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Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so, the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.

There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.

It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting and the reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.

The Intermède tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes. The opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.

The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic lines in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, with an arts establishment beholden to the official ideology of socialist realism, the spiky modernisms that we associate with this nerdy, thickly bespectacled composer were not his bread and butter. What paid the bills was his work for the Soviet Union’s mammoth film industry, about three dozen film scores in all, selections of which he entrusted to his friend Lev Atovmian (1901-1973) to arrange for concert performance in order to supplement his income in those periods when he was officially in disfavour.

5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano is simple popular music meant for entertainment. The opening Prelude, with its searingly lyrical violin lines in parallel 6ths and 10ths, inflected from time to time with flecks of Neapolitan (flat-II) harmony, suggests the warmth and sentimentality of Brahms’ Vienna.

The square phrasing and gently persistent pulse of the Gavotte evokes a feeling of simple but relaxed jollity. Elegy returns to the warmth of the Viennese café, unfolding in a series of sighs, with even a little dialogue between the violins.

The sad little Waltz in G minor is a restless affair that rises to surprising heights of passion in its short duration. The concluding Polka is a rollicking village romp full of breathless phrases and stomping cadences that would be perfect music for a carnival ride.

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

Marc-André Hamelin is a brilliant throwback to the 19th century, the age of the virtuoso pianist-composer. As a pianist he is known for his performances of the often devilishly-difficult keyboard works of now-neglected composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji and Samuil Feinberg (whose Sonata No. 4 in E flat minor he performed at the Chan Centre for the VRS in 2018). As a composer his own additions to the keyboard repertoire have included his set of piano etudes in all the minor keys, and his Toccata on ‘L’Homme armé’, which was the required test piece, played by all 30 competitors, at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His Reverie for Two Violins and Piano comes fresh from his pen this summer and he sends us these notes about this new piece:

“This short work owes its existence to a dream which its dedicatee Leila Getz, the soul behind the Vancouver Recital Society, had one night. She emailed me one day saying she’d experienced a vision in which Angela Cheng and the Chooi brothers were performing a piece I’d written. I’d be giving a lot away if I described her dream in any more detail, since the way the resulting piece unfolds is, let’s say, not quite traditional…

The work is simply an attempt at a direct translation of Leila’s dream, trying to imagine what the performing situation Leila described would yield musically. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to try to imagine what Leila heard in her sleep!”

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

You may not know the music of Cécile Chaminade but Queen Victoria did, and invited her to Windsor Castle in 1892 to hear more of it. Chaminade had a successful career as a performing pianist both in Europe and in the United States. Sheet music of her smaller works sold extremely well on both continents, and even spawned the creation of numerous Chaminade Musical Clubs in the US. In 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French nation.

So why isn’t she better remembered?

Her career difficulties were, in the academic jargon of gender studies, intersectional. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, she was French in a music world dominated by Germans, and she was a composer of salon music in an era dominated by musical revolutionaries.

“Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace,” bleated one critic after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1908, “but it is amazingly superficial … While women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.”

To look down one’s nose at salon music—as her critics did—was to look down one’s nose at the middle-class—which her critics also did. But snobbishness aside, there is no mistaking her gifts as a melodist and as a composer for the keyboard.

Her Thème varié Op. 89, first published in 1898, is not a formal set of variations but rather a continuous retelling of two attractively harmonized melodic ideas set in increasingly more involved keyboard textures, culminating in a kind of ‘three-handed effect’ with a trilled pedal point sounding out in the mid-range between the two hands, a texture famously used by Beethoven in the finales of his Waldstein and Op. 111 sonatas, and by Tchaikovsky in the first movement cadenza of his B-flat minor concerto.

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels. (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor

Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies pay tribute to the gypsy music of his native Hungary. Like an ancient insect trapped in amber, they encapsulate for posterity the dramatic, improvisatory performance style of the roving bands of Romani musicians that Liszt heard as a boy growing up in the small Hungarian village of Raiding, and whose campfires he eagerly frequented when, as Europe’s most celebrated pianist, he returned to his homeland in 1839 after an 18-year absence.

There are 19 rhapsodies in all, the first 15 composed in the period between 1846 and 1853. Fundamental to the form of each rhapsody is a two-part division into a slow, introductory lassan followed by a quick, dancelike friss. In the soulful and brooding lassan, a handful of folk melodies are repeated over and over, trancelike, in varied forms, blooming from time to time into dazzling cadenza-like flourishes of keyboard sparkle and colour. The friss is sectional, presenting a series of impish dance tunes that in an accelerating pattern of frenetic activity inevitably drive the work to a barn-storming conclusion.

The Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor presents trademark features of the style: the so-called “Hungarian cadence” rhythm (DAH-dum-dump … duh-DAH) and the exotically flavourful, gap-toothed Hungarian minor scale, comprised almost entirely of semitones and augmented 2nds, heard unmistakably in the work’s opening recitative.

Liszt’s achievement, here as in the other Hungarian rhapsodies, lies in how authentically he captures on the keyboard what his biographer Alan Walker calls the “sonic surface” of the Gypsy band. In these works you hear the “will-o’-the-wisp” ornamentation style of the gypsy violin, the contralto richness of the low clarinet—when Liszt places the tune in the mid-register, played by the thumbs—and the heartbeat-racing thrum of the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) in textures bristling with repeated notes.

While the 13th Hungarian Rhapsody is not nowadays among the most frequently performed of the set of 19, it did have its admirers in the 19th century. Pablo de Sarasate used a tune from the 13th Rhapsody’s friss section in his famous Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) for violin and orchestra.

Franz Liszt
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude

The intersection of literature and music was one of the hallmarks of the Romantic era. A striking example is Liszt’s Benediction of God in Solitude, part of a cycle of piano pieces composed between 1845 and 1852 entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, that references a collection of poems with the same name by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). In his collection Lamartine waxes rapturous over the divine presence in all creation and Liszt, who as a teenager had wanted to become a priest and who was later to take minor orders in the Catholic Church, could not agree more. He even provides a quote from Lamartine’s poem Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude at the head of his own eponymous keyboard hymn, one that begins: D’où me vient, ô mon Dieu, cette paix qui m’inonde? (Whence comes, oh my God, this peace that floods over me?).

Liszt’s pianistic ode to having some ‘alone time’ with the divine unfolds in an A-B-C-A form: an opening section returns after two intervening episodes. The texture employed in the opening section is identical to that of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3: a single line of melody walks calmly through the mid-register, enveloped by a deliciously dreamy ripple of celestial keyboard colour above, and the fatherly warmth of a deeply sympathetic bass-line below. And as in the Liebestraum, Liszt’s melt-in-your-mouth harmonies provide voluptuous moments of pleasure with virtually every change of chord.

A lunga pausa leads to an episode (Andante) based on a quietly questioning dotted motive and a serenely stable pedal point in the bass, emblematic of the reassuring presence of the divine. A second lunga pausa separates the first from the second episode (Più sostenuto, quasi preludio), that introduces an intimation of yearning, fully exploited at the return of the opening theme. This final section reaches an emotional climax that might seem to be in contradiction with the work’s theme of peaceful contemplation. But this explosion of emotion undoubtedly evokes the last line of the work’s quotation from Lamartine: Un nouvel homme en moi renaît et recommence. (A new man is born within me and starts off anew.)

Franz Liszt
Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H

The creation of musical ciphers (spelling out words by means of musical pitches) was as much fun as playfully-minded composers could have on the job before the arrival of Little Orphan Annie’s secret decoder ring in the 1930s. Bach set the tone for the practice in the last Contrapunctus of his Art of the Fugue, a massive quadruple fugue in which the 3rd subject spells out his own name, B-A-C-H (in German, B refers to what we call B-flat, and H to B-natural).

Liszt uses this musical motive-B-flat, A, C, B-natura-in his own tribute to the Thomaskantor of Leipzig, his Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H. Originally an organ work, composed for the consecration ceremony of a new instrument in the Merseberg Cathedral in Saxony-Anhalt in 1856, Liszt produced a revised version of the work for piano solo in 1870.

This piano solo version in no way tones down the original snarling organ score to suit the more modest sonorous capabilities of the pianoforte but rather, like the organ version, aims to set the walls shaking and the rafters quivering in whichever hall it is performed. Given the commemorative premise of the work, it is a surprisingly angry and at times violent offering of remembrance to the composer who penned Sheep May Safely Graze and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. But then again, self-aggrandizing showmanship and pious humility were ever the poles between which this complex artistic personality so often shuttled.

The work as a whole is characterized by an almost neurotic obsession with the musical motive B-A-C-H, which is thunderously announced in the bass in the opening bars and which permeates the texture of nearly every subsequent measure, whether booming out majestically as fortissimo chords or informing the smallest levels of ornamental passagework. The two descending semitones of this motive, B-flat/A and C/B-natural, give Liszt every excuse to indulge his innate taste for chromaticism and the fugue subject, when it arrives, is a semitone salad: by dint of sequential extension it comes to include all 12 pitches within the octave, creating a subject that is a virtual tone row. Atonality hovers constantly in the air, and indeed it is anyone’s guess just what key this work is in.

But like a Mafia don’s generous donation to the collection plate in Church, Liszt’s musical monument to Bach stands as a testament to how one of the greatest artistic personalities of the 19th century could reconcile his reverence for the past with his mission to create music of the future.

Samuil Feinberg
Sonata No. 4 in E-flat minor Op. 6

“Samuil who?”

This will unfortunately be the reaction of most audience members hearing for the first time of this great early-20th-century Russian musician. Better known, even in Russia, as a pianist than a composer, Samuil Feinberg was an ardent admirer and tireless performer of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the first in his country to perform the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I in public recital.

It should not be surprising, then, to hear that in his own compositions Feinberg favours polyphonic textures with multiple contrapuntal lines competing for the ear’s attention. His harmonic vocabulary, however, could hardly be called “Baroque.”

In his early period, of which his Sonata in E-flat minor Op. 6 (1918) is representative, he was strongly influenced by Scriabin, and like Scriabin he had a keen ear for widely-spaced sonorities, many of them constructed out of 4ths and 9ths. His single-movement E-flat minor Sonata is opulently scored over a wide range of the keyboard, its expansive but well-balanced chord structures unfolding with little sense of harmonic resolution but leaving behind a warm afterglow of emotional resonance.

He also shares with Scriabin a rhythmic suppleness and mysterious murkiness of pulse that results from his extensive use of irregular metrical units within the bar, alternating with moments of hammering emphasis. In short, there is a kind of wild impulsiveness that his music incarnates, a sort of dark ecstasy longing to come out, indicated most clearly by his tempo and performance markings: Presto impetuoso, burrascoso (stormily), poco languido, luminoso.

The erratic pacing of this sonata, combined with its textural richness, makes it somewhat difficult to organize in the ear, especially on a first hearing, but it makes a strong case for an early-20th-century Russian avant-garde that was not limited to Scriabin alone.

Claude Debussy
Images Book 1

The three ‘sonic pictures’ that Debussy published in 1905 as the first book of his Images are remarkably different in tone, but each stands at a distinct distance from the musical practice of its time. Traditional diatonic harmonies have little driving force in these pieces, replaced by modal melodies and harmonic constructions based on whole-tone scales that elicit less hierarchical aural expectations in the listener. Tonal ambiguity and blurred harmonic focus have changed from defects to prized features. The ear thinks it’s an eye, gathering in the ‘impressions’ that give this style of music its common descriptor: Impressionism.

Reflets dans l’eau begins by evoking in gentle splashes of sound colour the outwardly expanding pattern of rippling waves in a pool of water into which a pebble—the opening perfect 5th in the bass—has been tossed. Widely spaced sonorities measure the distance outwardly travelled. The highest register glistens dazzlingly with glints of sunlight. Vivid as the scene is in the ear, the experience of taking it in is ultimately a mysterious enterprise, symbolized by recurring glimpses of the echoing musical motive: A-flat, F, E-flat.

Hommage à Rameau presents an austere but nostalgic remembrance of composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose opera-ballet Les Fêtes de Polymnie (1745) Debussy was editing for publication at the time this piece was composed. The composer is remembered in a slow, purposeful sarabande, moving forward at a processional pace. Its melody walks within the narrow range of the pentatonic scale, and its rhythm is virtually flat. But this apparent surface serenity is made emotional and impactful by the bright harmonic colouring that Debussy attaches to these simple compositional elements.
Mouvement, as its name suggests, is a study in movement-movement propelled forward by a constant whirl of triplets in the mid-range around which fanfare motives blare out on either side. The very obstinacy of these moto perpetuo 16ths suggests mechanized motion, a twirling lathe, perhaps. While the idea is fancifully anachronistic, the present writer can’t repress the image of a dog chasing a car, attempting to nip away at the tires.

Leopold Godowsky
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song

The Polish-American pianist, composer and pedagogue Leopold Godowsky was almost entirely self-taught. His extraordinary technical facility at the keyboard prompted him to write hair-raisingly difficult paraphrases of well-known works in the repertoire, bringing them in line with own florid style of delivery. The best-known of these are his more than 50 reworkings of the Chopin études Opp. 10 and 25, which only a few pianists-Marc-André Hamelin among them-have had the courage to perform in public.

In his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song Godowsky sets his sights on fin-de-siècle Vienna and its waltz culture. This work represents well both the breadth of his musical imagination and the grandeur of his conception of idiomatic writing for the keyboard. Slithering chromatic countermelodies constantly dance attendance upon the work’s lilting principal melodies, which are often nestled in the mid-register while harmonic underpinning and ornamental tracery race off in opposite directions on both sides. The texture is distinctly orchestral in sonority due to the vast range of keyboard real estate covered by the hands in each phrase.

The pianist’s challenge in this work is to find the sweet berries of Viennese melody among the bristling thorns of ornamentation in the score-a score of such scintillating chromatic density that Charles Rosen has described it as “more in the style of Richard [Strauss] than Johann, but still echt Viennese.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

 

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

Alban Berg: Piano sonata, Op. 1

“Among the most auspicious Opus Ones ever written,” was Glenn Gould’s assessment of Alban Berg’s piano sonata. Berg wrote this work in 1907-08 while studying with Arnold Schönberg. Originally it was intended to have three movements but, after completing the first, Berg found that “for a long time nothing worthwhile occurred to me, whereupon Schoenberg remarked, “In that case, you have said everything there was to be said.”

Schönberg’s instincts were correct, for Berg’s fourteen-minute, one-movement sonata is indeed a totally unified dramatic event that speaks volumes with the utmost economy. In spite of the music’s modern sound, it is nevertheless grounded in the formal classical layout consisting of a repeated exposition, development and recapitulation. Although a principal subject (opening phrase) and a subordinate theme (possibly two subordinate themes, depending on how you regard Berg’s “developing variation” procedure) can be identified, it is more through tempo changes than through contrasting tonalities or moods that they are recognizable. The second theme is slower, the third slower still. The moment of greatest tension arrives registrally, dynamically and texturally at just about the midpoint, which Berg marks ffff. By the end, the listener has experienced a sense of fulfillment, a sense that Berg has indeed said everything there was to say, and that he has left, in Gould’s words again, “the impression of great peaks and lesser crests, calibrated as carefully and achieved as inevitably as in music of a more orthodox nature.”

 

Gabriel Fauré: Impromptu no. 2 in F minor, Op. 31; Barcarolle no. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

Like Chopin, Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms. For both, the piano was central to their mode of expression, and both excelled in harmonic sophistication and in advanced techniques of modulation.

The term impromptu implies something conceived on the spur of the moment, born of poetic fancy, giving less heed to structure and formal procedures than to delicacy of ornamentation and casual style. Nevertheless, Fauré’s five works in the genre, like Chopin’s, exhibit well-defined formal balance. The second (1883) is one of his most beloved and frequently heard piano pieces, written in the tarantella rhythm (a pulse of two triplets per bar in a rapidly swirling pattern). The third of Fauré’s thirteen barcarolles (1885) is filled with a sense of languor, but one spiked with piquant dissonances. The tonality weaves in and out between major and minor, while the delicate and pervasive ornaments to the melodic line caused the famous French pianist Marguerite Long to poetically remark that, in one instance, they “crown the theme like sea foam on the edge of a wave.”

 

Claude Debussy: Images, book 1; L’isle joyeuse

“I love pictures (images) almost as much as music,” Debussy once wrote. Hence, we find not only a great many sound pictures throughout his music, but no fewer than three groups of pieces actually entitled “Images,” each a triptych in itself: two for piano (1905 and 1907) and one for orchestra (1906-1912).

Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) represents one of the finest examples of musical Impressionism. Whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales, floating blocks of parallel chords, vague washes of tonal color, subtly blurred sonorities, long pedal-points and a new kind of “harmonic chemistry,” as Debussy called it, all are elements in the world of musical Impressionism. In the second piece, Debussy pays his respects to the eighteenth-century master Jean-Philippe Rameau. The choice of the sarabande (a slow, stately dance in triple meter) is in itself an act of homage to Rameau’s predilection for classic dance forms. Impish humor, gaiety and a sense of irony infuse Mouvement.

L’isle joyeuse (1904) ranks as one of Debussy’s most ambitious, sensual and dazzling piano works. It is sometimes regarded as a musical representation of Watteau’s Embarquement pour Cythère, for, like the painting, it is richly imbued with gaiety and animation.

 

Marc-André Hamelin: Variation on a Theme of Paganini

In the tradition of so many great pianists of the past (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Rachmaninoff … ), Marc-André Hamelin the virtuoso is also a composer. To showcase his diabolical virtuosity, Hamelin wrote in 2011 a ten-minute series of variations based on the famous theme of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other composers have also been stirred to this task, but none with greater panache and brilliance than Hamelin. Even the likes of Liszt and Rachmaninoff would surely blanch in face of the fiendishly difficult technical acrobatics found in Hamelin’s work. By turns, devilish, mischievous, playful, coy, mysterious and convulsive, it remains continuously fascinating. Hamelin himself concedes that it “breaks the mold; it constantly tries to push the envelope as far as what may be esthetically acceptable!”

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff: two Preludes; Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36

In 1903, Rachmaninoff brought out a group of ten preludes (Op. 23) which, as one writer ventured, was an act of self-defense, an attempt to channel the overwhelming popularity of the C sharp minor prelude of 1892, into other, similar pieces. A further group of thirteen was published as Op. 32 in 1910. Each seeks to capture the essence of a mood through the elaboration of a specific figuration, motif, or rhythmic pattern. The G major Prelude is one of the most sublime, reposed and sheerly beautiful. “A feeling of tranquility dwells here,” writes biographer Max Harrison, “and this piece stands with the G-sharp minor prelude [the one we hear next on Mr. Hamelin’s program] as the purest expression of lyricism in all Rachmaninoff’s piano music. The melody sings limpidly above evanescent arpeggios [in the left hand].” The G sharp minor prelude, another popular favorite, shimmers throughout with coruscating brilliance.

Rachmaninoff wrote only two piano sonatas, the First in 1907, the Second in 1913. He heavily revised the original version of the Second in 1931, considerably shortening it and lightening the textures in numerous passages. Although not especially long in minutes, this sonata is big in scope and impact, embracing an enormous emotional range, and approaching symphonic proportions in its textures and polyphonic complexities. The sound of heavy, pounding bells, which fascinated the composer all his life, and which found their way into so many of his scores, is evoked frequently over the course of the sonata.

The three movements are not defined as such in the score, and are played without pause, underscoring their close interrelationship. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure. The second serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third.

 

Program Notes by Richard Markow, 2012

 

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