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Program Notes: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Z.E.N. Trio

Franz Schubert
Notturno in E-flat major  Op. 148

Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments.

Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. With the resolute character of a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.

The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.

Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.

What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944).  Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

 

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published  it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

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

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

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

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

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

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

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

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

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

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

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

So why isn’t she better remembered?

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

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

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

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

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: TETZLAFF-TETZLAFF-VOGT TRIO

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major K 502

The piano trio developed out of the ‘accompanied’ keyboard sonata, a makeshift compositional genre that attempted to compensate for the weak ‘tinkly’ tone of the early fortepiano (forerunner of the modern pianoforte) by the addition of a violin to reinforce the singing line in the right hand, and a cello to reinforce the bass in the left. In the 1780s, after technical advances in instrument manufacture gave the piano a louder and more penetrating tone, Mozart made concertos for piano and orchestra the centrepiece of his public performances in Vienna.

This new prominence of the piano as a solo instrument also affected the kinds of music written for private performance in the home. The five trios for piano, violin and cello that Mozart composed between 1786 and 1788 are all, like the concertos, three-movement works in which the piano plays the leading role. The first of these, the Piano Trio in B flat K 502, is particularly concerto-like in the flamboyance of its keyboard writing. But it also demonstrates the new independence that could be granted to the violin and cello once their ‘accompanying’ role was made obsolete.

The opening Allegro is marked by an extreme economy of means. Virtually the entire movement derives from the opening dialogue between the piano and the stringed instruments, predicated on the contrast between a nonchalant grouping of appoggiaturas in the piano and a sparkling ‘ear-tickle’ figure that chirps in reply from the violin. This opening theme also serves, unusually, as the movement’s second theme, scored differently and presented in a higher register. With such a concentration of musical materials in the exposition, it is not surprising that Mozart introduces a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section.

Among the concerto-like features of this movement are passages of ‘busy-work’ in the piano covered by more sustained melodic activity in the strings, and extended stretches of pearly piano runs leading either to a new formal section, or to a trilling cadence.

The second movement Larghetto is a lyrical outpouring of highly decorated melody, structured as a dialogue between piano and violin, with the cello largely playing a supporting role. A contrast to this florid melody is found in the much less artful middle section which, while departing from the same initial gesture, offers up a more naively simple brand of tunefulness.

The Allegretto finale is a companionable, gently playful rondo constantly enlivened by the same sprightly ‘ear-tickle’ figure that appeared in the first movement. The mood is consistently upbeat, with the piano at particular pains to make the texture sparkle with colourful passagework. Eventually even the cello feels emboldened enough to join in on the fun as it trades phrases back and forth with the violin in the closing section of the score.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944). Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with left hand high in the treble and the right hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. An almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly – or playfully, it’s hard to tell which – over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

Robert Schumann
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 63

There is a distinctly ‘Brahmsian’ feel about Schumann’s first piano trio, with its thick, almost orchestral scoring, richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. Composed in 1847, its densely woven compositional textures reflect Schumann’s recent study of Bach but its expressive manner is Romantic to the hilt.

At its opening we are plunged into a brooding drama already fully underway, a churning cauldron of sinuous yearning phrases, echoing back and forth in imitation, that seem to never end. The urgency and passionate intensity of this opening rides on the back of a continuous series of delayed resolutions and syncopations that weaken the strong beats of the bar. This is a feature shared by both the first and second themes of the movement. The development section is notable for a remarkable change in mood, a sudden break in the clouds signalled by a chiming accompaniment in the piano that introduces a completely new theme, a sort of hymn melody hauntingly intoned by the cello and violin playing near the bridge.

The 2nd movement scherzo has a spirit of boundless energy and focused enthusiasm that would do credit to the cheering fanbase of a local football team. Built on a series of driving scale figures echoing between the piano and strings in a peppy dotted rhythm, it smoothes out these scale figures in the more flowing central trio section, which is structured as a series of three-part canons.

The dramatic centre of gravity of this work is its slow movement, a lyrical outpouring of emotion with the violin and cello as its major protagonists while the piano digs deep into its low register to provide a rich bed of sonic support from below. The emotional range of this movement is exceptionally wide. The opening and closing sections are filled with forlorn sighs and seemingly aimless harmonic wanderings, but they enclose a rapturous middle section filled with expansive feelings of contentment and inner joy.

The last movement follows the model of the “triumphant finale” established by Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony, in which the minor mode changes to major and whatever dark clouds may have hovered over previous movements are swept away in a flood of joyous celebration. The tune chosen by Schumann for this celebration is stitched together from motives from the opening of the first movement and almost has the character of a patriotic hymn. But unlike the theme at the opening of the first movement, this finale theme just can’t wait to cadence – as often as possible – and the rhythmic pulse is definite and emphatic. A rondo-like alternation of moods cleverly disguises how the opening theme motivates the entire kaleidoscopic range of variations that drive this euphoric movement to its jubilant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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.

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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.

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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: Jonathan Roozeman

Luigi Boccherini
Sonata in A major G 4

Luigi Boccherini was perhaps the greatest cellist of the 18th century, and like his compatriot of a previous generation, Domenico Scarlatti, he spent the most active portion of his professional life at the court of Spain. His royal patron, the Spanish Infante Don Luis Antonio, younger brother of King Carlos III, was a music-loving prince with his own string quartet. The addition of Boccherini to this ensemble was likely the creative prompt for the more than 100 string quintets – in the unusual configuration of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos – for which he is principally known.

A cellist of extraordinary technical skill, Boccherini, like Paganini after him, wrote for his own hand and acquired a reputation as a virtuoso performer through performances of his own works. One feature of his playing that astonished his contemporaries was his predilection for playing the violin repertoire, at pitch, on the cello, and indeed passages in which the cello plays in the high register are a recurring feature of his own scores.

His musical style stands at the intersection of two eras: floridly ornamental in the late Baroque manner, but early Classical in its slow harmonic rhythm and clear periodic phrasing, with direct repetition of short phrases a prominent characteristic.

The opening Adagio of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major displays well the style of ornamentation for which he was well known. Its gracious but relatively unadventurous melodic lines are set within an elaborate filigree of appoggiaturas, trills and flamboyant scalar flourishes. An ascending arpeggio in the penultimate bar nearly sends the cellist off the fingerboard to reach a high E above the treble staff.

The following Allegro demonstrates Boccherini’s ability to create an entire movement out of the repetition of small phrases and fragmentary motives. His habit of slurring phrases from a weak beat to a strong gives his music a gentle gracefulness that has even been called “effeminate,” a quality noticeable, as well, in the insistent sigh motives of the concluding Affettuoso. It is no wonder, then, that the good-natured charm of his works led to his being called “Haydn’s wife.”

Claude Debussy
Nocturne and Scherzo

Debussy made his first public appearance as a composer in 1882 in a performance of his Nocturne et Scherzo, a work originally scored for violin and piano but later that year revised for cello. This work of his student years was performed only once and then vanished from the public record until the manuscript was rediscovered in the early 1970s and Mstislav Rostropovich gave it a ‘second debut’.

It is comprised of two sections, arranged in a rounded three-part A-B-A form. Despite the titling, the scherzo is actually the first section, imprinted throughout with the 2nd-beat emphasis and drone tones of a mazurka. The second section is the dreamy nocturne, that in its lilting rhythms seems to evoke the nostalgia of a gentle waltz more than the stillness of the night.

Claude Debussy
Sonata in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme, tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by—or superimposed with—long strands of lyrical melody.

Jean Sibelius
Romance Op. 78 No. 2
Malinconia Op. 20

Sibelius, though best known today for his symphonies and Violin Concerto, could not live off these large-scale works alone. And so it was that during The Great War (1914-1918) he composed a set of four pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78, expressly directly at the domestic market. These were simple tuneful pieces intended for amateur performance in the home.

The second of this set, simply entitled Romance, soon became one of his most popular compositions, and this work has remained a staple of both the violin and cello repertoires. The wistful carefree character of its eminently hummable melody encapsulates the period’s nostalgia for an age of parlour music that would soon slip away into memory.

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In February of 1900 the typhus epidemic that was sweeping through Finland claimed the life of Sibelius’ 15-month-old daughter Kirsti. From the pain of this event came a work shortly thereafter for cello and piano entitled Malinconia (Melancholy), a work in which the composer allowed himself to grieve.

The cello recitative with which it opens struggles upward, step by weary step, to arrive at an anguished cry of grief. In response, the piano rips up and down the keyboard as if to paint the flailing of pleading arms in the wind.

Each instrument is given extended solo cadenzas that exploit the extremes of their range. When playing together, they often play apart: the piano in syncopated pulses of bewilderment deep in the bass against the cello’s wailing melody in the mid-range. Or they quiver at each other in turn, in passages of sustained tremolo. French composer Eric Tanguy has deemed this work “utterly unique in the entire literature of music for cello and piano.”

Franz Schubert
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D 821

Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871, long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.

The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.

The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.

The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: Yevgeny Sudbin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludwig van Beethoven
Bagatelles Op. 126

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

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

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

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

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

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade No 3 in A flat major Op. 47

Chopin’s four ballades all share a tone of epic narration but the third of the set, the Ballade in A flat Op. 47, stands apart for its bright sonorities and healthy, optimistic mood. It lacks the vehemence of expression that characterizes the other three ballades, Opp. 23, 38 and 52, with their terrifying codas of whirlwind intensity.

The work is dominated by two principal themes of contrasting character but united by common elements of basic melodic structure. The first, announced at the outset, is a songful melody that begins by rising up six scale notes, echoed by antiphonal responses in the left hand. Its contrapuntal profile is that of two voices expanding out in opposite directions from a central point, a pattern that intensifies on the following page into celebratory cadences exploding out into ecstatic arpeggios to the low and high registers simultaneously.

The second theme changes the mood completely. It is a dancelike melody of instrumental character that descends six scale notes, outlined in a series of coquettish leaps made all the more coy by the constantly syncopated rhythm in which they are presented. While this second theme dips often into the minor mode, it rarely stays there long, often slipping back into the major when cadencing. The minor mode is thus constantly restrained from taking on the mask of tragedy.

While the first theme remains elegantly static throughout the work, the second undergoes considerable development in a texture of ornamental figuration that dances alternately above it and then resonantly rumbles below. This development is the dramatic heart of the piece, and immediately follows a third theme area of remarkable flamboyance, with extroverted multi-octave arpeggios issuing into joyously rambunctious passagework over large swaths of the keyboard.

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YEVGENY SUDBIN: NOTES ON SCRIABIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Camille Saint-Saëns
Danse Macabre   arr. Yevgeny Sudbin

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

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.

*                      *                      *

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: FILIPPO GORINI

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata A flat major Op. 110

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

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

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

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

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

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

Béla Bartók
Sonata Sz. 80

In 1926 Bartók’s musical style took a ‘Bachian’ turn towards more clearly polyphonic textures. His Sonata from that year presents us with three movements in two distinct character profiles. The opening and closing movements are bold, direct and massively self-confident, characterized by driving energy and a machine-like sense of rhythm. The slow middle movement, by contrast, is unremittingly bleak, filled with dull, aching dissonances that audience members who have experienced dental surgery may find triggering.

The first movement opens with a motive comprised of a short skip and a series of hammered repeated notes, reminiscent of the striding pulse of the last of Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka. Stravinskian, as well, is the sonic resonance ringing out clearly from the well-spaced chords that accompany this stomping, hammering pulse throughout the movement. Bartók doesn’t really present us with ‘themes’ as such, but rather short motivic cells that are continually varied, and frequently subject to hemiola effects as they shift in alignment, rhythmically, with respect to the bar line. This is a very athletic movement, with many sudden changes of register, including passages in which the right hand leaps across the left in order to punch out notes deep in the bass.

If repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity, then the opening 6 bars of Bartók’s 2nd movement—featuring an A-flat-E-flat-F chord in the left hand, repeatedly set against a jarring E natural in the right—are clear cause for concern. This movement is bafflingly dissonant. Textured in uncompromisingly gritty 3-voice counterpoint that plods foreword at a relentless quarter-note pace, it offers little to orient the ear in its tangled texture of semitones and minor 9ths: only occasional reminders of the opening harmonic sound-salad and a fixation on rising scale figures. Even the abruptness of its final cadence, normally a place of emotional resolution and rhetorical disarmament, comes as a shock to the nervous system.

The monothematic final movement is by comparison a pleasant jog in the park. Its principal concern is a jaunty little folk tune of a pentatonic stamp announced at the outset. The melodic outline of this ditty—a gapped space of five tones down, then back up—gives it the air of a sea shanty, but the more it gets varied with repetition the more it starts to sound like “Good King Wenceslas”. Despite its constant changes in time signature between 3/8, 2/4 and a very Stravinskian 1/4, this movement manages nonetheless to come off as a real toe-tapper.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Klavierstück IX

The 20th century witnessed the development of new approaches to thinking about the sounds that make up what we call ‘music’. The 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg spawned the serialist movement, dominated by a search to create new formal structures for music organized around ‘series’ (i.e. fixed patterns) of pitch, dynamics, timbre and other properties of sound. And then, beginning in the 1950s, sounds never heard before by human ears, artificial sounds created electronically, were admitted into the composer’s toolkit.

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the centre of all these developments, producing works based on the newly developed structural principles, and utilizing the new sound palettes that had been discovered. Through this work he quickly became the public face of avant-garde contemporary music—so famous, in fact, that he is featured in the crowd of faces on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (fifth from the left, in the back row).

The 19 works that Stockhausen composed with the title Klavierstücke (keyboard pieces) between 1954 and 2003 embody some of his most important ideas about how music can be internally organized, and the sound gestures that can form part of it. The ninth piece in this series, Klavierstücke IX completed in 1961, is one of his best-known piano works.

This work presents many challenges to the uninitiated, as the parameters of music that we are used to identifying—harmony, melody and rhythm—are not hierarchically deployed in the way that we take for granted in ‘traditional’ music. But a listener coming to this music for the first time should not be overly concerned with its ‘geometric’ dimensions—for example, with how the rhythmic proportions throughout the piece are organized by the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (etc.) in which each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Nor try to count how many times the dissonant four-note chord that opens the work is played in the first (shall we say) ‘phrase’, and how many times in the second. (It’s 139 and 87, for those who like to keep track).

Analytically-oriented listeners might attempt to follow the two main ideas in the piece that alternate in dialogue: the opening four-note chord repeated at varying speeds and dynamic levels, and a slowly rising chromatic scale. But committed admirers of impressionism will want to just set their minds free, close their eyes, and imaginatively listen to the sounds emanating from the stage as if they were the soundtrack to a movie, asking themselves as they listen: what kind of movie is this?

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly struggle and spiritual transcendence—framed in terms of the raw elemental building blocks of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness, a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity. Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The 2nd subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration accompanying the variation theme. The 3rd variation arrives at degree of elation that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.

It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until is transmuted, finally, into the essence of the divine.

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

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