Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor
J. S. Bach: Five transcriptions
Benjamin Grosvenor opens his program with a series of piano transcriptions, a genre that was wildly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then went out of fashion, and is now making something of a comeback. Transcription – the transferal from one medium to another – is as old as music itself. Many of our greatest composers – Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and a host of others – practiced it. “The beauty of the transcription,” writes critic Andrew Farach-Colton (Gramophone, July 2010), “is that (at its best) it opens two windows simultaneously: one onto the world of the composer and another onto the world of the transcriber.”
Today we hear five examples of transcriptions from Bach, an inveterate transcriber himself. In fact, the last of these, the instrumental “Sinfonia” from Cantata no. 29, is itself already a transcription Bach had made from the Prelude to his E-major solo violin partita (no. 3, BWV 1006). On today’s program it is fittingly preceded by another of Saint-Saëns’ many transcriptions, the reposeful, gently flowing Largo movement from the C major solo violin sonata (no. 3, BWV 1005). From another Bach cantata (No. 22, Ertödt’ uns durch dein Güte) we hear the final movement, which Walter Rummel transcribed precisely from the original – a continuously flowing line in the violins punctuated by five phrases of the chorale text sung by four-part chorus. “Bach-Siloti” is a hyphenation well known to pianists. Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) was a Russian-born pianist, composer and teacher and one of Liszt’s last students. He created over two hundred piano transcriptions, one of the most famous being the Prelude we hear today. However, its provenance is in doubt; Johann Tobias Krebs is often cited as the most probable author. The program begins with one of the numerous Bach transcriptions by the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991).
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7
Beethoven began writing piano sonatas in earnest in 1793 (the three so-called “Electoral” Sonatas are juvenilia, written by a thirteen-year-old), shortly after the move from Bonn to his adopted city of Vienna. The first three sonatas were published as a group (Op. 2), but for his next work in the genre, written in 1796-1797, Beethoven had this “Grande Sonate,” as he called it, published under its own opus number. The designation is appropriate, for it is the longest (slightly over half an hour) of all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas save the Hammerklavier.
Spaciousness of design and an almost symphonic aura also contribute to the justification for calling this a “Grand Sonata.” Orchestrally conceived touches abound, right from the opening measures where the steadily repeated E flats in the bass would almost surely go to violas or cellos. Wide leaps, frequent use of resounding six- and even seven-note chords, smoothly gliding octaves in the right hand alone and lightning-fast scale passages all suggest the resources of a symphony orchestra. As pianist Anton Kuerti notes, “The richness and diversity of material, the dovetailing of lines, the antiphonal responses and the sumptuousness of design … all reinforce this impression.”
The first movement opens with a surge of energy that persists until the final chord. Beethoven’s characteristic gestures, such as startling contrasts of loud and soft, pregnant pauses, and strong attacks on weak beats, are found in abundance. The coda is announced with another typically Beethovenian gesture: the sudden, almost violent wrenching of the tonality into new territory by means of a simple harmonic sideslip.
The word “grand” turns up again in association with the slow movement specifically, whose performance direction is con gran espressione – with deep expression. With its aura of profound reverence, hymn-like writing, long silences that speak as eloquently as sound, a dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo, and a duration of about ten minutes, this movement encompasses a small world by itself. Formally it is a simple ABA structure, with the contrasting central episode in the warm key of A flat major. Again there is a coda of significant length.
The third movement combines features of the courtly minuet and the more playful scherzo. Beethoven called it neither, allowing a simple Allegro to serve as its title. The constant overlapping and dovetailing of voices imply the interplay of orchestral instruments. Pianist Charles Rosen calls the contrasting Trio, written in the rare key of E flat minor, “an atmospheric exercise in tone color, with the melody hidden in an arpeggiated motion of triplets.”
The light-hearted, gracious tone of the finale, a sonata-rondo design (ABA-C-ABA), gives way to a fiery central episode in C minor pervaded with rushing thirty-second notes in perpetual motion. In a surprise move, Beethoven ends this “grand” sonata not with an imposing flourish but with a quiet bow.
Alexander Scriabin: Mazurkas, Op. 3, and Valse, Op. 38
The life of Alexander Scriabin was one of the strangest in the history of music. He started out by writing graceful, sensuous, quasi-Chopinesque little piano pieces and ended up totally, even maniacally, absorbed in mysticism and the occult. As with Chopin, most of Scriabin’s music is for solo piano (the balance is for orchestra). Also like Chopin, there are nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas, etudes, impromptus, waltzes and sonatas. The ten mazurkas of Op. 3 date from 1888-1889 when Scriabin was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory and very much under the influence of Chopin, though one could never mistake the Scriabinesque harmonic palette for Chopin’s. All are in ternary (ABA) form, each has a character of its own, which might range from gently wistful to exuberantly joyous, and all exhibit the characteristic rhythmic impulses of the mazurka.
Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin poetically describes the Waltz Op. 38 of 1903 (one of the few Scriabin wrote in this form) as “a fugacious memory of a distant past. … This piece is a magic box. Opened slowly, the intensifying, blinding light emitting from inside sets the universe ablaze just to vanish again at the end, leaving but a luscious trace.”
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Nowhere in Chopin’s output do the national pride, dignified grandeur and defiant power of Poland find greater expression than in the polonaises. The polonaise originated in the late sixteenth century as a stately processional dance in triple metre. It was the polonaise that served as processional music for the lords and ladies to parade past the newly enthroned King of Poland in 1574 (Henry III of Anjou). Pianist Garrick Ohlsson calls the F sharp minor polonaise Op. 44 of 1841 “tragic, compulsive and complex.” Chopin himself referred to it as “a fantasy in the form of a polonaise.” Embedded in this polonaise – the longest by far of any Chopin polonaise excepting the unique Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61 – is another dance form entirely, a mazurka. Preceding this is a long passage featuring an incessant rhythmic pattern reminiscent of drum rolls, and virtually devoid of melody. Framing the entire structure is thematic material that few will deny is some of the grandest Chopin ever conceived. The music’s epic scale and tragic tone, the powerful sonority drawn from the piano, and the striking contrast between the majestic polonaise and the gentle mazurka contained therein (the critic James Huneker called it “a flower between two abysses”) all contribute to making this one of Chopin’s grandest creations.
J. Strauss II: Blue Danube arranged by A. Schulz-Evler
or Arabesques On Themes from Johann Strauss’s Waltz “On The Beautiful Blue Danube”, Op. 12
NOTE: Title taken directly from the title page as first published in Vienna, c. 1900, translated from German into English
More than any other kind of music, it is the waltz that conjures up visions of Vienna as a kind of romantic never-never land. Of all the composers who contributed to the rich heritage of Vienna’s dance music, it is Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King,” who reigns supreme. Leading the list of his many waltzes is the immortal On the Beautiful Blue Danube, (The Blue Danube, for short). Originally written in 1867 as a choral piece for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association, the words were soon discarded in favor of a purely instrumental version, the form in which it is most familiar today.
Naturally, anything so popular has been subjected to countless arrangements. One of these, created in or about 1900, is for solo piano by the Polish pianist and composer Adolf (or Andrei or Andrej) Schulz-Evler (1852-1905). The rather cumbersome title, Arabesques on Themes from the Waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” is nevertheless an accurate description, for indeed, what Schulz-Evler has done is essentially to follow the same sequence of themes from Strauss’s original (in itself, in fact, a whole string of waltzes), while copiously adorning the music with arabesques, filigree and other decorative touches. The result is a tour de force that captivates with its charm and dazzles with its outlandish virtuosity, sweeping listeners into the music’s magical orbit and sending them home radiantly happy.
In an article devoted to “The Return of the Piano Transcription” some years ago (Classical Pulse!, June/July 1994), Philip Kennicott had these words to offer about Schulz-Evler’s contribution: “Strauss’s familiar waltz themes are decadently encrusted with a staggering amount of frippery and frills. The piece lurches from one insane technical hurtle to another. One wants to shout both ‘Stop this madness!’ and ‘More! More!’ at the same time. And underneath it all there is an elegance, a coy gracefulness; one marvels that any human being would train himself so thoroughly as to be able to accomplish this kind of playing.”
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.