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Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann

“…calling it a sonata is a caprice if not a jest for Chopin seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into company where them might not be considered individually presentable.”

That’s the perceptive way Robert Schumann – composer, critic, and journalist – referred to Frédéric Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in 1841.

Schumann and Chopin knew each other and each other’s work. How intriguing, then, to compare music by both in the revised first half of Evgeny Kissin’s long-awaited return to the Vancouver Recital Society.

Chopin was born in March 1810, Schumann in June of the same year. They started out as fellow poets of the piano. By the 1830s the piano had become a bourgeois status symbol; there was a reliable market for published piano compositions and an appetite for recitals by piano virtuosi.

Chopin’s career played out in two decades that were a charmed moment for the piano and piano composers. He released small-scale works regularly; the more accessible of his pieces fueled demand for his more adventurous works. When he withdrew from active concertizing, his compositional desire to explore, innovate, and experiment had free rein. Robert Schumann might have followed a similar path had he not abandoned piano performance even before his intended career trajectory was launched (due, so the legend goes, to a hand injury).

Many new fans of the VRS may not know of the long, rich history of VRS Schumann performances dating back to the earliest days of the society. British cellist Stephen Isserlis, for example, interested the organization in “Schumann and his Circle performances” that included music not just by Robert but by his wife Clara, his brother-in-law Woldemar Barqiel, and others connected with that charmed group of Romantic-era talents.

The VRS has heard remarkable Schumann performances by Sir András Schiff, Radu Lupo, and Maria Tipo. Indeed, for a while it seemed that all young pianists offered Schumann’s magisterial Fantasy Op. 17 on their debut VRS programs.

What VRS fans have not heard with any regularity are Schuman’s three piano sonatas. And it is where piano sonatas are concerned that some of the telling distinctions between Chopin and Schumann become clear – distinctions which will no doubt be explored as Evgeny Kissin presents a uniquely interesting first half program consisting of two Chopin nocturnes and Schumann’s third and final piano sonata.

Chopin had something of a problem with (and possibly not that much interest in), the idea of extended and/or multiple movement compositions. He did create a pair of concertos that were early calling-card pieces, very useful for a touring pianist/composer; there’s a piano trio, a cello sonata, and a pair of piano sonatas. But all are considered to some degree – problematic.

Much of Chopin’s most effective music consists of relatively short pieces that define a particular sub-genre of keyboard music in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. There are dances: waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises; there are “narrative” pieces in a type of glorified but non-specific storytelling, like the ballades and the scherzos.

Then there are the nocturnes. Simple enough to call them “night pieces”, but this misses two important bits of their musical DNA. Chopin transferred the singing lines of opera into keyboard guise – pianistic bel canto, if you will. The many and varied nocturnes can be considered prime examples of cavatinas for piano: plenty of emphasis on a singing right hand, with lots of flourishes and subtle bits of decorative embellishment.

Then there is the unabashedly erotic content of the nocturnes and barcarolles. While the proper bourgeois of his era were disinclined to discuss this impulse in the frank post-Freudian terms we use today, they certainly understood the thoughts and feelings music could evoke.

The two nocturnes on Evgeny Kissin’s revised program appear to have been written in 1843 and 1846, respectively. (Intriguingly, Chopin’s last sonata, and his second last large-scale work, was written between the two.) The Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 #1 is one of the most popular, a staple of the keyboard repertoire. The Nocturne in E major Op. 62 #2 is most likely the last nocturne Chopin composed, a fundamentally quiet and introspective piece; as such, it’s far less frequently performed than the F minor. Both are relatively straightforward and focus on depth of feeling, not virtuoso display.

Robert Schumann loved Chopin’s music (the favour was not reciprocated, apparently) and his 1841 assessment isn’t as harsh as it might first seem. Rather, it’s what a fellow composer saw in the work: it may not quite fit the standard definition of a sonata, but it’s not without interest.

Schumann certainly knew firsthand the struggle to go from poetic aphorisms to more substantial and formal (in every sense) compositions. He wrote his three piano sonatas right after he had created a trilogy of his most popular “anthology” compositions, the multi movement collection of miniatures: Papillons Op. 2, Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 and Carnaval Op. 9.

Many have speculated that Schuman’s move to sonatas, chamber music and symphonies came at the enthusiastic urging of his soul mate and, ultimately, wife Clara, a remarkable if conservative talent in her own right. Clara worshiped tradition. She was the first pianist to play all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in public. She composed preludes and fugues. It’s easy to think that she encouraged Robert to work in all the great classical forms.

Robert’s trio of piano sonatas predate his first attempts at extended chamber works and symphonies by about half a decade. The Grand Sonata #3, in F minor Op. 14 had a troubled launch. Schumann initially conceived of it in five movements with two different scherzo sections but he was “persuaded” by his Viennese publisher to release it in a three-movement version. No doubt the publisher was concerned with commercial possibilities: a five-movement behemoth was just too long for most amateurs to bother with. The same publisher thought up the name “concert sans orchestra” which has bedeviled the work ever since.

For close to two decades, Schumann left well enough alone. Then in 1853, the year Robert and Clara met the twenty-year-old Brahms, he decided revisions were in order, ultimately deciding on a four-movement structure, shortening the central Quasi variazioni: Andantino de Clara Wieck movement but reinstating one of the pairs of scherzos cut in the initial publication.

It was one of Schumann’s last artistic decisions. After 1853, he was unable to complete any further compositions. He died in 1856. Johannes Brahms gave the revised composition its premiere in 1861.

David Gordon Duke 2018


Sergei Rachmaninoff
Preludes Opp. 23 and 32

The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff seems to glimmer out from somewhere deep in the Russian soul. With the minor mode as his preferred tonal colouring, Rachmaninoff crafted achingly nostalgic melodies à la Tchaikovsky alongside sharply chiselled passages of muscular pianism that evoke the heel-clicking traditions of the Russian military. Prominent in his sound world is the ringing of bells large and small, from the tintinnabulation of sleigh bells to the weighty pendulum swings of cathedral bells evoked so dramatically in the opening of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

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 two-hand textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament. These traits are particularly concentrated in his two sets of Preludes Op. 23 (1902) and Op. 32 (1910), works more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 & 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

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The Op. 23 set of preludes begins with a whimper. The hauntingly fragile melody of the Prelude in F sharp minor Op. 23 No. 1 calls out tenderly in timid, tentative phrases to an almost indifferent accompaniment of constantly wavering chromatic figures. This is Rachmaninoff at his most intimate, his most confessional, his most vulnerable.

The majestic Prelude in B flat major Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and bravura of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over 3 octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied – but equally tumultuous – middle section.

While the Prelude in D minor Op. 23 No. 3 is marked Tempo di minuetto, there is a ‘snap-to-attention’ military crispness to its dotted rhythms and stop-and-go pacing that points more to the parade ground than to the palace ballroom.

The Prelude in D major Op. 23 No. 4 is a lulling nocturne. Its melody sings out from the middle of the texture, swaddled at first by a sonic glow of bell-like overtones, then topped with a gently undulating descant, and finally crowned with echoing chimes in the highest register.

The real jackboot-strutting military march of the set is the Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5, perhaps second in fame only to the celebrated Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2. Punchy, menacing, and triumphant by turns, it yields in its middle section to a bout of soldierly homesickness to spin out a lyrical melody of yearning sighs and wistful countermelodies.

Unruffled calm reigns over the elegiac musings of the Prelude in E flat major Op. 23 No. 6, that offers as much melodic and contrapuntal interest in its ornately winding accompaniment in 16ths as in the 8ths and quarters of the placid melody floating on top of it.

The Prelude in C minor Op. 23 No. 7 is a tour de force of whirlwind energy and boldly flickering tonal colour that sweeps across vast swathes of the keyboard in myriad dark figurations, a moto perpetuo prelude that emerges from the darkness for a triumphant final cadence in C major.

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The Prelude in B minor Op. 32 No. 10 is Russian to the core. Pianist Benno Moisevitch, in conversation with Rachmaninoff, wisely guessed its emotional wellspring: the yearning for a homecoming that would never come. Its principal motive is a dotted figure, wavering modally between major and minor, that is soon accompanied – and then overwhelmed – by an utterly heartbreaking storm of throbbing triplets that reverberate clangorously like massive swaying church bells, thundering towards a resolution that never arrives.

The sound of sleigh bells greets the ear in the jangling accompaniment figure of open 5ths that begins the Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12, tempting and taunting a pensive baritone melody that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency in the darker regions of the keyboard below.

The Prelude in D flat major, 13th and concluding prelude of the Op. 32 set, has a reflective, commemorative quality to it, rehearsing in its musing dotted rhythms and rich, wide-ranging sonorities the inner feelings of a composer who would soon be forced into exile from his native Russia.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018


Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5

Having recently returned from his hugely successful visits to England and been liberated from financial woes, Haydn composed a set of six String Quartets, Op. 76 which were commissioned by Hungarian Count, Joseph Erdödy in 1797. Deviating from more traditional forms and establishing a new treatment of thematic material, these innovative features secured their place amongst his most ambitious chamber works. While employed under the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy II, his relatively light duties allowed him to compose multiple works, including the ever-popular Creation oratorio, published in 1799. Not only was this an intensification of his prior achievements, the added weight, character, and instant successes also ensured the resulting “Erdödy” quartets were considered a triumph.

The opening Allegretto, an elegant and dignified dance in triple time, is a typically Haydnian movement flourishing entirely out of a single melody. Serenity is soon lost, however, as a fiery outburst in D minor using rapidly furious scalar runs creates a desire for the unknown with a delightfully energetic coda in faster tempo that ends the movement. The tenderness of the largo in the remote key of F Sharp minor ensues with a particularly prominent singing and mournful nature. The lack of open strings results in an ethereal sound with both the cello and viola taking prominent melancholic solo roles before the opening theme returns. The minuet and trio is perhaps more mysterious and insecure, with duplet figures constantly disrupting the expected triple time. The cello opens the trio with grumbling scale material aplenty concealing deep secrets before an opening of light occurs as all parts join in homophony. Followed by the unbounded joy of a turbulent folk scene, the finale has the character of bagpipe music as the open fifths in the accompaniment allow each part takes their turn to gallop into the limelight. Its rapid pace and jagged phrasing makes it particularly challenging to pull off; however, its outright declamatory nature ensures the quartet ends on a high.

Gabriel Fauré
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

The sole string quartet of Gabriel Fauré, completed shortly before his death, was composed in the summer of 1923. Keeping the work under wraps, wary of his declining health and uninvited comparisons to great composers of the past, Fauré wrote to his wife from Annecy-le-Vieux, Savoy admitting “I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!” Trained in the formal tradition of counterpoint since the age of 9, it is perhaps unsurprising that the work owes much to the weight of tradition while also incorporating youthful creativity that he perhaps so craved as he neared the end of his life.

The viola’s rising opening phrase answered by the first violin sets the tone for the Allegro with lamenting and contouring lines interacting in a form of ebb and flow ending in exhaustion. Although the tonality often feels murky, the defined sonata form provides structure as the development section proposes a more concise and contrapuntal construction with the viola once again having a particularly eloquent role. The central Andante (the most extensive movement) is contemplative, comprised of rising chromatic scales that simultaneously radiate youthful curiosity but also a sense of nostalgia. The owing melody is accompanied by pulsating quavers that eventually lead to individual parts emerging before sinking back into the reweaving of previous material. With the Allegro, the combined function of scherzo, as well as finale, is clear. The angular theme is introduced in the cello over a pizzicato accompaniment flitting between duple and triple beat divisions as a serenade and dance. Eventually reaching a jubilant E major conclusion, the work casts a distinct view of life and love regarded as a true representative of the composer himself as he seeks a quiet but profound farewell to life.

Robert Schumann
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1

Dedicated to his dear friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn, the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1 was composed in the space of a few weeks during the summer of 1842. A man of habit during his most productive periods, Schumann’s intense focus on a single genre at a time notably led to the composition of over 150 songs in 1840, which were succeeded by several large-orchestral works merely a year later. In that so-called chamber-music year of 1842, alongside the three quartets of Op. 41, he also wrote a piano quintet, a piano quartet and a set of Fantasy Pieces for Piano Trio inspired by the works of the masters before him: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. While Schumann’s string quartets are less frequently programmed, they have often been cited as the ‘missing links’ between the quartets of Mendelssohn and Brahms, a testament to his unique gifts as a composer.

As one of the finest contributions to the genre, the first quartet of Op. 41 begins in A minor, using falling motifs engaged in imitative counterpoint at every turn, wrought in anguish and sorrow. The curling lines are eventually unravelled breaking into a sunny Allegro in 6/8 and the submediant key of F major. A sense of rhythmic simplicity and classical restraint is finely nuanced before the galloping scherzo follows, vividly contrasting in character. Szforzando accents are abundant, immediately suggesting Mendelssohn- inspired sprightliness combined with fiery passion. The trio is in the major mode providing some lyrical contrast in a more genteel character. The divine theme of the Adagio follows, bringing together notions of idealised romance and lust particularly as the cello acquires the melody accompanied by pizzicato violins. However, the elegant sentiment is soon lost as the Presto plunges into forceful abandon, surging towards the unexpected interlude in A major. Quickly cast aside, the deluge of mighty textural celebration returns drawing the work to a finale of legendary proportions.

Program notes © Jessica Bryden


Program Notes: Andras Schiff performs Bach


J. S. Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier

One of the monumental landmarks in the history of music, Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier (the WTC for short) has come to represent the “Old Testament” of the pianist’s repertory (Hans von Bülow) and his “daily bread” (Robert Schumann).   “For more than 250 years,” states Davitt Moroney, “Das wohltemperierte Clavier has trained the fingers of innumerable keyboard players, and has also trained the judgment of composers seeking to understand the complex relationship between creative freedom and formal discipline.”

The two books of preludes and fugues in alternately major and minor keys – twenty-four in each – were not written in sequence or as a single concerted effort. They occupied Bach across most of his creative life, from his late twenties to about sixty. He completed Book I in 1722 and Book II a generation later in 1742. The significance of the title lies in Bach’s intent to prove the practicality of adopting a new system of tuning the clavier (a generic term for keyboard instruments at the time, but referring mostly to the harpsichord), namely by means of artificially dividing the scale into twelve equal semitones, hence overriding its natural acoustic divisions into unequal semitones which produced severe problems of intonation.

A prelude can mean so many things that a single definition is impossible. As found in the WTC, each prelude is a free, improvisatory piece that examines from various angles a figuration, texture, melodic motif, rhythmic idea or some combination of these in a continuously unfolding musical discourse.

A fugue is a somewhat more complex matter. The fugue’s “subject” is announced in the opening bars in one of the fugue’s three or four voices (on rare occasions, two or even five voices are found). This subject is then stated in a second voice while the first continues with a “countersubject”. Succeeding voices are treated similarly, quickly establishing a dense contrapuntal web which continues for the duration of the fugue. Often near the end, but also at various points along the way, the composer might use the technique of “stretto,” in which the subject makes overlapping entries in each voice in quick succession. Additionally, the subject may be inverted (turned upside down), augmented (played twice or four times as slowly), or diminished (played at double or quadruple speed) at any point following its initial presentation.

The listener’s interest in a fugue lays both in following the composer’s continuous manipulation of the subject and in observing the grand design of the whole. Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler (a contemporary of Mozart) made this entirely apt observation: “The fugue is a conversation … a musical artwork where no one accompanies, no one submits, where no one plays a secondary role, but each a principal part.”

The Prelude and Fugue in C major, the portal through which we enter the Well-tempered Clavier, is technically extremely simple. Amateur pianists who can play nothing else from the WTC can play this prelude. It is seemingly nothing more than a series of gently rippled broken chords. It is “fine-spun like a spider’s web” (Cecil Gray), yet written in full-textured, five-part harmony throughout. The first great Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta, called this prelude “a piece of indescribable fascination, in which a grand and beatific melody seems to float past like the song of an angel heard in the silence of night through the murmur of trees, groves and waters.”

In contrast to the simplicity of the first prelude, the first fugue is one of the most intricate, tightly woven and masterfully constructed. There is no countersubject. Instead, Bach indulges in much stretto, using it not just at the end but also throughout the entire fugue, starting as early as the seventh bar. Only a composer (or a frustrated student) can fully appreciate just how difficult it is to fit together all the elements of a proper stretto while maintaining a continuously flowing melodic line and avoiding tedium.

At the other end of our traversal, for the final Prelude and Fugue in B minor, we would expect Bach to produce something truly exceptional, and he does not disappoint us. The prelude moves inexorably forward like a huge musical juggernaut. In form it is unique in the First Book, with each of its two sections delineated with repeat signs (not always observed in performance) in the manner common to a movement from a suite. Also unique are the performance directions. The manuscript score contains tempo indications (Andante for the prelude, Largo for the fugue) for this pair alone. The fugue is the longest in the entire First Book. Its subject is remarkable for containing every one of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, thus forming a fitting conclusion to a collection of pieces whose avowed intent is to demonstrate the validity of each of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. Moreover, there is no denying the fugue’s extreme chromaticism that looks forward to the world of Wagner’s Tristan and Parsifal. How Bach weaves the fierce power of his subject into a continuously fascinating, 75-bar tapestry of mesmerizing force is one of the miracles of Baroque music.

“To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colors,” writes András Schiff. “In my imagination, each tonality corresponds to a colour. The WTC … provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy. Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence and therefore C major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in B minor, which is the key of death. Compare the fugue of Book I to the Kyrie of the B-minor Mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles we have all the other colors – first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between C minor and D minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to E minor), the greens (F major to G minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to A minor), browns (B-flat), grey (B major) and finally black. Of course this is a very personal interpretation, and each listener may have a different opinion. Nevertheless, if some of us happen to believe that music is more than just a series of notes and sounds, then a little bit of fantasy is welcome.”