Valse Op. 38
It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” Like his Polish musical forebear he wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études. In this Valse we catch the composer near the end of his early Chopin period, before he went all ‘Star Trek’ on the Western harmonic system and started writing chords in 4ths rather than 3rds.
A dichotomy of musical styles outlines for us the traits of the couple dancing this waltz. There is a feminine coyness and delicacy in many passages, with achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass that clarify the underlying harmony. Alternating with this a more red-blooded and masculine ‘grand style’ of piano-playing that exploits the full range of the keyboard.
The rhythmic pulse, however, is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern of a traditional Viennese waltz. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy. This is a waltz that flutters and flies, free as a bird. It often wanders in wide-ranging melodic curves, framed in 4-to-the-bar and 5-to-the-bar units evocative of a kind of perfumed ecstasy – often interrupted, of course, by more propulsive rhythmic gestures and explosive outbursts of passion.
Whatever champagne these walzers are sipping, chances are it was spiked.
Sonata No. 3 in F minor Op. 14
In the summer of 1836 Robert Schumann was pining for his new love, the sixteen-year-old piano prodigy Clara Wieck. Her father Friedrich Wieck (Schumann’s erstwhile piano teacher) had arranged a concert tour for her, thinking to break up the romance and avoid acquiring a son-in-law he considered too emotionally volatile and psychologically unstable.
Schumann, of course, would not be so easily discouraged, and contrived to have his beloved with him, at least in spirit, by sewing her into the very musical fabric of his Sonata in F minor. Clara is represented by a five-note descending scale figure that appears in all four movements, obviously derived from the opening of the 3rd movement, the famous “Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck,” later to become a favourite encore piece of Vladimir Horowitz.
The importance of this motive is underscored by its appearance at the dramatic opening of the first movement Allegro, thundering in octaves to the nether regions of the keyboard. Schumann’s expressive passion and almost manic wildness of focus in this movement might well serve to justify his future father-in-law’s concerns about his mental stability. Its first theme is both ponderous, with that tumbling-boulder crash of an opening, and flighty, in the rapid passagework that flows directly out of it. Its lyrical second theme has an equally split personality, proceeding at first in an even succession of singable quarter notes before turning into a parody of itself in the kind of jerky dotted rhythms that characterize so many of Schumann’s marches. Throughout, the listener’s ear is continually kept off-balance by spiky syncopations and phrasing patterns that effectively turn the orienting strongest beat of the bar into the weakest.
This rhythmic quirkiness is even more evident in the 2nd movement Scherzo, that likes to begin its descending scale figures on an accented 3rd beat of the bar, but intermittently switches it back to the “proper” first beat. Sorting out this rhythmic mayhem is the main teasing pleasure for the ear in this movement, which is dominated by constant 8th-note scale patterns and imitative textures. The Trio middle section is a calmer, less punchy variant of all this rhythmic irregularity and its ever-so-gradual reintegration into the opening material for the reprise is a compositional tour de force.
The descending scale figures of the Scherzo set the stage for their presentation as a solemn processional in the 3rd movement Andantino de Clara Wieck. There is a ceremonial sadness to this haunting theme, rendered especially ghoulish by the austere coldness and bare-bones texture of its second phrase, like footsteps echoing above the tombs of the dead in an empty cathedral. The first two variations let the theme speak out over the murmurings of gargoyle voices in the bass below. An antic mood dominates the third variation, that is peppered with constant syncopations. The tragic heart of the movement comes in the final variation, which pleads its case in whimpering phrases and cries of heart-rending despair, alternating with poetic daydreams and expressions of intimate tenderness.
The fourth movement, marked Prestissimo possible, is the sort of thing that keeps potential fathers-in-law up at night. It contains some of the most insanely scattered passagework in the piano repertoire, inflected with ricocheting syncopations but blessedly interrupted by regularly recurring passages of songful lyricism. A breathless patter of 16th notes, maintained throughout, gives impetus, forward momentum, and a compelling sense of urgency to this madcap finale.
Lento from Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28 (1908) is not as well known and is much less played than his popular Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36 (1913), although both abound in the type of lush textures, soulful melodies, and contrapuntal accompaniments that are the trademarks of the composer’s keyboard style.
Composed in Germany while the composer was living with his family in Dresden, the Sonata in D minor was originally conceived as a programmatic work based on the characters from that most German of tales: Goethe’s Faust. This idea was then abandoned, but traces of the philosophical origins of the sonata’s conception remained, most notably in the prominent use of the ‘elemental’ interval of the perfect 5th in every movement of the work.
The central slow movement begins, in fact, with a chain of falling 5ths in the bass that finally arrive at the F major tonic and its fifth, which endure as pedal points for the next 25 bars. Not surprisingly, a sense of stillness pervades the movement as a whole, its gently rocking triplets evoking the cosy warmth of a berceuse.
This is one of Rachmaninoff’s most intimate, inward-looking slow movements, crafted within a small range of motion in the middle of the keyboard and fluctuating modestly in dynamic range – for the most part, between piano and mezzoforte. Its tone is one of quiet reflection, reminiscent of the placid mood of the Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4.
The texture is intricately wrought, a piece of compositional lacework with at times a full four-part murmuring of contrapuntal lines, and with so many overlapping voices that it leaves the ear wondering what to listen to, and the pianist perplexed as to what to bring out.
Unlike in the slow movements of other major works such as the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos and the Sonata No. 2, Rachmaninoff eschews a contrasting middle section that sends the heart racing at break-neck speed, favouring instead a slight intensification in the left hand’s rippling accompaniment and a more wide-ranging palette of harmonic colours, culminating in a cadenza that shimmers softly up the keyboard rather than seeking to dazzle.
The reprise of the opening material features a series of luscious trills in the inner voices of the right hand – oscillating, of course, in 5ths – to close out the movement in the spirit of the exquisite repose with which it began.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020