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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.

*                      *                      *

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.

*                      *                      *

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

 

Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay.  Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin.  It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies.  These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C.  The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than he began with.

 

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 5th movement and fugato in the 7th, 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.

 

Franz Liszt
Berceuse in D-flat major  S.174 (2nd version)

Liszt wrote the first version of his Berceuse in 1854 and a revised second version, the one most often played, in 1863. His modelling was quite evidently Chopin’s own Berceuse Op. 57. Both works are written in D-flat major, and consist of ever-more-complex variations on a simple four-bar theme unfolding over a repeated tonic pedal note in the bass.

But the differences between the two works are as striking as their similarities. Chopin’s Berceuse is impersonally atmospheric, the glimmer of its ornamental filigree and colourful dissonances always subordinate to the music-box monotony of its dominant-over-tonic-pedal harmony. Liszt’s harmonies, while still maintaining the tonic pedal, are more wide-ranging, and his manner of expression more individualistic and personal, with frequent fermatas interrupting the musical flow, recitatives giving voice to spontaneous dramatic asides, and cadenzas drawing attention to the poetic soul and virtuoso credentials of the performing musician.

In a work that whispers along at a dynamic level of mostly pp and ppp, a work replete with ‘shushing’ warnings to play dolcissimo, smorzando and perdendo, the principal challenge for the pianist is finding the right scale of dynamics at which to project Liszt’s drama-filled sleepy-time musings with real conviction.

 

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 2020

 

Program Notes: Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis

Gabriel Fauré
Dolly Suite  Op. 56

In the 1890s Gabriel Fauré would often compose or revise small pieces for the infant daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac (1862-1934). These affectionate pieces celebrated a birthday, a pet, or a special person in the life of the young Regina-Hélène, known in the family as “Dolly,” and six of them from the years 1893 to 1896 form the suite for piano duet named after her.

In keeping with their pose of childlike naïveté, the texture of these pieces is music-box light, with little exploration of the lower reaches of the keyboard, but Fauré’s classic qualities are in evidence on every page of the score: refinement of musical gesture, a watery transparency of harmony, and that indefinable French attribute known as charm.

Berceuse marks Dolly’s first birthday in 1893 with a dreamy lullaby. A cozy mood of slumbering repose is created by drone tones in the bass and a cradle-rocking accompaniment.

Dolly’s brother Raoul is commemorated in Mi-a-ou, an approximation of how the young girl pronounced Messieu Aoul. A rambunctious melody with constantly shifting accents describes the restless energy of the young boy.

Le Jardin de Dolly evokes the calm of the perfect garden as a young girl might imagine it, her childlike delight in what she sees symbolized by frequent modulations.

Kitty-valse paints the playful character of the household dog, whose tail-wagging ramblings through the house are gently parodied as a ‘waltz’ of canine choreography.

Tendresse explores the concept of “tenderness” through a very personal lens of introspection, using the lyrical but highly chromatic language used in Fauré’s Nocturnes and other ‘adult’ pieces.

The suite ends with Le Pas espagnol, a tribute to the castanet-clicking sounds and heel-stomping dance rhythms of Spain.

 

Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Piano Duet

The young Francis Poulenc was a naughty boy, a very naughty boy indeed, who dared to inject the musical styles of jazz, cabaret and other popular music genres into ‘serious’ composition. As the gay son of a wealthy family, he roamed freely among the more louche enclaves of Parisian nightlife, picking up a taste for the type of devilish wit and stylish parody that we would probably associate with drag shows today.

Poulenc was still in his late teens when he composed his three-movement Sonata for Piano Duet, a work both serious and anything but. Its modest dimensions and simple presentation of musical ideas qualify it as a miniature sonata at best, so the ‘sonata’ label is likely applied tongue-in-cheek. It does, however, engage seriously with the new trend of musical primitivism introduced by Stravinsky, who in fact was something of a mentor to the young Poulenc and used his influence to get him a publisher for this work.

Stravinsky’s influence is amply apparent in the barbarous repetitive rhythms that open the first movement Prélude, and the lyrical (or at least whistleable) melodies inhabiting the middle section of this movement could have come straight out of Shrovetide Fair.

Most Stravinskian of all is Poulenc’s use of small melodic phrases, usually five notes in range or less, both as the repeating units of an ostinato pattern, or in creating the larger phrase structure of a foreground melody.

The second movement, entitled Rustique, is especially interesting from this point of view. Its simultaneous use of similar melodic material in both 8th-note and 16th-note figuration patterns is reminiscent of the fractal-type layered textures of Balinese gamelan music.

The Final, while still rhythmically propelled, is not quite so static in its use of ‘wallpaper’ patterns of rhythm and melody.  It employs a wider variety of rhythms, and in a nod to (or dig at) Classical tradition, recalls themes from previous movements and seems set to build up momentum for a bang-up finish. But in a gesture of cabaret cheekiness, Poulenc turns on a dime and closes out the movement with a smokey jazz chord as if to say: “Gotcha!”

 

Claude Debussy
Six Épigraphes antiques

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to generate enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality, he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—poems that featured lines such as: I undressed to climb a tree, my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897. Debussy also wrote incidental music for a dramatic reading of the poems that took place in 1901, reusing much of this material in 1914 when composing his similarly themed Six Épigraphes antiques for piano duet.

In each of the six pieces in this set Debussy meditates on a wish, a prayer or a dedication such as those found in the epigraphs on the walls of ancient buildings or tombs.

He begins with a description of pastoral life in the ancient world by invoking Pan, god of the summer wind, who is heard playing his pan pipes as the piece opens. Used throughout is the pentatonic scale, neither major nor minor, symbolizing the call of the natural world.

A quizzical whole-tone scale, however, is used to summon up the mystery surrounding a Tomb without a name, its anonymous occupant mourned by the chromatic descent of distant voices.

A wish That the night may be propitious paints the silence of the night, and the various creatures moving about within it, in a richly layered texture of ostinato patterns and animal calls.

A Dancer with cymbals then appears on the scene, her dainty steps and waving gestures imitated in graceful triplets while exuberant ornamentation conveys the sound of her instrument.

She is followed by the Egyptian woman, as dark and mysterious as the drone tones quietly drumming in the bass register. Sensuous, snaking lines of an oriental flavour, rich in augmented 2nds, accompany her lascivious movements.

The final epigraph expresses a wish To thank the morning rain. It features a delicate imitation of raindrops in a constant patter of 16th notes that only ceases when the the pan pipe melody that opened the work is recalled, marking the return of the sun.

 

Igor Stravinsky
Trois Pièces faciles

The neo-classical style that Stravinsky was to adopt after the Great War can already be seen taking shape in such works as his Three Easy Pieces for piano duet of 1914-1915.  In their stripped down, bare-bones textures and identification with established genres of European music—march, waltz and polka—they foreshadow the treatment that Stravinsky would soon apply to the music of Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella.  The March, in fact, seems to be a prototype of this procedure, based as it is on the old Irish folk melody The Blacksmith and his Son.

What Stravinsky does in these pieces, however, is closer to parody than to hommage, and closely resembles what the Cubist painters did in visual art by presenting conflicting ‘planes of perception’ simultaneously.

The genre of each piece is easily recognizable by its characteristic pulse and rhythmic style: the steady walking beat of the march, the lilt of the waltz, the hop-hop-hop of the polka. Layered on top of that, however, are melodies full of ‘wrong notes,’ melodies that often seem to be in another key.

Stravinsky had already used this polytonal effect before when he combined two key centres a tritone apart (F# major and C major) to create the famous Petrushka chord in his 1911 ballet of the same name. In these pieces, however, this picturesque ‘spot’ effect is transformed into a basic operating procedure.

The result is an exhilarating aural experience as prismatic shimmerings of tonal colour in the primo part are splashed over a mechanical and boringly repetitive accompaniment pattern in the secondo.

 

Maurice Ravel
Mother Goose Suite

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Yuja Wang

Baldassare Galuppi
Andante from the Sonata in C major

The Venetian musician Baldassare Galuppi was one of the most successful composers of the 18th century. While his prodigious output of vocal music, comprising more than 100 operas, did not survive in the repertoire, interest in his keyboard music was revived in the last half of the 20th century, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1965 recording of the Sonata in C major providing an important stimulus for the resurgence.

The Andante first movement of this sonata displays all the major characteristics of Galuppi’s pre-Classical galant style of keyboard writing. It features a naively simple melody bejewelled with ornament supported by a broken-chord accompaniment moving placidly through a series of stock harmonic progressions.

Grace, charm and a childlike simplicity of affect are the principal aesthetic aims of this style, with the steady tick-tock of the Alberti bass suggesting the innocent chiming of a toy music-box.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 

The toccata originated in the 17th century as a display vehicle that highlighted the “touch” of the keyboard player. It was laid out in a sequence of rhapsodic or improvisatory passages alternating with more learned passages of imitative counterpoint. Bach’s seven toccatas for harpsichord most likely date from his twenties, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player.

To begin his Toccata in C minor BWV 911, Bach takes the measure of his instrument with a pepper spray of 32nd-note runs spanning its entire range from high to low. Soon, however, the ruminative Adagio of imitative counterpoint, full of yearning dissonances and based loosely on the rising harmonic minor scale, lurches pleadingly towards a cadence.

The first fugue is a real toe-tapper, with a subject created almost exclusively out of notes of the C-minor triad. Its countersubject (the melody frequently accompanying it) is by contrast constructed out of octave leaps and scalar runs. Both feature an extraordinary amount of sequential repetition, which as the fugue continues on almost blurs the distinction between subject entries and episodes.

A reminder of the fantasy-laden improvisations that began the work intervenes to cleanse the palate before the fugue continues on with the same subject. But this time Bach, the clever lad, shows off with a countersubject that is mostly an inversion of the previous one.

The second edition of the fugue gets an added boost of rhythmic ginger from the use of figure corte: fleet little melodic nibbles in 32nd notes that ornament the interplay of contrapuntal lines. The work ends with a weighty and solemn reminder of the opening, with the initial pepper spray transformed into a bear spray of keyboard sonority across the entire range of the instrument.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Selected Mazurkas Opp. 30, 67 and 68

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. 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.

Characteristic features retained from the original dances include drone tones in the bass, rhythmic emphasis on the second or third beat of the bar, and melodies using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major). The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated units of rhythm and recurring melodic motives. As examples of European “art music,” though, Chopin’s mazurkas are mostly in ternary (ABA) form and often colourfully chromatic.

Chromatic inflection is a prominent melodic characteristic of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4. Its sinewy, winding melody, gentle oom-pah-pah accompaniment and major-mode middle section are reminiscent of the composer’s Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2.

The mysterious Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4 is thicker in texture and more heavily scored than most but still light on its feet thanks to a number of teasing rhythmic anomalies. First amongst these is the irregular accent pattern of its two “tambourine shake” figures: a shivering triplet-trill leading to the 2nd beat of one bar followed by a mordent emphasizing the 1st beat of the next. The descending chromatic sequence of parallel 5ths and 7ths leading up to its conclusion must have shocked conservative audiences of the time.

The Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 is a product of Chopin’s early years, before he arrived in Paris, and must surely count as one of the most naively simple pieces he ever wrote. The uniform chordal texture and repetitive military rhythm of its opening section suggests a patriotic march, perhaps of a village band, while its crude contrasts of tonal colour bespeak the limited harmonic vocabulary of rural music-making. Most clearly folk-like are the drone 5ths of its middle section, supporting a fife-like lydian melody (with sharpened 4th degree) in the treble high above.

 

Johannes Brahms
Late Piano Pieces  Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119

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

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

The Intermezzo in A Minor Op. 116 No. 2 is reflective but serene, quietly rippling with 2-against-3 polyrhythms. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of minor-mode wistfulness and major-mode contentment. A livelier middle section seeks higher ground in the treble register but the sense of yearning only becomes more intense.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor Op. 119 No. 2, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C# minor Op. 117 No. 3 is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

The Romanze in F major Op. 118 No. 5 sounds vaguely archaic. Its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode while its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

 

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op. 30

In this short two-movement work from 1903—the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas—we find the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.

A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th and the tripping little rising scale figure that follows it. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable three-hand effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the upper mid-register, surrounded on either side by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic pulsations in the other voices.

The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie and the breathless, ‘panting-puppy’ quality of its playful two-note ‘hiccup’ motives make one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.

The apotheosis-style ending of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Op. 47 provides the model for the final section of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the first movement’s delicate, tentative opening theme reframed as the object of throbbing jubilation in a triumphant display of pianistic fireworks.

 

Maurice Ravel
Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs

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

 

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key, a key from which they would depart, and to which they would return at the end—in a way “that will bring us – back to – doh,” to quote child-minding music theorist Julie Andrews. And it was furthermore understood that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed, at a minimum, from a root, a third and a fifth.

The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric. This is most evident in his graduation exercise for Schoenberg, the Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910, a work described by Glenn Gould as “expansive, pessimistic and unquestionably ecstatic.”

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

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

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

 

Federico Mompou
Secreto

Catalan composer Federico Mompou described himself as “a man of few words and music of few notes.” Best known as a miniaturist, he was much influenced by French impressionism and developed an intimate and subdued style that owes much to the shy, discreet charm of Fauré, the spare textures and repetitive accompaniments of Erik Satie.

The very Satie-like Secreto comes from Mompou’s first set of piano pieces entitled Impresiones intimas (1911-1914) and displays what pianist Arkady Volodos describes as his “Zen spirit,” a meditative musical aesthetic that treasures silence as much as sound.

 

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 5 in F# major Op. 53

Early in his career Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” As he developed as a composer, however, he moved away from the Romantic style of Chopin to embrace a more mystical, ecstatic conception of music, becoming the first real “crazy man” of classical music. His aesthetic aims were in fact so expansive as to hardly fit within the scope of piano music, and as he advanced in years his solo sonatas became more and more like seances, channelling mystical forces through the fingers of the pianist.

Long before the arrival of LSD and Dr. Timothy Leary, Scriabin established “trippy-ness” as an aesthetic goal in his music. And in his first single-movement sonata, the Sonata No. 5 in F# major from 1907, we catch him tripping in mid-flight.

The first thing to know as you fasten your seat-belts to hear this work is that it displays an extreme volatility of moods that represent the ever-changing cosmic forces that Scriabin feels moving through him as he composes. Listening to some of the slower, more vaporous passages, you get the eerie feeling that you’re walking around in a trance, as he repeats the same simple motive—a third rocking back and forth—over and over again.

Another mood that strikes the composer in this sonata is a kind of jumpy excitement, a prelude to the extravagant gesture of ecstasy that will overtake him before this work is finished. This sense of mounting excitement is conveyed in the way that successive passages keep leaping up to a higher register as they repeat. In this way, Scriabin uses the registers of the keyboard to create his own Stairway to Heaven.

But the most memorable mood of all in this sonata is Scriabin’s portrayal of a kind of languid voluptuousness, created by his unique harmonic vocabulary of chromatically altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for added resonance. These spacious chords allow him to spread a lush carpet of sonorities over a wide swath of the keyboard, and it is their perfumed overtones floating mystically in the air that paint the altered psychological state he wishes to evoke.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

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