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PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E minor Hob. XVI:34

It is unusual to encounter a sonata in a minor key from “Papa” Haydn, a composer best known for his chipper disposition. But his Sonata in E minor likely dates from the late 1770s, which could explain its turbulent mood. The 1770s was the decade of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an aesthetic trend that promoted extreme emotionalism in art. In music, the result was moody or stormy works in a minor key evoking abnormal psychological states.

The first movement of the E minor Sonata exemplifies this tribute to abnormality both in its obsessive repetition of the same motivic material over and over again and in the disjointed nature of its construction. It lurches forward in small motivic gasps, echoed between the hands, and sometimes simply stops dead in its tracks for an unnerving moment of silence in which nothing at all happens—the equivalent of a worrisome character in a film dropping what he is doing and looking directly into the camera for several seconds. Its eruption into a fiery coda at the end of the recapitulation foretells a structural anomaly that would be used to great effect by his student, Beethoven.

There is a slightly manic quality to the way in which the Adagio second movement appears fully decked out in melodic circumlocutions of ornament straight out of the gate, like a person who talks too much because of some sense of nervousness or anxiety. The worry is brought to the surface when the minor mode surfaces at the very end, in a cadence on the dominant that leads directly to the concluding rondo.

The opening refrain of this finale features a simple, toe-tapping, folk-like melody over a churning Alberti bass that gives it a kind of devil-may-care breeziness, despite its being in the minor mode. The movement makes great play out of the alternation of major and minor, but these are merely differences in tone colouring. The underlying sense of bubbly good spirits is evident throughout. Haydn gives us here a taste of what Mendelssohn was to do many decades later: use the minor mode to convey merriment rather than concern.

Johannes Brahms
3 Intermezzi Op. 117

Brahms’s late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.

While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’s musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.

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The Three Intermezzi of Op. 117, published in 1892, combine a childlike simplicity of expression with an underlying seriousness of mood much akin to melancholy. Brahms described them as “three lullabies of my sorrows” and a quality of consolation is indeed evident in the andante pacing and ‘rocking’ character of all three.

The first of the set, the Intermezzo in E flat major, actually quotes the German translation of a Scottish lullaby above the first line of the score. The ‘inner’ quality of the opening melody is symbolically enhanced by its position in the middle of the texture, with repeated pedal tones brightly ringing above it, and quietly throbbing below. Its middle section moves darkly in a series of short sighing phrases in E flat minor, making all the more magical and luminous the reprise of the opening lullaby at the end.

The Intermezzo in B flat minor is ingeniously crafted as a miniature sonata movement. Its first theme is a yearning, Schumannesque melody pieced together from a succession of two-note slurs, unfolding delicately atop a pattern of arpeggios passed between the hands. The second theme in block chords is a variant of the first—a typical Brahmsian touch—and the development section dwells expansively on the flowing arpeggios of the opening section. Remarkable in this intermezzo are the many passages of smoky piano overtones that Brahms sends wafting up from the nether regions of the keyboard.

The final Intermezzo in C# minor is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried in the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely-spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations Op. 120

In 1819 the Viennese composer and publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) issued a call to 51 Austrian composers to contribute a variation each to a waltz theme of his own composition. He would publish these in a collected edition for the relief of widows & orphans of the Napoleonic wars, an initiative that was part charitable (Bob Geldof’s Band Aid avant la lettre) and part clever marketing. The invitation list included the leading compositional lights of the era, including Schubert, Hummel, Franz Xaver Mozart (Wolfgang’s son), and Beethoven’s friend and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, personages whose association with Diabelli’s publishing firm would greatly enhance its prestige. Even the pre-pubescent Franz Liszt got into the collection, likely through the intercession of his teacher Carl Czerny, who was also on the list.

Fifty of the fifty-one composers duly submitted their single variation. One did not. Ludwig van Beethoven had a better idea. In a creative spurt he began working on a massive work based on Diabelli’s theme, completing more than 20 variations in 1819 and picking up the project again to add more in 1823, in which year his complete set of 33 Diabelli Variations was published.

This monumental work has often been compared to Bach’s Goldberg Variations for its encyclopedic scope and masterful display of compositional technique. Alfred Brendel has declared it “the greatest of all piano works” and odds are that his student, Paul Lewis, shares that view. While audiences have found its extreme length, bizarre chromaticism and wild contrasts a stumbling block to a heartfelt embrace of the work, a knowledge of Beethoven’s ribald sense of humour and fondness for parody goes a long way towards bringing the reluctant listener on board.

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Diabelli’s theme, the initial starting point of the work, has found few admirers, having been labelled as trivial, banal, even outright stupid by any number of distinguished scholars with whom it is hard to disagree. But its very weaknesses—its chugging chordal accompaniment and repetitive harmonic sequences, its cutesy opening grace-note figure answered ludicrously octaves below in the bass, not to mention its lumbering air of yokelish self-confidence—are the very features that Beethoven zeroes in on for his variations. So rather than simply decorating the musical ideas of the waltz, Beethoven uses these characteristics to give each variation a radically distinct personality, drawn musically in high relief. Var. 9, for example, does nothing but obsess over the theme’s initial grace-note figure, like a stuttering child that can get out no more than the first word of his sentence.

Most of the set is ruled by an ethos of Homeric jest, with parody and originality vying in equal measure for the listener’s interest. The most comical of the set is undoubtedly Var.13, in which the chattering accompaniment of the theme is omitted entirely, leaving long gaps of silence against which the loud pompous chords outlining the theme’s harmonic structure sound absolutely silly.

References to other composers’ music undoubtedly inform the style of many of the variations but seldom as overtly as in Var. 22 in which Diabelli’s waltz theme is dressed up as Leporello singing Notte e giorno faticar from the opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is hardly a coincidence that Leporello’s complaint about how hard he has to work could apply equally well to the pianist’s own labours in the following Var. 23, a parody of a five-finger exercise by piano virtuoso Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858). And yet, Beethoven himself is no slouch when it comes to creating brilliant and arresting piano textures, especially with flurries of trills, as in Variations 6, 10, 16, and 21, or in the cascading canonic entries that dazzle the ear in Var. 19.

These high-impact pianistically-inspired variations sit side-by-side with more contrapuntal treatments of the theme, such as the fughetta of Var. 24, after which the learned and lyrical effusions of the following stomping German dance of Var. 25 sounds particularly incongruous. These ‘sound gags’ stop for good, though, when the tone colour turns for the first time to the minor mode in Var. 29, initiating a set of three slow variations of imposing seriousness. From here on in, Beethoven gets into his hot-air balloon and begins a steady ascent into the ethereal realms of musical poetry familiar from his last sonatas Opp. 109 to 111.

Var. 31 is a profoundly expressive, richly-ornamented aria that invites comparisons with Variation 25 from Bach’s Goldbergs. This is followed in Var. 32 by a monumental multi-themed fugue that transmutes the trite repeated chords of the waltz theme into a shoulder-poking fugue subject of a distinctly Handelian stamp to bring the work as a whole to what seems to be its apotheosis.

But no. Instead, a dramatic series of arpeggios stretching from one end of the keyboard to the other sweeps all the musical toys off the table so as to begin again … with a final minuet. The rough bass-heavy waltz that began the proceedings 33 variations ago now closes this work as an elegant courtly dance ascending to the stars in the high treble in a manner not unlike that of the arietta finale of the Sonata in C minor Op. 111.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johannes Brahms
7 Fantasies Op. 116

If the word fantasy implies improvisation and free association of thoughts, then the collection of three capricci and four intermezzi that Brahms published under the title Fantasien in 1892 are misnamed, as they are among the most densely expressive and tightly crafted miniatures to come from his pen. Some have seen the collection as a kind of multi-movement ‘sonata’, with the three intermezzi in E (Nos. 4-6) grouped together as a slow movement. Less controversial is the notion that the motive of the descending 3rd forms a unifying thread running through the entire set.

Expressive devices seem to be in overdrive in this collection of richly layered pieces, with the fundamental parameters of musical construction – rhythm, harmony, melody, and tone colour – constantly shifting under our feet as we listen. Rhythm is the most obvious of these, its regularity being subverted at every turn by the use of hemiola, syncopation, and other dislocations of the metrical pulse. Harmonies swimming in rich pools of bass overtones constantly come in and out of the shadows and further stretch our sense of time when resolutions are delayed.

The tone palette is orchestral in its range of colours, suggesting the various instrument choirs of a large ensemble, with textures ranging from heftily scored to virtually threadbare. The contrapuntal weave of these works is thick and two-voice imitative duets abound, sometimes even in the same hand. You get the impression that the real meaning of these pieces is often being whispered to you in the middle voices.

Each is in ternary (three-part) form, with a contrasting middle section and an opening section that returns at the end, often varied in some essential way. The moods presented may be fiery or deeply reflective, with the term capriccio generally describing those of more extraverted character and intermezzo – those more inly wrapped in musical thought.

The opening Capriccio in D minor presents a volcanic lava flow of piano sonority stretching from the very bottom of the keyboard to the upper mid-range, and is particularly ambiguous in its metrical pulse.

The Intermezzo in A minor begins like a sarabande, with a prominent stress on a long-held second beat of the bar. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of wistful minor tonality and major-mode contentment.

The Capriccio in G minor is restless in its pursuit of chains of descending thirds. Its middle section rapturously develops out of an instinct for chorale-singing.

The Intermezzo in E major has the quality of a nocturne, its middle section luminous with the soft gleam of moonlight.

The Intermezzo in E minor is remarkable for its eerie opening, configured in two-note groups of full chords and single notes, creating an almost hiccup-like texture of mismatched resonances on the keyboard.

The second Intermezzo in E major that follows evokes a stately court dance of some sort, quizzically interrogated by a chromatically climbing middle voice.

The final Capriccio in D minor restlessly explores the descending 3rds motive in its opening section. Its middle section is a marvel of keyboard scoring that features a leading voice in the middle of the texture surrounded by garlands of ornamental figuration.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C minor Hob. XVI:20

The period of the 1770s was remarkable for two important developments in music history. The first was the replacement of the harpsichord by the fortepiano as the preferred instrument for keyboard composition and performance. The second was the aesthetic movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm & stress) that promoted emotional intensity and deep expressivity as leading characteristics in artistic expression. In music, this resulted in works streaked with pathos, anxiety, and moodiness, often in minor keys and rife with dramatic contrasts of soft and loud.

Haydn’s C minor Piano Sonata, composed in 1771, stands emblematic of both developments. The sudden dynamic contrasts in the score reveal it to be Haydn’s first keyboard sonata expressly written for the piano, while its dark tone and wide emotional range mark it as a typical product of the Sturm und Drang era.

This is evident from the way the first movement opens, with a pair of two-note sigh motives, more sobs than sighs. And yet the movement’s mood is not one of sustained hand-wringing but rather of emotional volatility, a volatility expressed most tellingly in its quicksilver changes in rhythm and texture that keep the listener constantly on edge. Lavishly applied trills, turns, and mordents, combined with perky dotted rhythms and impetuous scale figures, convey energy and a focused sense of purpose but they alternate with sigh motives and even an adagio cadenza that daydreams the proceedings to a complete halt in the middle of the exposition. Indicative of the sense of worry and restless unease that underlies the movement as a whole is the way that it ends softly, as if with a whimper.

The second movement, Andante con moto, has an archaic feel to it, as if some echo from the preceding Baroque era were being channeled in the simple two-voice texture with which it opens: a noble melody of small range advancing in measured steps over a walking bass. It reaches its peak of expressivity in its many passages of throbbing syncopations between the left and right hands.

Haydn makes a move to the dark side in his choice of finale. The standard practice of the time was for a last movement to be gay and lighthearted but the Allegro finale of the C Minor Sonata is by contrast psychologically intense and filled with a sense of urgency. Its peak of restless energy is reached in an extraordinary display of virtuoso hand-crossings of its second half.

Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Bagatelles Op. 33

If you have ever wondered what it might be like to have Beethoven at your dinner party, half in his cups and mischievously holding forth at the keyboard for the entertainment of all, then such an experience has been frozen in time for you in the score of his Bagatelles Op. 33. These seven little “trifles” (bagatelles in French) were published in 1803 for the popular market and they find him “trifling” with his audience’s expectations at every turn. Who knew that Beethoven could be such a cut-up?

Bagatelle No. 1 in E flat opens with the most naively innocent tune, sent aesthetically off-track from the get-go by a generous lathering of ornamentation in questionable taste that gets ever more garish with each reprise of the theme. And the formal proportions of the piece are way off-base, with trivial transition sections and routine cadencing patterns hilariously repeated and developed beyond their musical merits.

Now, Beethoven’s scherzo movements are known for their metrical and rhythmic jokes, but Bagatelle No. 2 in C major (actually labelled a scherzo) is way over the top in its manipulation of rhythm and accent, leaving the listener struggling to understand where the basic pulse is supposed to be. And the transition from the mock-serious Minore section back to the jumpy opening material is so abrupt as to be ludicrous.

No. 3 in F major spoils its charmingly folk-like melody by placing its second phrase in a remote key, unprepared, which makes the modulation back to the original key for the repeat all the more awkward. The problem only gets worse when Beethoven adds appoggiatura ornamentation to the theme, highlighting the incongruity.

No. 4 in A major parodies a sugary musette, with a stationary pedal tone in the bass supporting a treble melody that doesn’t move much either. The middle section in the minor mode proceeds with much more harmonic variety, except that it is all accompaniment. There is no melody above for it to accompany!

The first section of No. 5 in C major sparkles in the high register, a real “tickling of the ivories.” But it does nothing more than set up, and then execute, a cadence pattern, over and over again. This piece is a parody of vapid passagework, and features on its last page a comic representation of a composer sitting at the keyboard, playing the same single note over and over again, trying to figure out where to take the music. In the end he decides … to repeat what he has already written before.

The tune of No. 6 in D major is at war with itself. The first phrase longs to be taken seriously as lyrical, but the second phrase spoils the effect with a playful cadence.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the repeated 3rds at the opening of No. 7 in A flat major were about to issue out into an early version of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53. This final bagatelle is a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much repetition and the erroneous notion that you can get a different result by merely doing the same thing over and over again.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat major Hob. XVI:52

Joseph Haydn wrote his last three piano sonatas on his second visit to England (1794-95), keenly aware that the sound of the English piano was very different from that of its Viennese counterpart. Viennese pianos were quick and responsive but their sound, like their action, was light. English pianos had a heavier action, longer keys, and a fuller, more room-filling sound.

The so-called ‘London’ piano school (Clementi, Cramer, Dussek) excelled in exploiting this ‘beefier’ sonority to create keyboard textures brimming with dramatic effects that played to the instrument’s strengths: full chords in both hands, frequent dynamic contrasts, dizzying runs plunging from the top to the bottom of the keyboard, and dulcet double 3rds for an extra-sweet sonority in the upper register.

Haydn obviously knew this bag of tricks carefully, because his Sonata in E flat contains all of them, and more. Opening boldly with a fanfare of full-textured 6- and 7-note chords, its first 10 bars feature no less than 5 alternations between forte and piano, the last coming at the end of a dramatic run that swoops down a good 4 octaves to a low E flat. The 1st theme abounds in double 3rds while the 2nd theme imitates the tick-tock action of a mechanical clock, a popular musical motif of the period. Piano sonority is putty in Haydn’s hands, swelling with the throb of orchestral tremolos, then subsiding in long held notes. A good example of this is just before the development section.

A different kind of sonic theatre is enacted in the 2nd movement sarabande, a stately piece in 3/4 time with a noticeable emphasis on the 2nd beat. Added stateliness is assured by the double-dotted rhythm in the theme, but the real story in this movement is in the ornamentation. The score is simply swimming in grace notes and other grand ornamental additions to the melodic line, many of them ecstatic runs gliding up to the high register in the manner of an improvising opera singer.

The finale pulses to the beat of a army drum, introduced at the opening in a series of repeated notes over a low bass pedal: the shepherd’s musette meets the military tattoo. Adding to the comic tone of the proceedings, all this mechanical precision is frequently stopped dead in its tracks by inexplicable pauses that often set the listener up for a sound explosion and a burst of activity to follow. Add in more than a handful of cheeky fz accents on weak beats of the bar and you have as good a demonstration of Haydn’s impeccable musical wit as his keyboard music has to offer.

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Ludwig van Beethoven
11 Bagatelles Op. 119

Beethoven’s Op. 119 is a catch-all collection of pieces written without any preconceived formal plan for the enjoyment of amateur piano enthusiasts. The last five were published first as a contribution to a pedagogical publication called the Wiener Piano-Forte Schule (1821), with the first six added to that set for a separate publication in 1823.

The popular market into which they were lightly tossed may account for the dance-like pieces in the set: No. 1 is a minuet, No. 3 an allemande and No. 9 a frenetic little waltz. Some of the two-voice writing in these pieces has an archaic, baroque feel to it, especially in the florid ornamentation of No. 5.

Beethoven may not have always had the amateur performer in mind, however, given the technical challenges written into some of these short “Kleinigkeiten” (trifles), as he called them in German. Some feature sustained passages of awkward hand-crossings (Nos. 2 and 7) and casually inserted left-hand trills. No. 7 even demands the pianist to play sustained trills and a separate melody line, all in the same hand – a texture found in the composer’s most advanced piano works, such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 111. Others, like No. 8, are harmonically adventurous in a manner that anticipates the character pieces of Schumann.

It is obvious that Beethoven granted himself free rein in composing these pieces, and the prize for eccentricity goes to the laconic Bagatelle No. 10. In its short frantic 13 bars of staggered left- and right-hand entries, it pants away like a family dog leaping up at the dinner table for treats.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat Hob. XVI:49

This sonata was dedicated to Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s personal physician at the Esterhazy court, where Haydn was employed. From their correspondence, it appears that Haydn was carrying on something of a dalliance with her and this sonata, composed between 1789 and 1790, seems designed to address both her feminine sensibility and her considerable skills as an amateur pianist.

And yet there is a Beethovenian directness to the way that the first movement’s thematic material is thrown out in bitesized bits, similar to the brusque opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, Op. 2 No. 3. Haydn does us a favour here by isolating these short motivic units – two snappy questions and a lyrical reply – because virtually the entire range of ideas explored in this movement derives from them.

When Haydn got an idea in his head, he liked to run with it as far as he could go. So many of this sonata’s movements are monothematic, their nominally contrasting themes all variations on a small sequence of motives declared at the outset. In this sonata movement, the mere rhythm of the ‘lyrical reply’ – dum-dum-dum DUM – becomes an important motivic element throughout, and in fact, in its stripped down form becomes the obsession of the development section.

The Andante cantabile second movement is in a simple A-B-A formal layout, with its A section a poised and perky slow melody dolled up from the get-go with frilly ornaments of a distinctly feminine stamp. Its B section takes the melodic curve of the opening bar of the movement and plunges it dramatically into the minor mode, with a visual drama created, as well, by the many hand- crossings effected by the left hand.

The finale combines the repeating refrain and contrasting episodes of a rondo with the minuet structure featuring a contrasting trio (hinted at in its Italian indication Tempo di minuetto). The breezy whistling-in-the-wind quality of the opening tune has a folk-like simplicity about it, reinforced by its drone bass. But Haydn widens the range of theatrical roles that his dedicatee-performer can play when, halfway through the movement, he casts this blithe little tune into the minor mode.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

The jovial, witty and ever-cheerful ‘Papa’ Haydn writing in a minor key? What brought that on?

The 1770s, when Haydn’s Sonata in B minor was composed, was the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in German culture, an age when aberrant emotions were all the rage in music; and what better tonal avouring than the minor mode to convey these emotions? Composers such as C. P. E. Bach rode this cultural wave with enthusiasm, writing works that elicited powerful, sometimes worrisome, emotions by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps and poignant harmonies of the type that minor keys were especially adept at providing.

It is also important to note that the 1770s was the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you find in the first movement, especially, is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

This cross-over period between harpsichord and fortepiano plays out in the nature of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. The first is austere and slightly mysterious, amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style mordents on its opening melody notes. The second churns away in constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious Sturm und Drang tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a lyrical slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio – but where is the emotional drama in that? Haydn has a plan. His minuet and trio feature thematic material as dramatically contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps everywhere, one as large as a 14th. The trio, normally con gured as sugary relief from the sti formality of courtly dance ritual, is daringly in the minor mode, set low, and grinds grimly away in constant 16th-note motion.

Haydn wouldn’t be Haydn if he didn’t send you away with a toe-tapping finale and such a movement ends this sonata. To that end, Haydn’s go-to rhythmic device is repeated notes, and this nale chatters on constantly at an 8th-note patter, interrupted at random, it would seem, by surprising silences and dramatic pauses – as if to allow the performer to turn sideways and wink at his audience.

Johannes Brahms
Vier Klavierstücke Op. 119

Brahms’s last works for the piano were a set of Four Keyboard Pieces, Op.119. Like the previous short piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117 and 118, they are complex, dense and deeply introspective works, full of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities but by no means obscure. They are works to be savoured for Brahms’s mastery of compositional technique and for the bountiful wellspring of Viennese sentiment and charm that animates them from within.

Written with complete disregard for the kinds of piano textures considered normal in the late 19th century, the piano pieces of Op. 119 explore new possibilities in harmonic and rhythmic practice, as well. Harmonic changes frequently occur on weak beats, and metrical regularity is often attenuated by harmony notes held over from the previous bar.

The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set is a prime example. Its glacially descending arpeggios in chains of falling thirds create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between left and right hand.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.

The Rhapsody in E at major is the longest of Brahms’s late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet gures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of a debonaire A at major section in the classic style of late-19th-century salon music. A amboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece, surprisingly, with a triumphant cadence in E at minor.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES:PAUL LEWIS (CONCERT 1)

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C major Hob. XV1:50

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

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

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

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

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

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic hairpin turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly gets lost on the way.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Six Bagatelles Op. 126

Throughout his career Beethoven found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience member knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some he published in collections, such as his Seven Bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119, which Paul Lewis will be playing at his spring recital next year, 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 that he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that typifies his late style.

Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing paired with a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, along with a willingness 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 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 a 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 in 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, others verging on pure sound theatre.

Johannes Brahms
Sechs Klavierstücke Op. 118

Brahms’ late works are often described as “autumnal.” They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.

Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces of 1893 are intensely concentrated representatives of the composer’s late period, with all the classic features of his compositional style: motivic density, rippling polyrhythms, an intimate familiarity with the lowest regions of the keyboard, and above all, an ability to create musical textures of heartbreaking lyrical intensity richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. All but the first are in a clear ternary A-B-A form.

The opening Intermezzo in A minor, arrives as if in mid-thought, a musical thought of restless harmonic change and heavy melodic sighs riding atop a surging accompaniment that constantly threatens to overwhelm the very melodies it accompanies.

The second Intermezzo sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded. Its opening phrase eventually yields to its own melodic inversion and its middle section is woven through with canons.

The Ballade in G minor is the most extroverted of the set. Its heroic and vigorous opening section is contrasted with a gently undulating B section that, despite its tender lyricism, can’t help but dream in its own lyrical way of the opening bars.

In the Intermezzo in F minor, a simple repeating triplet figure echoing back and forth between the hands gives rise to canons that play out through the whole texture. Even the poised and elegiac middle section, with its bass notes plumbing the very bottom of the keyboard, unfolds in canonic imitation, just as the opening.

The Romanza sounds vaguely archaic, as its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode. Its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

The Intermezzo that closes the set is enigmatic. Proceeding at first in whispers over a rolling carpet of arpeggios originating deep in the bass, it gathers forcefulness in its middle section, revealing in its spirit of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahm’s ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40

Haydn’s Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40 is the first of three keyboard sonatas written in 1784 for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each sonata in the set is a two-movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young princess for lighter fare.

The G major Sonata’s first movement is a set of double variations, alternating between major and minor. Its Italian marking Allegretto innocente promises a theme of the utmost naiveté – and Haydn does not disappoint. The movement opens with a lilting tune of a pastoral character in 6/8 time, modestly proportioned and tastefully ornamented – the sort of thing that shepherdesses, and princesses, might delight in humming to themselves.

What follows is a study in character contrasts. The major variations noodle around the flowing 8th notes of the theme in lively patterns of 16ths, but the minor variations seem to be their evil twin. Concentrating instead on the detached notes of the theme, they use off beat accents, chromatic harmonies, extreme dynamic contrasts and sudden rhythmic accelerations to create moments of high drama.

The Presto finale is a gleefully zany romp that opens with two sections of mischievous scamper in the right hand over a steady pulse of chordal harmony in the left. After an episode of minor-mode drama in which the two hands fence for control of the narrative, the scampering sections return in full force. Haydn’s trademark wit shines through with deadpan silences, diversions to unexpected keys, and an absolutely preposterous cadence featuring a chirping crush-note in the high register comically answered by a booming echo in the bass, three octaves below.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) inserted right before the zinger finale, the gigue. Each dance is in binary (two-part) form, and performance tradition has it that each part will be played twice. When the galanteries consist of a matched pair of the same dance form, another tradition says that the first will be played again after the second to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern.

Bach’s partitas are much grander and more technically challenging than his English Suites and French Suites, with larger individual movements. The Partita No. 1 in B flat, published in 1726, is quite an upbeat affair, ranging in mood from cheerful and celebratory in the opening movements to ecstatic, almost manic, in its closing gigue. Even when the pace is slow, as in the sarabande, the tone remains distinctly bright and chipper.

A prelude is intended to introduce the listener to the key they will be hearing a lot of in the course of the work and Bach’s Praeludium does a bang-up job of this, feeling its way methodically through the various scale degrees of B flat until we think we know them as old friends. It blithely ignores its other task, however: to warm up the player’s hands with simple passagework. Anyone who has attempted the opening mordent on a 32nd note without first dipping his fingertips in a hot double espresso will know exactly what I mean.

The fireworks begin in earnest in the Allemande, a toccata-like romp of 16th-note chatter up and down the keyboard, often split between the hands. The following movement is not the usual ‘flowing’ French Courante but its more lively Italian cousin, the Corrente, with enough hops, leaps and swagger to almost classify it as a gigue.

The Sarabande is the longest movement in the work, clocking in at a robust 4-5 minutes of performance time. Normally a slow stately dance in triple meter with a distinct inclination to “sit” with some sense of ownership on the 2nd beat of the bar, this sarabande diverts our attention away from the slow pace of harmonic movement in the bass by means of pertly alive and florid elaboration in the treble.

As galanteries Bach puts in a brace of menuets (the fashionable French spelling of “minuet”). The first ticks along in a constant flow of 8th notes like a mechanical clock while the second is all soothing and sustained in a rhythmically even succession of quarter notes.

The Gigue is a breathless vehicle for the keyboardist’s acrobatic skill, as impressive to watch as it is to hear, with hand-crossings between the bass and treble in every bar to create an antiphonal ‘echo’ effect throughout.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major Op. 7

The title page of Beethoven’s fourth sonata, published in 1797, proclaims this work as a Grande Sonate, a title it richly deserves, not only for its technical demands and extravagant length (Beethoven’s longest sonata until the Hammerklavier Op. 106), but also for its panoramic range of expression. It comprises a sonata-form first movement churning with rhythmic bumps and dynamic surprises, a slow movement of extraordinary expressive grandeur, an unusually lyrical scherzo and a rondo finale with robust contrasts of tone and mood.

Noticeable right off the bat in the first movement is how melody-making takes a back seat to the manipulation of raw sound. The movement opens with a rhythmic tapping in the bass that morphs into a series of scale passages in contrary motion. Rude shocks interrupt the flow until a smoothly flowing second theme can establish a more lyrical train of thought. The development section mulls over the contrast between this lyrical strain and more disruptive impulses, especially Beethoven’s trademark elbow-jabs of syncopation, and the recapitulation is remarkable for an even more forthright assertion of the kind of “rough” texture that the piano is capable of providing with sufficient prodding.

The contrast between the fortissimo ending of the first movement and the piano opening of the second, marked Largo con gran espressione, is shockingly dramatic. This movement, too, makes use of dynamic contrasts but in a different way. It is the silences and pauses inserted into the opening theme, combined with its deep resonance in the lower registers of the keyboard, that give this movement its immense gravitas and extraordinary depth of feeling. Its middle section is full of harmonic tension and an almost operatic sense of drama.

The 3rd movement scherzo Allegro opens in a soothing vein, its gently playful phrases of irregular length toying with the listener’s expectations while still maintaining a distinctly lyrical tone. The Trio in the monstrous key of E flat minor is a real piece of work, murmuring away conspiratorially in a rippling shimmer of broken chords punctuated regularly by sharp ffp accents.

The rondo finale is by turns gracious and volcanic, an odd combination that Beethoven pulls off with aplomb. The opening theme is lovingly endowed with many little sigh motives and colourfully orchestrated in both the mid and high registers of the keyboard. Its main thematic foil in the movement is a stormy patch of heavy chords over a surging left-hand accompaniment of rolling broken chords in the minor mode. These two poles of musical emotion, the gracious and the grumbly—Sir András Schiff calls them “Beauty and the Beast”—somehow manage to be reconciled when the churning left-hand accompaniment figure turns to the major mode to walk the sonata home in its final cadencing gestures.

Frédéric Chopin
Waltz in A minor Op. 32 No. 2
Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2
Waltz in A flat major Op. 42

 In the early 19th century the growing popularity of the waltz occasioned a fair bit of pearl-clutching among the ‘better’ classes of European society, with old maiden aunts and celibate priests leading the scolding with choruses of “Get a room!” Viewed as scandalously risqué for its daring combination of embracing couples and whirling movements, it nevertheless climbed the social ladder until it emerged by the end of the century as the very symbol of elegance, sophistication and social refinement.

The waltz developed in the last half of the 18th century out of country dances from Austria and Southern Germany, and in the Romantic era was absorbed into the world of salon music for the well-heeled. While it maintained its essential musical characteristics—triple meter with one chord to the bar—various nuances congenial to the Romantic spirit were introduced.

Chopin’s cultivation of the “sad waltz,” the waltz in a minor key, was one of these. Another was the amount of melodic content he saw fit to give to the left hand. His wistful, almost moping Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2 displays both of these qualities. It opens with a texture that sees the normal role of the hands reversed: it is the right hand playing the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern while the left sings out a mournful melody in the cello range tinged with pathos. While the major mode does appear to provide a bit of sunshine from time to time, the mood remains nostalgic, with more than a hint of melancholy.

The alternation of minor and major seems more evenly matched in the Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2, a sad piece that stops just short of whimpering by maintaining a nobility of sentiment throughout, especially in its gracious use of melodic ornaments.

The Waltz in A flat Op. 42 is popularly known as “the two-four waltz,” on account of its intriguing matching of duple rhythm in the right hand with the traditional “bass-chord-chord” triplets of the waltz in the left. Register-spanning arabesques of keyboard effervescence make for some ear-tickling listening, interrupted from time to time by outbursts of passion that justify the grand manner of its apotheosis on the final page.

Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat Op. 39

The piano music of Carl Maria von Weber was a fashionable pillar of the repertoire in the first half of the 19th century and much played, both at public concerts and in the home. It suffered eclipse, however, with the rise to prominence of those piano composers of the following generation who were most influenced by it: Liszt, Chopin & Mendelssohn. It stands as a curious cross-breed of stern Beethovenian high-seriousness, polished salon charm, and the exotic wildness of German Romanticism that made Weber famous across Europe as the composer of the opera Der Freischütz (1821).

His Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat, begun in 1814 and completed in 1816, was obviously intended as a display vehicle for the composer’s considerable talents as a pianist. Weber had a huge mitt of a hand, which made the daredevil leaps and elephantine chords of the score much easier to manage for him than for mere mortals. Brilliance is the dominant characteristic of the keyboard writing in this sonata, combined with a preference for getting a full sound out of the instrument by dint of throbbing chords in the mid-range while the right hand frolicks high in the treble like a sportive child at a water park. The colourful, scintillating textures of Chopin can be heard on the horizon in this kind of keyboard writing.

More captivating still is Weber’s sheer delight in piano tone, allied to what his biographer John Warrack described as “the new expressive content he showed that music could hold.” This emphasis on the poetic is evident from the opening bar of the Piano Sonata No. 2: a hushed tremolo in the left hand intoning an infinitely soft quivering octave on A flat that allows a horn-like broken-chord melody to blossom above it. These tremolos are more than just incidental colouring. They recur with dramatic force in the tumultuous development section, both at its outset and its climactic conclusion, giving the impression of a sonata movement that is really aspiring to be a dramatic scene from one of Weber’s operas.

The second movement Andante is a theme and variations that begins with an unusual texture of sustained melody notes in the treble over a sparse harmonic accompaniment that vanishes as soon as it sounds, like a kind of musical ‘Snapchat’ message. The variations are as ingenious for their keyboard textures as for the musical ideas they develop.

The third movement is called a Minuetto but it is really an outrageously theatrical scherzo, full of off-beat rhythms and razz-ma-tazz, out-of-the-blue sound gags. The Trio is somewhat more lyrical, but hardly soothing, with its rapturous flights of passion in the right hand urged on by anxiously throbbing chords in the left.

The rondo finale, with its chromatically dribbly main theme, graciously disposed in neatly balanced phrases, is remarkable for the amount of important thematic play it gives to the left hand, although right-hand sparkle is certainly not lacking in the more display-oriented sections of this movement. What is unusual in such a showpiece is how Weber ends the work quietly, with a modest tapering off of the piano sound he loves so much.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

 

Program notes: Paul Lewis

Beethoven’s Late Piano Sonatas

If ever a composer were to be remembered as going out swinging, that composer would be Beethoven. As ‘sunset’ periods go, the blaze of glory that the late piano sonatas and quartets, the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony lit up in the historical firmament can still be felt warming the programs of concerts around the globe.

The sonatas of Opp. 109, 110 and 111, the composer’s last hurrah in the piano sonata genre, were written between 1820 and 1822. As his sketchbooks show, these three sonatas were worked on all at the same time and may thus be thought to form a triptych, if you will, of Beethoven’s last thoughts on the piano sonata as a genre.

A strong feature of the late instrumental works is their increased concentration of musical thought. Compressed into brief utterances of compelling significance, they seem reduced to their essentials, their composer quite unconcerned about the rules of polite aristocratic musical conversation that characterized his early period.

Emblematic of this increased density of thought is an increased density of texture that often tends towards the contrapuntal, and in particular towards the fugal, as in the finale to the Sonata in A flat Op. 110. Curiously paralleling this phenomenon is an increased density of pure sound, audible in the flamboyant use of trills as pedal sonorities, not just in the bass, but in the top and middle registers, as well. The gradual build-up of sound generated in this way can be heard happening, bar by bar, in the final pages of the Sonata in E major Op. 109.

All this creates not just interpretive challenges for musicians courageous enough to take on these sonatas, but daunting technical challenges, as well. Paul Lewis is brutally honest in this regard, summarizing as follows the gauntlet thrown down by “that belligerent, outspoken, deaf German.”

You know, he’s too bloody-minded to make what he writes convenient for the piano. When he has an idea, he just writes what he wants to, and if sometimes it almost doesn’t work on the instrument – well, that’s your problem. You just have to find a way through it.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, grim resolve and technical grit are exactly the right qualities to bring to works that, despite their eccentricities, have not just remained in the piano repertoire, but crowned it.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven creates in this three-movement sonata an imaginative journey between contradictory emotional states that arrives, in the end, at a reconciliation of opposites. The first movement is a dreamy star- gazing fantasy in moderate tempo that segues into a frighteningly focussed agitato second movement of nightmarish intensity. All divisions are healed, however, in a theme and variations finale that gives voice to both lyrically expansive and contrapuntally driven emotions in turn.

The first movement is remarkable for its compactness, with an exposition that completes its run in a mere
16 bars. The work opens with a succession of amiable harmonies, divided between the hands, that seem to float in the air, fluttering like the wings of a fledgling bird. But a startling diminished 7th arpeggio calls a halt to these innocent musings to introduce a little cheek-to- cheek duet between the soprano & tenor as a second subject before a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soars up and down the keyboard to complete the thought. And that’s it. The exposition is over. On the first page of the score.

These three contrasting elements – fluttering broken- chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement, dominating its development, recapitulation and coda.

In a move deliberately designed to heighten the contrast between the improvisatory-sounding first movement and the pointedly purposeful second, Beethoven moves from E major to its evil twin,

E minor. The musical drama of this movement comes from the struggle of a frantically rising right-hand figure and a sternly descending passacaglia-like bass line, an opposition that summons up a mood of high seriousness and relentless forward drive. This is no scherzo (there is no ‘trio’ middle section) but rather another sonata-form movement, and a highly unorthodox one at that. It seems more concerned with continuous contrapuntal development than the contrast between first and second subjects, and their respective key centres. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism serves to give a sharp edge of pathos to this movement’s sometimes mysterious murmurings and frequent violent outbursts.

The last movement theme and variations ends this sonata in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, flecked at times with a tinge of religious ecstasy. And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while this movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to the Baroque master of Leipzig is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a Lutheran four-voice chorale setting.

The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hocket-style alternation of the hands that outlines the theme in interlocking stroboscopic flashes of melody. Baroque instincts come more fervently to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in two-voice double counterpoint. Variation 4 thickens the texture to a full four imitative voices, leading to the even more severely imitative texture of Variation 5.

In his final variation Beethoven moves to transform his theme, ever so gradually, from a plain chordal harmonisation into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before finally presenting the original melody once again in all its original simplicity.

A nod to Bach’s way of ending the Goldberg Variations, perhaps?

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s second-last piano sonata shares much of the goodwill and warmth of its Op. 109 antecedent but offers us a much rougher ride on the emotional plane. Its three movements pass from human sympathy to rough country humour, then finally from operatic despair to the safe harbour of consolation, resolve and triumph.

The warmth of emotion radiating out from the first movement of this sonata is evident not only in its unhurried pace and the vocal nature of its themes, but explicitly referred to in Beethoven’s first-bar indication: con amabilità (likably). Especially ingratiating in this movement is the passage that leads from the first to the second theme: an ear-tickling, delicate tracery of arpeggios that lovingly spans four octaves up and down the keyboard, even transcending its lowly status as transition when, in the recapitulation, it richly envelops the first theme’s return appearance, like a luxuriant wrap of costly fur.

One has to wonder if Beethoven is just buttering us up for mischief, though, given the pranks he has prepared in the second movement, a scherzo and trio in 2/4 time. This movement, full of shuffle and bustle, is made all the more raucous by what some musicologists politely call Beethoven’s ‘antiphonal dynamics’ but which others less diplomatically refer to simply as ‘shouting’. The first example comes in the response to the opening phrase which, if performed authentically in period style, should sound like a toddler bringing his rubber ducky joyfully and repeatedly into contact with his bath water.

This is not a coincidence. The childlike humour of this movement derives from the use of melodies from
two popular songs in German dialect: Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich (I’m a dissolute slob, and so are you). An odd brace of sentiments, to be sure, mixing domestic rejoicing on the feline front with a blithe lack of concern in matters of personal hygiene. Calls for further enquiry into the relationship between these two semiotic signifiers has gone unheeded in the scholarly community, but perhaps that is all for the best.

The multi-sectioned third movement divides its sympathies between the world of lyrical operatic complaint and that enlivening burst of hope that a right proper fugue never fails to inspire in the downtrodden. This movement, in short, is one of those resounding happy endings that Beethoven in his late period was famous for. But the good news isn’t announced right away as it is in the last movement of, say, the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven makes us work for our victory plum in a succession of sombre soliloquies and plaintive laments.

First comes an exploratory recitative, Adagio ma non troppo, that tests the waters before a sadly songful

Arioso dolente of some emotional urgency pleads its mournful case to our ears. Not to worry, however. A bold three-voice fugue, studded with rising fourths and other optimistic signals of new beginnings, strides forth to the rescue. Gathering an organ-like authority when its bass begins to boom out in octaves, it suddenly loses heart and yields to a second arioso dolente even more halting, more sobbing and despairing than the first. But liking what it hears in the growing sonority of a major chord, repeated over and over, it issues into a second fugue, this time with the theme turned upside down, in inversion. Here is where Beethoven pulls out all the stops, giving full rein to his fugal fury in passages of thematic diminution and augmentation. Finally, this figuration blends imperceptibly into a kind of throbbing accompaniment that allows the fugue subject to soar out and dominate the texture as pure melody.
A final flourish of arpeggios, reminiscent of the first movement’s engaging tracery but much more resolute, ends the sonata on a note of triumph.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s farewell to the piano sonata genre is a two-movement work of striking contrasts – contrasts of form (sonata-form vs. variation form), of key (C minor vs. C major), of tempo (allegro vs. adagio) and of mood (restless argument vs. transcendent serenity).

The work opens with a slow introduction in grandstyle, Maestoso, in the double-dotted manner of a Baroque French overture. But disturbingly, its first chord is a diminished 7th, casting deep uncertainty onto its harmonic intentions. More grand gestures, just as unsettling, sweep up from the bass like a lumbering dinosaur waving its massive tail, but then the tension goes underground. A mysterious passage ruminates with menacing portent until a rumbling crescendo in the bass issues into the movement’s forthright first subject, a ‘call of fate’ theme worthy of the Fifth Symphony (also written in the composer’s famous ‘C minor mood’). Betokening the seriousness of the proceedings, the transition passage that follows launches directly into a driving fugato to which the brief appearance of a fleeting moment of lyricism, in the second subject, provides little relief.

The textures in this movement are unusually stark, often reduced to mere unisons between the hands ranging over vast swathes of the keyboard, or grittily gnawing away at a contrapuntal conundrum in a feral frenzy of frustration. All fury spent, whether purged or repressed, the movement seethes to its conclusion, ending in a C major chord that seems more a reprieve than a resolution.

This, of course, is the key of the theme and variations that follow, but there the resemblance ends. Constructed out of the simplest harmonic materials, the theme of this finale, with its bland harmonies and open melodic intervals of 4ths and 5ths, seems more a canvas left intentionally blank than a melody of sharply defined character to be exploited and embellished.

Variation movements were traditionally the ‘light fare’ in a collection of sonata movements, sandwiched between movements of greater discursive weight laid out in more complex formal patterns. This variation movement outweighs all previous Beethoven piano finales in its seemingly impossible pairing of earthly profundity and celestial radiance.

‘Forget what you know of the piano,’ Beethoven seems to be saying, ‘let us converse in pure sound.’ While
many variation sets had aimed to start over with each new ‘take’ on the theme, emphasizing the variety of guises in which it could be dressed up, Beethoven drives his variations forward with a simple, unified purpose, achieved principally by a gradual, but continual increase in the pace and complexity of rhythmic patterning.

What begins as a simple skeleton of a theme in relatively stable note values is slowly transformed into a luminous multi-layered wall of sound, shimmering with high trills and pulsing with the thrill of low tremolos. That he should bid farewell to the piano sonata with as soft, as simple, and as eloquent an ending as concludes this sonata confirms his place in music history as not just one of the great rebels, but one of the great poets, as well.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

Program notes: The Vertavo String Quartet with Paul Lewis, piano

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major K. 414

Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent 
of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a piano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.

The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.

Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show. Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes, parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement, but more importantly, as 
in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.

Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch. Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.

The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it
presents – four in the orchestral exposition alone. The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall. The ‘development section’, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra. Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.

The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of J.S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J.C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute. And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.

The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure. The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repeated motive of three notes descending by step. When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra!

Thrills, spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

 

Bela Bartók
String Quartet No. 6

In the film Play It Again Sam, Woody Allen nervously busies himself arranging his apartment to be just right for the arrival of his date. He is torn over the appropriate choice of background music: will it be Oscar Peterson, or a Bartók string quartet? The implication is clear: does he want to appear ‘hip’ or ‘intellectual’?

Even without the neurotic nod from Woody Allen, the Bartók string quartets have always had a reputation
for being ‘intellectual,’ and for good reason. They are tightly-argued, dense works composed in continuity with the great German tradition of motivic development and thematic transformation. They stubbornly pursue an agenda of making a work grow out of a small number of single cells of musical material – a kind of ‘sourdough’ approach to making the musical loaf, if you will.

Bartok’s motivic cells are usually made up of only a 
few notes lying within a small melodic range, normally the space of a perfect fourth – which immediately sets them apart from the octave-spanning dozen-note pitch patterns of that other 20th-century genre of intellectual music: 12-tone composition. Like the five-note spans of many a Stravinsky tune (the finale of The Firebird springs to mind), the melodic units in Bartók’s string quartets are human-scale tunes, and like those of Stravinsky as well, undoubtedly influenced in this by the composer’s in-depth exposure to the folk music of his native land.

This quartet was composed in the fall of 1939, in the
 last months that Bartók was to spend in Hungary. His mother was dying, his own health was deteriorating, and World War II had just broken out, causing him to make plans to escape with his family to the United States. Such is the context for the unusual formal structuring 
of this work, in which each movement begins mesto
 (i.e., sadly) with the same lyrical, but lonely chromatic melody. This melody wanders its lonely path, mostly by whole tones and semitones, fixating finally towards the end on a motive that will be fundamental to the work
as a whole: three notes within a perfect 4th that change direction after the second note.

This melody will gradually expand in textural weight as it introduces each successive movement. It is presented in one voice, the viola, at the start of the first movement, in two voices at the beginning of the second movement (with three instruments playing a single line), in three voices at the start of the third movement, and in all four voices in the last movement.

The first and last movements are in a kind of sonata form, with a developmental middle section. They treat their material (the three-note motive and two other ideas) in an abstract way in the tradition of European ‘absolute’ music, with much use of imitation between the instruments and structural manipulation of motives, especially by inversion.

The two inner movements are much more connected with the outside world, though they see that world through the distorting lens of irony and satire. The second movement features a grotesque march – surely a comment on the militarism that was driving him to flee his homeland – with a contrasting middle section that parodies the strumming cimbalom of Hungarian folk music. The third movement is less subtle still. It breaks out into open laughter in a clownish burlesque relieved only by a brief interval of sentimental remembrance in its middle section.

By the fourth movement, the downward pull of the mesto melody is irresistible and its influence, along with mystified quotations from the first movement lead the quartet to end in a questioning haze of emotional numbness, symbolized by the futile attempt of the viola to begin its lonely message over again in the closing bars.

 

Antonin Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonin Dvořák’s music and the pull of his traditionally crafted but ethnically flavoured compositions is equally strong among contemporary audiences today. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the aural structures of music were becoming ever more complex and fatiguing for the listener, Dvořák offered a range of esthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era – formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality devoid of the chromatic ambiguities that made Wagnerian harmony such a distorting circus-mirror for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s enduring love of exoticism and nationalist sentiment with his gracious, soulfully folk-music-tinged melodies, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies, and with his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are
 to be found in his magnificent Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which, along with Schumann’s E-flat Quintet, Op. 44 and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet Op. 34, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.

The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in
 a sunny A major, it dips by the end into the shadows
 of the minor mode before yielding to a restless,
 more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This abrupt contrast between thematically derived passages is a particularly Brahmsian touch
(the F Minor Quintet begins with the same contrast) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody will be presented before a second subject, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola, soon enveloped by yet another utterly scrumptious piano figuration. Dvořák’s textural inventiveness is limitless.

The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability to merge imperceptibly into the recapitulation. The movement is crowned by an extended coda that drives relentlessly to its conclusion with all the propulsive energy of a Rossini overture.

The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought’, and the lonely, pensive opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and more upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A- C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, pleading, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, also in F♯ minor.

In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.

Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between
the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.

This movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a viable replacement for prescription antidepressants.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

VRSchubert – Day 22: Performance Program Notes

 

Program notes help us prepare for the concert we are about to enjoy by providing a context in which the piece was composed and a deeper understanding of the composition’s musicality. Quell your excitement as you count down the hours to Paul Lewis’ performance of Schubert’s final three piano sonatas tomorrow evening at the Chan Centre by reading the following program notes:

Paul Lewis performs the Late Schubert Sonatas

The year of Schubert’s death, 1828, saw the birth of an extraordinary number of masterpieces from the pen of this master lyricist: the “Great” C major Symphony, the Mass in E-flat, the String Quintet in C, thirteen of his finest songs, and the final trilogy of great piano sonatas. This trilogy might be compared with the last three symphonies of Mozart. Each trilogy was written within a short period during the last year of its composer’s short life; each is a compact picture of its creator’s musical personality comprising three works of markedly differing character; each is a distillation of its composer’s last years of suffering and was written in a period of despair and deprivation; all the sonatas and symphonies are spacious in design, noble in concept and almost epic in scale; and each trilogy contains one stormy work in a prevailing minor key.

These sonatas also prompt thoughts on Beethoven’s last works in the genre, “final pronouncements of great minds,” as Ernest Porter puts it. “The sense of finality,” writes Porter, “is with us who cannot imagine any greater succeeding works and who perceive in these a summation of the composer’s output. Both had gone through trial and tribulation and the passions of sorrow and joy, and had arrived at that period when they could meditate on the inner meaning of life while still expressing its heights and depths. … The sequence of emotional thought is more highly controlled and resolved with persuasive logic.”

Schubert died before the sonatas were published. Diabelli published them only in 1838, with the dedication going to Schumann, an apt choice in light of his championship of Schubert’s music.

With regard to Schubert’s treatment of form, it is worth quoting Joseph Machlis’ observation on the sonatas in general: Schubert “was not the master builder Beethoven was. Inevitably he loosened the form, introducing into its flexible architecture the elements of caprice and whimsy, improvisation and inspired lyricism. His sonatas are spacious, fantasy-like compositions that display all the characteristics of the Schubertian style – spontaneous melody, richly expressive harmonies, rhythmic vitality, charming changes of key, emotion-charged shifts from major to minor, figuration that is almost always fresh and personal (with an occasional tendency to ramble), and great freedom in the handling of classical form.”

Piano sonata in C minor, D. 958

The opening subject of the C minor sonata – tragic, stormy and brusque – is often compared with the theme of Beethoven’s 32 Variations for Piano in the same key. The second subject, however, is a gracious, utterly beguiling melody in E flat major that only Schubert could have written, and probably the most memorable theme in the entire sonata. Yet Schubert devotes little time to it in the course of the first movement’s development section, preferring instead to focus on the defiant opening idea and even more so to a new, serpentine motif which becomes the predominant material of the development.

The Adagio opens with a solemn, hymn-like theme in four-part harmony in the key of A flat major. Two unsettled interludes, both derived from the same contrasting material in this A-B-A-B-A-form movement, interrupt the placid mood.

The Menuetto returns to C minor. The tempo marking of Allegro (rather brisk for a minuet) helps avoid what otherwise might have been a somber movement. The central Trio, reminiscent of a Ländler (a rustic Austrian dance in triple meter), has “Schubert” written all over it.

The finale is infused with a touch of the demonic. On paper, the rhythmic pattern suggests a tarantella (a lively Italian dance), but the effect in performance is closer to a gallop – of a ride to the abyss.

 Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959

The A major sonata opens with a grand, majestic subject that breaks off at the end to introduce one of the movement’s most characteristic features, gentle cascades of triplets. Schubert extends both the opening subject and the triplets for some time, spinning out his lyric ideas with ineffable ease. Eventually he introduces the second subject, a serenely reposeful theme as notable for its simplicity as for its charm.

The slow movement is a three-part structure. A gently rocking theme of almost hypnotic power slowly unfolds in F sharp minor. By contrast, the central section is highly dramatic, full of clashing dissonances, long trills, chromatic scales and rumbling bass.

The Scherzo is one of Schubert’s most delightful, and its lighthearted, bouncy mood all the more welcome after the seriousness of the two preceding movements.

The long rondo-finale reveals Schubert at his most endearing and congenial, calling to mind Schumann’s famous comment about Schubert’s C major Symphony: music of “heavenly length.”

Piano sonata in B flat major, D. 960

Olympian in scope, expansive yet coherently organized in its concern for proportion and balance, saturated with gorgeous lyricism and often discussed in terms of hushed reverence by its admirers, the B flat sonata stands as a landmark in the history of musical achievements. The first movement opens with one of Schubert’s most heavenly themes – a tender, reflective progression of smoothly-connected chords suggesting vast spaces and extended time spans. The sublime beauty of this theme is underscored by its utter simplicity. It closes on a low, mysterious trill, as if from a distant region. Three more times we hear the theme, each one slightly altered, but no less ingratiating. “Schubert’s piano melodies are not involved with struggles, metamorphoses and chasms,” said pianist Jörg Demus; “they wander along with gentle corpulence – likenesses of their creator – through the musical keys as through countrysides, changing by means of an apparently abrupt harmonic inflection, appearing suddenly in another light and assuming a new countenance from one measure to another.”

The deeply contemplative second movement is no less sublime than the first, but is cast in a simple A-B-A mold. The accompaniment consists of a constantly repeated four-note figure that in itself contributes to the music’s hypnotic effect.

After two long and profound movements, some lighthearted relief is needed. This Schubert provides in the form of an elfin Scherzo in which the single theme darts about, touching briefly on various keys. The brief central Trio relies on syncopation and a darker mood for its effect.

The finale’s main theme is announced by a one-note “call to attention,” which is associated with the theme upon nearly every subsequent appearance in the movement. On and on flows the music, propelled by endlessly repeated rhythmic patterns and a natural power of melodious invention.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

 


SPECIAL TICKET OFFER! As part of the #VRSchubert campaign we’re offering a 25% discount* on Paul Lewis tickets. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE or call the VRS box office at 604-602-0363. Use code TWEET when ordering.

VRScubert: In anticipation and celebration of Paul Lewis’ performance of the Late Schubert Sonatas on October Tuesday, October 23, the VRS is embarking on 23 days of tweets, Facebook and blog posts about the life and work of Franz Schubert and the celebrated interpreter of his music.

Follow us daily on Twitter with the hashtag #VRSchubert, visit facebook.com/vancouverrecitalsociety, or check back in with us each day at vanrecital.com/blog.

* Discount on A, B, C, D price section and cannot be combined with other offers.

VRSchubert – Day 21: Tweet to win!

 In celebration of Paul Lewis’ upcoming concert and us nearing the close of our #VRSchubert campaign, we are running a Twitter contest to WIN a copy of Paul Lewis’ latest album – Schubert Piano Works. Send a out a comment into the Twitosphere with the hash tag #VRSchubert and at tag @vanrecital between October 21 and 23 and you could win!


SPECIAL TICKET OFFER! As part of the #VRSchubert campaign we’re offering a 25% discount* on Paul Lewis tickets. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE or call the VRS box office at 604-602-0363. Use code TWEET when ordering.

VRScubert: In anticipation and celebration of Paul Lewis’ performance of the Late Schubert Sonatas on October Tuesday, October 23, the VRS is embarking on 23 days of tweets, Facebook and blog posts about the life and work of Franz Schubert and the celebrated interpreter of his music.

Follow us daily on Twitter with the hashtag #VRSchubert, visit facebook.com/vancouverrecitalsociety, or check back in with us each day at vanrecital.com/blog.

* Discount on A, B, C, D price sections only and cannot be combined with other offers.

VRSchubert – Day 19: Balancing the art and life

Paul Lewis and Simon Trpceski at the 2011 Midsummer Music Festival in Buckinghamshire, UK

Between his prior ten year long Beethoven Project, and his current  Schubert Project Paul Lewis is no stranger to the touring circuit: Paul averages one-hundred concerts a year. When you factor in rehearsal and travel time going from London, to New York, to Vancouver and back again, that is a lot of time “on the go”! How does Paul Lewis wind down? “I wish someone could explain to me how it’s done,” Paul said in a 2009 interview. “I have three young children and spend my time with music – so between those things, life is busy enough. I’ve just had to accept that I can’t put in the hours I have to for my pilot’s license. And I do try to make a point of staying tuned, aware of what is going on in the world.”

In addition to a busy performing schedule, Paul, alongside his wife, the Norwegian cellist Bjørg Lewis, is the artistic director of Midsummer Music, an annual chamber music festival held in Buckinghamshire, UK. So perhaps, like so many of us, Paul’s passion and profession have become intrinsically and inextricably woven into his life, and we, the audience, so gratefully acknowledge the fruits of that passion.


SPECIAL TICKET OFFER! As part of the #VRSchubert campaign we’re offering a 25% discount* on Paul Lewis tickets. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE or call the VRS box office at 604-602-0363. Use code TWEET when ordering.

VRScubert: In anticipation and celebration of Paul Lewis’ performance of the Late Schubert Sonatas on October Tuesday, October 23, the VRS is embarking on 23 days of tweets, Facebook and blog posts about the life and work of Franz Schubert and the celebrated interpreter of his music.

Follow us daily on Twitter with the hashtag #VRSchubert, visit facebook.com/vancouverrecitalsociety, or check back in with us each day at vanrecital.com/blog.

* Discount on A, B, C, D price sections only and cannot be combined with other offers.

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