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Program notes: Yun-Chin Zhou

Domenico Scarlatti
Three Sonatas

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half that ends in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K.) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L.) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The Sonata in D minor K. 9 has long been among the most popular of Scarlatti’s sonatas, acquiring its nickname, the Pastorale, from a concert arrangement with that title published by pianist Karl Tausig (1841- 1871). Tausig’s title may well have originated in the impression of rural peacefulness summoned up by the sonata’s gently flowing melody in 6/8 time, with its Pan-flute-like trills and breathless runs up to the high register. Whoever this flute-playing shepherd is, though, he seems to have acquired a little drummer boy following hard behind, arguing via leaps in the bass that the piece would make a nice courtly march.

Drums are heard, as well, accompanied by trumpets, in the very fanfare-like Sonata in E major K. 380, with its many open fifth sonorities. We hear in this sonata an echo, in miniature, of the music of court ritual that must have been part of the everyday life of Scarlatti’s patron, employer and pupil, the Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal and Spain. And yet this piece arrives at a surprisingly intimate level of expression, given the ceremonial premise from which it sets out.

The Sonata in G major K. 455, by contrast, is unabashedly dancelike and popular in tone, filled with the rhythmic click and snap of the castanets. The idiomatic figurations of the guitar are heard in the repeated-note patterns that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity while it evokes Spanish popular musical culture in the most vividly direct way.

 

Franz Liszt
Sposalizio from Années de Pèlerinage II

The three books of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) detail the cultural impressions left on the Hungarian pianist-composer by his travels through Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Sposalizio is the first entry in the second book of this musical diary, a collection of pieces devoted to Italy. It takes its name from the 1504 painting by Raphael, Lo Sposalizio della Vergine (The Wedding of the Virgin), a representation of the joining of the Virgin Mary and Joseph in holy matrimony, pictured as taking place in the open square of an Italian city with numerous witnesses gathered round.

Liszt’s builds his evocation of this scene out of two simple motives presented at the outset: a wandering collection of notes in the pentatonic scale (remarkably similar to the opening of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, also in E major) and a short, slightly hesitant dotted figure. These two figures permeate the texture ever more urgently until a bell-ringing climax is reached with crashing octaves in the left hand to create what Alfred Brendel has called “an aura of elated innocence.”

 

Alexander Scriabin
Valse in A flat Major Op. 38 Vers la flamme Op. 72
Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 Fantasy in B minor Op.28

It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” He wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études, just like his Polish musical forebear.

The influence of Chopin is most readily seen in his Valse in A flat Op. 38 with its achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass clarifying the underlying harmony. Unlike Chopin, however, is the rhythmic pulse, which is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern expected of a well-behaved waltz. This is a waltz that ‘flutters’. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand will have none of it, and cheerfully ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy by wandering widely in 4-to-the- bar and 5-to-the-bar melodic units to create a perfumed distillation of waltz gestures, interrupted by bold outbursts of inner passion.

The ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (Towards the flame) is far from the salon demeanour of Scriabin’s early ‘Chopin’ period, being among the last works that he composed. It represents a psychedelic aural imagining of the world moving slowly and inexorably ‘towards the flame,’ heating up until it is finally consumed in a great conflagration of fire and light. The harmonic vocabulary of this piece is extremely advanced, based on chromatically modified dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in fourths rather than thirds. The harmonically subversive sound of tritones rings in the ear from the very start of the piece, when time seems to stand still, frowning in worry at what is to come. A second stage is reached when deep bass rumblings arise in a murky 5-against-9 rhythm, while the treble remains obsessed with the semitone motive that pervades the piece. Tongues of flame arrive in the treble when double tremolos curl around the middle register, eventually breaking out into silvery flashes of brilliance above until the piece ends in a dazzling aural snapshot of pure white light.

The piano textures of Chopin are apparent once again in the Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 with its sweeping left-hand accompaniment figures, studded with countermelodies in the tenor. And yet its wistfully lyrical melody, doled out in poised, evenly balanced phrases, barely ranges over more than an octave.

A much more muscular posture, very much at odds with Scriabin’s reputation for finely shaded melodic nuance and perfumed harmonies, is presented in his mid-career Fantasy in B minor Op. 28. While moments of lyric relief do arrive in this piece (and in canon, no less) it is overwhelmingly dominated by Lisztian figurations of flying octaves, thick chordal textures, disruptive rhythmic convulsions and flamboyant multi- octave arpeggiations in both hands. Swaying between a brooding restlessness and a search for ecstatic release, the mystic side of Scriabin comes clearly to the fore in this work, a worthy successor to the deeply chromatic yearnings of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

 

Charles Trenet
6 Songs
(arr. Alexis Weissenberg)

The history of the 20th-century poetic chanson, long associated with the names of Edith Piaf, Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, would not be complete without Charles Trenet, familiar to music- lovers in North America as the author of La Mer, recorded in the 1960s by Bobby Darrin as Beyond the Sea. Known for his velvety baritone voice and slightly loopy singing style, he was called le fou chantant (the singing madman) and enjoyed immense popularity in a career that flourished between the 1930s and 1950s, although he continued to perform and record virtually up till his death in 2001.

Charles Trenet’s success was not only due to the charm of his nostalgic songs about young love and the city of Paris, but also to the unique blend of swing, jazz, waltz and tropical dance elements that characterized his musical style. This was music that was ideal for the ‘piano stylings’ of a jazz musician and, sure enough, sometime in the 1950s an extended-play 45 rpm record appeared on the market entitled Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet. But who was this Mr. Nobody?

The name of the musician responsible for these exuberantly lavish arrangements and improvisations has only recently come to light, and the name surprised (and delighted) many in the classical music community. It was the Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. At a time when classical musicians would sooner have eaten wood shavings on toast than be caught performing (let alone recording!) songs from the French music-hall repertory, Weissenberg had evidently shimmered unobserved into a recording studio in a curly wig and nose-and-moustache glasses to secretly record this tribute to one of his favourite popular singers.

Coin de rue (Street corner) evokes memories of the old neighbourhood and pleasant daydreams of days long past. Its nostalgic tone is captured in the blur of slightly ‘watery’ harmonies.

Boum! imitates the pounding heartbeat of those newly smitten with the joys of love. It begins in a very modernist style before launching into an extroverted keyboard-chuckling texture of added-tone jazz chords and sparkling fill-in figurations.

Vous qui passez sans me voir (You pass by without seeing me) is a love song about a young man who can’t even get the woman of his dreams to notice him. His awkwardness is cleverly expressed in the bass drones with crushed-note ornaments.

En avril à Paris (April in Paris) is a waltzing tribute to the City of Lights, with sweeping figuration swirling around each melody note.

Vous oubliez votre cheval (You’re forgetting your horse) is a surreal ditty about trying to leave your horse at the coat check. It’s homage to the Roaring Twenties hit tune Ain’t she sweet is just one of the inexplicable features of this song.

Ménilmontant pays tribute to the vitality of the working class quartier of Paris where Maurice Chevalier was born, in a moto perpetuo style with many a clever reference to the Flight of the Bumblebee.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, premiered by the composer in Moscow in 1913, is an ambitious large-scale work in three movements bound together by elements of cyclic form and thematic reminiscence. Indeed, the quiet ending of its first movement and the bridge leading directly from the second movement to the finale make it seem like one continuous work in three parts.

This sonata was obviously written for the massive ‘mitt’ of Rachmaninoff himself, who is said to have been able to stretch a 12th (an octave and a 5th), and it represents virtually a compendium of the lush keyboard textures characteristic of the composer’s best work. It also contains large-scale formal features typical of the piano concertos, viz., a frenetic speed- up of tempo in the middle of the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis-style summing up of lyrical thematic material at the end of the finale—prominent features of both his second and his third piano concertos.

The work opens with a dramatic gesture emblematic of the formal grandeur underlying Rachmaninoff’s conception of the sonata as a whole: an arpeggio plunging down to the abyss, answered by a cannon- echo of a theme comprised of a falling 3rd (was he inspired by a similar opening to Beethoven’s equally grand Hammerklavier sonata?), a chromatically descending melody and chordal outline, all chiselled out over a quivering tremolo accompaniment. Nothing is small-scale in this opening theme. Virtually the entire span of keyboard real estate available to the pianist is traversed in a series of cadenzas before a much more modest and intimate second theme appears.

This tentative, delicate, chromatically descending second theme is obviously derived from the first. Its contrasting nature lies not just in its being in the major mode, but also in how it represents a complete scaling down, texturally, of the amount of sound coming out of the piano. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fistfuls of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a feverish rage that has ebbed, but not ended.

The second movement begins with a series of questioning phrases before a sadly lilting, almost apologetic theme appears. This down-in-the-mouth theme, however, leads to happier thoughts in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright ringing bell- strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The swelling, heart-breaking series of sequences that follows is the lyric climax of the movement from which a ruminative middle section mulls over memories of the first movement and churns itself into quite a froth.

The opening of the second movement ends as it began, with the same exploratory harmonic questioning, but this time answers itself by plunging into one of the most heaven-storming finales in the Rachmaninoff canon, one in which the lowest B flat on the keyboard booms out like cannon-fire, over and over again. Gradually cooler heads prevail and there blossoms, under the generous tone-giving care of the right-hand pinky finger, a nostalgic and lyrical second-theme melody to melt the heart of a tyrant. The development section thunders with renewed vigour as the first theme rushes headlong back onto the scene. But it is the achingly heartfelt second theme that triumphs in the end in a glorious hymn to all that is right with the world, leading to a coda bristling with pianistic fireworks that lights a path to the work’s final chords.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

 

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

As I enter my 20th year of professional performance, I have been reflecting on the most resonant musical moments throughout my development as a singer. From my beginning as a Broadway baby to my now daily dances with Handel, I have realized that there is a lot of music in between those two poles which has shaped me. This program is a collection of personal parcels, each one having a distinct and meaningful place in my trajectory.

As an eager 16 year old planning my first-ever recital, I was immediately taken by the beauty and depth of Henri Duparc’s songs and was simultaneously fascinated by his systematic destruction of his entire oeuvre, apart from a small handful of remaining works. I have chosen to start this recital with the same three songs that began my first recital as a budding countertenor.

Before I could even fathom the idea of vocal recital, at 13, I was asked to do my first role in opera: Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. After years of musical theater, I found the challenge and the emotional complexity of Britten’s work exhilarating. As I entered into Britten’s universe, I discovered classical music’s ability to plumb the depths of human experience with uncanny expression, and it was this discovery that sent me down the road to becoming a classical singer. Britten not only holds a special place in my artistic journey, but also in the history of countertenors as he is the first composer ever to have written an operatic role specifically for countertenor as opposed to castrato — that of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His transcriptions of old English folk songs showcase his agility in wafting between subtly ironic, flat out silly, and poignant.

One thing I’ve learned about being half southern Italian and half Hungarian-Jewish is that while I may know how to eat well, I have a lot of guilt with which to contend. Luckily, both of my parents are psychologists, so I was able to focus mainly on the food. I realized recently that apart from the occasional chicken paprikash, the only connection to my Hungarian heritage I can remember is a miniature bust of Liszt that made its way onto the dresser in my childhood bedroom. When I learned about Liszt’s lore in college, his emotionally virtuosic playing and its palpable effects, I was intrigued. Since then I’ve been trying to put together a group of his songs that felt natural to me as a performer, and it wasn’t until now that I concocted this felicitous combination of his German settings. Connected, but not entirely the same as this Hungarian sense of romanticism, is the characteristically Italian state of impetuosity. Though none of the three Italian arias I am presenting was actually written by an Italian, they were all written for and performed by Italian castrati. These physically altered superstars of their era gave the art of opera wings, and along the way generated a body of work which never ceases to entrance me. Both Mozart and Handel offer endless opportunities to dig into characters with harmonic shifts, textual delineation and of course ornamentation carefully cooked-up by the singers themselves. These three arias represent the foundation of my work as a singer: executing the highest of technical demands while simultaneously rendering emotional arcs tangible.

At six years old I was no good at reading sheet music. My unusually creative piano teacher, Pei-Fen Liu, thought that perhaps instead of trying to play the notes, I’d have an easier time taking my fingers out of the equation. So I began to sing, and though I’m not sure my sight-reading improved, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed singing. After humming notes and singing solfège scales, Pei-Fen decided it was time for the next step. She pulled out a book of Gershwin songs, and away we went. I became so enthusiastic about Gershwin that I used to sit in my room and listen to any recordings I could find. When I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, I wanted so badly to understand how she wove her magic that I remember spending hours trying to copy down each syllable of scat that she added to the tunes she was singing. By the time I was eight, I told my parents that I was ready to give this a go in public. Wonderfully supportive as they were, they helped me to find an audition at a community theater. Filled with anticipation, and a joy of music, I walked into the audition room with a Gershwin tune prepared. Little did I know that I was about to embark upon a life of music and a craft which challenges and moves me every day. As I opened my mouth to sing the first few bars of “Summertime” that day, I couldn’t have imagined that it would close a recital like this one with the VRS.

-Anthony Roth Costanzo

Program Notes: Anthony Roth Costanzo

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO

 

Henri Duparc was, with Berlioz and Fauré, among the pioneers of la mélodie (the French art song, as distinguished from folk song). His career was remarkable in that although he lived for 85 years, his reputation rests on barely more than a dozen songs. “Chanson triste” was Duparc’s first song, written at the age of twenty and published with four others as his Op. 2 in 1868.  It displays the quintessentially Gallic qualities of elegance, charm, sensitivity and polish. It also engages our imagination in a melancholic, yearning clair de lune setting of a text by the Symbolist poet Jean Lahor. “L’Invitation au voyage” takes for its text the famous Baudelaire poem of the same title. The poet’s dream world steeped in drugs, the atmosphere suffused with orientalism, and the imaginary voyage of the mind, were captured to perfection by Duparc in this masterpiece of ambiguous harmonies, unstable rhythms, sensuous imagery and vague meaning. In “Phidylé” Wagnerian chromaticism is much in evidence, as is the continuous development of melodic cells, the atmosphere of vague longing, an almost Tristanesque sensuality and rise to an ecstatic climax.

Few composers have captured in music the spirit and essence of their homeland with the vividness and poignancy as has Benjamin Britten. One of the many manifestations of Britten’s “English-ness” is found in settings of his country’s folksongs. “The Ploughboy,” in Britten’s arrangement of a tune by the English composer William Shield (1748-1829), takes a humorous, even cynical view of social advancement in the late eighteenth century. The text of “The ash grove” is a reflection on meetings with a deceased beloved, set to a well-known Welsh tune. “The foggy, foggy dew” exists in numerous versions, and has acquired something of a reputation for its bawdy text. Burl Ives was jailed for singing it in public in Utah, and the BBC had restrictions on broadcasting it. And just what is the “foggy, foggy dew”? That’s open to interpretation!

The enormously prolific and versatile Franz Liszt, though best known for his orchestral and piano music, also wrote more than eighty songs in six languages. Freedom of form and advanced harmony are commonly found in these songs, many of which he revised two, three or even four times, sometimes turning them into keyboard transcriptions as well. Although Liszt is usually billed as a Hungarian, he never spoke this language well, and the language he set most often in songs was German.

Liszt’s original setting of Heine’s poem “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” (In the Rhine, the beauteous stream) depicted a river bursting with energy. The revised, commonly heard version is more subtle, portraying a gently flowing body of water. “In Liebeslust” (In love’s delight), set to a poem by Liszt’s close friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, is a song so taken with love that the immortal words “Ich liebe dich” are emphatically sung nine times in three groups in three different manners. “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” (Peace reigns on every peak) is a setting of one of Goethe’s most famous poems (“Wandrers Nachtlied II”), one that has inspired dozens of composers, including Schubert and Schumann. Liszt’s song presents a picture of almost unearthly stillness. The lovely song about religious love, “Hohe Liebe” (Exalted love), to a text by Ludwig Uhland, also exists in a more extended version as the first of the three Liebesträume for solo piano. “Ihr Glocken von Marling” (Ye Bells of Marling) is a late song (1874). The bells of Emil Kuh’s poem are evoked in impressionistic, almost mystical terms in Liszt’s gently pulsing music.

Just after the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in Milan in February of 1770, he was commissioned to write his first full-length opera seria, which was premiered that December. Mitridate, rè di Ponto was a great success, receiving 22 consecutive performances, but then dropped from sight until it was revived in Salzburg in 1971.The plot focuses on the love triangle between Aspasia, betrothed to King Mithradates of Pontus (a region on the Black Sea, now part of Turkey) and his two sons Sifare and Farnace. In his first aria of the opera, Farnace resolves to back the Roman contingent in the city and to challenge his father’s political position. It is a thrilling aria of substantial dimensions (over seven minutes in length), shot through with fortitude and steely determination.

Georg Friedrich Handel composed an enormous amount of music, including more than forty operas. With each of these productions containing an average of 25 arias, simple arithmetic gives us the astounding figure of well over 1,000 arias just for this body of music alone. Giulio Cesare (1724) was enormously successful and, along with Rinaldo, remains Handel’s most frequently performed opera today. The story takes place in Egypt in 48 B.C. at the time of the Roman campaign led by Caesar. By the beginning of Act III, Caesar is presumed drowned, but miraculously he survives. Drawing himself up on the shore, he bemoans his fate, the disappearance of his troops and the loss of his beloved Cleopatra in an aria of touching simplicity. The plot of Flavio (1723) deftly combines elements of the comic and the tragic. Guido’s Act II rage aria, “Rompo i lacci”, written for the famed castrato Senesino, races along at a breathless pace and features a number of melismas, two of which go on for an extraordinary 49 notes (a melisma is a string of notes sung to a single syllable). The plot of Amadigi (1715) involves a complicated love quadrangle. The men Amadigi and Dardano are both in love with Oriana (who loves only Amadigi), while the sorceress Melissa is also in love with Amadigi. In Act II, Dardano (a castrato role), despairing of ever winning Melissa for himself, sings his magnificent aria “Pena tiranna” to the sarabande rhythm (long-long, [breath], short long-long, [breath], etc.)

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other composer the United States has ever produced. His output of over 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, nearly equals Schubert’s in size. “I Got Rhythm” and “Sam and Delilah” both come from the musical comedy Girl Crazy (1930), whose story takes place in America’s Wild West. What made audiences crazy about Girl Crazy was a young newcomer in the cast, Ethel Merman, an actress “whose personality swept through the theater like a tropical cyclone,” as one critic put it. These two songs belonged to her. “Embraceable You” is one of Gershwin’s most irresistibly seductive songs, but probably the one that more people know than any other is “Summertime”, the languorous lullaby Clara sings to her infant shortly after the curtain goes up on the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

 

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

Franz Schubert: Piano sonata in A major, D. 664 (Op. 120)

Scholars lack definite evidence for the date and place of composition of Schubert’s early A major sonata, but most are willing to grant that most likely he wrote it during the summer of 1819 while vacationing in Steyr in Upper Austria. He wrote to his brother Ferdinand that the surrounding countryside was “unimaginably lovely.” As biographer Brian Newbould notes, “the A major [sonata] is music of such wide-eyed youthful contentment that one could imagine it being a response to both the mountain scenery of Upper Austria and ‘a very pretty’ dedicatee.”

The work opens with one of Schubert’s most gracious melodies, one in which he takes obvious delight in spinning out to almost heavenly length. The second subject, hardly less enchanting, arrives soon and without preamble. The central slow movement focuses even more insistently than the first on a rhythmic pattern, one Schubert used often (a long followed by four short notes). This dreamy idyll is derived from a single theme that Schubert expands into a perfectly proportioned structure. The insouciant finale is again in sonata form. The lyricism, blithe spirit and overall sense of contentment have led annotator Konrad Wolff to call this music “a Viennese waltz danced in heaven.”

Some years ago, when he was music critic for The Ottawa Citizen, the late Jacob Siskind wrote that “the difficulty with most of the music of Schubert, and this is especially true of his piano sonatas, is to reconcile the seeming simplicity of the structure and the endless flow of melody with the emotional tension generated by the provocative key relationships of the various sections. In lesser hands, the music can sound merely pretty, or puzzlingly disjointed. In the hands of one who has the emotional depths to identify completely with the mysteries of the music, these scores have the capacity to heal the deepest emotional wounds.”

 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano sonata no. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)

The Appassionata sonata (1804-06), along with the Op. 78 sonata in F sharp major, was Beethoven’s favorite up until the time he wrote the Hammerklavier sonata in 1819 (the 28th of his 32 piano sonatas). But whereas Op. 78, lovely and gracious as it may be, has never been a popular favorite, the Appassionata remains one of Beethoven’s greatest and most frequently heard works in any medium. As with so many of his compositions, the title was affixed not by the composer but by a publisher.

The opening movement is largely music of sound and fury, defined above all by rhythmic insistence. Both the defiantly rising principal subject (opening measures) and the lyrical, rising-and-falling second subject share a similar rhythmic pattern (long-short-long; long-short long), and both are built from arpeggios. Additionally, there is a rhythmic motto appearing often throughout the movement that corresponds exactly to that of the opening of the fifth symphony (da-da-da-daahh).

The second movement offers an oasis of tranquility and repose. It is a theme-and-variations movement built, like the second movement of the seventh symphony, more from a harmonic progression than from a melody. Each of the three variations employs increasingly rapid note values (eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds), following which there is a small coda that disintegrates into a mysterious chord, then, as if jolted with an electric shock, reenergizes itself and launches into the finale.

This concluding movement, in sonata form like the first, is one of the most demonic things Beethoven ever wrote, a musical juggernaut of relentless forward momentum and almost frightening power. Tension builds to almost unbearable levels, finally bursting its bonds in the presto coda which roars to an apocalyptic conclusion.

 

Franz Liszt: Scherzo and March; Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, Mephisto Waltz no. 1

The Scherzo and March may be one of Liszt’s lesser-known piano works, yet it is a formidable, ten-minute composition nonetheless. The title implies a two-part structure, but it is actually more than that. Following a short, mysterious introduction filled with gnome-like scurrying and scrambling figures, we arrive at a scherzo comprising two fully developed themes. Both suggest visions of hell, “a superb piece of diablerie,” as pianist Louis Kentner calls it. Then comes the march, which provides the central contrasting episode, “as if a Witches’ Sabbath were interrupted by a procession of monks carrying torches and chanting,” writes Kentner. The march rises to a fearsome climax, then recedes into the distance, after which the scherzo returns in shortened form. For a coda, the march music is recalled, now with elements of the scherzo as accompaniment.

Between 1847 and 1852, Liszt wrote a series of ten pieces under the rubric Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a title he borrowed from a collection of poetry by Lamartine. The best known number from this set remains Funérailles (No. 7), followed closely by the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (No. 3), the longest and, in the opinion of many, the finest of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses.

Liszt prefaced the score with these words from Lamartine: “Whence comes, O God, this peace that overwhelms me? Whence comes this faith with which my heart overflows?” A simple, hymnlike theme glides slowly upward in the left hand while the right hand accompanies with a gentle undulation that might well evoke the lambent light of votive candles in a small, private chapel. “Is there another piano piece with such hypnotic sweetness of sound?” asks pianist Alfred Brendel. The central section consists of two contrasting episodes in new keys and new tempos. When the opening theme returns, it is furnished with fuller harmony and cascades of arpeggios that bring to mind dazzling visions of transcendent beauty. The music rises to its ecstatic, fortississimo climax, then subsides into heavenly tranquility and resignation.

The nineteenth-century romantics were fascinated with the legend of Faust. Goethe’s monumental poem was the source of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, but it was another adaptation of the story that spurred him to write the first of his three Mephisto Waltzes. This was Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust of 1835, from which Liszt chose two unconnected passages and set them to music in the late 1850s. The Nocturnal Procession is seldom performed, but the other number, Dance in the Village Inn: Mephisto Waltz, became one of Liszt’s most popular pieces, both in its original orchestral form and in the subsequent piano arrangement.

Mephistopheles has led Faust to a small inn where a wedding celebration is in progress. The devil invites Faust to choose a woman and dance with her. After he chooses, Mephistopheles berates the village musicians for their bland, dull musicianship and offers to show them how to really play the violin. He borrows an instrument and creates a kind of music that bewitches everyone into “a whirl of bacchantic revelry” (Lenau). Frederick Niecks described the result as “the ne plus ultra of weirdness and unbridled sensuality in the whole domain of music.”

 

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