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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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