. 4

The 19th century was an age in which musicians from Eastern Europe wore their national musical heritage on their sleeves: Liszt wrote Hungarian rhapsodies, Dvorak wrote Slavonic Dances, and Chopin wrote polonaises and mazurkas. The polonaise was an aristocratic dance, a ceremonial public dance: Bach and Mozart had written polonaises. The mazurka, however, was more intimately connected with the very essence of the Polish soul, its oddly arrhythmic pulse a measure of the very heartbeat of Poland.

The Mazurka in F minor Op. 62 No. 2 is a fine example of the sentimental, melancholy potential of this dance. It begins with a painful, plangent leap of a minor 9th and ranges restlessly and chromatically over its melodic ambitus in search of a respite that never seems to come.

The Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4, while inly wrapped with a dark cast of thought, still displays an inner strength of will that drives it from a slyly lilting dance pace on to exaltations of ecstasy.

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major Op. 47

Chopin’s four ballades all share a tone of epic narration but the third of the set, the Ballade in A flat Op. 47, stands apart for its bright sonorities and healthy, optimistic mood. It lacks the vehemence of expression that characterizes the other three ballades, Opp. 23, 38 and 52, with their terrifying codas of whirlwind intensity.

The work is dominated by two principal themes of contrasting character but united by common elements of basic melodic structure. The first, announced at the outset, is a songful melody that begins by rising up six scale notes, echoed by antiphonal responses in the left hand. Its contrapuntal profile is of two voices expanding out in opposite directions from a central point, a pattern that intensifies on the following page into celebratory cadences exploding out into ecstatic arpeggios to the low and high registers simultaneously.

The second theme changes the mood completely. It is a dancelike melody of instrumental character that descends six scale notes, outlined in a series of coquettish leaps made all the more coy by the constantly syncopated rhythm in which they are presented. While this second theme dips often into the minor mode, it rarely stays there long, often slipping back into the major when cadencing. The minor mode in thus constantly restrained from taking on the mask of tragedy.

While the first theme remains elegantly static throughout the work, the second undergoes considerable development in a texture of ornamental figuration that dances alternately above it and then resonantly rumbles below. This development is the dramatic heart of the piece, and immediately follows a third theme area of remarkable flamboyance, with extroverted multi-octave arpeggios issuing into joyously rambunctious passagework over large swaths of the keyboard.

The work ends with an ‘apotheosis’ of the songful first theme in massively thickened chordal harmonies and a recall of the rambunctious spirit and exuberant figuration of the contrasting middle section.

Enrique Granados
Three pieces from Goyescas

Enrique Granados’ colourful Goyescas suite, completed in 1911, was inspired by the works of the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Bearing the subtitle Los majos enamorados (Majos in love), it depicts the joys and struggles of a bohemian segment of Spanish society often painted by Goya, the majos, a lower-class stratum of the Madrid population known for their colourful style of national dress and saucy, self- assured manner. Later in the 19th century, majas would appear on the stage as the cigarette girls in Bizet’s Carmen.

Granados’ style of writing builds on the pianism of Chopin and Liszt but is highly charged with the sounds of castanets, the strumming of guitars, and other timbral reminders of Spain. Almost improvisatory in style with violent mood swings, his multilayered and deeply sensuous textures range widely over the keyboard, and like Debussy are sometimes written on three staves.

Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor (Lament, or the maja and the nightingale) is based on a Valencian folk tune. Its sad theme may be intuited from the situation in which it is used in the opera Granados composed from the Goyescas suite: a young woman, fearing for the life of her jealous lover who has gone off to fight a duel, pours out her soul to the nightingale. Her lament is presented in the simplest possible form at first, followed by five voluptuous variations. The nightingale has the last word in a coda replete with warbling trills and bird calls.

El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) is perhaps Granados’ greatest work. Both philosophical and deeply emotional, savagely raw and wondrously mysterious, it paints its two protagonists in stark contrasts of register, the inevitability of death resonating up from deep bass, the pleadings of love shimmering down from the high treble. Granados said that all of the themes of the entire suite are united in this piece, “intense pain, nostalgic love and final tragedy – death.”

El pelele depicts a game played by young women in which they would toss a life-sized straw man up in the air using a blanket held at the corners in the manner of a trampoline. The trills occurring frequently on the third beat of the bar express the giddy pleasure and sheer exuberance of the young women as they send the straw man aloft.

Donald G. Gíslason

 

 

 

 

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