Frederic Chopin Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

Stay Tuned!

Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!

×

Program notes: Andrew Tyson

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key – from which they would depart, and to which they would return – and that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed from a root, a third and a fifth, at a minimum. The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric, as is evident in his Sonata Op. 1, published in 1910.

This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. Its principal melodic motives however, presented in its opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the successive intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, spanning a minor 7th in a dotted rhythm, announced in the opening bar, and (b) a falling sequence of thirds, in the next bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.

And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.

What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.

Francis Poulenc
Napoli Suite FP 40

The aesthetic attribute most prized by the French is that utterly indefinable quality known as ‘charm’. Among its leading proponents among 20th-century composers is Francis Poulenc, whose picture-postcard piano suite Napoli whimsically evokes the seaside pleasures, the serene beauty and urban bustle of Italian life as seen through the lens of an urbane French tourist in Naples.

The opening Barcarolle imitates the rocking of a small boat lapped by the choppy waves of the sea. Its left-hand triplets of widely-spaced sonorities are pedalled into blurry billows of watery wetness while cross-rhythms in the right add an extra element of wobble to its cheery melodic flow.

The middle-movement Nocturne is all stillness and moonlight, with open sonorities sounding out across a wide swathe of the keyboard over a stabilizing pedal tone in the bass, interrupted only by melancholy musings of a sharper harmonic colouring in its central section.

The Caprice italien that ends the suite is a virtuoso tour de force modelled, according to the composer, after Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Poulenc’s capricious finale, like its model, alternates chatty, slightly manic sections of moto perpetuo animation with more lyrical moments of reflection. The lyrical section at the centre of this movement is almost melancholy, its sudden outpouring of sentiment after so much cheekiness balancing precariously on the knife-edge of parody. Given that Poulenc’s night haunts included music halls and gay bars, might we not be hearing here the teasingly intimate stage confessions of a drag-queen Marlene Dietrich on a stool in net stockings with a cigar?

Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2
Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52   

Chopin was of mixed Polish and French parentage. He spent the first half of his life, up to the age of 20, in Poland. The last half of his life, until his death at 39, was spent in France. It should be no surprise, then, that his musical style is a similar cross-breeding of French elegance and Slavic soulfulness. His nocturnes, with their intimate songful melodies, breathe the perfumed air of the Parisian salon. The exotic scales and displaced accents of his mazurkas, by contrast, convey more the flavour of his native soil.

Fundamental to an appreciation of Chopin’s music is the recognition that he was a composer of small pieces to be performed in small spaces. While Liszt filled concert halls with his Freddy-Mercury-sized ego, Chopin wrote exquisite miniatures directed towards a select audience of aristocratic patrons playing or listening to his music in the comfort of their more-than-comfortable homes. In his entire career he gave no more than 70 public performances, and even at these the complaint was frequent heard that his playing was too soft to fill the hall. His is music of refined sentiment and nuance, to be heard close-up.

*                      *                      *

The opening section of his Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 in the sugary key of F-sharp major features a melody with the languidly falling sighs and ecstatic leaps up to the high register of an opera diva singing Bellini. A major challenge for the pianist in this section is how to incorporate Chopin’s delicate dribbling ornamentation into the melodic line without disrupting the poised unfolding of the melody itself. The middle section in doppio movimento (double movement) introduces an element of drama, with its insistently repeated dotted figures atop a rippling accompaniment of quintuplets, symbolizing the quickening heartbeat of an anxious soul. The return of the innocent opening material then seems to ask: was it all a dream?

There is an Eastern, Oriental flavour in the tonal realm occupied by the brief, melancholy Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2. The wincing bite of its opening melodic interval, a dissonant minor 9th, is further elaborated in the bittersweet chromatic wanderings of a plaintive melody constantly hovering between major and minor.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3 is haunted by wistful remembrance, symbolized at its opening by pedal tones in the mid-range held over several bars while dancelike harmonies echo eerily around on either side. These memories of the dance become more forceful and assertive in the mazurka’s middle section before the opening mood of pensive reflection returns.

*                      *                      *

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 story-telling. 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 to reign unperturbed but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones heard in the opening carry real pathos, and are made more plangent and urgent when repeated with a countermelody in the alto.

The 2nd theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the 1st theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then … magic! The bell tones of introduction return and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.

But the 1st theme’s lament intrudes on the daydream, 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 2nd 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.

Five angelic chords descend from Heaven but cannot stem for long the coda’s hellbent fury, a fury that drives the work to its apocalyptic conclusion with bitter and tragic resolve.

Franz Liszt
Les Cloches de Genève

The three collections of piano pieces entitled Années de Pélerinage represent Liszt’s poetic response to the cultural landmarks and picturesque natural settings of the places he lived in or visited in his travels throughout Europe. The idea of ‘pilgrimage’ (pélerinage) in the title is a literary reference to Goethe’s famous Wilhelm Meister novels in which a young protagonist embarks on a spiritual quest to ‘find himself’ through his wanderings. That Liszt should present his life experience as ‘literature’ should be no surprise, given that he presented his concerts as ‘poetry’ – having invented the term ‘recital’ for his solo public appearances.

The first book of Années de Pélerinage is devoted to Switzerland, where Liszt lived in the mid-1830s with his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The last piece in the collection, Les Cloches de Genève (The Bells of Geneva) is dedicated to his daughter Blandine, born to the Countess in Geneva in 1835. The work is a classic piece of Lisztian musical pictorialism.

Subtitled Nocturne, it opens in the stillness of the evening with a distant carillon of bells that then gently transforms into the rocking accompaniment of a tender lullaby in honour of the newborn baby girl.

The work progresses in a series of ingenious keyboard textures imitative of first the chiming, then the sonorous ringing, and finally the hefty swaying of bell-towers and churches throughout the city. It ends poetically with a return to the innocent bell sounds with which it began, their sonic resonance fading softly into the distance.

Maurice Ravel
Miroirs

Ravel was a member of an avant-garde coterie of musicians, writers and visual artists who jocularly called themselves Les Apaches, Parisian argot for “ruffians” or “hooligans”. Between 1904 and 1905 he composed Miroirs, a suite of five pieces, each describing “in a mirror,” as it were, a fellow member of the club. While the connection with individual personalities is unclear (and may even have been fanciful), these pieces remain among the most pictorially vivid—and technically challenging—in the piano repertoire.

Ravel vividly depicts the irregular flight of night moths in the first piece of the set, Noctuelles, which opens with a busy blur of chromatic flutter extending over vast swathes of the keyboard but centring on the upper range. The unpredictability of the moths’ flight is depicted in phrases of uneven length that rev up out of the blue in rapid-onset crescendos, with brief silences punctuating the succession of sweeping phrase gestures. The moths seem to settle on some object of mothy interest in the slower-paced central section, but soon lose interest and flit back to life in the closing section.

Ravel described Oiseaux tristes as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” As the piece opens we hear one solitary bird, singing alone, but soon joined by others. Fauré describes the texture as follows: “Fundamentally Ravel set store by the player bringing out two levels: the birdcalls with their rapid arabesques on a higher, slightly strident level and the suffocating, sombre atmosphere of the forest on a lower level which is rather heavy and veiled in pedal without much movement.”

Une Barque sur l’océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.

Alborada del gracioso is a satirical portrait of a character from Spanish theatre, the crude and clownish gracioso, the equivalent of Beaumarchais’ Figaro but a touch more malevolent and mischievous. He is pictured singing an alborado, or morning serenade. The strumming of the guitar and distinctive punchy rhythms of Spanish folk music permeate this work. This is the most ‘pianistic’ piece in the set. Among the technical challenges keeping pianists practising after midnight are extended passages in rapid-fire repeated notes and double glissandi in 3rds and 4ths played by the right hand alone.

The suite ends with La Vallée des cloches, a multi-layered sonic depiction of the lingering overtones of bell tones hovering in the air. Sonorities based on 4ths and 5ths evoke the muffled metallic resonance that drifts in every direction as bell-clappers in towers near and far strike their target.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: Yevgeny Sudbin

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in B minor K 197
Sonata in G major K 455

“Probably one of the most outrageously individual compositional outputs of the Baroque era is to be found in the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti,” writes Yevgeny Sudbin in the liner notes to his 2004 Scarlatti album.

This may explain why Scarlatti’s 550-odd sonatas 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.

Scarlatti’s early career was based in Naples, and his introverted Sonata in B minor K 197 displays the recurring streaks of pathos that Neapolitan music revels in. The melodic line whimpers with plaintive little appoggiaturas as harmonic tension accumulates from the use of stubbornly immovable pedal points in the bass.

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. Guitar idioms are heard in the repeated notes that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity for the performer.

In his Scarlatti liner notes, Yevgeny Sudbin lays stress on the spontaneous, improvisatory quality of these sonatas. “It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas,” he writes, “there were 50 or so other versions.” His performance this afternoon may well pay tribute to these “plausible other versions.” As to where this might occur, the smart money is on the repeats.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Bagatelles Op. 126

Throughout his career Beethoven had found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience members knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some of these he published in collections, such as his seven bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119 came out in 1823.

The six bagatelles of Op. 126, though, were more than just a collection: they were a matched set, conceived of as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. More importantly, the set constitutes Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they were no mere baubles. Composed at the same time as he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that characterizes his late style.

Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing, a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, and the boldness to write his contrapuntal voices several octaves apart. Beethoven the architect of massive great formal structures shows himself in these pieces to be equally a master of the small miniature, deftly creating an immediate impression with his opening gestures and developing his motives with unfettered originality.

No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section.

No. 4 in B minor has character and personality in spades. It contrasts a strongly driven contrapuntal opening section with a dreamy section that alternates with it. No. 5 in G major is quietly expressive, its continuous pattern of triplets gently varied by syncopations across the bar line. No. 6 in E flat opens and closes with a riotous churn of piano sound that sandwiches a much more poised main section. This section starts out like a barcarolle, but then drifts off to explore a wealth of musical ideas, some of them coy and playful, other verging on pure sound theatre.

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 that 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 is 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.

***

YEVGENY SUDBIN: NOTES ON SCRIABIN

Alexander Scriabin
Piano Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp major, Op.53

Oh how easy it is to become possessed by Scriabin, one of the most enigmatic and controversial artistic personalities of all time. Once one is bitten and the venom, in the form of his sound world, enters the body and soul, the e ects become all-encompassing, even life-threatening! Not only emotionally – as one’s desperate quest for answers only results in more questions – but also physically, the reactions can be severe. Scriabin was not only the rst to introduce madness into music; he also managed to synthesise it into an infectious virus that is entirely music-borne and a ects the psyche in a highly irrational way. Thus ‘mystical experiences’ have been reported by listeners. One London critic described: “In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant ashes of blinding coloured lights during performances of Scriabin’s music… It was totally di erent from the “thrill” of sensation or “tears” of pleasure, those emotions more commonly associated with conventional music… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.” Others describe having visions of waves of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of re during performances, even without the help of LSD. In all seriousness, however, if the e ects are as radical on the receiving end, they are certainly no less intense on the performer’s part.

The Sonata No.5, Op.53 was written in 1907 and is often referred to as a glorious afterthought to his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905- 08). In fact, the sonata is headed with an extract from the poem, which accompanied the symphonic work:

I summon you to life, hidden longings!
You, sunken in the sombre depths of creative spirit, You timid embryos of life,
To you bring I daring!

The basic idea behind the symphonic poem was to permit the freedom of unconstrained action to su use the entire world and dissolve it into ecstasy. Just like the poem itself, some of Scriabin’s score markings for both the orchestral piece and the sonata provide a memorable, naughty read: accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed) and avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic). The key word in the sonata, however, is the final estàtico (ecstatically), which signals self-assertion. Scriabin triumphs in ‘light and ecstasy’. ‘I am’ would be the corresponding passage in the poem, only reached after the full range of emotions and experiences has been exhausted: luscious stimulation followed by soothing languor, doubt,‘the maggot of satiety… the bite of hyenas… sting of serpent’, intoxication, burning kisses, love-making and finally, the all-encompassing experience of ecstasy. (Scriabin wrote: “the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…”) The Fifth Sonata, regrettably, is only a do-it- yourself version of all this.

The delirious Fifth sonata was his quickest composition – it only took him six days. Although nominally in F-sharp major, this one-movement sonata proudly announces a new, atonal era in Scriabin’s development, as it cuts the moorings to tonality. From this moment, there are no more compulsory modulations; cadences vanish and the elements that constitute the sonata form become more di use. Unusual clusters of chords based on tritones and diminished sevenths begin to appear, foreboding Scriabin’s ‘Mystic Chord’ that he developed and used extensively later, particularly in Prometheus and his 9th Sonata (Messe noire) sonata. From this point, Scriabin’s harmony becomes impossible to comprehend under traditional tonal rules; melody and harmony become one indivisible whole. For 60 years musicologists tried to break the code behind his harmonic system and only in 1968 did the Soviet musicologist Dernova managed it. The reason the code was unbreakable was mainly because the chords were thought to relate to some kind of a tonal centre. But the key was to view the chords themselves as independent, self-sustaining tonal centres with their own implied or expressed simultaneous ‘tonics’.

Scriabin’s chords have a sound similar to Debussy’s post-Wagnerian ‘enhanced’ dominant seventh chords and even share characteristics with the typical ‘terminal’ chord in jazz and ragtime which was starting to blossom around the same time (c.1900). The actual ‘Mystic Chord’ can be broken up into six notes to produce simultaneously harmonies, chords and melodies in a serialist manner – a term not coined until 1947. Scriabin did exactly that in Poème, Op. 59 No.1 (1910), before Schoenberg came up with his twelve-tone technique, one of the main di erences being that Scriabin did not use his system as rigidly. It is obvious, however: had Scriabin lived a little longer, the twelve-tone technique that sparked a whole new movement could easily have been conceived under his pen, instead of Schoenberg’s.

Apart from its architectonic properties, another perplexing quality of a Scriabin chord is the sheer variety of moods it can induce, depending on the context: in the Fifth Sonata the same chord can sound icy, cosmic and even frightening (bar 23) or warm, hopeful and nostalgic (bar 183). The warmth radiating from this particular chord – the ‘warmest’ place in the piece – feels like a heated blanket gently enfolding the cold universe. This is where, for me, Scriabin wins over serialism where any potential variety of moods is mostly a by-product of randomness within the limits of the simplistic rules applied.

***

Camille Saint-Saëns
Danse Macabre   arr. Yevgeny Sudbin

Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.

Such is the scene of the Danse Macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.

Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.

Liszt’s transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout. Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement but Yevgeny Sudbin takes a middle path, pruning some of the textural additions of Horowitz while adding a few of his own.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: EVGENY KISSIN

Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann

“…calling it a sonata is a caprice if not a jest for Chopin seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into company where them might not be considered individually presentable.”

That’s the perceptive way Robert Schumann – composer, critic, and journalist – referred to Frédéric Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in 1841.

Schumann and Chopin knew each other and each other’s work. How intriguing, then, to compare music by both in the revised first half of Evgeny Kissin’s long-awaited return to the Vancouver Recital Society.

Chopin was born in March 1810, Schumann in June of the same year. They started out as fellow poets of the piano. By the 1830s the piano had become a bourgeois status symbol; there was a reliable market for published piano compositions and an appetite for recitals by piano virtuosi.

Chopin’s career played out in two decades that were a charmed moment for the piano and piano composers. He released small-scale works regularly; the more accessible of his pieces fueled demand for his more adventurous works. When he withdrew from active concertizing, his compositional desire to explore, innovate, and experiment had free rein. Robert Schumann might have followed a similar path had he not abandoned piano performance even before his intended career trajectory was launched (due, so the legend goes, to a hand injury).

Many new fans of the VRS may not know of the long, rich history of VRS Schumann performances dating back to the earliest days of the society. British cellist Stephen Isserlis, for example, interested the organization in “Schumann and his Circle performances” that included music not just by Robert but by his wife Clara, his brother-in-law Woldemar Barqiel, and others connected with that charmed group of Romantic-era talents.

The VRS has heard remarkable Schumann performances by Sir András Schiff, Radu Lupo, and Maria Tipo. Indeed, for a while it seemed that all young pianists offered Schumann’s magisterial Fantasy Op. 17 on their debut VRS programs.

What VRS fans have not heard with any regularity are Schuman’s three piano sonatas. And it is where piano sonatas are concerned that some of the telling distinctions between Chopin and Schumann become clear – distinctions which will no doubt be explored as Evgeny Kissin presents a uniquely interesting first half program consisting of two Chopin nocturnes and Schumann’s third and final piano sonata.

Chopin had something of a problem with (and possibly not that much interest in), the idea of extended and/or multiple movement compositions. He did create a pair of concertos that were early calling-card pieces, very useful for a touring pianist/composer; there’s a piano trio, a cello sonata, and a pair of piano sonatas. But all are considered to some degree – problematic.

Much of Chopin’s most effective music consists of relatively short pieces that define a particular sub-genre of keyboard music in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. There are dances: waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises; there are “narrative” pieces in a type of glorified but non-specific storytelling, like the ballades and the scherzos.

Then there are the nocturnes. Simple enough to call them “night pieces”, but this misses two important bits of their musical DNA. Chopin transferred the singing lines of opera into keyboard guise – pianistic bel canto, if you will. The many and varied nocturnes can be considered prime examples of cavatinas for piano: plenty of emphasis on a singing right hand, with lots of flourishes and subtle bits of decorative embellishment.

Then there is the unabashedly erotic content of the nocturnes and barcarolles. While the proper bourgeois of his era were disinclined to discuss this impulse in the frank post-Freudian terms we use today, they certainly understood the thoughts and feelings music could evoke.

The two nocturnes on Evgeny Kissin’s revised program appear to have been written in 1843 and 1846, respectively. (Intriguingly, Chopin’s last sonata, and his second last large-scale work, was written between the two.) The Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 #1 is one of the most popular, a staple of the keyboard repertoire. The Nocturne in E major Op. 62 #2 is most likely the last nocturne Chopin composed, a fundamentally quiet and introspective piece; as such, it’s far less frequently performed than the F minor. Both are relatively straightforward and focus on depth of feeling, not virtuoso display.

Robert Schumann loved Chopin’s music (the favour was not reciprocated, apparently) and his 1841 assessment isn’t as harsh as it might first seem. Rather, it’s what a fellow composer saw in the work: it may not quite fit the standard definition of a sonata, but it’s not without interest.

Schumann certainly knew firsthand the struggle to go from poetic aphorisms to more substantial and formal (in every sense) compositions. He wrote his three piano sonatas right after he had created a trilogy of his most popular “anthology” compositions, the multi movement collection of miniatures: Papillons Op. 2, Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 and Carnaval Op. 9.

Many have speculated that Schuman’s move to sonatas, chamber music and symphonies came at the enthusiastic urging of his soul mate and, ultimately, wife Clara, a remarkable if conservative talent in her own right. Clara worshiped tradition. She was the first pianist to play all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in public. She composed preludes and fugues. It’s easy to think that she encouraged Robert to work in all the great classical forms.

Robert’s trio of piano sonatas predate his first attempts at extended chamber works and symphonies by about half a decade. The Grand Sonata #3, in F minor Op. 14 had a troubled launch. Schumann initially conceived of it in five movements with two different scherzo sections but he was “persuaded” by his Viennese publisher to release it in a three-movement version. No doubt the publisher was concerned with commercial possibilities: a five-movement behemoth was just too long for most amateurs to bother with. The same publisher thought up the name “concert sans orchestra” which has bedeviled the work ever since.

For close to two decades, Schumann left well enough alone. Then in 1853, the year Robert and Clara met the twenty-year-old Brahms, he decided revisions were in order, ultimately deciding on a four-movement structure, shortening the central Quasi variazioni: Andantino de Clara Wieck movement but reinstating one of the pairs of scherzos cut in the initial publication.

It was one of Schumann’s last artistic decisions. After 1853, he was unable to complete any further compositions. He died in 1856. Johannes Brahms gave the revised composition its premiere in 1861.

David Gordon Duke 2018

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Preludes Opp. 23 and 32

The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff seems to glimmer out from somewhere deep in the Russian soul. With the minor mode as his preferred tonal colouring, Rachmaninoff crafted achingly nostalgic melodies à la Tchaikovsky alongside sharply chiselled passages of muscular pianism that evoke the heel-clicking traditions of the Russian military. Prominent in his sound world is the ringing of bells large and small, from the tintinnabulation of sleigh bells to the weighty pendulum swings of cathedral bells evoked so dramatically in the opening of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex two-hand textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament. These traits are particularly concentrated in his two sets of Preludes Op. 23 (1902) and Op. 32 (1910), works more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 & 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

*                      *                      *

The Op. 23 set of preludes begins with a whimper. The hauntingly fragile melody of the Prelude in F sharp minor Op. 23 No. 1 calls out tenderly in timid, tentative phrases to an almost indifferent accompaniment of constantly wavering chromatic figures. This is Rachmaninoff at his most intimate, his most confessional, his most vulnerable.

The majestic Prelude in B flat major Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and bravura of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over 3 octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied – but equally tumultuous – middle section.

While the Prelude in D minor Op. 23 No. 3 is marked Tempo di minuetto, there is a ‘snap-to-attention’ military crispness to its dotted rhythms and stop-and-go pacing that points more to the parade ground than to the palace ballroom.

The Prelude in D major Op. 23 No. 4 is a lulling nocturne. Its melody sings out from the middle of the texture, swaddled at first by a sonic glow of bell-like overtones, then topped with a gently undulating descant, and finally crowned with echoing chimes in the highest register.

The real jackboot-strutting military march of the set is the Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5, perhaps second in fame only to the celebrated Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2. Punchy, menacing, and triumphant by turns, it yields in its middle section to a bout of soldierly homesickness to spin out a lyrical melody of yearning sighs and wistful countermelodies.

Unruffled calm reigns over the elegiac musings of the Prelude in E flat major Op. 23 No. 6, that offers as much melodic and contrapuntal interest in its ornately winding accompaniment in 16ths as in the 8ths and quarters of the placid melody floating on top of it.

The Prelude in C minor Op. 23 No. 7 is a tour de force of whirlwind energy and boldly flickering tonal colour that sweeps across vast swathes of the keyboard in myriad dark figurations, a moto perpetuo prelude that emerges from the darkness for a triumphant final cadence in C major.

*                      *                      *

The Prelude in B minor Op. 32 No. 10 is Russian to the core. Pianist Benno Moisevitch, in conversation with Rachmaninoff, wisely guessed its emotional wellspring: the yearning for a homecoming that would never come. Its principal motive is a dotted figure, wavering modally between major and minor, that is soon accompanied – and then overwhelmed – by an utterly heartbreaking storm of throbbing triplets that reverberate clangorously like massive swaying church bells, thundering towards a resolution that never arrives.

The sound of sleigh bells greets the ear in the jangling accompaniment figure of open 5ths that begins the Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12, tempting and taunting a pensive baritone melody that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency in the darker regions of the keyboard below.

The Prelude in D flat major, 13th and concluding prelude of the Op. 32 set, has a reflective, commemorative quality to it, rehearsing in its musing dotted rhythms and rich, wide-ranging sonorities the inner feelings of a composer who would soon be forced into exile from his native Russia.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: GEORGE LI

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) inserted right before the zinger finale, the gigue. Each dance is in binary (two-part) form, and performance tradition has it that each part will be played twice. When the galanteries consist of a matched pair of the same dance form, another tradition says that the first will be played again after the second to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern.

Bach’s partitas are much grander and more technically challenging than his English Suites and French Suites, with larger individual movements. The Partita No. 1 in B flat, published in 1726, is quite an upbeat affair, ranging in mood from cheerful and celebratory in the opening movements to ecstatic, almost manic, in its closing gigue. Even when the pace is slow, as in the sarabande, the tone remains distinctly bright and chipper.

A prelude is intended to introduce the listener to the key they will be hearing a lot of in the course of the work and Bach’s Praeludium does a bang-up job of this, feeling its way methodically through the various scale degrees of B flat until we think we know them as old friends. It blithely ignores its other task, however: to warm up the player’s hands with simple passagework. Anyone who has attempted the opening mordent on a 32nd note without first dipping his fingertips in a hot double espresso will know exactly what I mean.

The fireworks begin in earnest in the Allemande, a toccata-like romp of 16th-note chatter up and down the keyboard, often split between the hands. The following movement is not the usual ‘flowing’ French Courante but its more lively Italian cousin, the Corrente, with enough hops, leaps and swagger to almost classify it as a gigue.

The Sarabande is the longest movement in the work, clocking in at a robust 4-5 minutes of performance time. Normally a slow stately dance in triple meter with a distinct inclination to “sit” with some sense of ownership on the 2nd beat of the bar, this sarabande diverts our attention away from the slow pace of harmonic movement in the bass by means of pertly alive and florid elaboration in the treble.

As galanteries Bach puts in a brace of menuets (the fashionable French spelling of “minuet”). The first ticks along in a constant flow of 8th notes like a mechanical clock while the second is all soothing and sustained in a rhythmically even succession of quarter notes.

The Gigue is a breathless vehicle for the keyboardist’s acrobatic skill, as impressive to watch as it is to hear, with hand-crossings between the bass and treble in every bar to create an antiphonal ‘echo’ effect throughout.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major Op. 7

The title page of Beethoven’s fourth sonata, published in 1797, proclaims this work as a Grande Sonate, a title it richly deserves, not only for its technical demands and extravagant length (Beethoven’s longest sonata until the Hammerklavier Op. 106), but also for its panoramic range of expression. It comprises a sonata-form first movement churning with rhythmic bumps and dynamic surprises, a slow movement of extraordinary expressive grandeur, an unusually lyrical scherzo and a rondo finale with robust contrasts of tone and mood.

Noticeable right off the bat in the first movement is how melody-making takes a back seat to the manipulation of raw sound. The movement opens with a rhythmic tapping in the bass that morphs into a series of scale passages in contrary motion. Rude shocks interrupt the flow until a smoothly flowing second theme can establish a more lyrical train of thought. The development section mulls over the contrast between this lyrical strain and more disruptive impulses, especially Beethoven’s trademark elbow-jabs of syncopation, and the recapitulation is remarkable for an even more forthright assertion of the kind of “rough” texture that the piano is capable of providing with sufficient prodding.

The contrast between the fortissimo ending of the first movement and the piano opening of the second, marked Largo con gran espressione, is shockingly dramatic. This movement, too, makes use of dynamic contrasts but in a different way. It is the silences and pauses inserted into the opening theme, combined with its deep resonance in the lower registers of the keyboard, that give this movement its immense gravitas and extraordinary depth of feeling. Its middle section is full of harmonic tension and an almost operatic sense of drama.

The 3rd movement scherzo Allegro opens in a soothing vein, its gently playful phrases of irregular length toying with the listener’s expectations while still maintaining a distinctly lyrical tone. The Trio in the monstrous key of E flat minor is a real piece of work, murmuring away conspiratorially in a rippling shimmer of broken chords punctuated regularly by sharp ffp accents.

The rondo finale is by turns gracious and volcanic, an odd combination that Beethoven pulls off with aplomb. The opening theme is lovingly endowed with many little sigh motives and colourfully orchestrated in both the mid and high registers of the keyboard. Its main thematic foil in the movement is a stormy patch of heavy chords over a surging left-hand accompaniment of rolling broken chords in the minor mode. These two poles of musical emotion, the gracious and the grumbly—Sir András Schiff calls them “Beauty and the Beast”—somehow manage to be reconciled when the churning left-hand accompaniment figure turns to the major mode to walk the sonata home in its final cadencing gestures.

Frédéric Chopin
Waltz in A minor Op. 32 No. 2
Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2
Waltz in A flat major Op. 42

 In the early 19th century the growing popularity of the waltz occasioned a fair bit of pearl-clutching among the ‘better’ classes of European society, with old maiden aunts and celibate priests leading the scolding with choruses of “Get a room!” Viewed as scandalously risqué for its daring combination of embracing couples and whirling movements, it nevertheless climbed the social ladder until it emerged by the end of the century as the very symbol of elegance, sophistication and social refinement.

The waltz developed in the last half of the 18th century out of country dances from Austria and Southern Germany, and in the Romantic era was absorbed into the world of salon music for the well-heeled. While it maintained its essential musical characteristics—triple meter with one chord to the bar—various nuances congenial to the Romantic spirit were introduced.

Chopin’s cultivation of the “sad waltz,” the waltz in a minor key, was one of these. Another was the amount of melodic content he saw fit to give to the left hand. His wistful, almost moping Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2 displays both of these qualities. It opens with a texture that sees the normal role of the hands reversed: it is the right hand playing the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern while the left sings out a mournful melody in the cello range tinged with pathos. While the major mode does appear to provide a bit of sunshine from time to time, the mood remains nostalgic, with more than a hint of melancholy.

The alternation of minor and major seems more evenly matched in the Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2, a sad piece that stops just short of whimpering by maintaining a nobility of sentiment throughout, especially in its gracious use of melodic ornaments.

The Waltz in A flat Op. 42 is popularly known as “the two-four waltz,” on account of its intriguing matching of duple rhythm in the right hand with the traditional “bass-chord-chord” triplets of the waltz in the left. Register-spanning arabesques of keyboard effervescence make for some ear-tickling listening, interrupted from time to time by outbursts of passion that justify the grand manner of its apotheosis on the final page.

Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat Op. 39

The piano music of Carl Maria von Weber was a fashionable pillar of the repertoire in the first half of the 19th century and much played, both at public concerts and in the home. It suffered eclipse, however, with the rise to prominence of those piano composers of the following generation who were most influenced by it: Liszt, Chopin & Mendelssohn. It stands as a curious cross-breed of stern Beethovenian high-seriousness, polished salon charm, and the exotic wildness of German Romanticism that made Weber famous across Europe as the composer of the opera Der Freischütz (1821).

His Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat, begun in 1814 and completed in 1816, was obviously intended as a display vehicle for the composer’s considerable talents as a pianist. Weber had a huge mitt of a hand, which made the daredevil leaps and elephantine chords of the score much easier to manage for him than for mere mortals. Brilliance is the dominant characteristic of the keyboard writing in this sonata, combined with a preference for getting a full sound out of the instrument by dint of throbbing chords in the mid-range while the right hand frolicks high in the treble like a sportive child at a water park. The colourful, scintillating textures of Chopin can be heard on the horizon in this kind of keyboard writing.

More captivating still is Weber’s sheer delight in piano tone, allied to what his biographer John Warrack described as “the new expressive content he showed that music could hold.” This emphasis on the poetic is evident from the opening bar of the Piano Sonata No. 2: a hushed tremolo in the left hand intoning an infinitely soft quivering octave on A flat that allows a horn-like broken-chord melody to blossom above it. These tremolos are more than just incidental colouring. They recur with dramatic force in the tumultuous development section, both at its outset and its climactic conclusion, giving the impression of a sonata movement that is really aspiring to be a dramatic scene from one of Weber’s operas.

The second movement Andante is a theme and variations that begins with an unusual texture of sustained melody notes in the treble over a sparse harmonic accompaniment that vanishes as soon as it sounds, like a kind of musical ‘Snapchat’ message. The variations are as ingenious for their keyboard textures as for the musical ideas they develop.

The third movement is called a Minuetto but it is really an outrageously theatrical scherzo, full of off-beat rhythms and razz-ma-tazz, out-of-the-blue sound gags. The Trio is somewhat more lyrical, but hardly soothing, with its rapturous flights of passion in the right hand urged on by anxiously throbbing chords in the left.

The rondo finale, with its chromatically dribbly main theme, graciously disposed in neatly balanced phrases, is remarkable for the amount of important thematic play it gives to the left hand, although right-hand sparkle is certainly not lacking in the more display-oriented sections of this movement. What is unusual in such a showpiece is how Weber ends the work quietly, with a modest tapering off of the piano sound he loves so much.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

 

Program Notes: Winterlude – Super Sunday with Jean-Guihen Queyras & Alexander Melnikov

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102

The late 1840s saw Schumann take up “house music” in a big way. This does not mean that he began to DJ at raves, playing dance music with repetitive drum tracks and synthesized basslines. Rather, he had a productive period composing music specifically designed for the home market: Hausmusik. This was music meant to be appreciated by amateurs making music in their own homes, a demographic that had come to make up an increasing proportion of the German middle class during the Biedermeyer period (1815-1848) in which family life was celebrated and home activities like music-making cherished.

In Schumann’s Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano, the “popular” style of these pieces is evident in their simple A-B-A formal structure, their strongly profiled melodies, and their frequent use of drone tones in the bass.

The first piece is entitled Vanitas vanitatum, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). It is likely meant to depict a drunken soldier like the one featured in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. Its heavy peasant swing conveys something of the soldier’s alcoholic swagger, or perhaps even stagger, but offers glimpses of his tipsy charm, as well.

The second piece is like a drowsy lullaby, or perhaps just something cozy to play in a room with plenty of coals on the fire and a hot bowl of punch at the ready. This is warm home life distilled into sound.

An aura of mystery seems to pervade the third piece, which opens with a sad waltz in the cello dogged by furtive interruptions in the piano. More lyrical material occupies the middle section, notable for the high register used in the cello and the double-stop writing in 6ths.

The fourth piece offers one of those bravely optimistic and celebratory anthems that one often finds in Schumann, alternating with more fretful expressive outpourings in its middle section.

The least ‘amateur’ of the set is the fifth piece that features copious scoops of double thirds in the piano part and a restless, roving cello line determined to sing out its line on its own terms.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major Op. 69

Beethoven may have made his name in music history for his restless moods and Dionysian fury but there is another side to him that his A major Sonata Op. 69 represents well. This is the Apollonian, classical-era Beethoven, the Beethoven content to live – for the space of four movements at least – in a Mozartean world of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.

The opening theme of his first movement, for example, presented in the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, is symmetrically balanced around its opening note, the home note of A major. This solo entry of the cello and its follow-up phrase in the piano (ending in a short cadenza) is then succeeded by a solo entry in the piano and the same follow-up phrase in the cello (ending in a short cadenza). Moreover, the sonata’s second theme is a mirror image of the first, simply inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. While minor-mode turbulence intervenes from time to time, notably in the operatic outpourings of the development section, the piano and cello remain like best buddies in a road movie, always on the same page, never fighting with each other.

The 2nd movement scherzo sets out to see how much fun can be had with syncopation. At first peeking out and then hiding behind the pillars of each bar’s first beat, the two instruments find themselves dancing cheek-to-cheek (in 6ths) in the Trio’s two contrasting episodes.

The 3rd movement Adagio cantabile has puzzled many performers. Its extraordinary brevity, a mere 18 bars, barely gives Beethoven time to stretch out his lyrical limbs … and then it’s over. Glenn Gould has suggested a reason for this, a reason rooted in Beethoven’s emerging fascination with continuous form:

It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end … to make things all of a piece.

Nonetheless, Beethoven’s last movement takes off with a merry twinkle in its eye and a bustling accompaniment of steady 8th notes in the piano to keep every toe in the hall tapping in time. The opening theme of this sonata-form movement is derived from the first movement’s opening theme. Simply bursting with good humour and bonhomie, this movement manages to be both cute and coy by turns while constantly radiating a sunniness of disposition that even the mock-worry of its development section cannot efface.

 

Anton Webern
Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 
11

Anton Webern presents us with among the most concentrated aesthetic experiences possible in music. Using the 12-tone technique of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, in which complete statements of the 12 chromatic tones are presented as musical ideas, he writes works characterized by an astonishing density of musical thought. This is music of meticulous craftsmanship, music under a magnifying glass, in which seemingly small gestures take on great significance.

Webern’s Three Little Pieces Op. 11 are contained within a space of 9, 13 and 10 bars, respectively, and they take less than two minutes to perform. The outer movements are relatively slow and extremely soft (ranging between pp and ppp) while the second movement is loud and fast.

Catching the essence of music this fleeting requires concentrated listening. Only repeated hearings can really bring its minute details into focus. But one characteristic that might well be perceivable right away is how the piano and cello, like an old married couple, seem to complete each other’s musical thoughts.

When one goes up, the other goes down in response, creating a kind of symmetry in their dialogue.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata in G minor Op. 65

Chopin, a cello composer? Who knew? And yet the piano’s most famous composer actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, written between 1845 and 1846 for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).

In retrospect, however, the baritone range typical of the cello had always been a fertile ground for countermelody in Chopin’s piano music. Indeed some works, like the Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, or the Étude in C# minor Op. 25 No. 7, sound almost like transcriptions of works originally written for cello and piano. What most distinguishes this late sonata from those earlier “cello-like” works, however, is a new tendency towards increased chromaticism in the melodic line. Chopin’s sense of harmonic momentum is dizzyingly paced, especially in the first and last movements of this sonata.

Although Romantic in spirit, the sonata is written in the four-movement structure of the Classical era, comprising a sonata-form 1st movement, a 2nd movement scherzo, slow 3rd movement and rondo finale. The 1st movement’s opening theme might be described as a songful march, lyrical but inflected with pert dotted rhythms that add a slightly martial air to the melody’s unfolding. The second theme, by contrast, is a serene 10 notes (the first four on the same pitch) that exude a lyrical sense of repose, a repose not long held in this generally turbulent movement. The development is short, expanding on the rapturous potential of the 1st theme, in particular. Serious confrontation and drama occur only in the recapitulation, which draws much more vehemence from its material than the opening had done.

The 2nd movement scherzo is much lighter in texture and midway in mood between Mendelssohnian scamper and Brahmsian heft. Its lyrical trio is a nostalgic waltz to melt the heart of the crustiest old curmudgeon.

Lyricism of the simplest kind also prevails in the short 27-bar Largo third movement, but of a kind more vocal in its inspiration. Its widely spaced, nocturne- like piano accompaniment of eighth notes evokes a sense of calm that makes it the emotional pivot around which the whole sonata revolves.

The rondo finale reprises the martial inflections of the opening movement, but its dotted rhythms are now enlivened with a triplet energy reminiscent of the tarantella. In more lyrical sections the cello part is notable for the type of double- stop writing in 6ths one might expect in a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Anna Fedorova

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Fantasia in D minor K. 397

Mozart’s D minor Fantasia is a bundle of mysteries; an intriguing sound-puzzle for the listener but a labyrinthine minefield of interpretive choices for the pianist. Mere slavish attention to the details of the printed score—the motto and creed of historically informed pianism—risks missing the point entirely in a work so obviously based on the spirit of free improvisation, with its seven distinct sections, three cadenzas, and constantly changing tempos and moods.

Worse still, the work that dates from 1782 remained unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791 and the first printed edition (Vienna, 1804) simply ends on a cliff-hanging dominant seventh chord. This has prompted subsequent editors to bring the work into port with an additional 10 measures provided by “another hand” (to use the scholarly phrase), not without a certain measure of eyebrow elevation on the part of purists, to be sure.

Sniffing at the brute amateurishness of this solution, Mitsuko Uchida, for one, ignores these additions and instead repeats the opening arpeggios at the end of her recording of the piece to bring a rounded symmetry to the form and preserve Mozartean authorship throughout.

What will Ms. Fedorova do? In a piece predicated on improvisatory surprise, it is perhaps best for listeners not to know in advance.

 

Frédéric  Chopin

Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49

Despite its generic title, Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor of 1841 is every bit as nationalist in sentiment as his mazurkas and polonaises, based as it is on motives from many of the patriotic songs nostalgically sung by his fellow Polish emigrés in Paris who, like Chopin himself, were unable to return to their native land after the failed Warsaw uprising of November 1830. Indeed, Theodor Adorno has described the work as a “tragically decorative song of triumph to the effect that Poland was not lost forever, that someday […] she would rise again.”

It begins in the low register of the keyboard with a mysterious march of uncertain import. What begins in imitation of the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a military parade soon drifts almost imperceptibly into the gentle lilt of dance music in an elegant aristocratic salon. Wide-spanning arpeggiated passagework links the various sections of the work that move through moods of restless anxiety to forthright defiance, and, finally to the exultation of military triumph, evoked in a strutting cavalry march.

At the very heart of the piece, however, is a restrained Lento sostenuto that calls a momentary truce to all the patriotic posturing to express the simple nobility of the Polish soul, an echo of which is heard in recitative before the work swells resolutely in rippling arpeggios to its conclusion.

 

Toru Takemitsu

Uninterrupted Rests

Toru Takemitsu rose to prominence in the 1950s to become, in the words of his countryman Seiji Ozawa, “the first Japanese composer to write for a world audience and achieve international recognition.” Largely self-taught, he was influenced by the music of Debussy and Messiaen, by the musique concrète experiments of Pierre Shaeffer, and by Balinese gamelan music, becoming known especially for his sensitivity to the play of timbre and sound colour.

Uninterrupted Rests (1952-1959) is a work in three movements that seeks to capture the mood of a nature poem by Shūzō Takiguchi about the heaviness of a dark night with the wind and cold weighing on every moth and twig.

Takemitsu shared John Cage’s view that silence was an actual presence in music, rather than an absence, and his score reflects this by giving dynamic markings even to rests, to indicate the intensity with which they are to be felt.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Preludes Op. 32 and Op. 23

Rachmaninoff’s masterful control of pianistic colour and sonority is on full display in his Preludes Op. 23 (1901-03) and Op. 32 (1910). By no means miniatures, these works are more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 and 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

The Prelude in G major Op. 32 No. 5 makes colourful use of the high register to present a delicate melody floating placidly above a murmuring accompaniment in the mid-range, hazily blurred in the ear by the unusual five-against-three patterning of the left and right hands. It is hard not to think of birds chirping on a clear cold winter’s day when listening to this prelude.

The bright and jangling open-fifth accompaniment figure that begins the Prelude in G# minor Op. 32 No. 12 tempts and taunts a pensive baritone melody in the darker regions of the keyboard below that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency.

The muscular Prelude in B flat Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and dynamism of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over three octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied, but equally tumultuous, middle section.

 

Robert  Schumann

Fantasy in C Major Op. 17

Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasy Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenage daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wiecks. The Fantasy’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in the movement’s mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).

That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a grand sonata in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”

The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.

The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices, and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.

Schumann’s three-movement “sonata” was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.

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: Joseph Moog

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 13 (Pathétique)

At the end of the 18th century, a young Ludwig van Beethoven burst upon the scene with a musical personality that mixed brooding machismo with emotional vulnerability. This unusual combination soon established him as the Marlon Brando of Viennese composers, with the key of C minor as his black leather jacket.

This dark and troubled key, evil twin of the blameless and angelic C major, was in the next three decades to host a series of restless, turbulent works such as the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, 32 Variations in C minor and the last piano sonata Op. 111, all written in what would come to be known as Beethoven’s “C minor mood.” At the head of this list, however, stands the Pathétique Sonata of 1798, ominously indexed as the composer’s Op. 13, a breakthrough work so impactful that it went through 17 editions during his lifetime.

The rough terrain of this sonata’s high-relief emotional landscape is announced in the opening slow introduction, with its startling contrasts of loud and soft, of high and low register, of fragile hopeful recitative sternly answered by implacable thick chordal rebuke. The mood of heightened emotional tension continues in the Allegro that follows, newly animated by a throbbing tremolo in the bass and a headlong rushing theme above.

The unusual feature of this movement is its lack of modal contrast: it remains doggedly stuck in the minor mode for virtually its entire duration, relieved only rarely by momentary glimmers of major tonality. The second theme, normally a source of daisy-sniffing tra-la-la lyricism in a sonata-form movement, enters here in the dark key of E flat minor (instead of the expected E flat major) and is just as nervously fidgety as the first, even adding an element of daring with its repeated hand-crossings. More unusual still is the way in which the grim deliberations of the slow introduction bring the proceedings to a grinding halt at major articulating points in the structure. These thickly scored minor chords and grave dotted rhythms interject a moment of worrying caution at the end of the exposition before the listener is swept headlong into the tumult of the development section. The same ominous admonitions recur at the end of the recapitulation, as well, setting up the mad race to the movement’s dramatic final chords, which arrive with the abruptness of an incensed dinner guest who stands up, throws down his serviette, and storms away from the table.

It is left to the Adagio cantabile to smooth over the listener’s ruffled feathers with the healing balm of a lyrical long-limbed melody worlds apart in shape and construction from the breathless motivic fragments of which the first movement was composed. Laid out in the A-B-A-C-A pattern of a rondo, it alternates between reverential major-mode serenity and passing shadows of minor-mode introspection. While the propulsive quality of the first movement stands emblematic of a distinctly masculine musical energy, the undulating triplets in which this slow movement’s melody is eventually draped unerringly betoken the fluttering of the female heart.

The arrival of a rondo finale is normally the signal for sonata aficionados to prepare their toes for some serious tapping, but Beethoven’s finale is anything but merry. This is a vigorous movement that repeatedly contrasts its sullen opening tune in the minor mode with intervening episodes in the major. These episodes begin innocently enough but gradually work themselves into a churning froth of excitement which climaxes in a spectacular run descending from the highest regions of the keyboard.

All the greater, then, is the contrast provided by the central episode, a solemn study in academic counterpoint of unimpeachable rigour that nonetheless finds itself drawn into the fast-paced vortex. It thus falls to the quarrelling musical forces to meet at high noon in the Coda Corale to have it out for good in a great slugging match of off-beat sforzando accents, swept along on a wave of irresistible harmonic momentum.

Connoisseurs of the concept of ‘cyclical form’ will no doubt notice how cleverly Beethoven has slipped in sly references to the preceding movements in this finale, the opening refrain tune beginning as a copy of the first movement’s fidgety second theme in E flat minor, and the contrapuntal episode drawing its numerous 4ths from the melody of the Adagio.

 

Franz Liszt
Réminiscences de Norma

In the 1830s a swarm of pianists descended like a biblical plague on the city of Paris, attracted by the rich harvest of opera tunes produced each autumn on which to feed when concocting the potpourris, fantasies and paraphrases that were their chief stock in trade.

Each vied for public favour with his own bag of keyboard tricks, but two contenders stood head and shoulders above the rest. First there was Sigismund Thalberg, of aristocratic bearing, born seemingly without sweat glands, who sat perfectly motionless at the keyboard while astonishing audiences with his famous ‘three-hand effect’ (a clear melody sounding out in the mid-range surrounded by wide-ranging accompaniments above and below). And then there was Franz Liszt, an earthy Hungarian, born with an excess of hair follicles, whose theatrical performing style gave him the idea of turning the piano sideways on the stage (where it remains today) so that audiences might be prompted to even greater admiration of the trills, repeated notes and other sparkling ear candy that spilled from the instrument when he played.

All Paris was eager to hear these two titans perform together on the same program, but Liszt was scornful of the prospect of appearing with a man he called “a failed aristocrat and a failed artist” (ouch!) while Thalberg sniffed scornfully, “I do not like to be accompanied” (me-ow!). But then Princess Cristina Belgiojoso, an Italian emigrée in Paris, scored the social coup of the season when she managed to engage both pianists for a charity concert (and pianistic cage match) that took place in her salon on March 31, 1837, at which opera fantasies were front and centre on the bill. Thalberg played his fantasy on Rossini’s Moses in Egypt and Liszt played his own on Pacini’s Niobe. The result? The Princess declared afterwards that “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world—Liszt is the only one.”

Flash forward to the 1840s, when Liszt was enthroned as King of the Piano and touring Europe in regal style, astonishing the multitudes in concerts that frequently included one of his growing list of paraphrases based on tunes from operas by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, including his Réminiscences de Norma.

Bellini’s Norma, made famous since its premiere in 1831 by its celebrated aria Casta diva, tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who, in a time of popular insurrection, is called upon to chose between her love for the Roman governor and her duty to the gods and to her nation. Liszt offers a concentrated summary of the dramatic core of the opera by selecting melodies from the opening of Act I to evoke Norma’s exaltation as her people’s great hope for victory over the Roman occupiers, and from the last scene finale of Act II to represent her selfless renunciation of love, and of life itself, to further the cause of her warlike people.

The work opens with a series of stern chords and martial drumbeats, echoed high above by sparkling arpeggiations, to set the stage for a tale of war on earth and reward in heaven. These musical motifs recur midway through the piece to transition between opera’s Act I mood of heroic resolve and its tragic outcome in Act II.

Liszt’s inventiveness in creating novel pianistic textures in this piece is remarkable, and one can only imagine rows of countesses dropping like fainting goats in the first row at its first performance. In addition to scintillating cadenzas shooting up to the high register, and muscular displays of bravura octaves, Liszt offers up generous quantities of Thalberg’s famous ‘three-hand effect’, especially in the second half of the work, where the majority of the most outrageous pyrotechnics are concentrated.

His treatment of the lyrical Qual cor tradisti, with its three simultaneous layers—melody, pulsing chordal accompaniment, and martial triplet drumbeat—has been described by musicologist Charles Suttoni as “one of the most ingenious and sublime pages ever written for the piano.”

 

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op. 4

Chopin’s first sonata dates from the time when he was still a student of Joseph Elsner at the Conservatory in Warsaw. While it bears many of the traits of a student composition, we should remember that not all students are created equal. Elsner’s remarks on this student’s graduating report card in 1829 read simply: “Chopin F., third-year student, exceptional talent, musical genius.”

Many of the characteristics of Chopin’s mature style are already present in this four-movement work. It is written for a large hand and takes for granted a virtuoso’s mastery of octave and double-note technique. Its heavy and imposing first movement features a melodically active bass line, strongly imitative texture, and a desire for rhythmic fulness that keeps up a chatter of 8th notes in practically every bar, aided and abetted by a certain contrapuntal chumminess of melody and countermelody that lends a charmingly conversational quality to the right-hand writing, in particular.

Unusual in this movement, however, is its lack of a lyrical second theme in a different key: the work opens by planting its flag in C minor and sits there in lawn chair for the entire exposition. But the development section, by way of compensation, is as chromatically colourful as a bowl of Smarties.

The second movement is the only minuet that Chopin ever wrote and the indication scherzando gives us a hint that crinoline petticoats and powdered wigs were not what he had in mind when writing it. The acrobatic triplet figures in the opening section and mock-seriousness of the E flat minor trio point more in the direction of sly parody than courtly hommage.

The Larghetto that follows, however, is in dead earnest in its lyrical intentions although experimental in their implementation. Written in a highly unusual 5/4 meter, its rhythmic pulse is somewhat difficult to pin down. The ornamentation of the right-hand melody into prime-number groupings of 3s, 5s and 7s against a stable left-hand accompaniment of duple 8th notes presages the operatic arias of the concerti slow movements and the moonlit meditations of the nocturnes.

A tumultuous rondo finale ends the work with a virtuoso display of scintillating passagework regularly interrupted by its thumping principal theme, a kind of Wanderer Fantasy gone over to the dark side in the minor mode. Eruptive surges from the depths of the keyboard, much akin to the deleterious effects of acid reflux, alternate with brilliant cascades of keyboard colour in the treble to end this sonata in a style worthy of a full-on concerto.

 

Gabriel Fauré
Theme and Variations in C# minor Op. 73

Francis Poulenc once famously remarked that the modulations in some of Gabriel Fauré’s music made him feel woozy, almost physically ill. While sales of Pepto-Bismol at concession stands in major concert venues has experienced no significant up-tick when the music of Fauré is performed, it is nonetheless true that this composer remains something of a specialty taste for concert-goers, regardless of their level of digestive resilience.

Fauré was at once a typical and yet an enigmatic figure in French music of the turn of the 19th century. The charm, elegance and delicacy of his musical style was distinctly French while his relative indifference to musical picture-painting and pianistic display set him apart from the predominating trends of his age. That he should be interested in modal harmonies and polyphonic textures should be no surprise, given the strict diet of contrapuntal music that he was fed as a youth at the ultra-traditional École Niedermeyer along with his morning gruel. Less surprising still given his subsequent career as an organist, a line of work in which an interest in polyphonic music is an occupational hazard few manage to avoid.

Fauré wrote a considerable amount of music for the piano and was much influenced by the accomplishments of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. In keeping with the quality of moderation and restraint that characterized his own personality, his piano music is characterized by an emphasis on melodies placed in the middle of the keyboard, often divided into gossamer textures of arpeggiated filigree. More given to understatement than exaggeration, he was possessed of an artistic personality closer to that of Verlaine and Proust in literature, than to the more direct theatricality of Gounod or Massenet, the virtuoso exuberance of Saint-Saëns, in music.

His Variations in C# minor were written in 1895 and may well have been inspired, in general spirit and occasionally in texture, by the example of Schumann’s Symphonic Études in the same key. The theme is a kind of march of imposing gravity, modally inflected, in a rhythmically repetitive pattern, and curiously configured with accents on weak beats of the bar. It consists of a simple C sharp minor scale rising up an octave and then lurching back down again by stages. Eleven variations follow, beginning at first with simple ornamentations and textural elaborations, but soon developing into something much more distant from its initial melodic and harmonic outline.

There are no ‘genre’ variations, as such, although dancelike elements do occur. Rather, the very DNA of the theme is spun out in fantastical ways, some passing through a time warp to don the apparel of a Bach invention, others floating more freely in sonic space, held together by strands of imitative counterpoint unimaginable in the era of the Cantor of Leipzig. The ninth variation seems to be walking on the moon. Typical of Fauré, he avoids ending with a bombastic ‘crowd-pleasing’ variation as a cue for audience applause, but rather exits softly, in refined style, in a final meditative variation in the major mode.

 

Anton Rubenstein
Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies (arr. Joseph Moog)

The pianist, composer, and conductor Anton Rubinstein has until recently held but a tenuous grasp on the affections of classical musicians and their audiences. Among his large catalogue of compositions, comprising a vast output of symphonies, operas, works for piano and chamber music, only his Melody in F for piano has remained with any constancy in the repertoire, although his Piano Concerto No. 4 was popular with pianistic titans such as Rachmaninoff and Hoffman in the early part of the 20th century (and has recently been recorded by Joseph Moog). A curious state of affairs, this, given the write-up that Rubinstein receives in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians describing him as “one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century,” whose playing “was compared with Liszt’s, to the disadvantage of neither.”

Like Liszt, his talent was spotted early. He was thus trotted about Europe as a child prodigy as soon as his age reached double digits, and before he had started shaving he had a Rolodex that included the names of Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn, not to mention the pats on the head he received from the Russian imperial family and Queen Victoria herself. It was connections such as these that allowed him in 1862 to found Russia’s first music conservatory, in St. Petersburg, and to serve as its first director, with Tschaikovsky as one of his students.

As a youth he had studied the exaggerated stage mannerisms of Liszt, whose mystical magnetic hold on his audiences Rubinstein attempted to imitate, both in his comportment on stage and in his pianistic style. From the point of view of stage presence, it certainly did not hurt that his facial features bore a striking resemblance to those of Beethoven, causing Liszt to give him the nickname “Ludwig II” (punning on the name of Wagner’s royal patron).

Like Liszt, he had an upbringing that had exposed him to the folk-music idioms of Central Europe and his catalogue of compositions includes many fantasies, variations and dances based on the memory of these folk melodies and their characteristic rhythms.

His Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies dates from 1858 and uses the same slow-fast structure that Liszt used in his Hungarian rhapsodies. Its first section is strongly improvisatory in character, and makes much of the ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm (a short accented note followed by a longer one) typical of certain types of folk music. Rubinstein the virtuoso makes no attempt to hide his light under a bushel here, as he unleashes volley after volley of arpeggios up to the high register culminating in quicksilver janglings of tremolo, richly suggestive of the metallic thrumming of the Hungarian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer).

The second section is more rhythmically regular and features melodies purled out in chains of trills, batteries of octaves, and other trademarks of sonic mayhem typical of mid-19th-century pianistic exhibitionism.

Joseph Moog’s idea of ‘arranging’ a piece which is already, itself, an arrangement lies eminently within mainstream practice of the period. Indeed, Rubinstein specialist Larry Sitsky of the Australian National University (Canberra) heartily commends the practice, insisting that the performer “must have the bravery to add to or contradict the composer’s own markings.” (Period performance enthusiasts might need smelling salts administered after reading this.)

Rubinstein, you see, had various ‘quality control’ issues accruing from his manner of composition—so similar to his manner of performing—that stressed capturing an evanescent moment of inspiration on the fly, without causing too much heat to accumulate in the space between his ears. As of press time, the nature of Mr. Moog’s ‘arranging’ activities are unknown but in the spirit of creating the authentic atmosphere of a genuine 19th-century piano recital, nor should it be.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

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

 

 

 

 

Top