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PROGRAM NOTES: KANNEH-MASON FAMILY CELEBRATION

Click here to read the program notes for this performance.

 

 

 

 

 

Program Notes: Randall Goosby and Zhu Wang

Lili Boulanger
Deux Morceaux

Lili Boulanger was born into a distinguished family of French musicians. Her grandfather, Frédéric Boulanger (b. 1777) had been a professor at the Paris Conservatoire and was married to Marie-Julie Haligner (1786-1850), a mezzo-soprano at the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique who had sung in the premiere of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment in 1840. Lili’s father, Ernest Boulanger (1815-1900), was also a professor at the Conservatoire and a composer of numerous comic operas, having won the prestigious Prix de Rome award at the age of only 19.

But perhaps the most famous and influential member of the family was Lili’s sister, the musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), whose students included some of the leading composers, arrangers and performers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti and Astor Piazzola, to name but a few.

Lili, a musical prodigy like her father, won the Prix de Rome in 1913, the first woman ever to do so. But whatever musical gifts she might have received by family inheritance, they did not extend to her physical health. An early case of bronchial pneumonia when she was a child, and the Crohn’s disease which she later developed, left her severely immunocompromised and in frail health throughout her short life. She died at the age of 24 in 1918, the same year as Debussy.

Virtually all of her surviving compositions date from the period 1910-1918, her Deux Morceaux for violin or flute being composed in 1911 and 1914 respectively. In these pieces she displays an interest in the finely nuanced tone colours typical of French impressionism.

The nighttime stillness of Nocturne is conveyed in the lulling drone of its slow-moving harmonies, underpinned with long-enduring pedal tones in the bass that shift harmonic interest to the delicately nuanced tone colours of the upper voices. These pedal tones echo up and down through three octaves of the texture to swaddle the piece’s thoughtful, wandering melody in a warm harmonic glow throughout.

Just before the end, connoisseurs of all things Debussy will no doubt notice a sly quotation from The Afternoon of a Faun, prompting an exchange of raised eyebrows and knowing glances with their fellow Debussyists sitting nearby.

Cortège is more buoyant in mood, its title indicating not a funeral procession but rather a joyous parade. Its four-square phrases, jaunty syncopated rhythms and happy-go-lucky melody make it the ideal tune to hum while strutting arm-in-arm in chummy company down a boulevard in Paris, twirling one’s walking stick or umbrella while taking in the sights of the city.

 

Maurice Ravel
Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

The Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, composed between 1923 and 1927, was Ravel’s last chamber work, and its austere style of instrumental writing contrasts strongly with the lush textures of his previous works for chamber ensemble. Gone are the full keyboard sonorities and great sweeping washes of harmonic colour that characterize, for example, the Piano Trio of 1914. Instead, we hear a much thinner, more linear texture, with one or two single-line voices in the keyboard part accompanying the violin’s solo line. Ravel sets out to emphasize even further the difference in sound colour between piano and violin by his frequent use of bitonality, i.e., writing in two keys at once.

The sonata comprises three contrasting movements, composed in widely different styles but linked by a shared use of musical material. The first movement Allegretto is in a free sonata form. Its first theme is announced by the piano as a wandering melody in an exotically chromatic version of G major, soon joined by two important sub-motives: a cheeky bitonal ‘chirp’ in F# major (while the violin is in G major) and a colourful rainbow of parallel major triads in the whole-tone scale.

The second theme area chimes like a clock announcing the hour in groupings of even long notes within a small range, each chiming note sounding out a kind of ‘fractured’ octave, just a semitone short of a consonance. In this section the texture is starkly thin, bone-bare and spare, the piano accompanying the melodic musings of the violin with a virtual ‘no comment’ of open 5ths.

The development section ruminates over all this material, eventually whipping itself into a froth of excitement to climax in a flurry of violin tremolo until calm returns once again with the serene arrival of the opening theme. The recapitulation sees melodic activity slow to a crawl as the various musical motives that animated the movement disappear into a sonic vapour in the upper register of both instruments.

The second movement, entitled Blues, reflects Ravel’s keen interest in the new currents of jazz arriving in France from the United States in the 1920s. This movement is a French stylized version of American blues music, with its characteristic syncopations, ‘bent’ pitches imitated by glissando slides in the violin and ‘blue’ notes, i.e., flattened 3rds and 7ths, along with some honky-tonk style rhythmic moves from the piano. Playing ‘straight man’ to all this stylish chatter is a constant ostinato of quarter notes, begun by the violin in pizzicato as the movement opens, then taken over by the piano, playing in both G major and A-flat major at the same time.

The 3rd movement Perpetuum mobile is a breathless whirlwind of violin figuration in a steady stream of 16th-note busy-banter that puts the violin in the centre spotlight for its entire length. But like a car that needs a few key-turns in the ignition to get going, it starts up slowly before taking off like a buzzing bee. In the course of its travels this movement revisits many of the musical motives of previous movements, including the first movement’s little ‘chirping’ figure (which opens the movement), its rainbow of parallel whole-tone triads, its many open 5ths and its ‘fractured’ octaves – as well as a few passing references to the flattened 7ths of the Blues movement. Listeners familiar with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major will be pleased to hear hints of that work’s exuberant last movement in the finale of this violin sonata.

 

William Grant Still
Suite for Violin and Piano

Composer, conductor and arranger William Grant Still was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural movement centered in New York between the two World Wars that gave a voice to the African-American identity in the arts. The grandson of slaves, he studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory and privately with French composer Edgar Varèse. He later went on to receive three Guggenheim Fellowships, the last of these in 1939, when his music was performed daily at the New York World’s Fair – although he was not able to attend the Fair to hear it without police protection, except on “Negro Day”.

His creative output comprises nearly 200 works, including nine operas, five symphonies, and numerous art songs, as well as chamber music and solo instrumental works. Known as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” he was a patriarchal figure in Black American music in the early part of the 20th century. His Afro-American Symphony was the most widely performed symphony by any American composer up until 1950.

His Suite for Violin and Piano (1943) is in three movements, each inspired by a work of visual art from the Harlem Renaissance period. “When I was asked to compose a suite for violin and piano,” he wrote, “I thought of three contemporary Negro artists whom I admired and resolved to try to catch in music my feeling for an outstanding work by each of them.”

The first movement takes its inspiration from a sculpture entitled African Dancer, a writhing nude by sculptor Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) that conveys the strength and muscular vitality of the dancing African body under the influence of music.

The composer’s melodic gifts are on full display in the second movement, inspired by a number of paintings and sculptures each entitled Mother and Child created by Sargent Johnson (1887-1967) in the 1920s and 1930s. This lyrical and soulful lullaby, with its gentle syncopations and constant wavering between major and minor, encapsulates the complex emotions of maternal love.

The final movement in the suite is based on the bust of a small child entitled Gamin by sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962). Light-hearted and carefree, it evokes an age – long past – when small children were allowed to play in the streets to fashion as much mischief and mayhem as their little minds could devise.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major  Op. 47  (Kreutzer)

Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata is a monument in the violin repertoire, remarkable for its unusual length and for the technical demands it places on both violinist and pianist. The willful juxtaposition of its three oddly disparate movements may perhaps have been motivated by the equally odd circumstances of its rushed composition.

In 1803, the violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860), a musical prodigy of mixed Polish & West Indian parentage, had arrived in Vienna and been introduced to Beethoven by his patron Prince Lichnowsky. A concert date was set for them to appear together, for which Beethoven hurriedly wrote two sonata movements to precede a finale movement in A major that he had originally intended for his Op. 30 No. 1 violin sonata. Relations between the two musicians were exceptionally cordial, by all accounts, to the point that Beethoven even allowed himself to tease his bi-racial violinist colleague with a jocular inscription atop his manuscript of the sonata that reads: “Mulatto sonata, composed for the mulatto Brischdauer [i.e., Bridgetower], a great madman and a mulatto composer.”

But relations later soured between the two, for reasons unknown, and Beethoven changed the dedication of the sonata, devoting it instead to the celebrated French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831), who apparently found the work unintelligible and was not known ever to have performed it in public.

When the sonata was published in 1805, its title page bore an inscription referencing its unusual characteristics that read: “written in a very concertante style, almost like a concerto.”  The grand style in this ‘concerto-like’ work is evident in the sonata’s epic proportions and display-oriented virtuoso figurations, in the first two movements especially.

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The work opens with an Adagio sostenuto slow introduction, as if it were the first movement of a symphony. The opening bars, however, are played by the violin alone, in multiple stops, as if to proclaim and display the skill of the violinist right from the outset. The piano then re-states violin’s A-major musings but in A minor, establishing a dark suspenseful tone in what follows. But suspense is not the only thing happening here. Over and over the motive of a rising semitone gets repeated and repeated in small two-note phrases, in what will become a kind of motto for the succession of themes in this movement.

When the pace quickens to Presto with the introduction of the first theme, a series of strutting quarter notes in A minor, it begins with this rising semitone. The second theme, a slow chorale-like tune, begins with it as well, while the first phrase of the closing theme in E minor is virtually nothing but a series of rising-semitone two-note gestures. Gluing the exposition together is a succession of muscular passagework figurations rumbling and rambling over wide swathes of the keyboard that seem aimed at filling the ear with as much piano sound as possible. In writing this sonata for his violinist duo partner Beethoven makes sure the audience knows who it is who is making him sound so good.

These same textures are used intensely throughout the development section as it spirals through key after key until Beethoven prepares for the arrival of the recapitulation in a series of dramatic pauses, each followed by coy hints – and many rising semitone gestures – that the first theme is in the wings ready to emerge, which of course it eventually does. Not satisfied with his forthright review of previous material, however, Beethoven adds a beefy coda that toys with bringing the movement to an end several times before it rushes clattering to a final emphatic cadence in A minor.

The second movement Andante presents an expansive theme followed by four variations and a coda. Supported by the simplest of harmonies, the theme carries a gentle lilt from frequent off-beat syncopations in the melodic line, while numerous trills in both the violin and piano parts prepare us for the series of ‘frilly’ variations that follow.

First honours are given to the piano in a texture rife with trills and mordents twinkling atop a pattern of triplet 16ths outlining the basic harmonies of the theme. The second variation gives pride of place to the violin in a constant stream of repeated-note chatter over an oom-pah accompaniment in the piano. The obligatory minore variation comes next, slip-sliding through the notes of the minor scale in a turgid series of chordal harmonies that change on every 16th note. Variation IV returns to the major mode to create the most embellished thematic variant of all, featuring real and written-out trill figures in the upper register connected by thrilling chromatic runs. In this variation we can hear already the composer’s interest in creating walls of pure sound with trills, a fascination he will explore in later works such as the finales of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53 and the Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111.

The Presto last movement presents Beethoven with the problem of how to get the listener’s ear from the F major tonality of the variation movement to the A major tonality of the finale. The rough-and-ready solution he arrives at couldn’t be simpler: a sonic sledgehammer. He just comes crashing down with a massive two-fisted A major chord in the piano, extending sonorously over four octaves, and the job is done. F major? What F major? We’re in A major now.

This last movement – the one that Beethoven had already written when he assembled this sonata for his concert appearance with George Bridgetower in 1803 – is a buoyant sonata-form finale with a much lighter, more transparent texture. The heavy saturated sonorities of the two previous movements are nowhere to be found, replaced instead by the joyous interplay of individual melodic lines tossed merrily between the instruments in a relentless chatter of lively dialogue. Its two principal themes, the first introduced in a kind of fugato at the beginning of the movement, are both infected with the toe-tapping rhythm of the tarantella. And while Beethoven in a pair of short Adagio sections in the coda tries to convince you that things are moving too fast and need to slow down, in the end there is no denying the momentum that has built up, and the movement rushes to its concluding cadence with the hilarious inevitability of an inflated beach ball falling down stairs.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Daniel Hsu

Robert Schumann
Kinderszenen  Op. 15

The character piece, a short work expressing a single mood or illustrating an idea suggested by its titling, was a typical product of the Romantic era, and Robert Schumann was a major contributor to the genre. In 1838 he composed 30 such works, publishing 13 of them in a collection that he called Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood).

Explaining the title in a letter to his future wife Clara he wrote:

Perhaps it was an echo of what you once said to me, that ‘Sometimes I seemed like a child’ … You will enjoy them—though you will have to forget you are a virtuoso.

And indeed the childlike simplicity and artlessness of these pieces is their main alluring feature. Schumann’s Kinderszenen were not written for children, but rather for adults about children. They are imbued with a nostalgia for a time of life that in many ways represents the Romantic imagination itself, with its wide-eyed sense of wonder, its lack of preconceptions and acceptance of new experiences, its intuitive affinity with an inborn human nature lying beneath the acquired behaviours of ‘civilized’ adult life.

Here we find the poetic spirit of Schumann’s compositional style in its purest unmediated form, without the framing artifice of literary devices such as the masked balls of the Papillons Op. 2 and Carnaval Op. 9 or the fictional League of David of the Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6. Schumann here is speaking through the voice of the universal childhood of every listener—which perhaps may explain why this was the first of his keyboard cycles to enjoy popular success.

Most of the pieces in this collection are in a kind of miniature three-part (ABA) form. Their melodies sit in the mid-range of the keyboard—the range of the human voice—and very few rise above a piano dynamic level, giving them a special kind of intimacy.

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Anyone who has entertained the pleasant thought of getting on a plane and travelling somewhere far away will identify with the daydreaming mood of Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of foreign lands and peoples). The melodic profile of its opening notes, a rising 6th and a four-note falling figure (B-G-F#-E-D), appears in several subsequent pieces as well, acting as a unifying motive for the cycle as a whole. Schumann’s rippling arpeggiations in the mid-register and wide chord spacings in the left-hand accompaniment create an understated but quietly sonorous backdrop for this piece’s carefree and eminently hummable melody.

In the perky dotted rhythms of Curiose Gedichte (A curious story) we hear Schumann’s eternal fascination with turning every stirring emotion into some kind of a march. But into the bargain we also get pleasing little snatches of imitation and a multi-layered texture with many moving parts, especially active in the middle and lower voices.

The scene illustrated in Hasche-Mann (Catch me if you can) is as pictorial as keyboard music gets, with children musically portrayed as racing around in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, each ‘tag’ being indicated by a sudden sforzando on the keyboard.

Bittendes Kind (The pleading child) is full of coy questions and many a phrase that ends with a rising, questioning intonation. But are the questions answered? The last chord, a dominant 7th (with the 7th on top), leaves the issue hanging in the air.

Glückes genug (Happy enough) is a charming duet between left- and right-hand voices in close imitation—making the point that ‘chumminess’ is indistinguishable from happiness for a young child.

More march-like dotted rhythms greet us in Wichtige Begebenheit (An important event). But the repetition of the same phrase over and over again in various transpositions evokes the naïveté of a mock-serious parade of toddler soldiers with wooden swords and moustaches painted on with Magic Marker.

Träumerei (Reverie) is arguably Schumann’s best-known composition, made justly famous as an encore piece by pianist Vladimir Horowitz and even sung in a choral version at the annual May 9th Victory Day commemoration of Russia’s war dead. Its sequence of introspective moments is carried forward from thought to daydreaming thought by repeated re-harmonizations of the opening melodic phrase that never seem to tire in the ear.

Biedermeier coziness and contentment is the theme of Am Camin (At the fireplace), conveyed by its unpretentious melody and the gentle, cushiony off-beat pulses of its accompaniment.

The accenting of the last beat of every bar in the Ritter von Steckenpferd (Hobbyhorse knight) marks the hoof-fall and play-gallop of a young would-be warrior charging about his playroom.

The title of the following piece, Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious) is curiously vague. Every note of its serene right-hand melody, from start to finish, sings out on the off-beats, a 16th note out of phase with a metrically regular left-hand accompaniment of widely-spaced chordal arpeggiations.

Fürchtenmachen (Catching a fright) alternates passages of innocent thoughtfulness with episodes of frenetic panic and confused anxiety, a cautionary warning to the wandering child in us all that “if you go out in the woods at night, you’re in for a big surprise.”

After all this excitement, it starts getting towards nap-time for our Kind im Einschlummern (Child falling asleep) lulled into slumber by the hypnotic drowsy-making repetition of the same small motive, over and over. In a brilliant poetic touch, Schumann allows us to witness the moment that deep sleep finally arrives, when this piece in E minor ends on an A minor chord, without a final cadence.

Finally, we withdraw from the poetic world of childhood, to enter the adult mind of the poet who has been imagining it for us. Der Dichter spricht (The poet speaks) is a soliloquy of tender reflections offered up in broken phrases and plaintive recitative, an elegy reminding us, as did Wordsworth, that “the child is father of the man.”

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major  Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then continues in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

 

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor  S. 178

“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.

The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.

Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So, to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.

The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.

The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.

In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Evgeny Kissin

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata and Fugue in D minor  BWV 565 (arr. Tausig)

While keyboard transcription and political debate might at first blush seem to be radically different fields of endeavour, one justly famous incident on American television stands emblematic of the risks run, in both disciplines, for those who would engage in rhetorical posturing.

In the vice-presidential debate of 1988, the Republican candidate, linguistically accident-prone Sen. Dan Quayle, in attempting to wrap himself in the glory of a martyred former president, made so bold as to cite John F. Kennedy as a model for his own political outlook, only to receive his comeuppance in a stinging riposte from his debate opponent, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

One might well imagine a similar exchange taking place across the centuries between Johann Sebastian Bach and those 19th-century virtuoso pianists daring to claim their own instrument as being in a direct line of succession from the 18th-century church organ and thus a worthy instrument on which to perform his mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565. To such pretenders to the throne of musical majesty Bach might well have replied: “I know the organ. The organ is my friend. The piano is no organ.”

Whether they intuited such a rebuke or not, those attempting this feat of transcription have been legion. IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project, lists no fewer than 11 transcriptions for piano solo, as well as arrangements for the wildest assortment of other instruments. Supporters of the underdog Jamaican bobsled team will no doubt have adopted the version for solo harmonica – seriously, there is one – as their sentimental favourite.

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The appeal of this work is not hard to see. In its pairing of the two contrasting genres of toccata and fugue it offers an opportunity to showcase both brawn and brain: brawn in the toccata’s flashy passages of digital dexterity, and brain in the intellectual rigour of the fugue’s contrapuntal complexity.

The work gained a popular 20th-century audience following its appearance in Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, and its reputation was further enhanced in the 1970s by its starring role in the Dionysian sonic orgies of superstar 20th-century organist Virgil Fox (1912-1980) celebrated in mega-venues with rock concert lighting under the heading “Heavy Organ.”

Its arresting opening gesture, an inverted mordent followed by a dramatic scalar plunge down the space of a diminished 7th, is by now instantly recognizable, even by popular audiences with little knowledge of classical music. As is its fugue theme, a tick-tock moto perpetuo of 16ths outlining the notes of the D minor scale in alternation with a repeated drone tone on the dominant.

On the contemporary recital stage this work is performed by pianists in two well-known versions. The most popular is that of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), an adaptation that attempts to reproduce the architectural acoustic of an organ resounding within the vast echoing interior of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach worked.

The less-frequently-heard version that Mr. Kissin has chosen to play is by Carl Tausig (1841-1871), a student of Franz Liszt. Tausig, a leading proponent of the ‘juggling chainsaws’ school of pianism, created a much heftier, more note-heavy transcription, substantially thicker in sound than that of Busoni. Seeming to believe there was little point in writing one note where four notes would do, his version of the Bach score is more muscularly pianistic in conception. But his ear for the timbral possibilities of the piano is truly impressive. He paints the various sections of the score in a wide range of tone colours unique to his instrument, with their alternation imitating changes in timbral stops on the organ.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adagio in B minor  K. 540

Mozart’s eerie Adagio in B minor (1788) is as remarkable for its choice of key as for its daring use of chromatic harmony. B minor was a key quite sparingly used by composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and likely for very practical reasons. The simple act of modulating to the dominant – the key of F# major, with six sharps – would instantly turn the score into a furry forest of accidentals, eyebrow-knittingly difficult for performers to read, and tricky for orchestral players to tune.

B minor, then, became something of a ‘spooky’ key, evoking abnormal psychological states and foretelling dramatic, perhaps even tragic musical events to come. One has only to think of the Bach B minor Mass, the Liszt Sonata in B minor, the Chopin B minor Scherzo or Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) to get the idea. And in his Adagio in B minor K. 540 Mozart in no way shies away from these associations, but rather leans into them with a will.

A sense of drama is evident right from the start. After a solo melodic line in the right hand outlining the B minor triad, the first harmony chord we hear is a startling diminished 7th, one of many that will occur in the course of the work. What follows is a virtual compendium of the most emotionally expressive rhetorical devices used in the Classical era: plangent appoggiaturas, yearning suspensions, dramatic silences and sudden rapid contrasts of forte and piano dynamic levels.

Although composed in unimpeachably orthodox sonata form, with balanced symmetrical phrases and a motivically concentrated development section, the work seems to ‘lurch’ forward in short quasi-improvised bursts of jagged, instrumentally-conceived melody, as in a fantasia. The lovely operatic-style melodies that often grace the piano sonatas are nowhere to be found.

But most arresting to the ear are the chromatic harmonies used, especially in the development section, which seems to roam mysteriously around in tonal space. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz believed that in this work Mozart pointed the way to the harmonic language later used by Chopin, Wagner and Verdi. He points out how the opening of Mozart’s Adagio parallels the mood, texture and simplicity of the Prelude to La Traviata and this fully justifies a Romantic style of performance for the work.

It will be most interesting to see if Evgeny Kissin agrees.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major  Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing and sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A-flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Mazurkas Opp. 7, 24, 30 & 33

Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi from the melancholy to the exuberant, moods and tempi often boldly juxtaposed in the same piece. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.

The mazurka is in triple metre with rhythmic emphasis ‘fleeing’ the downbeat in short notes to land instead on the second or third beats of the bar, where stomping or heel-clicking gestures often occurred in performance. Drone tones in the bass are sometimes used to imitate the bagpipes and melodies might be written in exotic scales using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major).

The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated one- and two-bar units of rhythm with recurring melodic motives. Repetition is a prominent feature of the genre, especially at the bar and phrase level.

Using these simple ‘rustic’ features of compositional design, however, Chopin manages to compose salon pieces of considerable elegance by creating melodies richly bejewelled with ornamentation, by subtly playing up ambiguity between duple and triple metrical groupings, and by his use of chromatic harmony.

The boisterous Mazurka in B-flat major Op. 7 No. 1 opens with the ‘dotted downbeat’ typical of many mazurkas. The wide leaps in its melody line seem at times to land on the ‘wrong note,’ giving the impression of a drinking song sung by a tipsy reveller. The contrasting middle section, with its drone 5ths in the bass and oriental-sounding scale patterns in the treble, seems to come from another world.

Polish soulfulness is at the centre of the Mazurka in G minor Op. 24 No. 1, which unfolds in the manner of a daydream. Its reflective tone is given an Eastern European flavour by the augmented 2nds in its minor-mode melody line. Intimations of the dance do occur in passages in the major mode, but they are more nostalgic than joyous.

The Mazurka in C major Op. 24 No. 2 is a village celebration with many characters. First, we hear the band warming up in a series of I-V chords, with open 5ths in the bass, rocking back and forth to establish the key.  Then a high whistling flute or fife chirps out a bird-call kind of tune answered by the band in four-part harmony. Lilting dance melodies sprout up in abundance, some in the Lydian mode (with a sharpened 4th note of the scale) until a radical change of key introduces a call-and-answer dance, in which phrases of delicate piano melody and forte stomping chords alternate in quick succession. Notable is how the left hand takes over the melody to lead back to the opening bird-call. This mazurka ends poetically in a long fade out, with the opening I-V chords rocking quietly into the distance.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 30 No. 1 is another sadly reflective piece, one of the shortest of the group and perhaps the most enigmatic. The lack of strong downbeats in the opening section gives a kind of ‘lost’ feeling to this mazurka. Its alternation of piano and forte phrases bespeaks a kind of wavering indecision while the buzzing of bass drone tones throughout evokes the sound of village music-making. Remembered joy arrives in the middle section, but it is short-lived.

In a sign of how teasingly ambiguous is the rhythmic structure of these mazurkas, the French opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer once got into a heated argument with Chopin over the metre of his Mazurka in C major Op. 30 No. 3. Meyerbeer said that it was in duple time, while Chopin insisted that it was in triple. However you hear it, this mazurka lives up to its performance indication, Semplice (simply). Innocent and unpretentious in mood, it sways throughout, but coloured with a faint tinge of melancholy. Its middle section features an amiable duet in 3rds and 6ths.

The Mazurka in B minor Op. 33 No. 4 is a dramatic work, full of bold contrasts of mood. Although marked Mesto (sadly), there is little sadness and considerable elegance in the catchy opening tune with its merrily twinkling mordents and Scotch snap phrase endings over a gently lilting oom-pah-pah accompaniment. This section is actually a duet in a call-and-response phrase structure with a baritone voice in the bass responding genially in the major mode to the treble’s warbling call. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a passionate outburst of pianistic bravura, until the opening duet returns. Another contrasting section occurs later in the form of an exquisitely charming and poised salon melody in the mazurka rhythm. Both of these contrasting episodes have a clearly defined mood and character. And yet the exact mood and character of the opening section, which acts as a refrain linking them together, remains till the end teasingly out of reach.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante  Op. 22

In the early part of his career Chopin wrote a number of works for piano and orchestra designed to show off his skills as a pianist-composer. In addition to the two piano concertos these include the Variations on La ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni Op. 2, a Fantasia on Polish Themes Op. 13 and a Rondo à la Krakowiak Op. 14.  The last of these works, published in 1835, was his Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante Op. 22, now a staple of the repertoire most often performed in the version for solo piano.

The Andante spianato is a thing of rare beauty, entirely devoted to enchanting the ear with the soft glow of warm piano tone. The gently rippling accompaniment pattern laid down in the opening bars, an extended arpeggiation of the G major chord, makes clear the meaning of the unusual Italian indication spianato (smoothed out, level). Floating atop this smooth, level sonic surface comes a shy little melody yearning with appoggiaturas at the end of each phrase, a melody that is gradually enhanced with ever more elaborate forms of ornamentation and bathed in great washes of iridescent tone colour coming down from the highest reaches of the keyboard. A chordal ‘trio’ of sorts provides a brief pause for reflection before the smooth rippling texture of the opening returns, the right hand joining in now with the left, in the final section of the Andante.

The mood changes dramatically with the arrival of the Polonaise, which opens with a bombastic fanfare (originally played by the orchestra) leading to the entry of the proud and aristocratic polonaise theme. One could well imagine a primo ballerino leaping onto the stage to this music and doing any number of grands jetés. The theme is of course supported in the left-hand accompaniment by the polonaise’s characteristic prancing rhythm: TUM tuh-tuh TUM-tum TUM-tum.

This is keyboard writing in the grand manner, meant to impress with its daring leaps, double trills, long ‘fly-fishing-type’ spun-out melodic extensions and its cascades of gazillions of notes chattering down from the high treble with every phrase response – a polonaise indeed both grande and brillante.

As he displayed so well in both of his piano concertos, Chopin is able to write melody lines spanning two and three octaves with no loss of musical coherence, and a considerable gain in élan. By dint of endless coy variations in the melodic line, he manages to project a musical personality in this polonaise both heroic and flirtatious – no mean feat.

And while the pose of bravado is generally maintained throughout, things do calm down a notch in the contrasting middle section in the minor mode, a smoky, brooding and soulful meditation on a new theme still pulsing with the polonaise rhythm. Unbridled joy returns with the reprise of the opening theme, leading to a spectacular coda in which ear-tickling piano figuration glitters up and down the keyboard like a birthday party of over-excited children running amok with sparklers in their hands, until finally a great swirling wave of arpeggios sweeps this Grande polonaise brillante to an equally grand and brilliant conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K. 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the Mannheim rocket while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 1 in F minor  Op. 2 No. 1

The first of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas was an audacious debut for the young composer in 1795. Markedly Mozartean in its external forms, and unmistakably Haydnesque in its procedures of motivic development, it is even more boldly Beethovenian in the way it uses both form and procedure to express a new spirit of individualism that will dominate serious musical culture in the coming Romantic era.

The high seriousness of Beethoven’s approach to the sonata is apparent everywhere. At a time when piano sonatas were normally written in three movements, Beethoven writes four, adding an extra minuet movement normally reserved for the more serious forms of symphony and string quartet. And at a time when sonatas were mostly aimed at amateur musicians looking for cheerful entertainment, Beethoven thumbs his nose at the popular market by writing a moody, angst-ridden sonata, above-average in difficulty, in an eccentric hard-to-read minor key with four flats. Topping it all off, there is an aggressive, slightly anti-social edge to the outer movements, both set in “punchy” cut time, with two beats to the bar.

The core motivic material on which the Molto allegro first movement is based is given in the first 8 bars. And in typical Beethoven style this first “theme” is not really a melody but rather a series of related small phrases accelerating in intensity to a mini-climax, followed by a pause for theatrical effect. Two important motives are hammered into the ear by dint of frequent repetition, both popularized by the music of the Mannheim Orchestra earlier in the century, and much used by Mozart, among other composers.

First there is an ascending arpeggio figure, or Mannheim rocket (featured in Mozart’s C minor Sonata K. 457, and in his Symphonies No. 25 and 40, both in G minor) which is then crowned by a short twiddle in triplet 16ths, an example of the famous Mannheim bird-call. These two motives will dominate the entire movement, with the rocket figure, in inverted form, even structuring the movement’s 2nd theme. This use of the same musical material in both first and second themes must have brought a smile to the face of Beethoven’s teacher, the monothematically-inclined Haydn, to whom the three sonatas of Op. 2 were dedicated, and who was sitting in the room when Beethoven first performed these works in public in 1796.

The development section does little to calm things down after this dramatic exposition and drums up as much excitement through its constantly thrumming tremolo accompaniments as from its obsession with the minor-mode colouring of the movement’s second theme. After an economically short recapitulation the movement ends with a machine gun rat-a-tat of angry chords, a kind of “So there!” gesture so rudely abrupt, it’s as if Beethoven had thrown down his cards in anger, pounded his fists on the card table and stomped out of the room.

Ludwig is on his best behaviour, however, in the very Mozartean Adagio with its simple serene melodies lavishly ornamented with opera-style decorative embellishments. Structured in a truncated sonata form (without a development section) this movement offers the listener the only overtly “pretty” music in the whole sonata and its dramatic action centres around the many decorative ways in which its melodic material can be tastefully dressed up.

Moody moves and shady goings-on return in the following Allegretto that features a minuet tune in the minor mode pieced together, like the opening of the first movement, from repeated melodic fragments of a slightly anxious character. The convulsive momentum generated by these short repeated ‘hiccup’ motives is disturbing in a dance movement, an effect that the smooth two-part counterpoint of the major-mode Trio section does its best to counteract.

The last movement of a classical sonata was expected to be the lightest, a kind of musical “dessert” after all the emotional heavy lifting of previous movements was over and done with. Not so with Beethoven, whose tendency to create end-weighted multi-movement works would only increase as his career advanced.

Beethoven’s finale in this sonata is what András Schiff calls a “riding movement, similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig.” It opens with a heavy, fierce and almost pitch-less knock-on-the-door motive in the right hand over a roiling accompaniment of furiously bubbling arpeggiated chords in the left hand. This is full-contact piano music, played with the arms as much as the fingers. It requires a radically different approach to the keyboard, one far removed from the sedate posture and finger-focused performing style used in playing Mozart.

The mood is not all Sturm und Drang, however. Perhaps to compensate for all the dyspeptic turmoil of the exposition, Beethoven provides emotional contrast – and breaks with tradition – by introducing a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section, a pleasantly poised theme of a relaxed character, the sort of thing you could easily find yourself humming in the shower. But you just know it can’t last and the impetuous knock-knock motive gradually insinuates itself back into the proceedings and takes over, driving with unstoppable momentum to the recapitulation, which ends even more abruptly than the first movement.

This is a sonata that must have left its first listeners breathless, some in admiration, others in exasperation. The so-called classical style, developed in Vienna between the years 1770 and 1800, may well have had Mozart as its architect, and Haydn to install the furniture, but as this sonata shows, Beethoven was its poltergeist, moving objects around the room without permission.

 

Sofia Gubaidulina
Chaconne

Sofia Gubaidulina (pronounced “goo-buy-DOO-lee-nah”) is a composer of deep spiritual commitments who believes that religion and music are simply two different dialects of the same fundamental human language. At the heart of her compositional practice is her admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose grounding in religious faith she shares and whose musical procedures she often incorporates into her own compositions.

Her music is intensely contrapuntal and highly chromatic, with diatonic harmonies appearing like oases of spiritual comfort in a tonal world riven with conflict. Dissonance is ever-present, but sonorities are so widely spaced out on the keyboard that rhythmic patterning and the interplay of melodic lines more easily capture the ear’s attention than the clash of pitches.

Her Chaconne of 1962 is structured as a series of variations on an 8-bar theme presented in the crashing chords of the work’s dramatic opening. From a distance of five octaves apart, these bold handfuls move slowly and majestically toward the centre of the keyboard, spilling as they go the motivic material on which the following variations will be based.

Framed within a chromatic idiom, typical Baroque procedures abound, including chattering toccata textures, fugal imitation, theme augmentation, inversion and stretto, as well as pedal tones and ostinato figures. Rhythmic acceleration propels the work forward, reaching a climax of intensity that leads to a massively monumental return of the opening theme. Its final point made, the work ends by fading into a soft blurry tonal sunset deep in the bass register of the keyboard.

 

Eleanor Alberga
Cwicseolfor

Eleanor Alberga OBE is a British composer of Jamaican origin, known for her work with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and for commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera at Covent Garden. She writes clearly structured works that often feature repeated rhythmic patterns which lend her textures a powerful rhythmic drive.

Her one-movement Cwicseolfor for piano was commissioned by the Barbican Centre London and the European Concert Hall Organisation in collaboration with B:Music and was written especially for Isata Kanneh-Mason.

The composer tells us the following about her new composition:

Cwicseolfor is the ancient spelling of quicksilver; itself the word for the element mercury. This word in its old English spelling is to be found in reference to the alchemy of those times.

As a child, I remember being fascinated with watching mercury in a container; how it didn’t adhere to anything and moved and changed direction rapidly. There was also an almost unbelievable brilliance on the surface of this stuff. Anyone who has seen this will know exactly what I mean. (Little wonder that in so many cultures and over many centuries mercury has been seen as having transformative qualities.)

Cwicseolfor is about that experience and the piece mimics the qualities of unrealistic shine, non-adherence and rapid changes of pace and direction. For the player it is virtuosic – always changing in mood, tempo and variation of material.

I suppose the alchemy lies in transforming my childhood experience into a piece of music.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff 
Excerpts from Études-Tableaux  Op. 39

Rachmaninoff wrote two sets of Études-Tableaux, a new genre of his own invention that combines programmatic ‘pictorial’ elements with the study of a particular technical problem. The Op. 39 set are much darker in tone than the earlier set of Op. 33, with eight of the nine études being in a minor key. Written in 1917, they are the last works written by Rachmaninoff before he fled Russia with his family to escape the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament.  The challenge that these Études-Tableaux present to the performing pianist is to bring out an overarching melodic line set amid thickly padded harmonic textures and a dazzling haze of ornamental filigree.

No. 1 in C minor surges up and down the keyboard in dark swirls of right-hand triplet 16ths, vaulting from one state of harmonic crisis to the next, accompanied by the ominous urgings of syncopated octaves in the left hand’s bass line.

The ‘tableau’ of No. 2 in A minor, we are told by Rachmaninoff himself, is that of seagulls and the sea.  The lapping of waves is evoked by gently swaying triplets in the left hand while the free soaring of seagulls in the open air is imagined in the open fifths of the duple-rhythm melody hovering above it. A hint of eternal sadness radiates out from the left-hand accompaniment, which time and again echoes the opening notes of the plainchant tune Dies irae (Day of wrath) from the Roman-rite mass for the dead.

No. 4 in B minor is a dancelike toccata of unstoppable forward momentum with many changes of metre and a general air of rhythmic willfulness. This is travelling music and its recurring patterns of peppery repeated notes suggests the bright merry tinkling of sleigh bells on an exhilarating ride over fields of snow.

The sombre and stormy No. 5 in E flat minor is cast in the darkest of tonal colours, heavily weighted to the bottom half of the keyboard. Heroic in scale, it tests the power of the pianist’s right-hand pinky finger to belt out its sombre melody against a rumbling onslaught of tonal resonance from below.

No. 6 in A minor, according to Rachmaninoff, paints a picture of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” and it’s not hard to sort out who is who in the vividly contrasting textures of this piece. It begins with several menacing snarls deep in the bass, each concluding with the jaw-snap of sharp teeth, followed immediately in the upper register by the fretful chatter of a frightened flight from danger. This is an unrelenting chase scene, nightmarish in its intensity.  Did Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf? Listen for the ending to find out.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade in F major  Op. 38

Chopin’s four Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, a name likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular storytelling style. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting first and second themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are massively end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

The Ballade in F major Op. 38 contains some of sweetest and some of the most violent music that Chopin ever composed. It is a work of extreme contrasts, between moods, between key centres, and between major and minor tonalities.

This Ballade is both a daydream and a nightmare. It opens with a daydream, a soft sleepy-time tune of the utmost innocence, almost drowsy-making with its many chiming repetitions of single notes and short phrases, its drone passages with an unchanging bass note, and its constant iambic pulse of short-long rhythms. The tonal colouring is diatonic but not monotone, and a faint hint of A-minor sadness drifts through the reverie’s central section. But it soon gets wished away and the mood returns to that of rustic bliss, made sweetly musical in the ‘pastoral’ key of F major.

That ‘A-minor sadness,’ though was a foreboding of things to come. For just as the eyelids begin to droop lower and lower there comes a terrifying jump-scare when splintering shards of sonic glass come crashing down like an exploding stained-glass window from the high treble, to be met with bold, angry gestures of defiance mounting up from the bass, all of it in a nightmarish…A minor.

In what follows these two themes – the lilting diatonic F major lullaby and the lurching, chromatic-inflected A minor outburst – begin to interact, each taking on features of the other as the outburst theme adopts the lullaby’s iambic rhythms and the lullaby muses to itself in ever more chromatic directions.

In the end, though, the incendiary coda, with its demonic but almost celebratory glinting of chromatic glee, makes clear just who came out on top from these encounters.  The final bars are filled with a wrenching pathos as the lilting pastoral lullaby theme is heard softly lamenting its downcast fate…in A minor.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Tony Siqi Yun

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor  BWV 1004
(arr. Busoni)

The 19th century witnessed a revival of interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But the sound world of the 19th century with its new spacious concert halls and louder, more powerful instruments (played by ego-driven virtuoso performers) flourished at some remove from the tightly focused, spiritually introspective sound world of Bach from the previous century—especially in the realm of keyboard music.

The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel-framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription. And in the 19th century, the transcribers were legion.

Each transcriber saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a moody, solitary figure sitting at his organ, capable of making the great stone walls of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche shake and tremble with the force of his musical personality.

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.

*                      *                      *

The chaconne is a musical form in which a recurring bass line or 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. It presents an evolving set of ever more probing variations on the repeating bass line D C# D B♭ G A D given in the first four measures. The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon.

The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor. Busoni’s conception of the Chaconne is grandiose in the extreme. He grants himself full licence to take advantage of the sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even extending those resources to write multiple-register chord spacings more typical of the organ.

While Busoni includes many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the violin, his adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception. There are, moreover, clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of an orchestral brass choir is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, as is his imitation of timpani and tubular bells in the variation that follows not long after, with its pulsing low pedal notes alternating with chiming high octaves.

But it is the snarling timbre of the organ and ponderous peel of swaying church bells that takes this work to its conclusion, as Busoni brings the piano’s rich low register to bear on the last emphatic statement of the Chaconne’s majestic harmonies in its final bars.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ  BWV 639
(arr. Busoni)

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 church choir, or artfully refracted into a complex web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude, it presented to the congregation the word of God in the vivid pictorial rhetoric of a musical setting.

In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint in smaller note values, either derived from the same melody, or commenting on it.

This distinctive ‘layering’ of different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical device but a theological statement about the make-up of the cosmos. It painted an image of God and his flock musically depicted in a hierarchy of spiritual importance. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God in the universe while its chattering contrapuntal accompaniment gave voice to human striving here on earth below.

In Bach’s chorale prelude Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ (I call unto you, Lord Jesus Christ) the plaintive chorale melody is clearly heard at the top of the polyphonic texture. In the mid-range of this stratified texture little 16th-note sigh motives of pathos echo in the spaces between the long melody notes while in the bass a steady succession of 8th notes paces out the measure of eternity with infinite patience and sympathy. In Busoni’s transcription these bass notes, doubled into octaves and harmonically thickened, add a rich vein of overtones for the pianist’s pedal-foot to sift, providing a sonic haze of divine mystery to the quiet gravity of mood characterizing the whole.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 15 in D Major  Op. 28  (Pastorale)

The moody and rebellious Beethoven of legend is nowhere to be found in his gentle and understated Piano Sonata in D major Op. 28 (1801). Like the Sixth Symphony (1808) it carries the nickname Pastorale for its vivid evocation of the peace and contentment of country life, symbolized, particularly in the opening and closing movements, by the classic tropes of rustic music-making: open 5ths and bagpipe-like drone notes in the bass, melodies simply harmonized with the I, V and IV chords, and a preference for dance-like triple metre.

The sonata opens in just this way, with a soothing timpani-like drone note on a low D that shepherds the opening melody, with its many loving sigh motives, on a lyrical octave descent. Just at the end of the first phrase, however, the melody rises a short distance to end with a little melodic ‘flick of the tail’. This little ‘tail flick’ seems at first to be a throw-away a gesture but gathers significance as the movement progresses, eventually motivating the stormiest section of the development, and serving as a final thought in its closing bars.

The steady pulse of the hushed drone tone on D, repeated more than 60 times, makes the opening almost drowsy-making. The exposition seems to unfold in a placid succession of daydreams, sleepwalking through tonal space in smooth scalar motion from musical thought to musical thought. The only break in mood comes from the occasional sparkling run in the treble, startling the dreamer to sudden alertness…from which he then drifts back into reverie once again.

Eye-opening drama is reserved for the development section, when the major mode turns to the minor, contrapuntal conflict breaks out, and the long smooth lines of the exposition gradually disassemble into ever-smaller fragments pulling this way and that, like two dogs fighting over a bone—that is, until peace is restored for the recapitulation’s calm review of past events and a quiet close.

Having waxed lyrical for much of the first movement, Beethoven foregoes a deeply lyrical slow movement in favour of an enigmatic Andante in D minor with a contrasting middle section in D major. A teasing air of mystery hovers over the opening D minor section, reinforced by soft dynamic markings and sudden offbeat accents. The dainty trot of its left-hand staccato at the opening suggests a simple walk in the park, but the minor mode and creeping chromatic lines bespeak an air of concern, especially when in a subsequent phrase a pulsing pedal point in the mid-range refuses to yield to the pleading dissonances above. The major-mode middle section, by contrast, is almost comical in its playful exchange of pleasantries as it alternates stern gestures in the low register with coy, almost flippant triplet responses in the treble. This is Beethoven at his most arch. The closing repeat of the A section features a decorated version of the opening and even a cameo appearance of the B section—in the minor mode this time—but leaves unresolved the puzzling relationship between these two musical personalities.

The appeal of the Allegro vivace scherzo that follows is radically simpler. It opens with a succession of four long notes an octave apart, like an orchestra tuning up on the same pitch in different registers. This is followed by its opposite: four little bite-sized cadencing gestures confined to the mid-range. To these contrasts of register and rhythm, Beethoven then adds dynamic contrasts and textural thickenings to concoct a throughly engaging ‘note salad’ to entertain the ear over a vast swath of keyboard real estate. This ‘scattered barcode’ pattern of musical interest, though, meets its comeuppance in the central Trio section, in which a driven folk-like melody in the minor mode is repeated over and over with wildly different harmonizations.

The most rustic movement of all comes at the end in a lilting Allegro ma non troppo finale that, like the first movement, opens with a long drone on a low D and proceeds largely on the premise that sleepy time has arrived in the woods and village green.  Although constructed in the surprisingly sophisticated palindromic A-B-A-C-A-B-A structure of a sonata-rondo, it also resembles the first movement in seeking excitement in a development (the C section) dominated by the minor mode and contrapuntal confrontation. Those nodding off in the audience, however, will be roused from their slumber by the movement’s vigorous coda that transforms the opening drone motif into a major cymbal-crashing crescendo.

 

Franz Liszt
Réminiscences de Norma  S 394

In the 1830s a swarm of pianists descended like a biblical plague on the city of Paris, attracted by the rich harvest of opera tunes produced each year on which to feed when concocting the potpourris, fantasies and paraphrases that were their chief stock-in-trade. Flash forward to the 1840s when Liszt, enthroned as King of the Piano and touring Europe in regal style, astonished the multitudes in concerts that frequently included one of his growing list of paraphrases based on tunes from operas by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, including his Réminiscences de Norma.

Bellini’s Norma (1831), best known for its celebrated aria Casta diva made famous by Maria Callas, tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who, in a time of popular insurrection, is called upon to choose between her love for the Roman governor and her duty to the gods and to her nation.

Liszt offers a concentrated summary of the dramatic core of the opera by selecting melodies from Act I to evoke Norma’s leading role in opposing the Roman occupiers, and from the finale of Act II to represent her selfless renunciation of love, and of life itself, to further the cause of her warlike people.

The work opens with a series of stern chords and martial drumbeats, echoed high above by sparkling arpeggiations, to set the stage for a tale of war on earth and reward in heaven. These musical motifs recur midway through the piece as well to transition between opera’s Act I mood of heroic resolve and its tragic outcome in Act II.

Liszt’s inventiveness in creating novel pianistic textures in this piece is remarkable, and one can only imagine rows of cross-eyed countesses dropping like fainting goats at its premiere. In addition to scintillating cadenzas shooting up to the high register, and muscular displays of bravura octaves, Liszt offers up generous quantities of the famous ‘three-hand effect’ pioneered by pianist Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871), in which a clear melody sounds out in the mid-range surrounded by wide-ranging accompaniments above and below. This ever-so-clever piano texture is prominently featured in the second half of the work, where the majority of the most outrageous pyrotechnics are concentrated.

Liszt’s treatment of the lyrical Qual cor tradisti, with its three simultaneous layers—melody, pulsing chordal accompaniment, and martial triplet drumbeat—has been described by musicologist Charles Suttoni as “one of the most ingenious and sublime pages ever written for the piano.”

 

Franz Liszt
Solemn March to The Holy Grail from Parsifal  S 450

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual. It glorifies the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood flowing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mystery and religious symbolism radiating out from the first great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

 

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird Suite (arr. Agosti)

Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird was written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dance company, which premiered the work in Paris in 1910. Based on ancient Russian folk tales, it tells the story of the young Prince Ivan’s quest to find a legendary magic bird with fiery multi-coloured plumage. In the course of his adventures, he falls in love with a beautiful princess but has to fight off the evil sorcerer Katschei to eventually marry her. The suite presents the culminating scenes of the ballet in a piano transcription by the Italian pianist and pedagogue Guido Agosti (1901-1989), who studied with Ferruccio Busoni and taught Maria Tipo.

The Danse infernale depicts the brutal swarming and capture of Prince Ivan by Katschei’s monstrous underlings until Prince Ivan uses the magic feather given to him by the Firebird to cast a spell on his captors, making them dance until they drop from exhaustion.  The Berceuse is a lullaby depicting the eerie scene of the slumbering assailants, leading to the Finale, a wedding celebration for Prince Ivan and his princess bride.

Agosti’s piano transcription, completed in 1928, is a daunting technical challenge for the pianist. But then again, transcribing Stravinsky’s orchestral writing was always going to be a challenge, something like herding cats, because his signature melodic fragments emerge from every corner of the sound range, with tone-colours and timbral qualities outrageously difficult to capture on a single instrument. Many of his trademark sonorities result from widely spaced chord structures difficult to put within the grasp of the pianist’s mere ten fingers.

Most of the piano writing is laid out on on three staves in order to cover the multi-octave range of the keyboard that the pianist must patrol. The piano comes into its own in this transcription as a percussion instrument, to be played with the wild abandon with which a betrayed lover throws her ex-partner’s possessions off the balcony onto the street below.

Judging from the shocking 7-octave-wide chord crash that opens the Dance infernale, it looks like the first item over the railing was a full-length mirror. Agosti captures well the bruising pace of the action, with off-beat rhythmic jabs standing out from a succession of punchy left-hand ostinati constantly nipping at the heels of the melody line. The accelerating pace as the sorcerer’s ghouls are made to dance ever more frantically is a major aerobic test for the pianist.

Relief comes in the Berceuse, which presents its own pianistic challenges, mainly those of finely sifting the overtones of vast chord structures surrounding the lonely tune singing out from the middle of the keyboard.

The wedding celebration depicted in the Finale presents Stravinsky’s trademark habit of cycling hypnotically round the pitches enclosed within the interval of a perfect 5th. Just such a melody, swaddled in hushed tremolos, opens this final movement. It is a major challenge for the pianist to imitate the shimmering timbre of the orchestra’s brightest instruments as this theme is given its apotheosis to end the suite in a blaze of sonority that extends across the entire range of the keyboard.

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute  Op. 66

Beethoven’s set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute features twelve sharply chiselled operatic duets between piano and cello, widely differentiated in character like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the simple complaint of Tamino’s hapless sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno, that he is much in need of female company. Not that he is fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.

Mozart captures the endearing simplicity of Papageno’s rustic character in a theme harmonized virtually entirely with tonic and dominant chords. Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations, communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone, without the learned trappings of imitative counterpoint.

The first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its nifty division of the melody into little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear.

The work proceeds in the following variations with a distinctly different rhythm or figuration pattern defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale, both in the minor mode. The double-dotted rhythms of the first (Variation 10) lend an air of grim fatalism to the proceedings, much in the style of the Commendatore’s stern address to Don Giovanni. The second (Variation 11) is chillingly still, with the cello plodding eerily in the bass accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano—a perfect set-up for the finale.

The time signature changes to 3/4 in the final variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the cello belting out the tune and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends cutely, and almost unexpectedly, with a sweet little diminuendo.

 

Witold Lutosławski
Grave (1981): Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano

The abstract patterning of much 20th-century music presents a significant challenge to modern audiences. Tunes suitable for humming in the shower, you see, are typically quite thin on the ground in modern scores and the old-fashioned aesthetic of simple tunefulness is often replaced by a compositional obsession with pitch organization—a process which inevitably involves encoding abstract formal principles within a work that have scant truck with the scales and keys that small children learn about in their first music lessons.

Witness Lutosławski’s Grave, composed in 1981, which bears the subtitle Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano. This work stands astride the divide between tunefulness and abstraction in its choice of melodic materials and the processes it applies to them.

The work opens with a forthright statement in the solo cello of the famous ‘forest motive’ (the pitches D-A-G-A) announced in the opening bars of Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande. This is the subject of the work, in two senses. It pays tribute to the composer’s close friend, the Polish musicologist and Debussy specialist Stefan Jarociński (1912-1980), to whose memory the work is dedicated. And it presents the intervals of a perfect 5th (D-A) and a major 2nd (A-G-A) motivating the transformations in the melodic line (the metamorphoses) that will ensue as the piece proceeds.

Two further ‘processes’ are worth noting: the piece climbs ever higher in register as it works its way to a climax, and at the same time it experiences a written-out accelerando, with its transformations heard first in half notes, then in quarters, then 8ths, then triplet 8ths, and finally in 16ths. The work comes full circle when the forthright opening notes D-A-G-A are offered up once again in the cello, but this time drifting up to the highest register, surrounded by a sonic haze of widely spaced soft glitter in the piano.

 

Samuel Barber
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor Op. 6

The music of American composer Samuel Barber is most widely known from the use of his Adagio for Strings in the 1986 anti-war film Platoon. His songs and instrumental works, however, are equally popular in the programs of the world’s leading concert artists and ensembles. Barber’s Piano Sonata, for example, was performed more than once in the piano semifinals of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow earlier this year. But the enduring popularity of Barber’s music should be no surprise, given its vocally-inspired lyricism and its sympathy with the Romantic-era aesthetic that still lies at the heart of the modern concert repertoire.

Barber’s Cello Sonata was written in 1932 when the composer was still studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and Brahms in particular looms large as an influence on its compositional style. Among its Brahmsian features are its high-serious tone and emotional intensity, its employment of cross-rhythms, and its luxuriant use of the rich low range of the keyboard. Among its modern features, however, are its frequent changes in meter and the angularity of many of its melodies.

The first movement opens with a series of melodic leaps in both the piano and cello, much in the manner of the surging opening of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major Op. 99. A smooth songful melody soon appears in the cello as a second theme, and is then taken up by the piano, but the development section of this sonata-form movement is largely preoccupied with the melodic leaps that opened the work. Indeed, the interval of a minor 6th is a recurring motive throughout the entire movement.

Instead of writing a slow movement and a scherzo, Barber imbeds a fast-paced scherzo within his slow movement. The contrast could not be greater. The opening Adagio is slow and purposefully lyrical, with the resolution of each appoggiatura and harmonic dissonance a notable event. The Presto is a classic scherzo: fleet and lightly textured, bristling with rhythmic tricks and coy interplay between the instruments.

The finale displays Barber the neo-Romantic at full sail, plying successive waves of emotion. It opens with a passionate piano solo churning restlessly in the bass in support of a yearning right-hand melody in the mid-range. The cello when it enters is equally incandescent and the emotional range of the movement as a whole is wide in the extreme. In contrast to the often thrashing assertiveness of the keyboard texture, it also features sections of dreamy remembrance of previous movements, as well as playful episodes—all within the formal constraints of a sonata-form structure.

A major challenge for the performers is the coordination of the thorny cross-rhythms and lightning-fast changes in tempo that qualify this movement, like the others, as both willfully Romantic and unabashedly modern.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19

Rachmaninoff’s piano music is renowned both for its lushness of scoring and for the technical challenges it presents to any pianist with a hand smaller than an oven mitt. The role given to the ‘accompanying’ instrument in his Cello Sonata in G minor is no exception. The keyboard writing in this chamber work is just as opulent, its technical demands every bit as challenging as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge in baritone territory from the cello.  Most of the themes in the work are introduced by the piano and one could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.

Written in 1901, around the same time as Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is remarkable for its expressive range and the orchestral heft of its textures. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the punchy, rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that was to become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!

The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrisome patter of triplet 8th notes reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism.

The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.

The Allegro mosso finale in a triumphal G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts. It features a upbeat “sleigh ride” of an opening theme built up out of short motives, doggedly repeated, like the opening themes of the 2nd & 3rd piano concerto finales. The stand-out melody of this movement is its heartbreaking second theme announced in the cello, a wistful anthem of tribute to every underdog who has ever struggled against overwhelming odds. From time to time, however, these themes yield to the type of fervent military march that so often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Fugue No. 16 in G minor BWV 861 (arr. Förster)

If you have ever happened to see one of those cooking shows in which a chef is challenged to create an entire meal—appetizer, entrée and dessert—out of a minimum of ingredients (an ox-tail, say, and a banana) then you are well on your way to understanding the recipe for cooking up a Baroque fugue.

The aim of a fugue is to create an entire polyphonic composition out of only two melodies, either stated in their entirety or broken up into bits and pieces. These two melodies—the fugue’s subject and countersubject—are presented first in staggered entries, in the manner of a round. The subject enters first alone before being accompanied in subsequent entries by the countersubject. And then it’s off to the races in an alternating pattern of entries (where the subject is stated whole) and episodes (in which the bits and pieces are chewed over), roaming around in different keys. Somewhere near the end there is usually a stretto section, in which the conversation gets so lively that one voice can hardly get started before another voice interrupts to say the same thing, much in the manner of lively Italian dinner conversation.

Cleverness and ingenuity are built into the DNA of fugue-writing and Bach certainly did not stint on either in the construction of his Fugue in G minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). Witness the manner in which Bach constructs his fugue subject in two contrasting parts: a first part with semitone steps on either side of a downward-leaping minor 6th, then a second part comprised of a few notes running up and down in smooth stepwise motion. The countersubject (here is the cunning bit) is the same, but in reverse order and inverted: a few notes running down and up followed by a variant of an upward-leaping minor 6th motive. Bach’s subject generates its own countersubject—in the mirror!

The odd thing about this four-voice fugue is that the texture only rarely features all four voices playing at once—likely in order to make the dramatic leap of a minor 6th stand out more easily in a work written for keyboard. German composer Alban Förster (1849-1916), who arranged this fugue for string quartet, might have other ideas, however, about leaving one member of a quartet filing his nails while the others do all the heavy lifting.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

Mendelssohn was not your typical Romantic-era composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for imitative counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.

As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed in kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.

The String Quartet in A minor Op. 13 was composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin—admittedly, not a crowded field. Its frequent use of fugal textures attests to the young composer’s admiration for Bach while numerous formal features, especially its cyclical design and recall of themes from earlier movements, point to the influence of Beethoven—the late string quartets and Ninth Symphony in particular.

The first movement opens with an endearing Adagio full of short coy phrases which lead to a repeated three-note motive (C# B D) derived from one of Mendelssohn’s own songs (Frage Op. 9 No. 1). This motive will recur throughout the entire quartet, either in its dotted rhythm or in its melodic contour stretching over a minor 3rd. Lyrical repose, however, is in short supply in the remainder of the first movement. The Allegro vivace that follows the introductory Adagio is a restless affair that offers up two anxious little themes, both set in a minor key.

But “anxiety” is a relative term. In Beethoven it summons up the panicky feeling that you’re swimming just slightly ahead of a shark—that’s gaining on you. Mendelssohnian anxiety, by contrast, is more like not knowing where you put the car keys.

Imitative counterpoint is pervasive in this movement, not just as a “spot technique” to add intensity to the development section à la Mozart and Haydn, but even in the initial presentation of the movement’s themes.

Fireside coziness arrives in the Adagio non lento with its serene and elegiac melody in the 1st violin,  drenched in tearful sigh motives. These sigh motives, chromatically inflected, then become the basis for the full-on fugue that follows—an obvious hommage to a similar fugue in the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 95. Clever lad that he is, young Felix even inverts his fugue subject before returning to the poised serenity of the opening.

In place of a scherzo, Mendelssohn gives us a relaxed and unbuttoned intermezzo. The tune that begins the movement is of the utmost simplicity, one that uses the same catchy rhythm four times in a row, without somehow becoming tiresome. In the middle section trio, however, Mendelssohn returns to type with a fleet and light-footed romp of detached 16ths lightly peppered with repeated notes. And who could resist combining these two contrasting sections in the movement’s final bars? Certainly not Mendelssohn.

High drama marks the opening to the Presto finale, with a flamboyant and wide-ranging recitative in the 1st violin holding forth over melodramatic tremolos below. The reference to the finale of the Ninth Symphony is obvious but this opening is even more closely patterned on the last movement of Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op. 132 (next on the program). The troubled theme that emerges is similar in mood, as well, to the rocking main theme of Beethoven’s Op. 132 finale. Pacing back and forth in tonal space over a harmonically restless cello line it eventually issues into a cross-country horse-gallop before “remembering” the fugue subject from the second movement in a series of flashbacks. The work closes with the same lyrical Adagio with which it opened, framing the quartet’s inner drama as a gently fading memory.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132

Beethoven’s late string quartets are at one and the same time backward-looking, progressive, and even visionary works. The fascination he entertained in his last years for densely contrapuntal textures and the arcane procedures of canon and fugue harkened back to the Baroque era. His expansion of the number of movements in a serious work, along with innovations in the formal design of each movement, moved well beyond the norm of Classical-era practice. And his use of increasingly numerous, increasingly precise performance markings, along with his abrupt dynamic and tempo changes, bespoke a type of music that moved at the pace of human thought, in response to the impulses of an individual personality, offering a foretaste of the Romantic movement to come.

All these traits are on display in his Quartet in A minor Op. 132, composed in 1825.

The quartet unfolds in five movements instead of the usual four, arranged symmetrically around a central slow movement. The work opens with a slow introduction fixated on the overlapping entries of a four-note fugue-like subject in long notes that does more than simply set up the off-to-the-races arrival of the movement’s first theme, announced by the cello high in the soprano register. Pay attention to these opening bars: the long notes of this theme, and the intervals out of which it is constructed (especially the descending semitone), will haunt the entire first movement with the magisterial authority of a Baroque fugue subject in augmentation hovering over melodic motion in smaller note values.

Audience members enjoying a double espresso at the intermission will undoubtedly notice the similarity between the theme of this slow introduction and the subject of the Bach fugue which began the program: both are structured around the leap of a minor 6th with semitone motion on either side. Those opting instead for a Red Bull will in addition notice the similarity between the principal motive of Beethoven’s first theme—stepwise motion up and down over a minor 3rd—and the Bach fugue’s countersubject. Devilishly clever programming on the part of these Danish lads, what?

Despite the frequently grave demeanour of its contrapuntal rhetoric, this movement is anything but down-in-the-mouth. On the whole it is bursting with self-confidence—of a somewhat volatile sort—and offers up a good measure of animated instrumental dialogue. Its lyrical second theme, for example, arriving in the 2nd violin over a somewhat loopy accompaniment in undulating triplets, is eminently hummable.

The second movement is not a standard scherzo, but rather an eccentrically mincing minuet and trio. It’s a minuet that thinks it’s a scherzo, though, in the way it tosses short phrases and small motivic fragments back and forth, cleverly manipulated to create a fair bit of metrical “wobble” in the ear. The middle-section Trio is part musette, with a drone in the bass supporting wispy musings in the high treble, and part oom-pah-thumping village dance.

Beethoven reveals the inspiration for his slow movement in its titling: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy song of a convalescent to the Deity, in the lydian mode). The ‘convalescence’ referred to is the composer’s welcome deliverance in 1825 from a painful intestinal condition that had plagued him for some time. This extraordinarily long movement is structured in alternating sections of pious prayer and joyful deliverance as the composer moves from Heaven-directed thoughts of gratitude to buoyant feelings of corporeal invigoration.

The movement opens solemnly, in the manner of a hymn, with overlapping entries in strict imitation. The antiquarian religious feel of this opening is enhanced by its being written in one of the old church modes. (The lydian mode is simply the F major scale with B natural instead of B flat.)  This is followed by a section entitled Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling new strength) and what a change in mood this is! Leaping octaves and sprightly trills sonically attest to the composer’s bright new outlook on life until thoughts of his indebtedness to the Almighty return. Each subsequent appearance of these alternating sections is a more florid variation of the previous until the movement ends in the celestial regions of each instrument’s highest register.

The 4th movement brings us back down to earth with a short rollicking little march, even more metrically ambiguous than the previous minuet. But then, as if an opera character had just rushed on stage with dramatic news, the 1st violin erupts into a declamatory recitative (like that in the finale of the Ninth Symphony) over a fretting bed of tremolo strings below.

The theme that emerges out of all this theatrical drama to begin the quartet’s last movement is surprisingly subdued. Wistful but restless, serene but strangely urgent, its gently rippling texture reminds us of Brahms. A rip-roaring development section follows, with plenty of contrapuntal interplay, but then, as in many a Beethoven final movement, minor turns to major, trouble turns to triumph, and the same musical motives that caused all that brow-knitting at the beginning of the movement become, in the end, a cause for joyous celebration.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: Yevgeny Sudbin

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in B minor K 197
Sonata in G major K 455

“Probably one of the most outrageously individual compositional outputs of the Baroque era is to be found in the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti,” writes Yevgeny Sudbin in the liner notes to his 2004 Scarlatti album.

This may explain why Scarlatti’s 550-odd sonatas are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half that ends in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

Scarlatti’s early career was based in Naples, and his introverted Sonata in B minor K 197 displays the recurring streaks of pathos that Neapolitan music revels in. The melodic line whimpers with plaintive little appoggiaturas as harmonic tension accumulates from the use of stubbornly immovable pedal points in the bass.

The Sonata in G major K 455, by contrast, is unabashedly dancelike and popular in tone, filled with the rhythmic click and snap of the castanets. Guitar idioms are heard in the repeated notes that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity for the performer.

In his Scarlatti liner notes, Yevgeny Sudbin lays stress on the spontaneous, improvisatory quality of these sonatas. “It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas,” he writes, “there were 50 or so other versions.” His performance this afternoon may well pay tribute to these “plausible other versions.” As to where this might occur, the smart money is on the repeats.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Bagatelles Op. 126

Throughout his career Beethoven had found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience members knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some of these he published in collections, such as his seven bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119 came out in 1823.

The six bagatelles of Op. 126, though, were more than just a collection: they were a matched set, conceived of as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. More importantly, the set constitutes Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they were no mere baubles. Composed at the same time as he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that characterizes his late style.

Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing, a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, and the boldness to write his contrapuntal voices several octaves apart. Beethoven the architect of massive great formal structures shows himself in these pieces to be equally a master of the small miniature, deftly creating an immediate impression with his opening gestures and developing his motives with unfettered originality.

No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section.

No. 4 in B minor has character and personality in spades. It contrasts a strongly driven contrapuntal opening section with a dreamy section that alternates with it. No. 5 in G major is quietly expressive, its continuous pattern of triplets gently varied by syncopations across the bar line. No. 6 in E flat opens and closes with a riotous churn of piano sound that sandwiches a much more poised main section. This section starts out like a barcarolle, but then drifts off to explore a wealth of musical ideas, some of them coy and playful, other verging on pure sound theatre.

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 that 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 is 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.

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YEVGENY SUDBIN: NOTES ON SCRIABIN

Alexander Scriabin
Piano Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp major, Op.53

Oh how easy it is to become possessed by Scriabin, one of the most enigmatic and controversial artistic personalities of all time. Once one is bitten and the venom, in the form of his sound world, enters the body and soul, the e ects become all-encompassing, even life-threatening! Not only emotionally – as one’s desperate quest for answers only results in more questions – but also physically, the reactions can be severe. Scriabin was not only the rst to introduce madness into music; he also managed to synthesise it into an infectious virus that is entirely music-borne and a ects the psyche in a highly irrational way. Thus ‘mystical experiences’ have been reported by listeners. One London critic described: “In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant ashes of blinding coloured lights during performances of Scriabin’s music… It was totally di erent from the “thrill” of sensation or “tears” of pleasure, those emotions more commonly associated with conventional music… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.” Others describe having visions of waves of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of re during performances, even without the help of LSD. In all seriousness, however, if the e ects are as radical on the receiving end, they are certainly no less intense on the performer’s part.

The Sonata No.5, Op.53 was written in 1907 and is often referred to as a glorious afterthought to his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905- 08). In fact, the sonata is headed with an extract from the poem, which accompanied the symphonic work:

I summon you to life, hidden longings!
You, sunken in the sombre depths of creative spirit, You timid embryos of life,
To you bring I daring!

The basic idea behind the symphonic poem was to permit the freedom of unconstrained action to su use the entire world and dissolve it into ecstasy. Just like the poem itself, some of Scriabin’s score markings for both the orchestral piece and the sonata provide a memorable, naughty read: accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed) and avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic). The key word in the sonata, however, is the final estàtico (ecstatically), which signals self-assertion. Scriabin triumphs in ‘light and ecstasy’. ‘I am’ would be the corresponding passage in the poem, only reached after the full range of emotions and experiences has been exhausted: luscious stimulation followed by soothing languor, doubt,‘the maggot of satiety… the bite of hyenas… sting of serpent’, intoxication, burning kisses, love-making and finally, the all-encompassing experience of ecstasy. (Scriabin wrote: “the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…”) The Fifth Sonata, regrettably, is only a do-it- yourself version of all this.

The delirious Fifth sonata was his quickest composition – it only took him six days. Although nominally in F-sharp major, this one-movement sonata proudly announces a new, atonal era in Scriabin’s development, as it cuts the moorings to tonality. From this moment, there are no more compulsory modulations; cadences vanish and the elements that constitute the sonata form become more di use. Unusual clusters of chords based on tritones and diminished sevenths begin to appear, foreboding Scriabin’s ‘Mystic Chord’ that he developed and used extensively later, particularly in Prometheus and his 9th Sonata (Messe noire) sonata. From this point, Scriabin’s harmony becomes impossible to comprehend under traditional tonal rules; melody and harmony become one indivisible whole. For 60 years musicologists tried to break the code behind his harmonic system and only in 1968 did the Soviet musicologist Dernova managed it. The reason the code was unbreakable was mainly because the chords were thought to relate to some kind of a tonal centre. But the key was to view the chords themselves as independent, self-sustaining tonal centres with their own implied or expressed simultaneous ‘tonics’.

Scriabin’s chords have a sound similar to Debussy’s post-Wagnerian ‘enhanced’ dominant seventh chords and even share characteristics with the typical ‘terminal’ chord in jazz and ragtime which was starting to blossom around the same time (c.1900). The actual ‘Mystic Chord’ can be broken up into six notes to produce simultaneously harmonies, chords and melodies in a serialist manner – a term not coined until 1947. Scriabin did exactly that in Poème, Op. 59 No.1 (1910), before Schoenberg came up with his twelve-tone technique, one of the main di erences being that Scriabin did not use his system as rigidly. It is obvious, however: had Scriabin lived a little longer, the twelve-tone technique that sparked a whole new movement could easily have been conceived under his pen, instead of Schoenberg’s.

Apart from its architectonic properties, another perplexing quality of a Scriabin chord is the sheer variety of moods it can induce, depending on the context: in the Fifth Sonata the same chord can sound icy, cosmic and even frightening (bar 23) or warm, hopeful and nostalgic (bar 183). The warmth radiating from this particular chord – the ‘warmest’ place in the piece – feels like a heated blanket gently enfolding the cold universe. This is where, for me, Scriabin wins over serialism where any potential variety of moods is mostly a by-product of randomness within the limits of the simplistic rules applied.

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Camille Saint-Saëns
Danse Macabre   arr. Yevgeny Sudbin

Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.

Such is the scene of the Danse Macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.

Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.

Liszt’s transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout. Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement but Yevgeny Sudbin takes a middle path, pruning some of the textural additions of Horowitz while adding a few of his own.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

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