Johann Sebastian Bach
Three Chorale Preludes (arr. György Kurtág)
The chorale, a hymn setting of pious verse in simple note values, was a central element in Lutheran liturgical practice, whether sung in unison by the congregation, in four-part harmony by the choir in a cantata, or artfully arranged into a web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude. In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint derived from the same melody—but in smaller note values. Bach was a master of the genre and produced dozens of such works.
This fractal layering of the same melody at different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical trick but a theological statement in music. It gave voice to the belief that God was immanent in all things, moving in and about the world to animate every object and being in it. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God while the chattering counterpoint that accompanied it represented that divine presence reflected in the activities of secular life.
This symbolic dimension sometimes extended down to small pictorial details in the melodies themselves. For example, the chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From deep affliction, I cry out to Thee) begins with the pitches B-E-B-C. The word ‘deep’ (tiefer) is depicted by a plunging 5th (B to E, then back to B). The word ‘affliction’ (Not) is then painfully represented by the most emotional interval of the scale, the semitone (B to C). Bach’s chorale prelude on this hymn tune starts with the melody imitated in small note values before it majestically enters in long notes buried in the middle register, in keeping with its dark message.
By contrast, the upbeat message of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), a traditional hymn for the first Sunday in Advent, begins in long notes right away, sounding in the uppermost voice, where its clarion call can be most easily heard.
The last in this trio of transcriptions is not really a chorale setting, but it is a prelude. It is the gentle and peaceful introduction to Bach’s Actus tragicus (funeral cantata) entitled Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time of all). Its subject being the Christian view of death, its mood is one of consolation, with soothing harmony chords in the lower register supporting the plaintive but resigned sighs of two imitative voices above.
Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s reverent transcriptions make available to the concert hall works previously performed only in church. Arranging these works for piano duet ensures that the full pitch range of the original is available to the ear in a concert setting. But the inability of the piano to sustain tone in the way that an organ can presents unique challenges to performers wishing to retain the same textural balance as the original setting provided.
Andante & Allegro Brillante in A major, Op. 92
The time: spring 1841. The place: Leipzig, Germany. Young pianist Clara Wieck, a former child prodigy who had toured Europe at the age of twelve, is in need of help to further her professional career but is estranged from her strict and controlling music-teacher father after defying him to marry one of his students. That student – a certain Robert Alexander Schumann, nine years her senior – also needs help with the same problem. Unable to perform in public because of a hand injury, he has gained a modest reputation as a composer of piano music, but needs to break out of that niche to gain a wider public with his recently composed First Symphony. Who will help this young married couple advance their careers?
Enter Felix Mendelssohn, conductor of the city’s acclaimed Gewandhaus Orchestra and a friend of the Schumann newlyweds. Mendelssohn organizes a fundraising concert for the orchestra’s pension fund at which Robert’s symphony will be performed, and to create a spot for Clara to play as well, quickly composes an Andante and Allegro Brillante for piano duet which he and Clara will perform together. Historians would record this concert as the first time that Robert and Clara Schumann appeared in public together on the same program.
Mendelssohn’s two-part piano duet, composed in a matter of days, is light, easy-on-the-ears salon music, but graced with the polished elegance and craftsmanship that is the composer’s trademark. The Andante is comfort food for the soul, with a yearning melody of sighing phrases covered in a chocolate sauce of warm, deeply satisfying harmonies.
The Allegro brillante, by contrast, is a nimble and scampering scherzo with the type of quick, darting figurations that Mendelssohn made famous in his Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo, composed when he was only 17 years old.
While this score is wonderfully balanced in tone and texture, what is remarkable in it is how Mendelssohn gives ample space for solo playing by each pianist—presumably to allow Clara Schumann her place in the sun along with the composer.
At the opening of the Andante, for example, and in the lyrical second theme of the Allegro, the performers take turns playing alternate phases of the melody and its accompaniment—alone. One performer will take the antecedent phrase of a musical period which is then completed in the consequent phrase by the other performer, both playing solo. At other places the left hand of the primo (upper) pianist must insert itself cunningly in between the two hands of the secondo (lower) player without causing a three-hand pile-up of digits in and around middle C. A major technical challenge for the performers in this work, then, is just getting out of each other’s way.
Considering the degree of physical intimacy this work demands of its performers, full marks to Mrs. Mendelssohn for allowing her husband to play it, in public, with another man’s wife.
Fantasie in F minor, D. 940
Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, composed in 1828, is similar in structure to the composer’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy of 1822. Both are laid out in one continuous movement of four sonata-like sections played without interruption, comprising an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale containing a fugue. And both embrace the cyclical principle of reprising the first movement’s themes in their final movement.
But while the Wanderer stands out for its emphatic musical rhetoric and unabashedly muscular keyboard writing, the F Minor Fantasie entices its listeners with an inverse appeal in long passages at dynamic levels of pp, or even ppp, and a more reflective tone overall.
Nowhere is this reflective tone more strikingly evident than in the first movement Allegro molto moderato, in which a timidly pleading, almost whimpering first theme, obsessing over a number of small melodic intervals, emerges out of a hushed murmur of harmonic support. Juxtaposed with this delicate flower of a melody is a stern, implacable second theme that soon arrives to challenge it, advancing gravely and ponderously in great granitic blocks of sound. As is so typical of Schubert, the two themes in this section are presented in ‘stereo’, so as to speak – in both their major- and minor-mode variants.
The Largo second movement presents a similar juxtaposition of opposing musical personalities. Beginning with a jarring series of trills, this movement alternates between the defiant gestures of a double-dotted, French-overture-like first theme and a ‘tra-la-la’ second theme of a distinctly Italianate melodic stamp that roams blissfully carefree over an oom-pah-pah accompaniment.
The scherzo Allegro vivace provides much needed relief from all this drama with its dancelike verve and general spirit of bonhomie as the two players coyly echo each other phrases. Schubert’s quicksilver changes of mode, often alternating between major and minor in successive phrases, give this movement an intriguing tonal sparkle that is maddeningly hard to define.
The Allegro molto moderato finale brings us back full circle to the poetic opening bars of the work. But at the entrance of the imposing second theme, a brow-knitting fugal argument breaks out leading to a sustained bout of contrapuntal navel-gazing which only the opening theme, returning yet again, can quell. The uncompromisingly bleak tone of the closing bars is exceptional in the works of Schubert.
Leo Smit was an immensely gifted Dutch composer whose career spanned the interwar years of the 20th century and who died a victim of the Holocaust. Raised in Amsterdam, he graduated with high honours from the Amsterdam Conservatory but in his mid-twenties moved to Paris, where for nine years (1927-1936) he absorbed at close range the music and stylistic legacy of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Les Six, especially Milhaud, Honegger & Poulenc. The personal musical style he brought back to his native Holland was thus inflected with a host of typically French traits, including a preference for light textures, formal clarity and the vivid use of harmonic colour. The jazz idiom, as filtered through French ears, was an especially marked characteristic of his music.
Smit’s Divertimento for piano duet (1942) illustrates well his neo-classical leanings. Its first movement begins with a series of imitative entries, like the opening bars of a fugue, but with the carefree jaunty air of a boulevardier strolling down a fashionable street in Paris, twirling his cane. The tender and wistful second theme that follows, however, would easily be at home in any North American jazz lounge. The musical flow in this movement is easy on the ear because of Smit’s tendency to repeat the same small melodic motives over and over when building up his phrase structure.
The Lento second movement is more atmospheric than conventionally lyrical, offered up as a slow-jazz meditation on a few short motives, hypnotically repeated, rather than structured around the presentation and development of a single strand of melody.
The finale is a punchy and self-confident moto perpetuo, full of jazzy syncopations, with the motoric drive of the Precipitato finale of Prokofieff’s Seventh Sonata and the festive mood of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
Ma Mère l’Oye, cinq pièces enfantines
Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:
“Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’ ”
The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.
Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.
Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.
Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.
Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.
The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.
Turkish musician Fazil Say is a cultural phenomenon, and a triple-threat actor on the world stage. As a pianist he plays almost 100 concerts a year and has recorded more than 40 albums featuring an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire, from Bach and Haydn to Stravinsky and Gershwin—as well as his own compositions. As a composer, his list of compositions includes works for solo piano, for chamber ensembles and for orchestra. But it is his political activism for which he is best known in his native Turkey. In 2012 he was charged with blasphemy for insulting Islam in a series of tweets in a case that was later withdrawn. He is a self-declared atheist and vehemently opposes the cultural and social policies of the Erdogan government.
These three strands of his life and career come together in Night, a piano duet written in 2017 for Lucas & Arthur Jussen and premiered by them at the Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam in April 2018. According to the composer, the work describes “a traumatic night in Turkey” – perhaps an oblique reference to the failed coup of 2016 in that country.
Beginning with the restless rumbling of a rhythmic ostinato in the lower register it spins out jagged, slightly menacing fragments of phrase with an almost ‘hip’ jazzy feel. One special effect used is the hand-muting of strings for selected notes played from the keyboard to produce a strangely dull, plucked sound reminiscent of the timbre of Turkish national folk instruments. Structured in alternating passages of toccata-like frenetic energy and mysterious wet-pedalled goings-on, the work builds to an impressive climax that simply falls off a cliff in its closing bar.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020