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Program notes: Emanuel Ax

Georges Bizet
Variations Chromatiques de concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Claude Debussy
Les Estampes, L 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Claude Debussy
Hommage à Rameau L110 No. 2

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

 

Claude Debussy
L’Isle Joyeuse L 106

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: CHARLIE ALBRIGHT

 

Franz Schubert

Impromptus Op. 90, Nos. 1-4

The impromptu is just one of a number of small-scale instrumental genres arising in the early 19th century, known under the collective title of “character pieces”. Cultivated by composers of the Romantic era, these pieces present a simple musical idea in an intimate lyrical style with the aim of evoking a particular mood or moment of personal reflection, spontaneously experienced and communicated.

The typical construction was a simple three-part form (A-B-A), with a middle section that contrasts in mood or emotional intensity with the outer sections. The eight impromptus that Schubert composed in late 1827 are classic examples of the genre, and indeed are the first pieces bearing the name impromptu to establish themselves permanently in the repertoire.

The Impromptu No. 1 in C minor is the longest of the set, its expansive range of moods and textures being more typicalfortissimo octave yielding to the pianissimo of the lonely little tune that follows, strangely forlorn and introspective despite its march-like rhythm. After its assertive potential is explored, a more songful variant arrives to captivate the ear in the major mode, ending with a melodic turn figure that spawns its own lyrical discussion. The middle section offers contrast more in texture than in thematic content as it works through the two related themes in the manner of a formal sonata development. Sonata-like, as well, is the resolution of the accumulated dramatic tension in the major-mode ending of the “recapitulation”.

A more simply contrasted pair of emotions is explored in the Impromptu No. 2 in E-flat, which juxtaposes the carefree running scale passages of the opening with a more emphatic middle section dominated by vigorous emotional outbursts. Recent developments in the design of the Viennese piano made possible the extreme range of the right-hand scalar passages, which Schubert exploits to create thrilling crescendos in the high register.

The Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat presents a lyrical vocal melody over melt-in-your-mouth harmonies laid out in a gentle but ever-moving accompaniment pattern that perfectly paints the fluttering of the human heart.

Impromptu No. 4 in A-flatmajor begins with a buoyant cascade of broken chord figures that appears almost to be winking in merriment, despite its minor-mode setting – all the more playful because of the soothing chords that following, seemingly saying: “Just kidding, folks”. The middle section worries obsessively in a melody of questioning semitone rises and falls, its accompaniment fretting in pulsing, anxious sympathy with these deliberations. But in the end, the major mode wins over after the opening material is recalled to lighten the mood once again.

 

Leoš Janáček

Sonata, 1.X.1905

We are lucky to have this sonata, a product of Janáček’s impassioned middle age. Although well beyond his teen years at the time, the Czech composer nevertheless reacted with adolescent fervour in composing this tribute to František Pavlík, the 19-year-old labourer killed in the ethnic violence that marked demonstrations held on the 1st of October, 1905 in the Moravian city of Brno.

Adolescent was his decision to burn the last movement (a funeral march) before the sonata was premiered in 1906, and flagrantly Romantic was his gesture of tossing the manuscript of the other two movements from a bridge into the Vltava river shortly thereafter. Only in 1924 did pianist Ludmila Tučková, who performed the work at its premier, reveal that she had copied out the first two movements, allowing the work to be re-performed and published for the first time.

Despite its programmatic origins, the first movement, ominously labelled Presentiment, is in fairly standard sonata form, with even a repeated exposition. A few introductory bars set up the key before the restless first theme appears. Immediately noticeable is the extraordinarily wide spacing of the piano texture, evocative of the timbre and idiom of the hammered dulcimer (cimbalom) used in Moravian folk music. The second theme is more lyrically conceived, but both themes display Janáček’s characteristic use of small motives to create larger phrase units that accumulate in meaning through repetition.

The second movement, entitled Death, focuses-in emotionally on the loss of a young life. Evocative of the void left by the death of the young František, its first section begins almost every bar with an emptiness: a 16th note rest in both hands. The whole movement is built from the repetition of a single modally-inflected phrase, dully repeated in the opening section (which bears some of the ghostly stillness of Ravel’s Le Gibet from Gaspard de la nuit), but more operatically sung out in the expansive middle section. Finally, however, the meditative mood of the opening returns to end the movement pianississimo, as it edges towards the silence of the grave.

 

Adolf Schulz-Evler

Concert Arabesques on Themes from On the Beautiful Blue Danube

The idea of “covering” another performer’s songs is a practice well known to both lovers of refined jazz and those whose musical taste is circumscribed by the four walls of their local pub.

Before the invention of the radio, the amount of music being publicly performed far outstripped the means for distributing it to a mass audience; instrumental transcriptions of “hit” tunes were an easy, crowd-pleasing item to include on the programs of travelling concert artists. Liszt, for example, was famous for his opera fantasias, and Sarasate for his Carmen Fantasy.

With the death of Rachmaninoff and the older generation of pianists, however, concert programs after the Second World War saw fewer of these pieces listed. The emerging “period performance” movement put respect for the conditions of a work’s first appearance as the supreme goal of the modern musician. “Covering” a great work of musical art was akin to dumpster-diving, as frowned-upon as stealing the tulips from your neighbour’s garden. Adolf Schulz- Evler’s scintillating Blue Danube transcription, for example, was described in the 1954 edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians as “meretricious”, i.e., “whore-like” in its appeal. For 1950s audiences, then, attending a public performance of this piece was not something you could tell your mother about.

Only Glenn Gould’s brilliance in re-creating Bach on the modern piano and Vladimir Horowitz’s demonic ability to project the values of 19th-century pianism to a 20th-century audience allowed these musicians to stand apart from the general trend. Indeed it was the prestige of Horowitz’s own Carmen Fantasy and Stars & Stripes Forever – as well as his pianistic re-touching of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – that opened the door for transcriptions to return to the concert stage after his death in 1989.

Ever since, modern pianists have been hunting around in the attic for old gems of the repertoire, in a classical-music version of the Antiques Road Show, with the Schulz-Evler Blue Danube transcription standing as one of their greatest finds. And modern audiences, like dieters rejoicing in new research that promotes the nutritional value of chocolate, have been just as enthusiastic.

The Polish-born pianist Adolf Schulz-Evler (1852-1905) was a student of Karl Tausig and the composer of minor works, mostly forgotten today, except for his pianistically exuberant transcription of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Structured as an introduction with five waltzes, it begins with a tantalizing sonic apéritif that bubbles with champagne effervescence in the high register as small hints of the waltz tune emerge below.

Despite the work’s intoxicating mix of tunefulness and pianistic “ear candy”, its challenges are not merely technical.In such repertoire, the concept of “Taste” – note the capital T – is paramount, with only a few sequins, a touch of eye liner, and the odd festive sideways glance to separate a Liszt from a Liberace.

 

Charlie Albright

Improvisation

Your intrepid notes writer has consulted horoscopes, communed with his Ouija board, and even tried to contact Edward Snowden in a frantic attempt to determine what musical direction will likely be taken by Mr. Albright in his improvisation.

Alas, only Mr. Albright knows that, and maybe not even he…

 

Frédéric Chopin

Études, Op. 25

The two sets of twelve piano studies which Chopin published as his Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), stand, even today, as the foundation of modern piano technique. In the words of pianist Garrick Ohlsson: “If you can play the Chopin Études … there is basically nothing in the modern repertoire you can’t play”. Each étude presents a specific technical challenge to the pianist, but in a way that transcends its original pedagogical purpose, making each study into an exquisite Romantic-era “character piece”.

It is easy to imagine why the Étude No. 1 in A-flatis known as the “Aeolian Harp”. Beneath a steady pulse of melody notes, many of them repeated on the same pitch, strums a swirling, rippling accompaniment that challenges the pianist to split his hands conceptually in two between a melody or bass-note finger (the pinkie) and the fingers playing the accompaniment, i.e., all the rest. Particularly perilous are the exhilarating leaps – in opposite directions! – at the emotional climax of the piece.

The difficulty in the Étude No. 2 in F minor is metrical: two triplets of eighth notes in the right hand are paired with one triplet of quarter notes in the left. Think of trying to tap your foot to two different songs playing at once, one coming from each earplug of your iPod: your right ear is hearing 12/8 while your left ear is hearing 6/4.

The Étude No. 3 in F major is an exercise in pianistic poise. While the hands are made to leap in opposite directions, a trill-ish figure in the centre of the hand must remain calm and unruffled. Not a piece for the fidgety, the feverish, or the feckless.

Leaps are also a prominent feature of the Étude No. 4 in A minor but here the challenge is to keep the right- hand pinkie-finger singing out blithely above the jumpy accompaniment below, despite being always on the off- beat.

The Étude No. 5 in E minor is the “ugly duckling” of the set. To each attack in the right hand is attached, like a barnacle, a chromatic inflection a semitone away that makes it walk like it has a stone in its shoe. Its contrasting middle section in the major mode – as poised and elegant as the opening section is grotesquely limping and ungainly – is richly carpeted with a harmonically full, rolling texture that allows the left hand to sing out a simple but engaging baritone melody of small range and modest harmonic goals.

Double thirds, in both chromatic and diatonic varieties, haunt the shimmering Étude No. 6 in G-sharpminor. Chopin introduces here a tonal palate hitherto unknown in the piano literature in this quicksilver merry-go-round of kaleidoscopic colouration.

The slow, lyrical Étude No. 7 in C-sharpminor is a chamber trio. The left-hand ‘cello’ voice sings a duet with a treble melody in the right-hand while a gentle sympathetic chordal accompaniment occupies the middle ground. This is one of the few études where the principal difficulty lies in the left hand.

While most student pianists would rather swallow a hairball than play a whole piece in double thirds, a large majority of those would rather pass a kidney stone than do so in double sixths, as here in the Étude No. 8 in D-flatmajor.

The Étude No. 9 in G-flatmajor is a merry romp over the black keys requiring fine control of the hand to bring out the rollicking principal tune against a flurry of competing textures around it.

The pianist’s octaves – bread and butter of the virtuoso performer – receive a thorough annual check-up in the Étude No. 10 in B minor, both in their stormy and lyrical manners of performance.

The Étude No.11 in A minor, known as the “Winter Wind”, reveals Chopin as the inventor of yet another revolutionary new pianistic texture, one that seems to want to include every note on the instrument. Typical of Chopin’s pianistic approach is the way that the cascading figures descending from the top of the keyboard require passing the thumb under the 5th finger when rising back up.

The “Ocean” Étude No. 12 in C minor gets its name from the waves of sound that sweep up and down the keyboard, doled out octave-by-octave in broken chord figures that are extremely tiring to perform accurately at fast tempo. While the chordal patterns of the opening are simple, Chopin reveals himself a master of chromatic harmony and piano tone-colouring in the tension-filled middle section.

 

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

 

Program Notes: Beatrice Rana

 

Robert Schumann: Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Schumann’s Abegg Variations first appeared in November of 1831, but Schumann had completed it more than a year earlier, shortly after his twentieth birthday and before he had made the commitment to a life of music (he was still studying law in Heidelberg at the time).  It is no fumbling attempt, but rather an assured, individual work from a composer who already knows piano technique intimately.

“Abegg” was the surname of a young lady, Meta Abegg, Schumann had met at a ball in Mannheim. He dedicated his Op. 1 to “Pauline, Countess of Abegg,” though both “Pauline” and “Countess” were fictitious. Nor did Schumann have any amorous intent, as Meta was already in love with someone else. The French appellation was in deference to Paris as the center of pianistic virtuosity at the time, and the theme-and-variations form was the most popular formula for demonstrating this virtuosity. Themes were usually drawn from popular operatic numbers of the day (Rossini, Bellini, Auber, etc.), but Schumann broke with convention and invented his own. Actually, it is more of a fragment than a theme, which, in fact, spell the name ABEGG.

The work consists of an introduction, in which the five-note motif is spun out both forwards and backwards over four variations, including a quiet, reflective Cantabile, and a Finale alla fantasia. Biographer Eric Jensen notes that “it is clear that Schumann intended the work to be comparatively conventional, entertaining, and pleasing – goals that, as time passed, increasingly he abandoned.” However, the music is anything but easy to play, and cannot have been intended for amateurs to fool around with at home.

 

Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

To Schumann, the piano was the instrument through which he confided his most intimate thoughts, and was his most personal medium of artistic expression, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the Symphonic Etudes are intimately connected to the composer’s personal life.

Out of his romantically fertile imagination, Schumann created a gallery of fictional characters known as the Davidsbund (band of David), two of whom are opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego: Florestan, representing his extroverted, exuberant side; Eusebius his quiet, meditative side. Davidsbund were the proud musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. Florestan and Eusebius are deeply bound up in the world of the Symphonic Etudes. Among the titles Schumann tried out before settling on the present one are Etuden im Orchestercharakter von Florestan und Eusebius and Davidsbündler Etudes.

The opening gesture, a full-fledged theme, forms an integral part of the composition and serves as the basis of a series of variations. The number of variations, the title of the set and their ordering went through numerous changes in the course of the nineteenth century, extending to well after the composer’s death. In the form most commonly encountered today, the Études symphoniques (Schumann used the French title for the first published edition of 1837), there are twelve numbers following presentation of the dirge-like theme in C sharp minor. Originally Schumann wrote six more as well, but withdrew them, mostly due to difficulties in arranging a proper sequence of so many variations in the same key and for the most part of similar character. Five of these “extra” variations were salvaged by Brahms and published as a supplement in 1873.

Most of the Etudes (or studies) are also variations, although very freely fashioned out of the original theme. The “symphonic” aspect of this music refers to the organic growth and extensive working out of the theme as well as to the orchestral textures, colors, sonorities and effects suggested or realized.

 

Frédéric Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28

Aside from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Preludes (1838) are surely the most famous group of pieces conceived as an orderly traversal of the 24 major and minor keys. (There also exists a solitary additional Prelude, Op. 45.) Other composers have also essayed the procedure, including Alkan, Bentzon, Busoni, Hummel, Kabalevsky, Kalkbrenner, Scriabin and Shostakovich. But those of Bach and Chopin remain by far the best known.

The Bach connection is borne out in biographer James Huneker’s remark that Chopin was “one of the most daring harmonists since Bach.” Franz Liszt, always one to recognize the bold innovations of genius, praised the Preludes: “This composition is of a kind by itself … poetic preludes, analogous to those of a contemporary poet [Lamartine], which soothe the soul with golden dreams and raise it to ideal regions. Admirable in their diversity, they reveal a labor and knowledge that can be appreciated only by careful study. Everything is full of spontaneity, élan, bounce. They have the free and great features that characterize the works of genius.”

Some people are perplexed by the title “prelude” in view of the fact that nothing follows. Reinhard Schulz’s cogent explanation should clarify the point: “The purpose of a prelude has always been to establish the mood of something which is to follow, anticipating its basic characteristics. Each of Chopin’s Preludes may be understood as containing the essence of an entire world of feelings – it is left to the receptive listener to fill in the detailed picture in his mind.”

The Preludes are arranged in pairs of major and minor keys and ascend in intervals of the fifth. Hence: C major, A minor (no sharps or flats); G major, E minor (1 sharp); D major, B minor (2 sharps), etc., through six sharps, then 6 flats, 5 flats, and so on down to 1 flat. Each of these 24 cameos, these “moods in miniature,” inhabits a private world of its own, from the feverish energy of the first to the noble pathos of the final piece. As Robert Schumann said of them, “may each person search for what suits him; may only Philistines stay away!”

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Narek Hakhnazaryan

 

Program Notes: Narek Hakhnazaryan

César Franck: Sonata in A major

For most of his life, Franck led a relatively quiet existence as an organist and pedagogue, emerging from obscurity as a composer only near the end of his life. His only violin sonata (which has also been arranged for numerous other instruments, notably flute, viola and cello) was created in 1886 as a wedding gift for his friend, the famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave the premiere the same year. This sonata remains one of the composer’s most popular works, and well demonstrates his spontaneous, exuberant variety of romanticism.

The first three notes (D – F# – D) of the cello’s initial statement serve as the sonata’s principal thematic link. This opening movement is in standard sonata form, with the first theme assigned initially to the cello, the second to the piano. The serene lyricism of the first movement is replaced by restless excitement and intense passion in the second. The tension gradually abates, and a less stormy Quasi lento section follows. After restatements of material from both sections, the movement closes with a coda, which consists of a long crescendo building to an exciting climax. The third movement has an improvisatory nature, and features cadenza-like passages for the cello. The finale is without doubt one of Franck’s most charming and inspired creations. Canonic imitation (one voice following the other at a specified time interval) at the octave is used throughout, creating between the two instruments a remarkable dialogue seldom matched in the repertory of the accompanied sonata.

Frédéric Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3

Everyone knows that the piano was the heart and soul of Chopin’s existence, but if the composer could be said to have had a second love, it was for the cello. His interest in this instrument began in his teens. Scattered among his many piano pieces are four works that include cello: the Introduction and Polonaise brillante; a Trio for piano, violin and cello; the Grand Duo Concertante for cello and piano; and the Cello Sonata – in fact, the sum total of his chamber music output except for a set of variations for flute and piano.

The work we hear this afternoon was composed in two separate parts. First came the Polonaise in October of 1829 when Chopin was just nineteen, written for the amateur cellist Prince Radziwell and his teen-age pianist daughter Wanda. However, the dedication went to another cellist, the Viennese virtuoso Josef Merk. For still a third cellist, the Pole Józef Kaczynski, Chopin wrote the Introduction in April 1830 for a performance together with the Polonaise. The brilliante part of the title may be Chopin’s or it may be the Viennese publisher Mechetti’s. The polonaise is indeed brilliant in its effect, despite the composer’s own opinion that there was “nothing to it but dazzle.” True, “there is dazzle, and plenty of it,” writes Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski. “After all, brillant means sparkling. But there is also bravura, verve and a Slavic, typically polonaise vigor, as well as an undeniable feel for the spirit of the dance.”

György Ligeti: Solo cello sonata

György Ligeti followed in the line of distinguished twentieth-century Hungarian composers that runs from Bartók and Kodály through Sándor Veress and Miklós Rózsa. When he died seven years ago at the age of 83, he was internationally recognized as one of the leading composers of his generation. Since the early 1960s, Ligeti (pronounced LIG-ih-tee) had been on the cutting edge of experimental music as one of the leaders in the emancipation of sound effects, timbres and textures from their traditionally subordinate roles, giving them a raison d’être of their own. Many of us became aware of his music through Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the instrumental sonoric tapestries of Atmosphères (1961), the Requiem for voices and orchestra, and the choral Lux aeterna (1966) were used as fitting backdrops for desolate moonscapes.

The two movements of this nine-minute sonata were written five years apart in very different character, though the composer refers to this period of his stylistic development as “prehistoric.” “Dialogo,” composed in 1948, consists of alternating statements of pizzicato chords – brief, submissive, conciliatory – and lyrical outpourings – expansive, reflective, ruminative. “Capriccio” is a virtuosic display of madly scurrying fragments of varying lengths that exploit to the fullest the cello’s enormous range.

Due to the repressive Hungarian regime under which Ligeti lived until 1956 (when he fled the country) and to his unsettled life for years thereafter, the first public performance of the sonata was given only in 1983. The score was published in 1990 and first recorded that year by Matt Haimovitz.

Mikhail Bronner: The Jew: Life and Death

Mikhail Bronner studied composition with Tikhon Khrennikov and orchestration with Yriy Phortunatov at the high School of the Moscow Conservatory, then continued his studies at the Moscow Conservatory where he completed graduate work in 1981. Soon thereafter he began attracting professional recognition, particularly for his ballet scores for An Optimistic Tragedy (1985) and The Taming of the Shrew (1996), both presented at leading theatres in Moscow. Much of his music is theatrically oriented, and much of it relates to Jewish history and/or Old Testament themes and characters. His Jewish Requiem (1994), performed throughout Germany, is a notable example. The Jew: Life and Death dates from 1996. It is a deeply introspective, passionate work that portrays with grim realism in the space of ten minutes the tragic element in Jewish history. Images of sighing, weeping, the desperate wringing of hands and the anguish of darkly troubled souls are portrayed with grim realism.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Nocturne, Op. 19, no. 4, and Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62

As Tchaikovsky is one of Bronner’s favorite composers, it is entirely appropriate that Bronner’s work be followed by music of the Russian master. The Nocturne is a transcription Tchaikovsky made in 1888 of a piano piece dating from 1873 (the fourth of the Six Pieces Op. 19). Written in simple ternary form (ABA), its central, slightly faster episode was borrowed years later by Stravinsky as one of the tunes he incorporated into his ballet score The Fairy’s Kiss. When the melancholic opening material returns it is slightly varied.

Tchaikovsky wrote the Pezzo capriccioso for his cellist fried Anatoly Brandukov, who gave the first performance on December 7, 1889 with the composer conducting. The title is meant to suggest a kind of flippancy or “toying around” with a basic mood. In doing so, the soloist gets to demonstrate a variety of skills:  tone quality, singing line, technical agility and control in the high range.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Stephen Hough

 

PROGRAM NOTES: STEPHEN HOUGH

 

Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 27

The nocturnes are Chopin’s most intimate and personal utterances. Some are wistful, some reflective, some melancholy, some faintly troubled and some serenely joyful. All are sensuously beautiful, suffused with elegance and deeply poetic impulses. During Chopin’s lifetime they were his most popular pieces. Twenty-one survive, the first written when he was seventeen, the last three years before his death. As the title implies, they are suggestive – faintly or strongly as the case may be – of some aspect of dusk, evening, twilight or the dark night and associative emotions.

The two contrasting nocturnes of Op. 27 are enharmonically related (C sharp minor and D flat major). As biographer Jim Samson points out, their accompaniment patterns are wider in range than the composer’s earlier broken-chord patterns. No. 1– dark, troubled and somber – is clearly in ternary form (ABA), with a central episode that speaks of triumph and grandeur only to lapse back to the morose opening material. No. 2 has been called the most voluptuous of the nocturnes. It, too, offers a melody of great beauty, but rather than evoking an aria, it resembles more an operatic duet. More often than not the theme is presented in those parallel thirds or sixths so beloved of the Italian opera composers, and even includes examples of fioriture (decorative filigree).

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano sonata no. 3 in F minor, Op. 5

“Beaten out of steel by cyclopean hands,” “Promethean strength of aspiration,” and “heaven-storming” are just some of the descriptions called forth by the virile outburst that opens Brahms’ longest work for solo piano, composed in 1853 when he was just twenty. Boldness, youthful fire and sonorities of orchestral proportions alternate with intimate meditations, tender dialogues and ardent lyricism in a grand edifice of unassailable musical logic. Brahms proceeds to fashion the sonata-form opening movement with the utmost economy of means, transforming and sculpting the highly malleable initial fragment into an astonishing world of shapes, characters and moods.

Aside from its grandly spacious design, the sonata boasts other special features. Its second movement describes in tone a poetic vision that is inscribed at the top of the page: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” The Scherzo returns us to the bold, assertive world of the first movement. Wide leaps, thundering octaves and the full range of the keyboard give it an exuberant, even epic quality. The Intermezzo represents still another novel element in the sonata. Subtitled Rückblick (backward glance), it serves both as a point of symmetry in the sonata’s overall design and as a programmatic reinterpretation of an earlier movement (the second). The air of heroic struggle resumes in the Finale, which follows without a break. In free rondo form, Brahms takes us on a vast musical journey, incorporating darkly mysterious murmurings, seething turbulence, dramatic outbursts and a chorale-like message of hope, to a triumphant conclusion.

 

Stephen Hough: Piano sonata no. 2

The subtitle for my 2nd Piano sonata, ‘notturno luminoso’, suggests many images: the reflection of the moon on a calm lake perhaps, or stars across a restful sky.  But this piece is about a different kind of night and a different kind of light: the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness; the loneliness of pre-morning; sleeplessness and the dull glow of the alarm clock’s unmoving hours; the irrational fears or the disturbing dreams which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb.  But also suggested are nighttime’s heightened emotions: its mysticism, its magic, its imaginative possibilities.

The Sonata’s form is ABA and there are three musical ideas: one based on sharps (brightness), one based on flats (darkness), and one based on naturals (white notes) representing a kind of blank irrationality.  The piece opens clangorously, its bold, assertive theme – sharps piled upon sharps – separated by small cadenzas.  Yearning and hesitating to reach a cadence it finally stumbles into the B section where all accidentals are suddenly bleached away in a whiteout.  Extremes of pitch and dynamics splatter sound across the keyboard until an arpeggio figure in the bass gathers rhythmic momentum and leads to the ‘flat’ musical idea, jarring in its romantic juxtaposition to what has gone before.

This whole B section is made up of a collision, a tossing and turning, between the two tonalities of flats and naturals, interrupting each other with impatience until the whiteout material spins up into the stratosphere, a whirlwind in the upper octaves of the piano.  Under this blizzard we hear the theme from the beginning of the piece, firstly in purest, brilliant C major in the treble, then, after it subsides to pianissimo, in a snarl of dissonance in the extreme bass of the instrument.  The music stops … and then, for the first time, we hear the full statement of the ‘flat’ material, Andante Lamentoso.  The music’s sorrow increases with wave after wave of romantic ardour, deliberately risking overkill and discomfort.

At its climax the music halts twice at a precipice then tumbles into the recapitulation, the opening theme now in white-note tonality and unrecognizably spotted across the keyboard.  As this peters out we hear the same theme but now with warm, gentle, romantic harmonies.  A final build-up to an exact repetition of the opening of the piece is blended with material from the B section and, in the last bar, in a final wild scream, we hear all three tonalities together for a blinding second-long flash, brighter than noon, before the final soft chord closes the curtain on these night visions.

– Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough’s Piano sonata No. 2 (notturno luminoso) is a joint commission with funds generously supplied by Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham; The Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota; Singapore International Piano Festival; Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts; and the Vancouver Recital Society. It was given its premiere by the composer at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, on October 9, 2012.

 

Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9

Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes, all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is Aš, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month, Schumann began writing the music that he eventually entitled Carnaval.

As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Clara Wieck. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own name. (In German terms, S=Es (E flat), and H=B natural.) The autobiographical element goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Ernestine (“Estrella”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Every piece in Carnaval, except the “Préambule”, is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure. However, two years after completing Carnaval, Schumann told his colleague Ignaz Moscheles that he was more interested in the “soul-states” conjured up by the music – the emotions and moods – than in programmatic associations of the movement titles.

 

Program notes for Chopin, Brahms and Schumann by Robert Markow, 2012.

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