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Program notes: Sir András Schiff

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 60 in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI:50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London of 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi whom Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a distracted husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say: “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

Nonetheless, a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops it opened with, but now with new frilly ornaments, in the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements, in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of different textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those whose eyelids might droop.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic wrong turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly ends up making a wrong turn.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, exist in a world of their own, governed only by the formal rules they themselves invent for their own unfolding. The Sonata in E major Op. 109, despite its three-movement structure, may be thought of in two halves. First comes a complementary pair of emotionally contrasting movements, both in sonata form, played together without a pause, the first a dreamy star-gazing fantasy in moderate tempo, the second a frighteningly focussed agitato of nightmarish intensity. The emotional volatility of these two movements is balanced and resolved by the poised and serene set of variations which serves as the sonata’s finale. These variations are based on a melody of such quiet dignity that they virtually erase all memory of the emotional wanderings of the previous movements.

The compression of form of which Beethoven is capable in his late works is evident in the first movement, the exposition of which is complete in a mere 16 bars. It opens with a melody buried within a delicate tracery of broken chord figuration that flutters innocently as if floating suspended in the air. It has barely breathed out its first two phrases and is moving to cadence, when it is interrupted by a disorienting diminished seventh chord that leads nonetheless to a lovingly lyrical duet, adagio espressivo, between left and right hand. But this second theme only has time to sing out a few bars itself before breaking out, cadenza-like, into a keyboard-spanning series of rapturous arpeggios and scale figures. And then the exposition is over, on the first page of the score. The development deals exclusively with the broken chord figuration but with the melody line more clearly exposed, and builds to a climax for the return of the opening material, presented this time with the hands at the extreme ends of the keyboard, after which a coda extends the dreamlike reverie.

The expansive mood of rhapsodic wonder is brought quickly down to earth, however, when E major changes to E minor and the second movement, marked Prestissimo, stomps defiantly into the ear. This is no scherzo: there is no trio, no contrast of mood. The development section may murmur sullenly, but this is only a momentary lull before the defiant tone of the opening, flickering with menace, returns to close the movement in the same uncompromising spirit in which it began. Remarkable in this movement is the way in which Beethoven manages to express such extremes of emotional violence within a texture so starkly ruled by the strictures of imitative counterpoint.

This is not a coincidence. The musical spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach has been hovering over this sonata since it began. The broken chord figuration of the opening movement looks back to similar homogeneously ‘patterned’ textures in the preludes of Bach, and the movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in the concluding movement, we encounter a variation melody characterized by an almost religious serenity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

Beethoven is not attempting to rehabilitate the outdated styles and procedures of the Baroque, but rather enriching the music of his own time with the density of musical thought typical of that bygone
era. And as Sir András has so aptly pointed out in his Wigmore Hall lecture on this sonata, it would be difficult to think that Beethoven was not inspired by the example of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when constructing his own for this sonata finale. The recall of the simple, unadorned theme at the end of Beethoven’s sonata has the same commemorative resonance as this same gesture at the end of the Goldbergs. Not to mention the textures of many of the variations that parallel those found in Bach’s famous set.

The first variation is not one of them, however. There is no hint of contrapuntal interest in this Italian opera aria for keyboard, marked molto espressivo, with its elegantly expressive melody and clear bass-and-chord left-hand accompaniment. Variation 2 lightens the texture with a hocket-style alternation of the hands that presents the harmonic and melodic outlines of the theme in interlocking 16th-note flashes of sound, similar to the texture of the Goldberg variation 20 and the second variation of Beethoven’s own sonata of Op. 26 (first movement).

The yeast of Baroque ferment comes overtly to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in double counterpoint, with the right and left hands regularly swapping melodies in the course of presenting the theme. Variation 4 moves the time signature to 9/8 for a change of pace to present a full four-voice texture of imitation, much in the style of Goldberg variation 3. The contrapuntal impulse emerges even more clearly in the more strictly structured imitative texture of Variation 5, richly suggestive of similar textures in Goldberg variations 18 and 22.

Beethoven’s own synthesis of old and new emerges in the final variation, which moves from a simple chordal statement of the theme to a gradual accumulation of rhythmic energy that finally emerges into a texture of whirling trills and flecks of melody flickering in the high register, before a simple re-statement of the original theme ends the sonata in a mood of spiritual peace.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C major K.545

There is a reason most piano students know this sonata. It is listed in Mozart’s own personal catalogue of his works as being für Anfänger (for beginners) and its unpretentious texture of scales, broken chords and Alberti basses, not to mention the choice of the simplest possible key (C major, with no black keys), seem to confirm Mozart’s intention to write a small-scale piece that would be ideal for teaching the musical novice the basic building blocks of keyboard technique.

But because this is Mozart (and not Czerny) the level of musical sophistication in this sonata is noteworthy. The first movement opens with a melody of the utmost simplicity, its outlines based on the three notes of the major chord, which issues into a series of rising and falling runs. These runs, however, cleverly mask the fact that the opening theme and the transition to the second theme are merged together, so that the second theme area, in G major, seems to arrive in the most natural manner possible. This more perky theme leads to a series of harmonic sequences in broken chords which summon up general agreement that a cadence would now be in order and the cadencing pattern chosen is one from which a closing thematic motive in rocking arpeggios emerges to end the exposition.

Nothing to wonder at, one might suppose, unless of course you happen to notice that the second theme is constructed by inverting the melodic outline of the the first, and that the closing theme is merely a rearrangement of the notes in the broken-chord sequences that preceded it. No, nothing to notice here.

The development immediately takes up the rocking arpeggio figure and goes minor with it, to provoke the appropriate level of eyebrow-knitting concentration that a good, roiling development section is wont to inspire. Advanced beginners in the class will no doubt notice that the recapitulation begins in the subdominant (F major) instead of the C major tonic. But is it such a bad thing to give students a little practice in a different scale pattern, one requiring their 4th finger to hit a
B flat on the way up, as well as on the way down? Pedagogical minds with hearts that beat for the general welfare of their pupils think not.

The second movement Andante is a three-part song with a development section in the middle, all ticking along over the steady rhythmic guidance of an Alberti bass in the left hand throughout. It seems gifted with an endless supply of variations for the scant few melodic and rhythmic patterns that characterize its theme, the triadic outline and dotted rhythm of which (just between us) make it a sibling to the second theme of the first movement. The middle section, which is more like the B section of a Baroque da capo aria than a real sonata-form development, dips into the shade of the minor mode to mull over a few more serious thoughts but fails to stay there long and the sunshine of the major mode soon returns to end things off with a rosy- cheeked smile.

The last movement, a miniature rondo of diminutive proportions, features a symmetrically structured playful theme alternating with two intervening episodes. As is common in Mozart, the episodes are not entirely contrasting in thematic material as the little imitative hops of the opening theme seem to keep poking their heads in the door at every opportunity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D. 958

In September 1828, as Schubert lay suffering the debilitating effects of the tertiary syphilis that would fell him only two months later, he managed a feat of compositional prowess that speaks to the steely will that coexisted with the delicacy of sentiment in the personality of this Viennese composer of distinctly bohemian habits of life. The 130 manuscript pages of his monumental three last piano sonatas, the Sonatas in C minor, A major and B flat major (D. 958-960) were all produced within this single month.

The Sonata in C minor D. 958 is undoubtedly one of his most serious works, for which he chose the key associated with so many of the greatest achievements of his idol Beethoven, at whose funeral he had served
as a pallbearer the previous year. C minor is the key of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the Symphony No. 5 and the great Piano Sonata Op. 111, as well as the 32 Variations in C minor from which the defiant opening subject of this sonata is quite obviously derived. But while Beethoven’s mind bent ever towards compactness and density in musical expression, it was Schubert’s gift to stretch, extend and elaborate his musical material in a poetic search for its inner psychological meaning.

This he does with telling effect when he transitions the uncompromising stance and abrupt rhetoric of the sonata’s opening pronouncements into less heroic territory to prepare for his lyrical second subject in E flat major. Here is where Schubert’s ability to ‘orchestrate’ on the piano is most evident. The repeated pedal tone in this simply harmonized melody, at first confined to the alto, soon shines out in the treble like a beacon of hope over all that passes on beneath it. But E flat major soon turns to E flat minor in a sprightly and slightly wicked variant of this theme.

The development begins in an expansively modulatory frame of mind, ranging widely through various keys until its interest settles on a distinctly un-settling voice of small range and ominous import in the bass, that ruminates and builds, marked with the rhythmic stamp of the opening chords to prepare for the recapitulation. This motive recurs again in the coda, emerging into the light of day in treble octaves that carry its worrisome preoccupations to the final bars of the movement.

The second movement is one of the few genuine adagios that Schubert wrote, given as he was to more moderate- tempo slow movements. It unfolds in a 5-part scheme of alternating themes in an A-B-A-B-A pattern. These themes are of opposing emotional valence, however, the first exuding elegiac tranquillity, the second more disquieting in its deliberations. Each is elaborated in a series of different textures, which only increases the emotional distance between them when they are juxtaposed in this way. The Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata seemed to have been an inspiring point of reference in the elaboration of this movement.

The restless Menuetto that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. Dance-inspired enjoyment seems impossible to achieve as each successive idea is undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in irregular phrase lengths, as a small deviation into the minor mode, or in mysterious pauses, as if the flow of emotion were cut off in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale. Here the spirit of the dance is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling, but strangely ominous rondo with the developmental features of the sonata. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback, of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig, and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short bursts of melodic ideas are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

 

 

 

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