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PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.

A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major   BWV 828

The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.

Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.

Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.

One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.

François Couperin
L’Atalante

It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.

Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.

The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.

Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.

This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.

The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”

Samuel Barber
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26

In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.

The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.

Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.

The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.

Johannes Brahms
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.

Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.

In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.

Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?

The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.

The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

Program notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay. Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin. It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies. These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C. The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than that with which he began.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor
from Violin Partita No. 2 BWV 1004, arr. by Ferruccio Busoni

The Italian pianist, composer and conductor Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a tireless champion of the cause of contemporary music. His most important contributions to the modern concert repertoire, however, are retrospective, consisting of his popularizing keyboard transcriptions of works by J. S. Bach. Such, indeed, was his fame in this regard that his wife Gerda often found herself introduced at social occasions as ‘Mrs. Bach-Busoni’.

It is natural that Busoni should have been attracted to the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, as this work stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges it poses for the performer and the crystalline brilliance of its formal design. Musicologist Susan McClary calls it “the chaconne to end all chaconnes” while violinist Yehudi Menuhin referred to it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.”

The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande (with emphasis on the second beat of the bar), followed by 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

Busoni’s adaptation of 1893 is a vivid re-imagining of the structure of Bach’s violin score for the larger forces available on the modern piano keyboard. It should not be surprising that his conception of the Chaconne is so sonically grandiose, as the work itself only surfaced into public view at the height of the Romantic era. After waiting until 1802 to be published in a complete edition of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, its first recorded public performance came in 1841, with violinist Ferdinand David holding forth on his instrument next to Felix Mendelssohn improvising an accompaniment on the piano. Numerous other arrangements were to follow, including those of Schumann for violin and piano and Brahms for piano left hand.

Busoni grants himself full licence to take advantage of the complete range of sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even while writing multiple- register chord spacings more typical of the organ. His approach to transcribing was no doubt based on J. S. Bach’s own activities as a transcriber of other composers’ works. As Sara Davis Buechner tells us, “for Busoni, all music was a transcription of the composer’s original artistic idea anyway.”

While Busoni’s adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception, there are clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of the timbre of an orchestral brass section is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, followed not long after by the sounds of the timpani (in the variation with repeated notes), not to mention the many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the instrument for which the work was originally scored.

César Franck
Prelude, Chorale and Fugue M. 21

César Franck’s Prélude, Chorale and Fugue of 1884 is widely recognized as one of the highest achievements of 19th-century French piano writing. That such a work should come from the pen of a musician employed for most of his professional career as an organist might well be surprising. But as Stephen Hough points out, Franck’s unhappy early career as a young piano prodigy, thrust unwillingly into the public spotlight by an exploitative father, could well have warned him away from composing for the piano when he finally gained his independence as an adult.

Certainly the compositional models for this work, looking back as they do to the era of Bach and Handel, served well to distinguish the composer from the roving bands of circus-act piano virtuosi that he had narrowly escaped joining as a youth. The influence of Bach, in particular, is felt in the pervasive motive of the two-note sighing appoggiatura, so similar to its equally pervasive use at the opening of Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). Not to mention the variant of the melodic outline of Bach’s own name (when played according to the German naming system as B-A-C-H: ‘H’ being B natural), heard in the opening bars of the Prelude.

But this work also reveals itself as very much a product of its own time in the rich carpeting of its expansive keyboard writing – no mean feat in a work of overtly contrapuntal inspiration. Contemporary in reference, as well, is its use of the falling fourths of Wagner’s ‘bell motif’ from Parsifal, first announced in sweeping multi- octave arpeggios in the Chorale. This ‘motto’ theme recurs in the concluding fugue, along with the sighing appoggiaturas of the Prelude to mark this work as a classic example of ‘cyclical form’.

Frédéric Chopin
Barcarolle in F-sharp Major Op. 60

Chopin’s ‘fifth ballade’, as his Barcarolle of 1845 is sometimes called, transcends both in scale and dramatic intensity the models set for him in the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and the examples given in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Chopin had never been to Venice, so his evocation of the song of the gondoliers derives not from the recall of a musical memory, but rather from an imaginative journey into moonlight. Half dreamy nocturne, half heart-wringing love cry, it alternates between poetic reflection and restless passionate outburst. It seems to encapsulate in a single work the full range of Chopin’s musical sensibility, and he obviously was proud of it, as he played it frequently in his concerts in Paris, London and in Scotland.

The standard characteristics of the piano barcarolle, as announced by Mendelssohn in his Venetianisiches Gondellied of 1830, are all there: the 12/8 meter and repetitive rocking-boat rhythm stabilized by pedal points in the bass, and a love-duet texture of double 3rds and 6ths. But Chopin adds so much more to the mix, including a harmonic sensitivity to colour that makes you feel the chill of a fresh wind over the water at the point where the harmony suddenly turns to the minor. Scintillating flashes of iridescence sparkle from the tips of the waves up to the high register of the keyboard, and sumptuous trills (double trills, even) make you shimmer inside with the fire-and-ice pangs of young love. This is poetic writing for the piano of the highest order.

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63, No. 2 Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30, No. 4

The 19th century was an age in which musicians from Eastern Europe wore their national musical heritage on their sleeves: Liszt wrote Hungarian rhapsodies, Dvorak wrote Slavonic Dances, and Chopin wrote polonaises and mazurkas. The polonaise was an aristocratic dance, a ceremonial public dance: Bach and Mozart had written polonaises. The mazurka, however, was more intimately connected with the very essence of the Polish soul, its oddly arrhythmic pulse a measure of the very heartbeat of Poland.

The Mazurka in F minor Op. 62 No. 2 is a fine example of the sentimental, melancholy potential of this dance. It begins with a painful, plangent leap of a minor 9th and ranges restlessly and chromatically over its melodic ambitus in search of a respite that never seems to come.

The Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4, while inly wrapped with a dark cast of thought, still displays an inner strength of will that drives it from a slyly lilting dance pace on to exaltations of ecstasy.

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major Op. 47

Chopin’s four ballades all share a tone of epic narration but the third of the set, the Ballade in A flat Op. 47, stands apart for its bright sonorities and healthy, optimistic mood. It lacks the vehemence of expression that characterizes the other three ballades, Opp. 23, 38 and 52, with their terrifying codas of whirlwind intensity.

The work is dominated by two principal themes of contrasting character but united by common elements of basic melodic structure. The first, announced at the outset, is a songful melody that begins by rising up six scale notes, echoed by antiphonal responses in the left hand. Its contrapuntal profile is of two voices expanding out in opposite directions from a central point, a pattern that intensifies on the following page into celebratory cadences exploding out into ecstatic arpeggios to the low and high registers simultaneously.

The second theme changes the mood completely. It is a dancelike melody of instrumental character that descends six scale notes, outlined in a series of coquettish leaps made all the more coy by the constantly syncopated rhythm in which they are presented. While this second theme dips often into the minor mode, it rarely stays there long, often slipping back into the major when cadencing. The minor mode in thus constantly restrained from taking on the mask of tragedy.

While the first theme remains elegantly static throughout the work, the second undergoes considerable development in a texture of ornamental figuration that dances alternately above it and then resonantly rumbles below. This development is the dramatic heart of the piece, and immediately follows a third theme area of remarkable flamboyance, with extroverted multi-octave arpeggios issuing into joyously rambunctious passagework over large swaths of the keyboard.

The work ends with an ‘apotheosis’ of the songful first theme in massively thickened chordal harmonies and a recall of the rambunctious spirit and exuberant figuration of the contrasting middle section.

Enrique Granados
Three pieces from Goyescas

Enrique Granados’ colourful Goyescas suite, completed in 1911, was inspired by the works of the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Bearing the subtitle Los majos enamorados (Majos in love), it depicts the joys and struggles of a bohemian segment of Spanish society often painted by Goya, the majos, a lower-class stratum of the Madrid population known for their colourful style of national dress and saucy, self- assured manner. Later in the 19th century, majas would appear on the stage as the cigarette girls in Bizet’s Carmen.

Granados’ style of writing builds on the pianism of Chopin and Liszt but is highly charged with the sounds of castanets, the strumming of guitars, and other timbral reminders of Spain. Almost improvisatory in style with violent mood swings, his multilayered and deeply sensuous textures range widely over the keyboard, and like Debussy are sometimes written on three staves.

Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor (Lament, or the maja and the nightingale) is based on a Valencian folk tune. Its sad theme may be intuited from the situation in which it is used in the opera Granados composed from the Goyescas suite: a young woman, fearing for the life of her jealous lover who has gone off to fight a duel, pours out her soul to the nightingale. Her lament is presented in the simplest possible form at first, followed by five voluptuous variations. The nightingale has the last word in a coda replete with warbling trills and bird calls.

El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) is perhaps Granados’ greatest work. Both philosophical and deeply emotional, savagely raw and wondrously mysterious, it paints its two protagonists in stark contrasts of register, the inevitability of death resonating up from deep bass, the pleadings of love shimmering down from the high treble. Granados said that all of the themes of the entire suite are united in this piece, “intense pain, nostalgic love and final tragedy – death.”

El pelele depicts a game played by young women in which they would toss a life-sized straw man up in the air using a blanket held at the corners in the manner of a trampoline. The trills occurring frequently on the third beat of the bar express the giddy pleasure and sheer exuberance of the young women as they send the straw man aloft.

Donald G. Gíslason

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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