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Program Notes: George and Andrew Li

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in D major K. 381 for Piano Duet 

In the 1760s, when Wolfgang & his sister Nannerl were touring Europe as child prodigies, the keyboard duet was a popular novelty item on their programs, one that offered a fuller range of sound from a single instrument while still allowing each performer the opportunity for individual display.

When the Mozart children were touring, though, they would most likely have been playing the harpsichord, since the hammered fortepiano (progenitor of the modern pianoforte) did not replace in popularity its string-plucking keyboard cousin until the following decade. While the Sonata in D major K. 381 was composed in 1772, the lack of dynamic markings in the manuscript probably indicates that it was still written for harpsichord, not the fortepiano.

In harpsichord writing loud and soft are created by manipulating the texture, ‘loud’ being produced by means of full chordal harmony with a strong bass presence, ‘soft’ by writing single lines thinly accompanied. These qualities are particularly evident in the outer movements of this sonata, which feature strong textural contrasts between consecutive phrases, a pattern that resembles the interplay between various sections of an orchestra. And indeed, this entire sonata has been described as a three-movement Italian symphony composed on the keyboard.

This orchestral style of writing can be heard clearly in the way the first movement opens, with four distinct textures presented in close succession: a full-throated ‘tutti’ chord, a strutting fanfare of unisons, then a demure little skipping melody with panting accompaniment, and finally more fanfare drama in unisons—all in the space of a mere 12 bars. The development section is even more contrasty, with an arresting ‘damsel-on-the-railway-tracks’ tremolo passage as its melodramatic highlight.

Simple songfulness pervades the Andante second movement but here again the play of textures adds an extra dimension to the proceedings, especially in the rich use of low bass tones. There is even an unusual passage in which the top melodic voice is doubled in the tenor range, as if a string or flute melody were being doubled by the bassoons and cellos.

The Allegro molto finale has the character of a scene from comic opera in which separate characters engage in punchline-oriented repartee. It features short question-and-answer phrases in which bright bold chords are answered by frivolous fluttering triplets, and blithe solo melodies by blaring military trumpet calls. Scotch snaps and chirpy grace notes anticipate the comical musical effects that Rossini would use decades later.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Fantaisie Tableaux  Op. 5

Rachmaninoff’s first suite for two pianos, entitled Fantaisie Tableaux, is an early work composed in 1893, just a year after the composer’s graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. Conceived as “a series of musical pictures”, its warmly expressive tone and vivid harmonic colouring reveal the influence of Tchaikovsky, to whom the work is dedicated.

Each of its four movements depicts a scene from nature or from personal life: the lapping of waves against the side of a gondola, bird calls in the wild, tears dropping, the clangorous ringing of church bells. Typical Rachmaninoff stylistic traits such as the use of ostinati and repeated sequences that build to a climax are present throughout.

Barcarolle opens with the delicious quiet rippling of water, soon joined by a simple, mildly obsessive tune that always seeks to return to the same note. The filigree patterns surrounding this foreground melody gradually grow in elaboration to become a lush carpet of harmonic colouring covering a full five octaves of the keyboard as the opening ripples are transformed into great surging waves of piano sonority.

Even more pictorially vivid is the stuttering high-pitched birdcalls of L’amour, la nuit (The night, the love). This movement opens with the repeated motive of a major 3rd representing the warbling of the nightingale, soon paired with a downward sliding chromatic melody embodying the feelings of romantic love. Ecstatic flights of fancy in the high register express the ecstatic emotions of the scene.

Les larmes (Tears) depicts the falling of teardrops with a repetitive four-note motive that opens the movement and pervades it throughout, at times rhythmically displaced from the main beat to suggest the convulsive spasms of sobbing.

The suite ends with Pâques, an evocation of the clamorous joy of a Russian Orthodox Easter morning. In this virtually melody-less movement, open 5ths in the bass convey the weighty resonance of massive swaying church bells while a hammering tintinnabulation of repeated motives in the high register imitates the chiming of metallic overtones above. Almost lost in the near-cacaphony of full-spectrum ringing sounds is the solemn intonation of a Russian liturgical chant in the mid-register.

 

Franz Liszt
Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli

Liszt’s Tarantella is from the collection Venezia e Napoli (published 1861), a revised version of earlier pieces which he issued as a supplement to his Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année devoted to his musical impressions of Italy. Based on dance melodies by the Neapolitan editor and music publisher Guillaume-Louis Cottrau (1797-1847), Liszt’s bravura treatment of this material features many of his trademark tricks of the trade.

It leaves the starting blocks at presto speed, dicing and slicing the agitated tarantella melody into an impressive series of choppy and sparkling pianistic textures, often alternating duple and triple versions of the tune.

The slower middle section, featuring a sensuous and langorous canzona napoletana with Bellini-esque arabesques of vocal ornamentation, serves to interrupt the torrential onslaught of virtuosity, but it too soon erupts into iridescent cascading rainbows of tonal colour and peppery sprays of repeated notes—perhaps in reference to the favourite instrument of the Neapolitans: the mandolin.

The concluding section returns to the bravura frenzy of the opening, upping the tempo to prestissimo and heading off to the horizon like a cat with its tail on fire. The sheer volume of piano tone pulled from the instrument on the final page is eyebrow-raisingly theatrical.

 

Claude Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

The first thing to know about Debussy’s symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is that it is one of the foundational works of the Impressionist movement in French music and is based on the poem by the same name by symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). The second thing to know is that it has nothing at all to do with Bambi.

In Ancient Roman mythology a faun (not ‘fawn’) was a nature spirit with the upper torso of a young man and the bottom half of a goat. Much at home in woodland settings, fauns led an idyllic life with little to do each day but (a) play the pan pipes, (b) chat up the local nymphs, and (c) fall drowsily asleep to dream about (a) and (b).

Debussy’s orchestral score of 1894, which he transcribed for two pianos in the following year, captures the leisurely life of one such faun as he plays his pan pipes, gazes in fascination at the nymphs frolicking around him and finally slips into slumber in the heat of the afternoon. The musical scenes depicted are presented in an ambiguous new musical language that uses whole-tone scales and ‘colour chords’ that float freely in sonic space, unregulated by the established rules of chord progression in Western harmony.

The seemingly improvisatory way in which the piece moves forward, evoking the timeless world of ancient myth, belies the work’s tight organization around a series of melodic cells and motives. One of most important of these is the melody that opens the work, a languorous chromatic descent of a tritone, representing the pan pipe, which establishes no key and has no sharp rhythmic profile.

Other motives emerge with more animation, depicting the stirrings of woodland creatures in the passing scene, but all share in the aimless ‘wandering’ quality that characterizes the work as a whole.

The pianists’ challenge in this piece is to knock every sharp edge off the percussive sound of their instruments to create the hazy, delicately nuanced sound environment that suggests in the listener’s ear the imaginary world of Mallarmé’s text and Debussy’s symphonic poem.

 

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6

Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies pay tribute to the gypsy music of his native Hungary. Like an ancient insect trapped in amber, they encapsulate for posterity the dramatic, improvisatory performance style of the roving bands of Romani musicians that Liszt heard as a boy growing up in the small Hungarian village of Raiding, and whose campfires he eagerly frequented when, as Europe’s most celebrated pianist, he returned to his homeland in 1839 after an 18-year absence.

There are 19 rhapsodies in all, the first 15 composed in the period between 1846 and 1853. Fundamental to the form of each rhapsody is a two-part division into a slow, introductory lassan followed by a quick, dancelike friss. In the soulful and brooding lassan, a handful of folk melodies are repeated over and over, trancelike, in varied forms, blooming from time to time into dazzling cadenza-like flourishes of keyboard sparkle and colour. The friss is sectional, presenting a series of impish dance tunes that in an accelerating pattern of frenetic activity inevitably drive the work to a barn-storming conclusion.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 is unusual in having four sections, each based on a separate Hungarian folk melody. The first two form a kind of introduction, comprised of a great thumping march followed by a fleet-footed dance—both somewhat ‘wild’ and exotic in their use of rhythmic displacement and off-beat accents.

The standard rhapsody lassan begins in the 3rd section, and what a change in tone it brings. Its halting, almost sobbing melodic gestures set the words of a troubled Hungarian poetic text that reads: “My father is dead, my mother is dead, I have no brothers and sisters, and all the money that I have left will just buy a rope to hang myself with.” Liszt’s musical meditation on this chipper text—a classic example of over-sharing—is ruminative and spasmodically emotional by turns, in true Gypsy style.

The friss that follows brings welcome relief with its simple playful tune constantly repeated over a folk-style drone in the bass. Excitement leads to exhilaration as the pace progressively accelerates and thicker textural cladding is added. Eventually, the quarters and eighths of the tune in the right hand morph into a machine-gun-fire of repeated notes—hammered out in octaves, no less—in a severe test of the pianist’s wrist technique. Meanwhile, the left hand accompaniment commutes back and forth from the nether regions as a full-on, octave-spanning stride bass.

All in all, this Hungarian rhapsody displays 19th-century pianistic showmanship at its most extroverted.

 

Maurice Ravel
La Valse

Ravel first made plans to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz in 1906, sketching out a piece he called Wien (Vienna) as a tribute to the “waltz king” Johann Strauss II. But the project lay dormant for many years, and it was only under a commission from impresario Sergei Diaghilev (of the famous Ballets Russes) that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev rejected the work after hearing Ravel’s two-piano version of the score (to be played this afternoon), but the composer orchestrated it anyway and it went on to become a highly successful ballet, premiering in 1926 in Antwerp with the Royal Flemish Opera Ballet and later used in works by Jerome Robbins and Sir Frederick Ashton.

Ravel describes his poème chorégraphique as follows:

Swirling clouds offer glimpses of waltzing couples. As the clouds scatter little by little, an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd comes clearly into view. The scene grows steadily brighter until the chandeliers bursts forth with dazzling light at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.

Given the glittering age it celebrates, one would expect the work to be as bright in mood as the ballrooms it depicts. But this score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass before scraps of waltz rhythm begin to emerge above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between a voluptuous, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.

Being composed immediately after The Great War, Ravel’s La Valse has been heard by some as a Dance of Death, as the calamitous fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ironically played out to the tune of its own best-loved music. The aesthetic stance of the work is ambiguous, to be sure, and that is perhaps the quality that has made it endure in the repertoire since its first performance a century ago.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

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

 

George Li: program notes

George LiLi at piano
Programme Notes
Performance: Vancouver Playhouse, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carl Czerny
Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op. 33 (“La Ricordanza”)

Most concertgoers know Carl Czerny only as the early nineteenth-century pedagogue who churned out endless dull exercises that continue to be inflicted upon piano students this day. True, he did compose a tremendous amount – 861 opus numbers and an even greater amount published without opus numbers – and true, the exercises are dull. But Czerny composed much else that is decidedly not dull.

Unlike his teacher Beethoven, and unlike his star pupil Franz Liszt, Czerny was no innovator, but within the parameters of his time much of his music is eminently pleasing, charming, tasteful and sensitively written. He wrote voluminously in nearly every known form and genre of the time: sonatas, fantasias, theme and variation sets, piano concertos, symphonies, sacred choral music, string quartets and much other chamber music. His most frequently recorded composition would seem to be an Andante and Pollaca for horn and piano, with the Variations on this afternoon’s program not far behind.

The variation form and its close cousin the fantasia were immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. Beethoven wrote some twenty sets of variations for piano. Czerny mined dozens of operas, symphonies, overtures, oratorios and ballets by Beethoven, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Weber and others for his variation sets and fantasias. From the famous French violinist Pierre Rode (1774-1830) he borrowed the tune “La Ricordanza” and set it as a theme with five variations for solo piano. A stately one precedes the final and most brilliant variation, which in turn is followed by a return to the theme for a quiet closing.

Arnold Schoenberg
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (Six Little Piano Pieces), Op. 19

Schoenberg, unlike the other composers represented on this program, was not a keyboard virtuoso. Nevertheless, he turned to the piano as a medium of experimentation on more than one occasion. One such occasion came in 1909, when he produced his first atonal composition, the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11.

Essentially what Schoenberg achieved in these pieces was the emancipation of dissonance from its ties to traditional harmony. A “dissonant” note or chord no longer had any contextual relationship to surrounding pitches; it existed in and of itself. It is traditional to view these pieces as a milestone, a break with the past, a giant step forward in the development of music history. Yet Schoenberg always regarded this music as an absolutely logical continuation of the past, something “distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music.”

Schoenberg’s next piano music, Op. 19, appeared in 1911. But whereas the three pieces of Op. 11 require about a quarter of an hour to perform, the six pieces of Op. 19 require barely five minutes. “A novel in a sigh” was the expression coined for such pieces.

Continuing where he left off in Op. 11, Schoenberg made the non-recurrence of thematic material the operating principle in Op. 19. The dynamic level is also telescoped, with emphasis on the softer end of the spectrum. And as David Burge points out, the performance direction mit sehr zartem Ausdruck (with very delicate expression) three bars before the end of the last piece “might well serve as an overall injunction for performance of the entire set.”

The first five pieces were written in February of 1911, possibly all in a single day. Microcosmic wisps of sound flutter about in No. 1, which is played nearly all pianissimo (very quiet). No. 2 features a single interval, the major third, repeated playfully (or obsessively, if that is your response) throughout. The third is notable for its opening bars in which the right hand plays forte (loud), the left hand piano (soft or quiet). No. 4 opens in a mood of frolic, but comes to a crashing end just twenty seconds later in brutally hammered fortissimo chords (very loud). Not even Schoenberg was immune to the waltz – it seems to run in the veins of nearly all Viennese; No. 5 suggests its characteristic rhythmic pattern.

The final piece was written in June, one month after Schoenberg accompanied Mahler to his grave. Bell-like sonorities evoke the remote, pastoral landscapes Mahler conjured up in his symphonies. Paolo Petazzi sees this haunting music as “motionless planes of sound set against one another [to] create a chill, insubstantial timbre which hovers on the edge of silence, as if pointing to a dimension the ear cannot perceive.”

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata no. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)

The “Appassionata” Sonata, composed in 1804-06, remains one of Beethoven’s greatest and most frequently heard works in any medium. The title helps, of course. It does have passion – to a generous degree. But it has much more than that. Czerny regarded the sonata as “the most perfect carrying out of a mighty and colossal plan.” As with so many of Beethoven’s compositions, the title was affixed not by the composer but by a publisher, in this case the Hamburg firm of Cranz, which brought out the sonata in a duet version in 1838. Strange as it may seem today, Czerny thought that an earlier Beethoven sonata ought to bear the title “Appassionata”, Op. 7 in E flat, a relatively tame work compared to Op. 57.

The opening movement is largely music of sound and fury, defined above all by rhythmic insistence. Both the defiantly rising principal subject (opening measures) and the lyrical, rising-and-falling second subject share a similar rhythmic pattern (long-short-long; long-short long), and both are built from arpeggios. “How wondrous that the composer can establish such diverse moods with the same material,” remarks pianist Anton Kuerti, “and especially that he can create such noble tranquility with this bumpy rhythm.” Additionally, there is a rhythmic motto appearing often throughout the movement that corresponds exactly to that of the opening of the Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-daahh).

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

This concluding movement, in sonata form like the first, is one of the most demonic things Beethoven ever wrote, a musical juggernaut of relentless forward momentum and almost frightening power. To Kuerti, “the accompaniment is the very substance of the music; its perpetuum mobile pervades all. It is quiet but chilling, like the waves in the middle of the ocean.  Over this rises a series of desolate, penetrating cries…” Tension builds to almost unbearable levels, finally bursting its bonds in the presto coda, which roars to an apocalyptic conclusion.

Mauric Ravel
Oiseaux tristes
Alborada del gracioso

In 1904-05, Ravel composed a set of five piano pieces collectively entitled Miroirs, which he claimed “marked a change in my harmonic development great enough to disconcert even those most accustomed to my style up to that point.” “Oiseaux tristes” (Sad Birds) is the second of the collection, “Alborada del gracioso” is the fourth. Each of the five Miroirs was dedicated to a different friend or colleague. “Oiseaux tristes” went to the famous Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance of the entire set in 1906. Ravel wrote “in this work, I evoke birds engrossed in the torpor of a dark forest during the peak hours of summer heat.”

“Alborada del gracioso” is one of Ravel’s most brilliant and effective evocations of Spain, richly informed with coloristic detail, evocative images, percussive effects and pyrotechnical displays (particularly the rapidly repeated notes played at all-but-impossible speeds). The title resists direct translation; it implies something along the lines of a court jester singing to his ladylove at dawn, and perhaps dancing a bit as well. Ravel later orchestrated the work, in which form it is often heard at symphony concerts.

The ten-minute work is laid out in three connected sections. The brilliant outer parts are characterized by alternating patterns of vibrant rhythms set to the clack of simulated castanets and raucous strumming of a guitar. Boston Symphony annotator Steven Ledbetter refers to this music as “a glorious racket. As a real ‘dawn song,’ the work would be catastrophic; in addition to waking the lovers, it would arouse the entire neighborhood.” The somewhat meditative central section evokes more the clownish aspect of the work’s title.

Franz Liszt
Waldesrauschen
Gnomenreigen
Consolation no. 3 in D flat major
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2

In 2009 it was Mendelssohn. In 2010, Chopin and Schumann. This year, another giant from the annals of the world’s greatest composer-pianists, Franz Liszt, takes the spotlight on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Liszt was the quintessential figure of nineteenth-century musical Romanticism. His long life encompassed any number of emotional upheavals, quasi-mystical religious experiences, a visit from the Pope, an attempted murder, a cancelled marriage at the eleventh hour, enough love affairs (including with royalty) for any ten normal men, at least half a dozen occupations, visionary ideas of Music of the Future, a compulsion to be different (he was the first to give a complete solo recital without sharing the stage with other artists), an all-consuming sense of destiny, pianistic powers beyond belief, and a mind of near-genius proportions. Liszt was a biographer’s dream.

In 1848 Liszt abandoned his career as a spectacular touring piano virtuoso to settle in Weimar as a conductor. Concurrently, his output for piano slowed considerably, but he did produce two final etudes in 1862-1863. Formally known as Two Concert Etudes, they are more commonly referred to by their poetic subtitles, which, incidentally, do not appear on the autograph manuscript. Both are dedicated to Liszt’s pupil Dionys Prunker.

In Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), the trees rustle almost continuously as portrayed in the sextuplet figuration that alternates from right hand to left while the other hand spins out a single tranquil melody dolce con grazia (sweetly and gracefully). This music comes from the romantic world of the mysterious, dimly-lit forest (Schumann’s Waldszenen appeared just fifteen years earlier, and Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” in the opera Siegfried were just a few years down the road), yet it is nevertheless highly chromatic. As Ben Arnold points out, there are no fewer than ten changes of key within its 97 measures.

While Waldesrauschen is a study in lyricism and tranquility, Gnomenreigen (Round Dance of the Gnomes) glitters and sparkles. Its spiritual ancestors are the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the “Queen Mab” Scherzo from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliet. “One of Liszt’s cleverest and most facetious works,” claims Arnold.

The six Consolations were published as a group in 1850 (all but No. 5 were composed in 1848). “Their reflective, self-communing character reveals a new and much more thoughtful Liszt,” writes Liszt scholar Alan Walker. The title has two possible derivations, both poetic. Most scholars, including Walker, attribute it to a collection of poems by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the Consolations of 1830. Another possibility is Lamartine’s poem “Une larme, ou consolation.”  In either case, a quality of melancholy and introspection permeates the music, as it does the poems (“music tinged with a secret sorrow,” as Walker writes). No. 3, marked Lento placido, is the longest, probably the best known, and the one closest in style to Chopin nocturnes – comparison with the one in the same key, D flat major (Op. 27, No. 2) is almost inevitable.

Liszt was captivated by Hungarian gypsy music all his life, right from childhood. He collected melodies he heard played at campsites and other locations. His writings are peppered with references to them and their music, and he even wrote a 450-page treatise on the subject, published in 1859. Liszt was mistaken in equating “gypsy” music with that of the Hungarian Magyars, as research by Bartók, Kodály and others has proven. The themes he used actually came from “urban” sources, mostly popular tunes recently composed. The gypsy flavor derives from use of the so-called “gypsy scale,” sectional structure punctuated by sudden breaks, abrupt transitions, and a freely improvisatory style. Contrast and gathering momentum are the principal shaping forces of this music.

The nineteen rhapsodies were composed across a span of more than four decades. No. 2, by far the most popular, comes from 1847. Thereafter came arrangements, rearrangements and disarrangements for everything from simplified versions for young piano students to full orchestra, and in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to feature films (100 Men and a Girl).

No. 2, like many of the Rhapsodies, begins with a slow introduction leading into an Andante mesto, which features a lush, passionate theme. The second main part is the friska, which begins quietly and gradually builds in speed, texture and volume.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.

The most remarkable career of George Li (黎卓宇)

GeorgeLiAnd what a career it has been for this 15 year old pianist!

George Li began winning competitions at age 6 and he made is first public performance at Boston Steinway Hall at the age of nine.

One of his biggest achievements came in 2010 when he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra, which garnered him the first prize in the Cooper International Piano Competition. The package included an astonishing full scholarship for four years to attend the Oberlin Convervatory of Music, as well as concerto performances in Beijing and Shanghai, China.

In addition to performing with the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Jahja Ling, George Li has performed with orchestras from around the world: Xiamen Philharmonic (China; Tao Lin conductor), Symphony Pro Musica (Mark Churchill conductor), Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (Venezuela; Sarah Ioannides conductor), Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (Benjamin Zander, conductor), Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra (Arkady Leytush conductor), Miami Symphony Orchestra (Eduardo Marturet conductor), Princeton Symphony Orchestra (Benjamin Zander, conductor), Albany Symphony Orchestra (David Alan Miller conductor), Lexington Symphony Orchestra (Jonathan McPhee), and Orchestra “I Solisti di Perugia” (Spoleto, Italy).

Another interesting achievement was an appearance on television with Martha Stewart… at the age of 11!. You can watch the segment here.

Every great pianist performs at Carnegie Hall and George is no exception. Here is a clip from Live at Carnegie Hall of George performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11.

Visit George Li’s website and Vancouver Recital Society for more information. To reserve your tickets to George Li’s December 4 performance please call the VRS box office at 604-602-0363. Tickets also available through ticketmaster.ca (service fees apply).

For Your Viewing Pleasure

It seems only appropriate to highlight the dynamic skills of Kirill Gerstein in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

And while we are considering virtuoso performances, we could not resist offering two encore performances by George Li (Playhouse, Sunday, December 4). We have uploaded two videos of George performing Flight of the Bumblebee, the first video showcases George’s talent at the astonishing age of 12, the second features George at age 15.

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