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Program Notes: Filippo Gorini

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Art of Fugue  BWV 1080

By the 1740s Bach had largely withdrawn from composing new church music for Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, devoting his creative energies instead to a series of large-scale projects that responded more directly to his own personal and professional interests. These monumental works were encyclopedic in scope, systematic in design, and concentrated in focus.

That focus was the practice of canon and fugue, the two most intellectually challenging musical genres of his time.

The year 1744, for example, saw the publication of the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a companion to the first book of 1722, both sets of which made the case for equal temperament in keyboard tuning by providing a collection of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. Each of the 48 individual fugues in this two-volume work was composed with its own individual fugue subject, demonstrating, as Bach surely intended, the wide variety of theme types to which fugal procedure could be applied.

Most of the other major works from this decade take the inverse approach, showing the variety of contrapuntal techniques that can be applied to a single theme or motive.  These ‘monothematic’ works include the Goldberg Variations (1741), the Musical Offering (1747) and the Canonic Variations on ‘Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her’ (1747).

But crowning this series of learned essays is Die Kunst der Fuge, a collection of 14 fugues and 4 canons that illustrate the range and variety of contrapuntal techniques available to the serious composer, from the elementary to the arcane. In the manuscript each fugue is labelled contrapunctus, in Latin, to enhance the magisterial authority of the project. The work was largely complete by 1742 but Bach continued to revise it and add movements throughout the decade, leaving it, at his death in 1750, with its final massive fugue incomplete. The manuscript was edited by his sons and published in 1751.

 

The Motto Theme

Running through The Art of Fugue is a theme of Bach’s own invention that acts as a kind of ‘motto’ for the work as a whole. The unique inner architecture of this theme is specifically designed to maximize the potential for ‘motivic echoes’ in whatever texture it appears.

Its triadic opening, affirming D minor as its stable tonal centre, sounds almost fanfare-like, enabling the theme to stand out in a multi-voice texture by virtue of its easily recognizable intervals: a rising 5th and two falling 3rds.

The remaining portion, however, presents the exact opposite, moving in scalar fashion, by step, to outline an unstable interval: the diminished 4th C#-F. This implied dissonance requires a resolution on the tonic (D) that arrives in the 5th bar.

In support of this harmonic resolution is an accelerating rhythmic pattern as the theme moves along – from half notes to quarter notes to 8th notes – providing a slingshot-like release of momentum driving the theme home to its conclusion.

Bach’s theme is a miniature masterpiece all on its own, but what he manages to do with it in The Art of Fugue is nothing less than miraculous.

 

The Simple Fugues:  I to IV

The Art of Fugue is organized so that the fugues presented illustrate fugal procedure in increasing order of intellectual and compositional complexity: from the simplest to the most intricate. The ‘simple’ fugues present the theme — called the subject in fugue parlance – in a texturally clear manner that allows it to stand out at every appearance. In the simple fugues there is a clean division between single entries of the theme and background contrapuntal detail, so that the ear is never confused as to what to listen for.

Contrapunctus I seems to emerge from the depths of time, its key of D minor evoking the austere severity of a work in the Dorian mode from centuries past. A persistent 8th-note rhythm soon comes to dominate its onward progress with lively interchanges between the voices in sequential repetition occurring frequently in the episodes, i.e., the sections in which the fugue subject is not sounding in the texture.

Contrapunctus II takes a stylistic turn towards France by adding a dotted rhythm to the subject, a clear reference to the French preference for instrumental pieces with a jaunty, dance-like character.

In Contrapunctus III the fugue subject appears in both its inverted and right-side-up forms. But the emotional character of this fugue is dominated by the slip-slide-y nature of its highly chromatic countersubject, the term for a secondary theme that accompanies the subject virtually every time it appears.

Contrapunctus IV uses the inverted form of the subject, combining it a constant stream of motivic chatter that merrily repeats two fragments of the original right-side-up version. The first comes from the four descending 8th notes at the tag-end of the original theme, the second from the falling 3rds of its opening triad – which in their sequential repetition many scholars have thought sound like cuckoo calls.

 

Canon alla ottava

Four two-voice canons are found in Bach’s The Art of Fugue, each based on some variation of the motto theme. Filippo Gorini has judiciously placed these canons on his program as ‘boundary markers’ to set off the five principal groupings of fugues in the work.

A canon, for those unfamiliar with the term, is simply a round. Its answering voice, however, need not enter on precisely the same pitch as the leading voice, as it does in such round songs as “Frère Jacques” or “Row, row, row your boat.” Canons take their full technical name from the interval at which their answering voice does enter. “Frère Jacques” or “Row, row, row your boat,” then, would be referred to as all’ unisono (at the unison).

The first round in this work is alla ottava (at the octave) and it uses an elaborated version of the motto theme in which many single melody notes are transformed into triple 16ths while others are shortened into staccato 8ths. The resulting dance-like rhythm is almost gigue-like.

 

The Stretto Fugues: V to VII

In his second grouping of fugues Bach ups the intellectual ante a notch by introducing procedures that significantly increase the density of motivic reference in the fugal texture. He does this in two ways.

First, he introduces stretto, which is to say the close overlap of different voices singing out the same melody. The effect is like that of hearing a marching band playing a tune that echoes back from nearby buildings a beat or two later.

Second, he presents the fugue subject not just upside-down, i.e., inversion, as in previous fugues, but in augmentation (double note values) and diminution (half note values) as well. Being able to follow these various versions of the fugue subject presented at different time scales – often addressing the ear simultaneously – requires a degree of eyebrow-knitting concentration that not all listeners are born to achieve. Give yourself extra points if you notice how the opening statement of the subject in all three of these fugues is inverted in the answer.

Contrapunctus V uses a dotted-rhythm version of the motto theme with passing notes filling in many of its intervals. With all this passing motion the texture becomes creamy smooth but intensity builds up as the distance between overlapping entries in stretto is gradually reduced to a single beat.

Contrapunctus VI is another fugue in the French style, but not the French dance style. The abundance of heavily dotted rhythms, rushing 16th-note figures and ringing trills suggests more the pompous stop-and-go character of a classic Lullyan French overture. The same filled-in version of the subject is used as in the previous fugue, in both upright and inverted forms, both regularly paced and in diminution.

Contrapunctus VII is denser still in its tossed salad of motivic references, with the fugue subject working its way in plodding augmented note values from the bass all the way up to the soprano, in both right-side-up and inverted versions. There are virtually no episodes in this fugue since almost every bar is frothing, churning or gently burbling with some version of the subject.

 

Canon per augmentationem et in contrario motu

This canon sounds almost modern with its jagged melodic lines, ecstatic leaps and sudden chromatic detours. The contours of its two voices in canon are derived from the principal notes of the motto theme, but the answering voice is the inversion of the leading voice – in augmentation (!). This has the effect of making it sound like a ‘walking bass’ to the jazzy-sounding meanderings above.

Then, just to make things interesting, the two voices switch roles halfway through, the ‘walking bass’ becoming the ‘walking treble’ and the former soprano line going squirrelly in the nether regions of the keyboard.

 

The Multiple-Theme Fugues:  VIII to XI

Bach’s next step up in complexity is to write fugues with more than one principal theme, each theme getting its own exposition (the term for the opening section of a fugue in which all voices present the fugue subject in turn).

Contrapunctus VIII is a triple fugue, i.e., a fugue with three separate thematic subjects. The opening theme is full of open intervals, wandering chromatically to outline the melodic descent of an octave. The second, coming after a resolute cadence, is a whinging lament in continuous 8th notes clearly audible in the texture by virtue of its insistent rap-tap-tap of repeated notes. Finally a third subject, a segmented descendant of the motto theme, exhales into the texture like laboured breathing, three quarter notes at a time, with a rest on the first beat of each bar. These three subjects are introduced in successive expositions, after which they constantly bump into each other until, mirabile dictu (wondrous to report), they all get combined together at a final gathering of the clan to create a climactic ending.

Contrapunctus IX, by contrast, is a peppy double fugue with an opening fugue subject that begins with an octave leap, making it instantly recognizable in the texture. This is eventually paired with an augmented version of the motto theme to create a merry-go-round of toe-tapping excitement so infectious, that this fugue has even been recorded by the Swingle Singers.

A mood of calm reflection returns in the double fugue of Contrapunctus X, which opens with a theme in sighing three-note cells, as in Contrapunctus VIII, and which later encounter a dotted version of the motto theme with filled-in passing notes. A small number of motives is presented in a seemingly endless variety of guises, unfolding in a constant flow of varied melodic lines.

The mighty triple fugue of Contrapunctus XI uses the same three subjects as animated Contrapunctus VIII, presenting them first in their inverted form and then in their original upright versions. But the emotional character of this fugue is much different, more profoundly searching in its advanced chromaticism, a chromaticism that seems to be reaching out to the furthest edges of the sound world.

 

Canon alla duodecima, in contrapunto alla quinta

This canon bubbles over with ear-tickling rhythmic effervescence, presenting an elaborated version of the original motto theme  constructed out of roiling sextuplets that alternate with duple-value 8ths. The interval of a falling diminished 7th adds rhetorical drama to the melodic line.

 

The Mirror Fugues

Not content to have merely created two separate fugues in Contrapunctus VIII and Contrapunctus XI from the original and inverted forms of the same fugue subjects, Bach sets himself the challenge of writing pairs of single-subject fugues in which not just the fugue subjects but all the individual voices, and the textures as a whole, are exact mirror images of each other.

So the bass line in the first fugue of each pair become the soprano line of the matching second fugue, but with its intervals inverted, and similarly with the tenor and alto lines.  The vocal lines and the textures they embody perform this switch in the middle of each so-called “mirror” fugue.

Contrapunctus XII preserves the melodic shape of the original fugue subject exactly, but puts it in triple meter to create a gently lilting rhythmic feel in both fugues of the pair.

Contrapunctus XIII alters the theme considerably with filled-in triplet 8th notes and a perky octave leap, that combined with this fugue’s pervasive dotted rhythms makes you actually forget what a dazzling intellectual feat is unfolding in your ear.

 

Canon alla decima, in contrapunto alla terza

The appeal of this utterly charming canon lies in its simplicity and easy-to-follow melodic lines, which mix long notes with innocently swaying triplet 8ths. Bach seems to depart from his austere pose as the learned composer of intellectually rigorous textures by offering the performer a bit of freedom at the final cadence with the indication cadenza – an invitation for the performer to improvise a bit of fancy fingerwork of his own to end the piece in style.

 

The Last Fugue

Bach’s final fugue in this series remained unfinished at his death in 1750 and the specifics of its overall architecture have been the subject of debate amongst Bach scholars. Given the systematic increase in intellectual complexity and contrapuntal skill demonstrated in successive groups of fugues as the work progresses, it is reasonable to assume that this 14th fugue was meant to crown the set by displaying Bach’s absolute mastery of the form in some way.  But how?

The answer seems to lie in the three themes that Bach chose for this multiple-subject fugue, themes that sum up in one final work the different styles of melody presented so far and the emotional characters they evoke.

The first subject is a near relative of the motto theme, concentrating in long note values on the principal tones of the D minor triad. Proceeding at an even quarter-note pace, it recalls the austere mood of Contrapunctus I.

The second subject presents another kind of melody, ornamenting the motto theme in a continuous stream of 8th notes that twist and wind in a pattern that contrasts with the placid calm of the opening section.

The third subject increases the musical tension significantly, moving chromatically within a small range around the notes B-flat, A, C and B natural – not coincidentally the German musical spelling of the composer’s own name: B-A-C-H. And it is just at the point when Bach begins to combine all three subjects together that the manuscript suddenly ends, leaving us breathlessly bereft of what contrapuntal marvels might have come in the bars to follow.

 

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But is it ‘music’?

The extraordinary feats of contrapuntal skill displayed by Bach in his Art of the Fugue have given rise to bewildered push-back amongst astonished commentators, prompting them to ask: Is this really music? The mere act of posing such a provocative question implies an answer in the negative and is motivated by two distinct lines of thought.

The first sees the work as purely didactic, as Augenmusik (music for the eyes) intended merely for silent study by aspiring contrapuntists rather than as a work intended for the enjoyment of audiences in live performance. This, however, is a false dichotomy, as the artistic merit of Chopin’s Études, Bartók’s Mikrokosmos and Bach’s own Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach amply prove.

A second, more serious objection to the work’s suitability as concert music is a reproach often levelled at 12-tone serial compositions: that the essential structuring elements of these works is beyond the capacity of human perception to appreciate. And admittedly, the likelihood that even the most alert listener – with perfect pitch and a fresh injection of espresso – might remember the initial scoring of one of Bach’s mirror fugues well enough to notice its complete textural inversion halfway through is remote indeed.

And yet, as the saying goes in software development: this is not a bug, it’s a feature.

In the worldview of early-18th-century religious thought, which Bach shared, God was immanent in all Creation. All things on earth were imbued with the presence of the Divine, and manifested that presence in all its astonishing variety of forms and its underlying unity of purpose. To be bewildered by this astonishing variety and unity of purpose was to engage in an act of worship.

Bach, whose many manuscripts are marked with inscriptions betokening deference to the greater glory of God, conceived of his creative musical output as a sonic parallel to the variety and orderliness of the created world, a world that must inevitably surpass all human understanding.

So every fractal echo in his fugal textures of motives from the original motto theme – every rising 5th, every falling 3rd and every melodic phrase in stepwise motion – is a theological statement, standing proxy to echoes of the Divine in the natural world. In this regard, experiencing bewilderment at the dazzling complexity of Bach’s fugal textures is as natural as feeling overwhelmed with awe when contemplating the patterns of the stars in the night sky.

By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8788068

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Golda Schultz

Clara Schumann
Liebst du um Schönheit | Warum willst du andre frage | Am Strande | Lorelei

Clara Schumann (née Wieck) was a major figure in nineteenth-century music. As a child prodigy, she toured Europe with her father and teacher Friedrick Wieck, meeting Goethe in Weimar and Paganini in Paris. After her marriage to Robert Schumann in 1840 she balanced her role as super-mom to the eight children she bore with that of an internationally celebrated pianist—while still finding time to compose a considerable number of works for piano and chamber ensemble as well as more than two dozen songs.

Her love marriage to Robert Schumann was the central sustaining element in her emotional life before his death in 1856. Almost all of her songs were composed as Christmas or birthday gifts for her husband, who along with Schubert was a major influence on her compositional style. Like her husband, she wrote accompaniments that included preludes, interludes and postludes to the vocal line, making the piano into a musical commentator with an interest in the poetic text equal to that of the singer.

Their mutual sympathy in compositional style is no better demonstrated than in the joint publication of the song collection featuring their lieder entitled Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling with dual opus numbers (her Op. 12 and his Op. 37), published in 1841. Love’s Spring by the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was a collection of love poems written during his courtship of Luise Wiethaus, whom he married in 1821. The attraction the newly-married Schumanns must have felt for this collection of poems is obvious.

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Liebst du um Schönheit is the second song in the Schumanns’ joint publication. It poses the question of what is worth looking for when looking for love. Is it mere beauty, or youthfulness, or material wealth?  No, the poet replies, love is its own reward.  The pedal drone and gently rocking figures in the accompaniment are reminiscent of Chopin’s Berceuse but here they stand emblematic of the constancy that characterizes real true love.

The eleventh song in the collection, Warum willst du andre fragen asks how true love can be found and identified. And the answer is always the same: it’s in the eyes where the look of love is always unmistakable. The ‘four-squareness’ of Clara Schumann’s setting, with its uniform four-bar phrases, is offset by a harmonic inventiveness that maintains the listener’s interest from stanza to stanza.

Am Strande (1843), with a text by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) translated by Wilhelm Gerhard (1780-1858), reminds us that Clara Schumann was a piano virtuoso of the first rank. Her piano accompaniment to this lied churns up the keyboard in imitation of the churning sea that separates the lovers of the poem’s text.

Lorelei by poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) tells the tale of a siren-like maiden haunting the banks of the Rhine River who tempts distracted river voyagers to their deaths with her bewitching murmurs. Clara Schumann is reported to have possessed an autographed copy of Schubert’s famous lied Erlkönig, which evidently provided the model for the drumbeat of repeated notes, expressing the anxiety of the scene, in the piano accompaniment of this song.

 

Emilie Mayer
Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen | Du bist wie eine Blume | Erlkönig II

The New Grove describes Emilie Mayer as “the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic period” and it is easy to see why. Drawn to the larger compositional forms–which in that period only men were considered capable of mastering—her output includes numerous orchestral works (eight symphonies and four overtures), an opera, dozens of instrumental sonatas, eight string quartets, and numerous solo piano works, as well as nearly 130 songs for solo voice or vocal quartet.

Her talent and skill were honed in studies with some of the leading figures in German music, including song composer Carl Loewe (1796-1869), with whom she studied composition, and theorist Adolf Bernhard Marx (1795-1866), with whom she studied counterpoint and fugue. Her works were widely performed in Europe during her lifetime but suffered eclipse after her death and are only now being re-discovered.

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Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen is a setting of a poem by Helmina von Chézy (1783-1856), the librettist of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Euryanthe (1823) and playwright of Rosamonde (1823) for which Schubert wrote incidental music. In this poem the female speaker is enticed into passionate thoughts of love at nightfall. The highly decorated vocal line and oom-pah-pah rhythm of the piano accompaniment evokes the style of an opera aria by Bellini.

The bel canto singing style is even more evident in Mayer’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s Du bist wie eine Blume, a poem gushing with tender sentiments of love and longing, communicated by the many sigh motives in the vocal line and the occasional outburst of virtuosic display. The piano accompaniment is more than a discreet witness to the singer’s emotions, and pulses with the excitement of a heartbeat at the word Herz (heart) in the text. Mayer’s expressive use of harmony in this lied is exceptionally refined.

Goethe’s spooky folk ballad Der Erlkönig describes the theft by an alluring nature spirit of the soul of a young boy as he rides through the forest in the arms of his father on horseback. This poem has been set more than 130 times but Emilie Mayer appears to be the only composer to set it twice. Her second setting, composed 30 years after her first, eschews the classic depiction of galloping horse’s hooves to concentrate on the wind whistling through the trees, melodramatically portrayed by creeping minor scales in the bass and anxious tremolo trill figures in the mid-range. Her varied depiction of the four voices in the poem (narrator, boy, father and spirit) is utterly masterful.

 

Rebecca Clarke
Down by the Salley Gardens | The Tiger | Cradle Song | The Seal Man

Rebecca Clarke was a pioneering British composer and professional violist who spent much of her creative life in the United States. She was one of the first female students of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) at the Royal College of Music in London and one of the first female professional orchestral players. Best known for chamber works such as her much-recorded Viola Sonata (1919) and Piano Trio (1921), she also composed 52 songs in a variety of styles throughout her life.

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William Butler Yeats’ poem Down by the Salley Gardens is the lament of an impetuous young man in love with a young woman who bids him to “take love easy.” But he, “being young and foolish,” persists in his ardour and pays the price in emotional pain. The simplicity and folksong-like character of the text is reflected in the sparseness of accompaniment and modal harmonies of Rebecca Clarke’s 1919 setting of this poem.

William Blake’s famous poem Tiger, Tiger stares fascinated in horror at the destructive power residing deep in the unconscious of every living thing that moves, as symbolized by the tiger. Remarkable in Rebecca Clarke’s dark expressionist setting of 1927-1931 is how completely divorced the piano ‘accompaniment’ is from the singer’s questioning persona. The piano is the tiger, ranging menacingly up and down the keyboard, seeming ready to pounce at any moment. Particularly chilling are the piano-tiger’s final growls in the closing bars.

Her treatment of Blake’s Cradle Song from 1929 is very different. Here the texture is quite simple and transparent, dominated by streams of parallel chords in the piano accompaniment, evocative of both the innocence of childhood and a child’s drowsy drifting into sleep.

The Seal Man is drawn from English poet John Masefield’s re-telling of the Celtic myth of the seal creature that takes on human form to lure women to their deaths in the sea. Rebecca Clarke’s setting is vividly dramatic with numerous atmospheric touches such as the ‘wet’ figurations in the piano that open and end the song, framing the action as a ‘sea story’ from start to finish. The vocal line is raw and dramatic, often declaimed without any piano accompaniment at all, but in the end it is the haunting overtones of the piano that devour the listener’s attention, just as the sea swallows up the poor young girl in this eerie tale about the dangers of love.

 

Nadia Boulanger
La mer est plus belle | Prière | Élégie | Cantique

French composer, pianist and conductor Nadia Boulanger studied composition with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire but she is best known as a music educator. Her students have included some of the leading composers, arrangers and performers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti and Astor Piazzola, to name but a few.

She composed works for orchestra and for chamber ensembles, as well as over 30 songs. Her compositional style is similar to that of Debussy in many ways.  Like Debussy, she uses whole-tone or modally-tinged scales and ambiguous but vividly coloristic harmonies in sequences of parallel chords, stabilized by long pedal tones in the bass.

La mer est plus belle by symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) pays tribute to the immense power of the sea, a quality conveyed in the massively sonorous waves of piano sonority Nadia Boulanger sends sweeping over the keyboard, much in the manner of Chopin’s ‘Ocean’ Etude, Op. 25 No. 12.

Henry Bataille (1872-1922) was a very successful French playwright whose plays explored how the instinctive passions of his characters bumped up against the social norms of polite society. His poem Prière is an open-hearted enquiry into the meaning and significance of a personage such as the Virgin Mary. The opening melody’s small range, its recurring leaps of a 5th and the way the melody circles hypnotically around that leapt-to note all recall medieval religious chant, as do the drone tones at the bottom of the piano accompaniment. Passion of an almost operatic intensity erupts in the central section, however, as more vivid tonal colours and thicker textures are applied to support the singer’s expanding emotional awareness.

Albert Samain (1858-1900) was a French symbolist poet much inspired—if that is the right word—by the morbid mentality and dissolute life habits of his fellow poet Charles Baudelaire. Nadia Boulanger’s rather pretty dressing-up of Samain’s darkly nostalgic poem Élégie (the exact meaning of which is anyone’s guess) strikes the listener as typically French in its emphasis on tone colour and what classical parodist Anna Russell called French “wispiness”. Who else could set the phrase Un paradis s’est écroulé (a paradise has come crashing down) so blithely and innocently?

Cantique is a poem that appeared in the second act of the play Soeur Béatrice (1901) by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), the author of the play Pelléas et Mélisande which Debussy adapted to create his opera of the same in 1902. The protagonist in this text is a nun meditating on the disappointments of love. Nadia Boulanger’s exquisitely tender melody line and discreet accompaniment of sympathetic chordal harmonies in the piano are utterly ravishing.

 

Kathleen Tagg 
This Be Her Verse
After Philip Larkin | Wedding | Single Bed

Concluding this recital of songs by women about women’s experiences is This Be Her Verse, a new song cycle commissioned by Ms. Schulz from friends she first met when studying at Juilliard in New York.

Her fellow South African Kathleen Tagg is a composer-pianist whose work revolves around issues of identity and interpersonal connection. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center but is equally at home in unconventional smaller spaces – a fact that comes across clearly in the cabaret-style intimacy of this new work.

Multi-talented dramatist Lila Palmer is a classically trained soprano with a first-class degree in history from Cambridge University. She knows our city well, having twice been a vocal fellow of the Vancouver International Song Institute. Her first libretto, for the chamber opera Harbour, brought to the stage the experience of Scottish Highlanders displaced by their English overlords.

This Be Her Verse is written in a sparkling tonal idiom, with some interesting reach-into-the-piano effects in the keyboard accompaniment. Limelight Magazine notes that this song cycle “explores a very contemporary version of womanhood, with the centrepiece, Wedding, incorporating COVID in its premise.”

But The Guardian probably sums it up best in describing these new songs as “deft, upbeat, sharp and true, a celebration of the single bed and clean sheets.”

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Steven Osborne

Franz Schubert
Impromptu No. 1 in F minor  D. 935

The impromptu is just one of a number of small-scale instrumental genres arising in the early 19th century, known under the collective title of character pieces. Cultivated by composers in the emerging Romantic movement, these pieces presented a simple musical idea in an intimate lyrical style with the aim of evoking a particular mood or moment of personal reflection, spontaneously experienced and communicated.  The eight impromptus that Schubert composed in late 1827 are classic examples of the genre, and indeed are the first pieces bearing the name impromptu to establish themselves permanently in the repertoire.

Schubert was a pianist, but he was not a touring virtuoso. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears in them the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

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The Impromptu in F minor Op. 142, No. 1 is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern ‘Beethovenian’ introduction featuring jagged melodic gestures and cadences that promise weighty things to come. But instead, we are led into a Schubertian world of gentle pathos and delicate sentiment, framed in the kinds of buoyant, fluttering keyboard textures that tended to ‘speak’ well on the light-actioned Viennese piano of Schubert’s day. A subsequent theme in repeated chords evokes the lilting rhythms of music in the Austrian capital.

The texture of Schubert’s B-section is utterly enchanting. He uses rippling arpeggios to create a purling stream of piano sonority in the mid-range of the keyboard, across which velvety dreaming voices in the treble exchange loving phrases with tender baritone echoes in the bass, undergoing wondrous modulation-induced changes in tone colour as they go.

 

George Crumb
Processional

American composer George Crumb is known for his haunting, mystical, almost surrealist scores that explore unusual instrumental timbres. Crumb’s Processional (1983) focuses our attention on incremental changes in tone colour by laying down a constant patter of eighth notes, configured as dense tone clusters, within which a six-note descending melodic line emerges as a principal motive.

The harmonic language is ambiguous, sometimes appearing to be based on the whole-tone scale, at other times traditionally tonal or modal. Like many of Crumb’s works, the piece unfolds at a low dynamic level (beginning and ending ppp) and its constant pulsing in a sonic space densely saturated with overtones has the hypnotic effect of suspending our sense of time.

Crumb describes the work as “concerned with the prismatic effect of subtle changes of harmonic colour and frequent modulation”, while contemporary music specialist Jeffrey Jacob describes the work as follows: “The basis of the piece is a series of repeated chords which very gradually move toward or away from major climaxes. The mesmerizing effect of the chordal repetition is countered by the rising and falling dynamics.”

 

Claude Debussy
Étude retrouvée
Douze Études  Livre II

It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano études, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with musical monotony, and since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic-level narcissism and circus-inspired showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection, and his public persona was light-years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.

So, his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, the aim of which is to build endurance for when it might be needed in ‘real’ music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedalling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity alone is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.

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Debussy’s Étude retrouvée was ‘found’ (hence the title) amongst the composer’s papers in 1977 and it appears to be a 13th étude which the composer decided not to include in his published set of 12. The chief technical difficulty addressed is that of bringing out scattered fragments of lyrical melody floating atop an absolute riot of shimmering multi-octave arpeggio figurations that at times involve both hands simultaneously.

The second book of Debussy’s Douze Études begins with Étude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques, a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right-hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings. Out of this sound-swirl, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody emerge in the left hand. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an étude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.

Étude 8 Pour les agréments (ornaments) has, in the words of Debussy, “the form of a Barcarolle on a rather Italian sea.” And indeed there is a kind of ‘watery’ feel to the texture, at times reminiscent of the composer’s L’Isle joyeuse. The ‘ornaments’ with which this étude’s melodic content are encrusted are not just your regular mordents and trills but mostly chordal arpeggios that delicately rain down on their melody notes like sprinklings of sonic mist.

Étude 9 Pour les notes répétées is marked scherzando, a mood created not only by its effervescent texture of peppery repeated notes but also by its scampering melodies and quixotic stop-and-go changes of mood, all at a piano dynamic level.

Étude 10 Pour les sonorités opposées gets to the heart of the Debussyan sound world. This is an étude more for the ear and pedal-foot than for the fingers, featuring multi-layered sonorities spaced out over as much as five octaves, rich in dark pedal tones low down in the bass to be balanced against iridescent tonal accents high up in the treble and murmuring melodies emerging out of the mid-range.

Étude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of ‘composite arpeggios’ (multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.

Bold, exuberant and flashy, Étude 12 Pour les accords (chords) seems to be simply screaming with exclamation points. It has been called “a barbarous dance” and indeed it has no shortage of élan with its beastly difficult pattern of wild leaps in opposite directions playing out counter-metrically in duple groups across its triple-metre bar lines. A radically relaxed middle section almost makes you forget what all the excitement was about until the springboard rhythms of the opening slyly work their way back into the texture to end this gymnastic étude as acrobatically as it began.

 

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B-flat major  D. 960

Schubert’s last piano sonata, written in 1828 a scant few months before his death, exemplifies in one single work the full range of his gifts as lyric melodist, serious musical dramatist, and refined exponent of the light, dance-besotted musical style of Vienna.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is typically generous in its bounty of themes. It opens with a softly whispered melody, humbly small in range and accompanied by a repeated pedal tone in the left hand, like a pulsing human heartbeat. This opening theme has a sweet yearning quality that gives it an ineffable, almost nostalgic charm, urging it to burst more fully into song, which it soon does. A second theme introduces a tentative note of worry, but Schubert’s constant harmonic wavering between the major and minor modes prevents the emotional tone from becoming downcast. A third theme of a triadic stamp scampers over the full range of the keyboard, in both hands, to re-establish a more directly buoyant emotional tone, disturbed only by a recurring low trill in the left hand that acts as a sectional marker within the movement. The development is where all the drama lies, as Schubert passes his melodic material through a harmonic colour wheel, building to an intense climax that acts as a rare moment of sonic emphasis in the centre of what is, essentially, a movement of delicate shades of nuance.

Much more starkly dramatic is the Andante sostenuto slow movement which features an introspective melody in the mid-range of the keyboard, surrounded by sonic ‘echoes’, both above and below, implying that this lonely plaintive voice is pleading its mournful case in a vast, but empty enclosure. It is hard not to think of the more militant middle section as an attempt to take heart, an attempt that inevitably fails as the opening mood returns to conclude the movement.

The third movement scherzo, Allegro vivace con delicatezza, is indeed ‘delicate’ if judged by the standards of Beethoven’s ‘rough-house’ humour. More typically Viennese in its subtlety, it generates good-natured humour from its frequent changes of register and twinkling grace notes. A steady interchange of material between the hands creates the impression of a dialogue between two real musical ‘characters’. The contrasting trio in the minor mode is much more sedate, sitting in the middle of the keyboard and shifting its weight around in gentle syncopations.

Still in a humorous frame of mind, Schubert begins his rondo finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with a mock ‘mistake’. Starting off in the minor mode, he then ‘remembers’ that he wants to be in a major key and makes a mid-course correction at the end of the first phrase. This joke of changing dramatic masks from the serious to the comedic is played out frequently during the movement, with intervening episodes of songful respite in between. This is a finale filled with congenial joking of the most sophisticated kind, created by a true Viennese pianistic ‘sit-down comic’.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Daniel Hsu

Robert Schumann
Kinderszenen  Op. 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor  S. 178

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Evgeny Kissin

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

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

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

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

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

*                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adagio in B minor  K. 540

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Frédéric Chopin
Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante  Op. 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Stephen Waarts

Claude Debussy
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor  L. 140

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 the 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 using ‘Untitled’ for a painting. 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.

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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 figures 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”.

 

Robert Schumann
Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor  Op. 121

Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, written in 1851, is an energetic work in four movements, some of them thematically linked. The piano scoring is luxuriantly rich but for most of the sonata the violin plays low in its register, so the timbres of the two instruments tend to merge rather than contrast. The neurotic irregularities that typify Schumann’s compositional style – his avoidance of balanced periodic phrases and clear decisive cadences, his metrical ‘wobbliness’ – give this sonata a rhapsodic character. It seems to unfold as an unstoppable flow of musical ideas.

The abrupt “gunshot-echo” chords that greet the listener in the opening bars of the first movement land somewhat awkwardly in the ear with their duple groupings in triple metre, setting the stage for a sonata movement permeated with temperament and willful passion. From this restless slow introduction emerges an exposition that boldly announces the movement’s first theme in the violin on the pitches D-A-F-D, a reference to the dedicatee of the sonata, the German violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873).

This theme, in even half notes on strong beats of the bar, is counterpointed by syncopated off-beats and skitterish chatter in 16ths in the piano to complete the line-up of motives – slow strong beats vs. quick off-beat patterns – that will characterize the ensuing musical discussion. The more lyrical second theme in even quarter notes has the same texture as well, adding an element of conceptual unity to this sonata-form movement.

The second movement scherzo has two contrasting trio-ish sections to give it a five-part form: A-B-A-C-A. Its serious forthright tone and rhythmic drive seem to presage the scherzo from Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, with which it shares many details in common. These include the incessant ‘knock-on-the-door’ triplet motive from the opening section and a melody paraphrasing the chorale tune Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (May you be praised, Jesus Christ) that is delivered in long notes near the end of the final section.

The young Brahms did not meet Schumann for the first time until more than a year after this sonata was composed but after the composer’s death in 1856 he helped Clara Schumann prepare the edition of Schumann’s complete works, so he would evidently have known this sonata.

The rather eccentric theme and variations movement that follows is based on the chorale melody just heard near the end of the scherzo. The theme appears first in pizzicato multiple-stops in the violin over an oddly restrained oom-pah accompaniment in the piano and then with utmost simplicity played arco (with the bow) before melting into a dreamy Viennese-style variation in 16ths. But things get a bit quirky when this daydream keeps getting interrupted by sudden reminiscences of the punchy triplet motive from the scherzo, like a Monty Python character bursting in to say: “There’s trouble down at the mill!” In the end, though, even this triplet motive succumbs to the mood of reverie, bringing the movement to a quiet close.

The sonata-form finale is a bustling affair, its repeated exposition dominated by the headlong moto perpetuo drive of the movement’s opening theme, which proceeds in a continuous stream of 16th notes. This theme, like Schumann himself, has a split personality, by turns obsessive, flighty and march-like.  The development section begins by musing at a more leisurely pace, in 8th notes, over the dotted rhythms of the opening theme’s march-y side but soon gets drawn, over and over again, into the 16th-note orbit of its moto perpetuo sibling. And the recapitulation, once wandering into the major mode, has so much fun that it stays there, to end this D minor work in a resolute D major.

 

Jean Sibelius
Four Humoresques, Op. 89

Sibelius was a composer who loved the violin, having aspired in his youth to become a virtuoso solo performer on the instrument. His Four Humoresques Op. 89, along with two more from Op. 87, were composed in 1917 as a suite of six pieces for violin and orchestra and were premiered in Helsinki in 1919. When played in recital, performers have until recently had to use the arrangement for violin and piano by Finnish pianist and conductor Karl Ekman (1869-1947) – which Sibelius did not like at all – but just recently a new transcription, more faithful to the orchestral score, has come out from the pen of Jani Kyllönen.

While the name humoresque might suggest a kind of jocular flippancy, these pieces are all imbued with a Nordic sensibility that finds wistful sadness lying at the edge of every emotion, even happy ones. Sibelius himself said that these pieces reflect “the anguish of existence, fitfully lit up by the sun.”

The first piece of the Op. 89 set is labelled Alla gavotta and indeed it has the strong-beat emphasis and courtly strutting quality of that dance. But mixed in, as well, is the harmonic vocabulary of the gypsy violinist. The mode shifts effortlessly from minor to major between phrases and it is often the “Hungarian” minor scale, with its sharpened fourth scale note that captures our attention.

The Andantino second piece is the simplest and yet perhaps the most enigmatic of the set. Against an ever-so-discreet harmonic backdrop in the piano, the violin ruminates over and over again on a simple phrase structured around the notes of the minor triad, a phrase that ends with a cadential trill. Short playful episodes intervene but the opening phrase always returns – until in the final bars the melody line suddenly flies up to its highest register and just disappears.

The third piece in the set, marked Commodo, has a happy-go-lucky air about it, with its naively simple “Farmer John” melody that contrasts plodding quarter notes with bouncy buoyant off-beat accents to convey a mood of jollity and contentment. The tune is so gall-darn pleasant you just want to whistle it, which the violin does in the middle section – in harmonics.

The Allegro finale is an exhilarating chase up and down the fingerboard, dance-like in spirit and folk-like in its use of two different versions of the G minor scale: the natural minor with A as its second degree and the Phrygian modal version that uses A flat instead. Its many capricious mood swings suggest the gypsy violinist with a glint in his eye, winking at his audience as his showy routine comes to a soft and exquisitely delicate conclusion in the highest reaches of his instrument.

 

George Enescu
Sonata No. 3 in A minor  Op. 25

Enescu’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926) is subtitled “in the popular Romanian character,” a reference to the unique sound world and virtuoso performance style of gypsy music that the composer set out to imitate and to write down – a transcription endeavour that Enescu’s student Yehudi Menuhin called “the greatest achievement in musical notation” of its day.

Enescu knew this musical style well, having grown up hearing it all around him in his childhood. In his sonata the violin plays gypsy fiddler to the piano’s cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer). The result is a musical texture of emotion-laden melodies in the treble over a sonic background that buzzes and dazzles with kaleidoscopic clouds of metallic overtones rising up from below.

This is music with highly decorated, highly chromatic melodic lines studded with augmented seconds, lines shimmering with so much decoration that melody and embellishment merge into one. Enescu was a student with Ravel at the Paris Conservatoire and the French influence in his keyboard writing can be heard in the great washes of impressionistic tone colour that emanate at times from the piano, clarified harmonically by open fifths in the bass. At other times massive chord clusters turn the piano into percussion, adding punchy almost pitch-less drum-beat pulses to the texture.

The work is laid out in three movements, each in a standard form: sonata-form first movement, slow movement in A-B-A ‘song’ form, and a rondo finale. But a Western audience used to the neat and tidy layout of Viennese sonata form can be excused for not perceiving clearly the sectional divisions in these movements, given the rhapsodic sweep and improvisatory style of this music as a whole.

The first movement Moderato malinconico opens with a soft churning haze of tone colour, supported by drone tones in the bass, over which the violin intones a melancholy tune imprinted with the major motive of this movement: a filled-in descending minor third. The soulfulness of the violin melody is embodied in the singing quality of its many long-held notes, each preceded by a hurried run-up gesture of fast notes. Dance-like sections provide contrast to the wailing mournfulness of the principal melody.

The Andante sostenuto e misterioso slow movement that follows moves between expressive extremes. Its opening section begins softly and delicately, like a piece of night music, with the violin playing in flutey harmonics, like a pan-piper, over a patter of repeated notes and other drones in the piano. But gradually the expressive intensity grows, culminating in a massive climax in which the violin holds out in long notes over a piano part digging up shovelfuls of sound from one end of the keyboard to the other, after which the hushed mood of the opening returns to close out the movement in the mysterious calm with which it began.

The finale is a dance-like Bartokian romp with a march-like principal theme, bristling with spicy dissonances, spiky rhythms and stomping percussive effects. The metallic timbre of the cimbalom is astonishingly well portrayed in the scoring of the piano part while virtuosic display informs the violin part. The intensity builds steadily till the end, with both instruments playing fff, the violin shrieking out violently while the piano churns up massive clumps of sonic mud at the very bottom of its range.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Isata Kanneh-Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sofia Gubaidulina
Chaconne

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

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

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

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

 

Eleanor Alberga
Cwicseolfor

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

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

The composer tells us the following about her new composition:

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

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

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

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

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff 
Excerpts from Études-Tableaux  Op. 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade in F major  Op. 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in B minor  K 27
Sonata in D major  K 96

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti 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.

The Sonata in B minor K 27 exemplifies many features of Spanish guitar music. Right from the opening (mm.3-6) you hear the flamenco Phrygian mode in the four-note descending bass line known as the “Andalusian cadence.” Even more guitar-like are the extended passages of rippling broken-chord figuration – but just how extended is one of the intriguing interpretive challenges of this sonata. There are in fact passages in both the first and second halves of this sonata in which the same measure is repeated – verbatim (!) — seven times in a row.

The Sonata in D major K 96 is sound theatre of a high order. While guitar figuration is in evidence here as well, especially in the many passages of repeated notes, more imposing on the ear is the military flavour of the opening trumpet fanfare, the trilled flourishes of snare-drums, and the stomping cadence patterns with big cadential trills. Add in copious passages of hand-crossings and you have a performance show-piece worthy of opening a piano recital.

 

Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana  Op. 16
Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented for Robert Schumann the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fictional writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.

Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work is comprised of contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.

Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.

Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.

Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the Sehr lebhaft (very slow) fifth movement and fugato in the Sehr rasch (very quick) seventh, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.

But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.

 

Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition

In 1874 Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg featuring the paintings, drawings and sketches of the Russian artist, architect and designer Victor Hartmann (1834–1873), who had died the previous year at the age of 39. Aggrieved at the loss of his friend and fellow artist, Mussorgsky set about to create his own unique memorial to Hartmann in a piano suite comprising 10 musical depictions of the works he had seen in St. Petersburg, with a recurring intermezzo melody, the Promenade, to represent the composer as he strolls along between the works displayed.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an overtly nationalist work, as is evident from many of the scenes he chose to set to music: fairy-tale creatures from Russian folklore, everyday life in the Russian countryside, and landscapes symbolic of the nation’s glorious past. This nationalism extends to his musical vocabulary as well, which at times evokes the melodic style of Russian folk tunes, at other times the austere choral hymns of the Orthodox Church and the clangorous resonance of cathedral bells.

Very Russian as well is Mussorgsky’s expressive vocabulary, which is raw, bluntly chiselled and often brutally direct, with a pictorial vividness that anticipates modern film scores. Sometimes he is Warner Bros. cartoonish, as in his depiction of the animated scurrying of gaggles of small chicks in their shells, or the chatty bickering of women in the market square. But more often it is the dark side of this alcohol-addicted composer that comes to the fore. His ghoulish evocations of the spirits of the dead put one in mind of The Blair Witch Project while his terrifying portrait of the lumbering, child-eating witch Baba Yaga recalls the most panicky chase scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

*                      *                      *

The Promenade opens the work, proceeding at a walking pace of even quarter notes structured in an alternating pattern of 5/4 and 6/4 measures. As it recurs throughout the work its forthright melody is delivered at times sparely, in a single line, at other times richly harmonized, grand and imposing, to reflect the imposing size and stature of the composer himself as he travels from picture to picture.

We are first presented with the arresting portrait of The Gnome, whose darting movements are immediately suggested by restless keyboard gestures and sudden contrasts of dynamics. You can almost see him, scrambling into a corner, crouching down, then springing up with a toothy grin. Set in the rather ‘evil’ key of E-flat minor, this portrayal is chock full of ugly chromatic intervals. And the disquieting left-hand trills in the final section only add to the sense that this menacing mischievous creature is up to no good.

After a soft and almost heavenly rendition of the Promenade, we come upon The Old Castle, which represents a troubadour singing his mournful song before a mighty stone fortress. The melody is modal, suggesting the Middle Ages. A dull throbbing pedal point, droning throughout, creates a blurry tonal mist that casts the scene far back into the legendary past.

The Promenade that follows is strongly assertive, projected in bold octaves and full chords, leading to the first whimsical scene in the collection, Les Tuileries. Here we witness the animated scene of children at play in the Jardin des Tuileries, a public park in Paris where nannies would often take the young ones in their charge for a bit of fresh air. An ostinato of coy rocking chords opens the scene and continues throughout, regularly relieved by short scampering scale passages, communicating the wide-eyed innocence and youthful exuberance of the frolicking tykes.

Next comes Bydło, a scene emblematic of the daily struggles of rural life. A Polish oxcart heaves into view from afar, the plodding of hooves getting gradually louder as it draws near, and diminishing as it passes off into the distance.

A deeply reflective version of the Promenade then cleanses the aural palette to prepare us for a welcome contrast, a scene as feather-light and treble-centred as the previous portrait was ponderous and bass-heavy: the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.  Keen to be released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter about in their shells so as to get out and explore their new barnyard home.

We are then introduced to the two Polish Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the first rich, arrogant and overbearing, the second poor, craven and whimpering. The frequent use of augmented 2nds in scale patterns is meant to suggest the character of traditional Jewish music. Such caricatures testify to the casual antisemitism that blighted Russian culture in the late 19th century, and that continued to stain the nation well into the Soviet period of the 20th century.

A repeat of the opening Promenade suggests a new beginning for our art tour as we enter The Market at Limoges, where the local women are engaged in a raucous, finger-pointing, shoulder-poking dispute over some trivial matter, their hysterical exchanges indicated by a constant chatter of 16th notes.

Then as the fracas is reaching its height of hysteria, we are stopped ‘dead’, as it were, by the arresting sight of Catacombs, where the implacable finality of the grave is symbolized in a series of starkly dissonant chords alternating in dynamics between loud and soft. Soon we are ushered even nearer into the presence of the dead in a section entitled Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead, in a dead language) in which spooky octave tremolos in the treble accompany intimations of the eerie peacefulness of post mortem subterranean existence.

We are then jolted out of this bittersweet reverie by the sudden arrival of the witch Baba Yaga who lives in The Hut on Chicken Legs—an unusual kind of home construction, to be sure. In Mussorgsky’s depiction we catch her out on the hunt, stomping her way around the forest in search of prey, her terrifying gait easily a match for the glass-jiggling foot-fall of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. A quieter, but no less unsettling middle section with some bitonal writing brings us little relief from the sheer nightmarish terror of this scene.

Then just as the monster is closing in on us, ready to grab us by the heel, we are saved by the appearance of The Great Gate of Kiev, imagined from a sketch by Hartmann for a gigantic entrance gate to be constructed in Kiev, ancient capital of the state of Kievan Rus whence the Russian nation traces its origins. The awe-inspiring majesty of the scene is evident from the proud chords that underpin a transfiguration of the Promenade theme as the scene opens out before us. A solemn hymn steeped in the tonal colours of Eastern Orthodox choral singing twice interrupts this stern processional  to sprinkle holy water on the proceedings. Eventually the piercing metallic peel of cathedral bells is heard, interspersed with reminiscences of the original Promenade theme chiming in the high treble, as Mussorgsky strains to make the piano proclaim the same ecstatic utterance that crowned the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov: Слава! Glory!

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

Program Notes: Tristan Teo

Robert Schumann  
Widmung (arr. Franz Liszt)

The year 1840 was Robert Schumann’s Liederjahr, his ‘year of song’. After 10 years of writing almost exclusively for the piano, Schumann in 1840 burst into song, composing well over a hundred Lieder.

One song collection, Myrthen Op. 25, had a special meaning for the composer. It was a wedding gift to his young wife, the pianist Clara Wieck, whom he married on Sept 12, 1840, the day before her 21st birthday. The ‘myrtle flowers’ of the song collection’s title are associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love, and thus with marriage.

The first song in the collection, Widmung (Dedication) was a setting of a love poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). The intense fixation of the lover on his beloved is reinforced by the poem’s frequent repetition of “you” in virtually every line:

You my soul, you my heart,
You my rapture, O you my pain,
You my world in which I live…

Schumann’s song begins with an evocation of blissful emotional fulfillment in a series of rippling arpeggios topped by a dotted rhythm, indicative of a quickened heartbeat. Liszt preserves the original scoring, but in his repeat of the first section he reverses the roles of the left and right hands, allowing us to savour even more Schumann’s gorgeous melody—and his own pianistic ingenuity.

The middle section pulses with soothing triplets, underscoring the text’s reference to peace and heavenly repose (“You are bestowed on me from heaven”). Liszt, of course, can’t help but beef up the texture just a tad but is generally on his best behaviour—until, that is, the reprise of the first section, when he reveals the identity of his own true love: the piano itself.

Schumann’s simple, reverential restatement of the opening section becomes, in the hands of Liszt, a glorious apotheosis. In a brilliant application of the ‘three-hand effect’ popularized by Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871), Liszt keeps the melody singing out in the mid-range, richly supported by a resonant bass texture, while a full-on Fourth of July fireworks show sizzles up and down in the treble, splattering the celestial regions of the keyboard with tonal sparkle.

In the film Song of Love (1947) Katherine Hepburn, playing Clara Schumann, indignantly turns up her nose upon hearing Liszt play his self-aggrandizing adaptation of her wedding present. But notwithstanding this swipe from Hollywood, Liszt’s transcription has remained a favourite encore piece among concert pianists right up to this day. And justly so.

 

Nikolai Kapustin
Variations Op. 41

If the aesthetic chasm separating the concert hall from the jazz lounge has narrowed in recent years, thanks must go to the late pianist-composer Nikolai Kapustin (pronounced kah-POU-steen), whose works have been performed in concert by Yuja Wang, recorded by Marc-André Hamelin, and selected for performance at major international piano competitions—by Tristan Teo, among many others. And we are not talking ‘crossover’ here. Kapustin was an authentic virtuoso pianist, a graduate of the piano program at the Moscow Conservatory, who simply turned out to be a classical composer working in the jazz idiom, as his website puts it.

While his harmonic vocabulary is American jazz to the core, his formal structures are those of Western classical music. He has written a Baroque suite, like Bach, a set of 24 Preludes, like Chopin, and even a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, like both Bach and Shostakovich.

His Variations Op. 41 (1984) features a theme and six variations unfolding in a continuous stream, without formal breaks. The theme itself is a jazzy variant of the opening bassoon solo from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, presented in a remarkably relaxed and breezy manner. The pagan tribes that scandalized Paris in 1913 seem to have scrubbed off their war paint and are all now vacationing at a seaside resort, in Hawaiian shirts, sipping mint juleps.

Kapustin’s absorption of the widest possible range of jazz styles is evident in the variations that follow. Many feature ostinato patterns in the left hand against an ecstatically free floating, bee-boppy right hand. Oscar Peterson can be heard in parallel left- and right-hand lines at double octave distances. Count Basie’s punchy chords in the mid-range make their presence felt in syncopated response to both stride bass and walking bass keyboard styles. Whatever the style, Kapustin’s sense of forward momentum is irresistible.

In keeping with classical tradition, he offers a slow variation right before the finale, one in which the Rite of Spring motive is presented most clearly in the opening phrase.  After that, the finale is an exhilarating race to the finish in a breathless display of jazzy pianistic panache.

 

Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition

In 1874 Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg featuring the paintings, drawings and sketches of the Russian artist, architect and designer Victor Hartmann (1834–1873), who had died the previous year at the age of 39. Aggrieved at the loss of his friend and fellow artist, Mussorgsky set about to create his own unique memorial to Hartmann in a piano suite comprising 10 musical depictions of the works he had seen in St. Petersburg, with a recurring intermezzo melody, the Promenade, to represent the composer as he strolls along between the works displayed.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an overtly nationalist work, as is evident from many of the scenes he chose to set to music: fairy-tale creatures from Russian folklore, everyday life in the Russian countryside, and landscapes symbolic of the nation’s glorious past. This nationalism extends to his musical vocabulary as well, which at times evokes the melodic style of Russian folk tunes, at other times the austere choral hymns of the Orthodox Church and the clangorous resonance of cathedral bells.

Mussorgsky’s expressive vocabulary is very Russian as well, which it to say it is raw, bluntly chiselled and often brutally direct, with a pictorial vividness that anticipates modern film scores. Sometimes he is Warner Bros. cartoonish, as in his depiction of the animated scurrying of gaggles of small chicks in their pens, or the chatty bickering of women in the market square. But more often it is the dark side of this alcohol-addicted composer that comes to the fore. His ghoulish evocations of the spirits of the dead put one in mind of The Blair Witch Project while his terrifying portrait of the lumbering, child-eating witch Baba Yaga recalls the most panicky chase scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

*                      *                      *

The Promenade opens the work, proceeding at a walking pace of even quarter notes structured in an alternating pattern of 5/4 and 6/4 measures. As it recurs throughout the work its forthright melody is delivered at times sparely, in a single line, at other times richly harmonized, grand and imposing, to reflect the imposing size and stature of the composer himself as he travels from picture to picture.

We are first presented with the arresting portrait of The Gnome, whose darting movements are immediately suggested by restless keyboard gestures and sudden contrasts of dynamics. You can almost see him, scrambling into a corner, crouching down, then springing up with a toothy grin. Set in the rather ‘evil’ key of E-flat minor, this portrayal is chock full of ugly chromatic intervals. And the disquieting left-hand trills in the final section only add to the sense that this menacing mischievous creature is up to no good.

After a soft and almost heavenly rendition of the Promenade, we come upon The Old Castle, which represents a troubadour singing his mournful song before a mighty stone fortress. The melody is modal, suggesting the Middle Ages. A dull throbbing pedal point, droning throughout, creates a blurry tonal mist that casts the scene far back into the legendary past.

The Promenade that follows is strongly assertive, projected in bold octaves and full chords, leading to the first whimsical scene in the collection, Les Tuileries. Here we witness the animated scene of children at play in the Jardin des Tuileries, a public park in Paris where nannies would often take the young ones in their charge for a bit of fresh air. An ostinato of coy rocking chords opens the scene and continues throughout, regularly relieved by short scampering scale passages, communicating the wide-eyed innocence and youthful exuberance of the frolicking tykes.

Next comes Bydło, a scene emblematic of the daily struggles of rural life. A Polish oxcart heaves into view from afar, the plodding of hooves getting gradually louder as it draws near, and diminishing as it passes off into the distance.

A deeply reflective version of the Promenade then cleanses the aural palette to prepare us for a welcome contrast, a scene as feather-light and treble-centred as the previous portrait was ponderous and bass-heavy: the Ballet of the Hatched Chicks. Just released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter as they try out their wings and feet in a joyous exploration of their new barnyard home.

We are then introduced to the two Polish Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the first rich, arrogant and overbearing, the second poor, craven and whimpering. The frequent use of augmented 2nds in scale patterns is meant to suggest the character of traditional Jewish music. Such caricatures testify to the kind of casual antisemitism that blighted Russian culture in the late 19th century, and that continued to stain the nation well into the Soviet period of the 20th century.

A repeat of the opening Promenade suggests a new beginning for our art tour as we enter The Market at Limoges, where the local women are engaged in a raucous, finger-pointing, shoulder-poking dispute over some trivial matter, their hysterical exchanges indicated by a constant chatter of 16th notes.

Then as the fracas is reaching its height of hysteria, we are stopped ‘dead’, as it were, by the arresting sight of Catacombs, where the implacable finality of the grave is symbolized in a series of starkly dissonant chords alternating in dynamics between loud and soft. Soon we are ushered even nearer into the presence of the dead in a section entitled Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead, in a dead language) in which spooky octave tremolos in the treble accompany intimations of the eerie peacefulness of post mortem subterranean existence.

We are then jolted out of this bittersweet reverie by the sudden arrival of the witch Baba Yaga who lives in The Hut on Chicken Legs—an unusual kind of home construction, to be sure. In Mussorgsky’s depiction we catch her out on the hunt, stomping her way around the forest in search of prey, her terrifying gate easily a match for the glass-jiggling foot-fall of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. A quieter, but no less unsettling middle section with some bitonal writing brings us little relief from the sheer nightmarish terror of this scene.

Then just as the monster is closing in on us, ready to grab us by the heel, we are saved by the appearance of The Great Gate of Kiev, imagined from a sketch by Hartmann for a gigantic entrance gate to be constructed in Kiev, ancient capital of the state of Kievan Rus whence the Russian nation traces its origins. The awe-inspiring majesty of the scene is evident from the proud chords that underpin a transfiguration of the Promenade theme as the scene opens out before us. A solemn hymn steeped in the tonal colours of Eastern Orthodox choral singing twice interrupts this stern processional  to sprinkle holy water on the proceedings. Eventually the piercing metallic peel of cathedral bells is heard, interspersed with reminiscences of the original Promenade theme chiming in the high treble, as Mussorgsky strains to make the piano proclaim the same ecstatic utterance that crowned the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov: Слава! Glory!

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Jaeden Izik-Dzurko

Alexander Scriabin
Valse  Op. 38

It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.”  Like his Polish musical forebear he wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études. In this Valse we catch the composer near the end of his early Chopin period, before he went all ‘Star Trek’ on the Western harmonic system and started writing chords in 4ths rather than 3rds.

A dichotomy of musical styles outlines for us the traits of the couple dancing this waltz. There is a feminine coyness and delicacy in many passages, with achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass that clarify the underlying harmony. Alternating with this a more red-blooded and masculine ‘grand style’ of piano-playing that exploits the full range of the keyboard.

The rhythmic pulse, however, is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern of a traditional Viennese waltz. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy. This is a waltz that flutters and flies, free as a bird. It often wanders in wide-ranging melodic curves, framed in 4-to-the-bar and 5-to-the-bar units evocative of a kind of perfumed ecstasy – often interrupted, of course, by more propulsive rhythmic gestures and explosive outbursts of passion.

Whatever champagne these walzers are sipping, chances are it was spiked.

 

Robert Schumann
Sonata No. 3 in F minor  Op. 14

In the summer of 1836 Robert Schumann was pining for his new love, the sixteen-year-old piano prodigy Clara Wieck.  Her father Friedrich Wieck (Schumann’s erstwhile piano teacher) had arranged a concert tour for her, thinking to break up the romance and avoid acquiring a son-in-law he considered too emotionally volatile and psychologically unstable.

Schumann, of course, would not be so easily discouraged, and contrived to have his beloved with him, at least in spirit, by sewing her into the very musical fabric of his Sonata in F minor. Clara is represented by a five-note descending scale figure that appears in all four movements, obviously derived from the opening of the 3rd movement, the famous “Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck,” later to become a favourite encore piece of Vladimir Horowitz.

The importance of this motive is underscored by its appearance at the dramatic opening of the first movement Allegro, thundering in octaves to the nether regions of the keyboard. Schumann’s expressive passion and almost manic wildness of focus in this movement might well serve to justify his future father-in-law’s concerns about his mental stability. Its first theme is both ponderous, with that tumbling-boulder crash of an opening, and flighty, in the rapid passagework that flows directly out of it. Its lyrical second theme has an equally split personality, proceeding at first in an even succession of singable quarter notes before turning into a parody of itself in the kind of jerky dotted rhythms that characterize so many of Schumann’s marches. Throughout, the listener’s ear is continually kept off-balance by spiky syncopations and phrasing patterns that effectively turn the orienting strongest beat of the bar into the weakest.

This rhythmic quirkiness is even more evident in the 2nd movement Scherzo, that likes to begin its descending scale figures on an accented 3rd beat of the bar, but intermittently switches it back to the “proper” first beat. Sorting out this rhythmic mayhem is the main teasing pleasure for the ear in this movement, which is dominated by constant 8th-note scale patterns and imitative textures. The Trio middle section is a calmer, less punchy variant of all this rhythmic irregularity and its ever-so-gradual reintegration into the opening material for the reprise is a compositional tour de force.

The descending scale figures of the Scherzo set the stage for their presentation as a solemn processional in the 3rd movement Andantino de Clara Wieck. There is a ceremonial sadness to this haunting theme, rendered especially ghoulish by the austere coldness and bare-bones texture of its second phrase, like footsteps echoing above the tombs of the dead in an empty cathedral. The first two variations let the theme speak out over the murmurings of gargoyle voices in the bass below. An antic mood dominates the third variation, that is peppered with constant syncopations. The tragic heart of the movement comes in the final variation, which pleads its case in whimpering phrases and cries of heart-rending despair, alternating with poetic daydreams and expressions of intimate tenderness.

The fourth movement, marked Prestissimo possible, is the sort of thing that keeps potential fathers-in-law up at night. It contains some of the most insanely scattered passagework in the piano repertoire, inflected with ricocheting syncopations but blessedly interrupted by regularly recurring passages of songful lyricism. A breathless patter of 16th notes, maintained throughout, gives impetus, forward momentum, and a compelling sense of urgency to this madcap finale.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Lento from Sonata No. 1 in D minor  Op. 28

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28 (1908) is not as well known and is much less played than his popular Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36 (1913), although both abound in the type of lush textures, soulful melodies, and contrapuntal accompaniments that are the trademarks of the composer’s keyboard style.

Composed in Germany while the composer was living with his family in Dresden, the Sonata in D minor was originally conceived as a programmatic work based on the characters from that most German of tales: Goethe’s Faust. This idea was then abandoned, but traces of the philosophical origins of the sonata’s conception remained, most notably in the prominent use of the ‘elemental’ interval of the perfect 5th in every movement of the work.

The central slow movement begins, in fact, with a chain of falling 5ths in the bass that finally arrive at the F major tonic and its fifth, which endure as pedal points for the next 25 bars. Not surprisingly, a sense of stillness pervades the movement as a whole, its gently rocking triplets evoking the cosy warmth of a berceuse.

This is one of Rachmaninoff’s most intimate, inward-looking slow movements, crafted within a small range of motion in the middle of the keyboard and fluctuating modestly in dynamic range – for the most part, between piano and mezzoforte. Its tone is one of quiet reflection, reminiscent of the placid mood of the Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4.

The texture is intricately wrought, a piece of compositional lacework with at times a full four-part murmuring of contrapuntal lines, and with so many overlapping voices that it leaves the ear wondering what to listen to, and the pianist perplexed as to what to bring out.

Unlike in the slow movements of other major works such as the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos and the Sonata No. 2, Rachmaninoff eschews a contrasting middle section that sends the heart racing at break-neck speed, favouring instead a slight intensification in the left hand’s rippling accompaniment and a more wide-ranging palette of harmonic colours, culminating in a cadenza that shimmers softly up the keyboard rather than seeking to dazzle.

The reprise of the opening material features a series of luscious trills in the inner voices of the right hand – oscillating, of course, in 5ths – to close out the movement in the spirit of the exquisite repose with which it began.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

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