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Program notes: Andrew Tyson

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key – from which they would depart, and to which they would return – and that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed from a root, a third and a fifth, at a minimum. The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric, as is evident in his Sonata Op. 1, published in 1910.

This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. Its principal melodic motives however, presented in its opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the successive intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, spanning a minor 7th in a dotted rhythm, announced in the opening bar, and (b) a falling sequence of thirds, in the next bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.

And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.

What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.

Francis Poulenc
Napoli Suite FP 40

The aesthetic attribute most prized by the French is that utterly indefinable quality known as ‘charm’. Among its leading proponents among 20th-century composers is Francis Poulenc, whose picture-postcard piano suite Napoli whimsically evokes the seaside pleasures, the serene beauty and urban bustle of Italian life as seen through the lens of an urbane French tourist in Naples.

The opening Barcarolle imitates the rocking of a small boat lapped by the choppy waves of the sea. Its left-hand triplets of widely-spaced sonorities are pedalled into blurry billows of watery wetness while cross-rhythms in the right add an extra element of wobble to its cheery melodic flow.

The middle-movement Nocturne is all stillness and moonlight, with open sonorities sounding out across a wide swathe of the keyboard over a stabilizing pedal tone in the bass, interrupted only by melancholy musings of a sharper harmonic colouring in its central section.

The Caprice italien that ends the suite is a virtuoso tour de force modelled, according to the composer, after Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Poulenc’s capricious finale, like its model, alternates chatty, slightly manic sections of moto perpetuo animation with more lyrical moments of reflection. The lyrical section at the centre of this movement is almost melancholy, its sudden outpouring of sentiment after so much cheekiness balancing precariously on the knife-edge of parody. Given that Poulenc’s night haunts included music halls and gay bars, might we not be hearing here the teasingly intimate stage confessions of a drag-queen Marlene Dietrich on a stool in net stockings with a cigar?

Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2
Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52   

Chopin was of mixed Polish and French parentage. He spent the first half of his life, up to the age of 20, in Poland. The last half of his life, until his death at 39, was spent in France. It should be no surprise, then, that his musical style is a similar cross-breeding of French elegance and Slavic soulfulness. His nocturnes, with their intimate songful melodies, breathe the perfumed air of the Parisian salon. The exotic scales and displaced accents of his mazurkas, by contrast, convey more the flavour of his native soil.

Fundamental to an appreciation of Chopin’s music is the recognition that he was a composer of small pieces to be performed in small spaces. While Liszt filled concert halls with his Freddy-Mercury-sized ego, Chopin wrote exquisite miniatures directed towards a select audience of aristocratic patrons playing or listening to his music in the comfort of their more-than-comfortable homes. In his entire career he gave no more than 70 public performances, and even at these the complaint was frequent heard that his playing was too soft to fill the hall. His is music of refined sentiment and nuance, to be heard close-up.

*                      *                      *

The opening section of his Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 in the sugary key of F-sharp major features a melody with the languidly falling sighs and ecstatic leaps up to the high register of an opera diva singing Bellini. A major challenge for the pianist in this section is how to incorporate Chopin’s delicate dribbling ornamentation into the melodic line without disrupting the poised unfolding of the melody itself. The middle section in doppio movimento (double movement) introduces an element of drama, with its insistently repeated dotted figures atop a rippling accompaniment of quintuplets, symbolizing the quickening heartbeat of an anxious soul. The return of the innocent opening material then seems to ask: was it all a dream?

There is an Eastern, Oriental flavour in the tonal realm occupied by the brief, melancholy Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2. The wincing bite of its opening melodic interval, a dissonant minor 9th, is further elaborated in the bittersweet chromatic wanderings of a plaintive melody constantly hovering between major and minor.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3 is haunted by wistful remembrance, symbolized at its opening by pedal tones in the mid-range held over several bars while dancelike harmonies echo eerily around on either side. These memories of the dance become more forceful and assertive in the mazurka’s middle section before the opening mood of pensive reflection returns.

*                      *                      *

Chopin’s Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of story-telling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842-43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems to reign unperturbed but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones heard in the opening carry real pathos, and are made more plangent and urgent when repeated with a countermelody in the alto.

The 2nd theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the 1st theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then … magic! The bell tones of introduction return and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.

But the 1st theme’s lament intrudes on the daydream, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The 2nd theme follows, but it, too, finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until … magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.

Five angelic chords descend from Heaven but cannot stem for long the coda’s hellbent fury, a fury that drives the work to its apocalyptic conclusion with bitter and tragic resolve.

Franz Liszt
Les Cloches de Genève

The three collections of piano pieces entitled Années de Pélerinage represent Liszt’s poetic response to the cultural landmarks and picturesque natural settings of the places he lived in or visited in his travels throughout Europe. The idea of ‘pilgrimage’ (pélerinage) in the title is a literary reference to Goethe’s famous Wilhelm Meister novels in which a young protagonist embarks on a spiritual quest to ‘find himself’ through his wanderings. That Liszt should present his life experience as ‘literature’ should be no surprise, given that he presented his concerts as ‘poetry’ – having invented the term ‘recital’ for his solo public appearances.

The first book of Années de Pélerinage is devoted to Switzerland, where Liszt lived in the mid-1830s with his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The last piece in the collection, Les Cloches de Genève (The Bells of Geneva) is dedicated to his daughter Blandine, born to the Countess in Geneva in 1835. The work is a classic piece of Lisztian musical pictorialism.

Subtitled Nocturne, it opens in the stillness of the evening with a distant carillon of bells that then gently transforms into the rocking accompaniment of a tender lullaby in honour of the newborn baby girl.

The work progresses in a series of ingenious keyboard textures imitative of first the chiming, then the sonorous ringing, and finally the hefty swaying of bell-towers and churches throughout the city. It ends poetically with a return to the innocent bell sounds with which it began, their sonic resonance fading softly into the distance.

Maurice Ravel
Miroirs

Ravel was a member of an avant-garde coterie of musicians, writers and visual artists who jocularly called themselves Les Apaches, Parisian argot for “ruffians” or “hooligans”. Between 1904 and 1905 he composed Miroirs, a suite of five pieces, each describing “in a mirror,” as it were, a fellow member of the club. While the connection with individual personalities is unclear (and may even have been fanciful), these pieces remain among the most pictorially vivid—and technically challenging—in the piano repertoire.

Ravel vividly depicts the irregular flight of night moths in the first piece of the set, Noctuelles, which opens with a busy blur of chromatic flutter extending over vast swathes of the keyboard but centring on the upper range. The unpredictability of the moths’ flight is depicted in phrases of uneven length that rev up out of the blue in rapid-onset crescendos, with brief silences punctuating the succession of sweeping phrase gestures. The moths seem to settle on some object of mothy interest in the slower-paced central section, but soon lose interest and flit back to life in the closing section.

Ravel described Oiseaux tristes as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” As the piece opens we hear one solitary bird, singing alone, but soon joined by others. Fauré describes the texture as follows: “Fundamentally Ravel set store by the player bringing out two levels: the birdcalls with their rapid arabesques on a higher, slightly strident level and the suffocating, sombre atmosphere of the forest on a lower level which is rather heavy and veiled in pedal without much movement.”

Une Barque sur l’océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.

Alborada del gracioso is a satirical portrait of a character from Spanish theatre, the crude and clownish gracioso, the equivalent of Beaumarchais’ Figaro but a touch more malevolent and mischievous. He is pictured singing an alborado, or morning serenade. The strumming of the guitar and distinctive punchy rhythms of Spanish folk music permeate this work. This is the most ‘pianistic’ piece in the set. Among the technical challenges keeping pianists practising after midnight are extended passages in rapid-fire repeated notes and double glissandi in 3rds and 4ths played by the right hand alone.

The suite ends with La Vallée des cloches, a multi-layered sonic depiction of the lingering overtones of bell tones hovering in the air. Sonorities based on 4ths and 5ths evoke the muffled metallic resonance that drifts in every direction as bell-clappers in towers near and far strike their target.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV

Richard Wagner
Isolde’s Liebestod arr. Franz Liszt

The 19th century in Europe was an age in which psychological states went mainstream in the arts, becoming a particularly powerful stimulus for musical expression. A new genre, the nocturne, for example, captured that eerie feeling of being alone with one’s lyrical thoughts at a still point in the night. Other constellations of feelings and moods were captured in the era’s invention of new “character pieces” such as impromptus, rhapsodies and moments musicaux.

No 19th-century composer went further in marshalling the resources of musical expression into direct and compelling proxies for emotional experience than Richard Wagner. And none of his operas exhibit a more focused concentration on one single emotion, romantic love, than Tristan and Isolde (1859).

Wagner’s opera tells the tale of Isolde, an Irish princess promised in marriage to the King of Cornwall who, on her way over to be married, falls in love with his nephew Tristan after they drink a love potion together. Tristan’s death in consequence of this betrayal sets up the final scene of the opera, the Liebestod (“love-death”) scene, in which Isolde, standing over Tristan’s dead body, commemorates him rapturously by imagining their passion and his death as a single indissoluble unity.

Wagner vividly brings to life the insistent quality of the emotion of love through his use of the same phrases, repeated over and over again in a continuous chain of chromatic harmonies which seem to open up new vistas of experience with each occurrence. The feeling of yearning and love-longing is so tellingly conveyed by the use of suspensions and delayed resolutions that it is hard not to feel like an adolescent again while listening.

Liszt lavishly layered his transcription with tremolos to evoke the fine gradations of orchestral colour in Wagner’s score, and thickened the keyboard texture with a machine-gun spray of repeated chords to convey the massive impact of a full orchestral tutti. These techniques inevitably raise questions of musical taste, and it is the performing pianist’s challenge – as it always is when playing Liszt – to avoid suggesting the kitschy excesses of staged melodrama or silent-film music.

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergei Prokofiev
10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op. 75

Prokofiev completed his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and by all accounts this was not a good year to be a Soviet musician. It wasn’t the low pay or difficult working conditions that were top-of-mind for most, but rather the risk of being dragged from their homes and executed by firing squad. Comrade Stalin, you see, was getting grumpy and his Great Purge (1936-1938) had begun.

Plans to produce the ballet had to be cancelled, due to its association with a theatre director who had been purged. So in 1937, as friends and neighbours were randomly disappearing from the apartment block where he lived, Prokofiev moved to salvage his ballet by fashioning a number of suites from the score, including one for piano entitled 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, which he performed in public that year and published as his Op. 75. His strategy worked. Performances of the suites, both for orchestra and for piano solo, sparked interest in mounting productions of the complete ballet, which began in 1938, and Romeo and Juliet went on to become one of the composer’s most successful works.

In creating a version for piano, Prokofiev was coming full circle, as the original score had been composed for piano first, and then orchestrated. These pieces, then, are not mere orchestral reductions, but pianistically conceived scene paintings with the hands of the virtuoso pianist in mind. In keeping with its role as music for dance performance, the tonal language is relatively simple, in parts reminiscent of the clear textures of his ‘Classical’ Symphony in D (1917). Also present in abundance are Prokofiev’s trademark quirks: quicksilver diversions to remote keys, melody notes that land one note off from where you expect them to go, and his classic “off-road” harmonic wanderings within phrases that always somehow manage to find their way back home just in time for the final cadence.

The suite begins with two dance movements in a popular vein that introduce us to the moods and manners of the common folk of fair Verona, where the composer sets his scene. The carefree opening Folk Dance gets its ‘folkiness’ from its simple two-voice texture and the drone-like elements in its bass line. The following Scene: The Street Awakens is simpler still, its chipper mood guaranteed by the steady pulse of its prancing accompaniment.

We then go indoors for the arrival of guests to the Capulet ball. The opening Minuet theme is ceremonially repeated as new guests arrive, alternating with more flowing passages as each new arrival wanders in to inspect the room.

Juliet as a Young Girl sees our 14-year-old heroine playfully scampering around her room as she gets dressed, incessantly fussed over by her Nurse. Moments of tenderness intervene when she catches sight of her own beautiful self in the mirror.

The heavy pulse, eccentric tone clusters, and fractured harmonies of Masks alerts us to the fact that Romeo and his best mate Mercutio are crashing the party. The widely-spaced arpeggiated chords in the left hand of this piece are a major test of the pianist’s agility and endurance.

Romeo and Juliet meet and dance together for the first time in the most famous and recognizable piece from this ballet, the dance of the Montagues and Capulets. Ominous, elegant, seductive and sinister, this music sums up the entire dramatic conflict of the ballet’s storyline.

This is followed by the calm and soothing reassurances of Friar Laurence, whose quiet dignity and seriousness of purpose is conveyed in the steady deliberate pace of his music portrait.

Mercutio, by contrast, is portrayed as whimsical, brash and self-confident, almost to the point of recklessness. The amount of wide-ranging keyboard scamper in this piece tells us that here is a guy who runs with scissors.

The Dance of Girls with Lilies shows us Juliet’s girlfriends, who have come to wake her up on the day she is to be married to Paris, the husband her family has chosen for her. The recurring minor harmonies in this piece hint that there is something wrong, something unstated but slightly creepy, about her situation.

The finale is an affectionate look back at Romeo and Juliet before Parting after they have spent the night together. Their drowsiness as they are awoken by the rising sun is conveyed by the static harmonies and chiming pedal tone of the opening. A mood of blissful nostalgia hovers over this piece to bring the suite to a close on a note of romantic reverie.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.

A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major   BWV 828

The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.

Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.

Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.

One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.

François Couperin
L’Atalante

It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.

Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.

The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.

Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.

This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.

The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”

Samuel Barber
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26

In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.

The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.

Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.

The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.

Johannes Brahms
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.

Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.

In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.

Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?

The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.

The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

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: GEORGE LI

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

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also 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 fond 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.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with 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 tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly 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 as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ZHANG ZUO

Ludwig van Beethoven
32 Variations in C minor WoO 80

The theme that Beethoven chose for his 32 Variations in C minor (1806) has a Baroque feel to it, with its chaconne-like harmonic pattern in the left hand and sarabande-like second-beat emphasis in the right. This theme, however, is far from the characterless blank canvas that Baroque composers were wont to lay down as the foundation for their compositional e orts. Within its 8 bars lurks a mini-drama of a distinctly Beethovenian stamp, a drama of struggle, crisis, and resolution that is reproduced in each of the 32 variations that follow.

The left-hand harmonic pattern is built upon a bass line that descends by semitones, one chord to the bar, severe and implacable, like the decrees of Fate. Opposed to this is a courageously heroic right hand that reacts to these alarming developments and by dint of amboyant run-ups struggles to escape in the opposite direction, falling back each time, but inching up a semitone higher with every attempt. Finally, a crisis is reached when both hands land together, sforzando, on a massive F-minor chord (4 notes in each hand), the climactic effect of this is magnified by a stunned silence in the empty first beat of the next bar. Interrupting this silence, both hands then join together

in unison to effect a whimpering cadence, their tails between their legs, chastened for their e orts.

The first 31 variations each t tightly within the 8-bar pattern of the original theme, structuring their transformations on the general harmonic pattern, the melodic outline, the rhythmic o set of the right-hand entry in the original. Successive variations are often grouped together by the use of similar elements in each: arpeggios in Var. 1 to 3, swirling accompaniment figures in Var. 10 & 11, a switch to C major in Variations 12 to 16, low dynamic range in Var. 23 to 25, pervasive double thirds in Var. 26 & 27.

Variation 31 marks a literal return to the falling intervals and run-up scales
of the original theme’s right-hand statements, against a swirl of left-
hand figuration that the final variation takes up in both hands to usher in Beethoven’s final emphatic thoughts on this theme in an extended peroration that even includes the original theme’s humble ending.

 

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D 958

Beethoven cast a long shadow over Schubert. Of the three last sonatas that Schubert wrote in September 1828, just a few months before his death, it is the Sonata in C minor which most reveals his ‘Beethovenian’ side. Among
the Beethovenian traits of this sonata are its choice of key, synonymous
with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, and the many hints that Schubert drops throughout the work to indicate just how familiar he was with Beethoven’s instrumental style.

The opening of the rst movement Allegro is the most evident of these, modeled clearly after the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor in its meter, rhythm, harmonic pattern, and thematic outline. Schubert manages to evade the tragic implications of his punchy C minor theme, however, by nonchalantly slipping into the major mode in the transition to his angelic 2nd theme in E at, with its bell-like upper-voice pedal notes ringing sweetly in the ear. But serious drama does inhabit the development section, especially its latter half built upon a mysterious neighbour-note motion in the bass gnawing away at the nerves while chromatic scales heedlessly trickle down from above until the aggressive one-two punches of the opening theme gradually surface to announce the recapitulation.

The Adagio second movement owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 in its solemn pace
(a rarity in Schubert slow movements), the halting expressive demeanour
of its opening, and its style of melodic decoration. The influence of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 can also be felt in
a number of its accompaniment patterns. The movement is structured in 5 alternating sections of lyrical repose and emotional turmoil, the latter sections marked by the prominent use of octaves, either anxiously pulsing in triplets or strutting about in a fractious display of contrapuntal discord.

The restless Menuetto & trio that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. It appears strangely conflicted, in fact, as to whether it actually wants to be a dance at all. Sustained lyrical merriment seems impossible as each successive idea seems undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in its highly irregular phrase lengths and occasional deviations into the minor mode, while its mysterious pauses imply a flow of emotion cut o in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale, a stylistic sibling to the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3. Here the spirit of the dance
is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling – but strangely ominous – rondo with the developmental features of a sonata-form movement. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback (of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig) and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short motives are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Enrique Granados
Goyescas No. 1 ‘Los Requiebros’

The immensely gifted Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados expressed his admiration for the starkly emotional canvasses and etchings
of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) in a suite of evocative piano pieces that he called Goyescas (1911). The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates an intention to depict the amorous adventures of the lower classes of Spanish society, the courting rituals and social interactions of the swains (majos) and the maids (majas) inhabiting the working class neighbourhoods of Madrid in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The first piece in the set, Requiebros ( irtatious compliments), begins with the tale of a pick-up line and its reception. A guitar-like ourish opens the piece with the 8-syllable rhythm of the jota, a form of Spanish popular music danced and sung to the accompaniment of castanets. These latter are picturesquely represented in the score by means of twinkling mordents, snappy triplet figures, and scurrying inner voices, the throw-away character of which figures among the major technical challenges of this piece. Tempo changes of a stop-and-start character mark the various stages of the negotiation, but the sumptuous tonal banquet offered on the last page of the score leaves listeners in no doubt whatsoever as to how rapturously the flattering initiatives referred to in the title were welcomed.

Franz Liszt
Vallée d’Obermann from Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse
)

Étienne Pivert de Sénancour’s novel Oberman (with one ‘n’) was not well received at its publication in 1804. So forcefully, however, did it resonate with the emerging æsthetic preoccupations of the age that three decades later it was a ‘must-read’ in Parisian literary circles, its eponymous central character virtually a watchword for the Romantic sensibility in art. Set in a picturesque valley in Switzerland, it tells the story of a young man enthralled, but at the same time overwhelmed and confused, by his encounters with Nature and the feelings of longing that they engender in him. Helpless to relieve this eternal yearning, he settles on a life of utter simplicity in an attempt to escape the inner struggle and torment of his emotional life.

Liszt’s own travels through Switzerland in the late 1830s inspired his Vallée d’Obermann (with two n’s), first published in 1842 and later included,
in a revised version, in the first of his piano suites entitled Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse) published in 1855. Overtly literary in conception, Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann pays tribute to its famous forbear in a type of musical construction that sees its principal theme, a descending scale figure, suffer harmonic and chromatic transformations that parallel the emotional turmoil experienced by Sénancour’s sensitive young hero. This descending scale figure, announced in the left hand as the work opens, permeates every page of the score.

In the first of the work’s three parts it evokes in its chromatic wanderings the listlessness and ennui that the hero’s emotional exhaustion has produced in him. A more developmental middle section begins in an angelic vein to recall how naively and simply his travails began. Here the chromatic inflections of the theme are interpreted a affectionately, in a spirit of songful contentment, but trouble appears on the horizon as the mood is interrupted by a tumultuous passage in tremolo recitative, with octaves flying hither and yon like the mad fury of a caged animal.

The most miraculous transformation of all comes in the final section, when Liszt’s descending scale motive emerges harmonized as a melody of comforting warmth and welcome consolation that builds, strengthened by the courage of its convictions, to an exalting climax.

Throughout the work, however, dense, gritty dissonances, weakly resolved, bear witness to the intensity of the emotional struggle being portrayed and the work ends, almost bitterly, on one of these.

Franz Liszt
Rhapsodie Espagnole S 254

Inspired by a trip to Spain in the winter of 1844-1845, Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole embodies his unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures and demonstrates the kinds of musical gestures that made his stage presence so compelling to audiences.

The work opens in high drama, with deep rumblings in the bass issuing into sweeping arpeggios up to the high register where the angelic strumming of celestial harps prepares us for a musical feast of divine inspiration. Liszt begins with the traditional Folies d’Espagne tune, which Rachmaninoff also used in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, like an old man mumbling to himself on a country road, the tune gradually gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its elaboration extends over the entire range of the keyboard.

But then, at the peak of all this exuberance, Liszt interrupts the proceedings with a ‘music-box’ effect in the high register, chiming out a playful and childlike jota aragonesa, the popular character of which is reinforced by drone tones in the mid-range. Succeeding variations continue to dazzle and astonish until a tender recitative provides a sentimental pause for lyrical reflection.

His nostrils now flaring widely, Liszt cracks his knuckles to unleash a muscular apotheosis of his two main themes in a concentrated display of bravura that may have you reaching for your opera glasses to verify just how many arms the pianist is using, and how many fingers are attached to each.

Protective headgear is recommended, as chips of ceiling stucco may begin to fall before this piece’s final chords thunder through the hall.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

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