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The Simón Bolívar String Quartet’s scheduled performance at the Vancouver Playhouse on September 17 has been postponed to a future season. The current volatile and violent situation in Venezuela, which has heightened following last week’s election, has made it almost impossible for the quartet to navigate around Caracas to make arrangements for their North American tour. Both the USA and Canada have withdrawn most of their diplomatic staff from the city, and there are now very few airlines flying in and out of Venezuela. Given that the situation is expected to escalate before it is resolved, the sad decision was made to postpone the tour, which, in addition to the scheduled VRS engagement, had included planned performances at the Ravinia Festival and Cornell Concert Series.
Alejandro Carreño, 1st violinist with the quartet, said, “This is a regrettable moment for us as Venezuelans, and a dark process of our history. Artistically this tour was very important for the quartet, and that is why we want to let the presenters and public know how sorry we are about this situation, which is out of our control. We hope to reschedule these concert dates where possible, so that we can return soon to these important places. We are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received from our team and colleagues; their commitment and support is invaluable to us as artists. We very much hope to be able to perform internationally as a quartet again in the near future.”
We are obviously very disappointed that we won’t be able to hear the Simón Bolívar String Quartet this season, however our primary concern is for the safety and wellbeing of the members of the quartet and indeed the people of Venezuela in these difficult times. We’ll be keeping in touch with quartet, and we very much hope to present them in a future season. So stayed tuned for more on that…
In the meantime, I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with my contacts in Europe and North America trying to find an equally brilliant quartet to present on this date. And the good news is, I’ve found one! The Verona Quartet — hailed by The New York Times as an “outstanding ensemble of young musicians” — will be stepping in to replace the Simón Bolívar Quartet. The venue, date and time of the performance are unchanged.
The Verona Quartet has a wonderful program:
Haydn: String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 50, No. 1
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
Ravel: String Quartet in F major.
In my 38 years as a concert presenter, I’ve dealt with cancellations before. But never due to political and civil unrest.
Our thoughts are very much with the Simón Bolívar Quartet.
Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., DFA
Founder & Artistic Director
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in A flat, Op. 26
Beethoven begins to move away from the norms of the classical tradition in this unconventional four-movement sonata without a single movement in traditional sonata- allegro form. It opens with a noble, almost ceremonial theme with five variations, all based, to some degree, on the principle of rhythmic displacement. The first variation arpeggiates the theme in different registers, as if played by different members of a chamber ensemble or orchestra. The second staggers the melody and accompaniment between the two hands to create a choppy but propulsive texture of relentless off-beats. A much slower pattern of syncopation between the hands is featured in the minor-mode third variation, which draws dark and grave significance from the theme in the unusual key of A flat minor—perhaps the first time this seven-flatted key signature had ever been used. The syncopation is given a brighter face in the playfully hide-and-seek changes of register in the whimsical 4th variation. The fifth is the most orchestral of all, placing the theme in the alto and surrounding it on both sides with a rich rolling texture of chordal arpeggios and the kind of written out trills that would feature prominently in the late sonatas.
In another break with tradition, Beethoven places the scherzo (stand-in for the classical minuet) second in the four-movement structure and by so doing shifts the centre of gravity in the work to the funeral march that follows. For the moment, though, we hear in this movement the exuberant Beethoven boyishly at play, balancing the skipping short phrases and off-beat sforzando accents of the opening with the smooth long stretches of melody in the trio middle section.
The funeral march third movement, when it comes, is weighty indeed, its significance enlarged by the motto Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe (Funeral march on the death of a hero). The dramatic events of the French Revolution had made heroic death—and the public commemoration of it—the subject of intense fascination in the public imagination and Beethoven joined a number of his contemporaries by appealing to this fascination in his music. Most striking in this march is the orchestral texture of the middle section, with its tremolo drum rolls answered by defiant trumpet retorts. This movement was performed, orchestrally, at Beethoven’s own funeral in 1827.
After this funeral march has done the heavy lifting to make this Grande Sonate live up to its name, it falls to the last movement to walk us home from the funeral in a rondo that Edwin Fischer described as “a gentle autumn rain.” By turns blithely conversational and dramatically forthright, this moto perpetuo rounds out a strikingly original four-movement sonata that by its pianissimo ending reveals itself more concerned with poetry than pomp.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the composer of that other funeral march, Frédéric Chopin, included this sonata in his performing repertoire.
Frédéric Chopin: Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
The idea of free-flowing musical fantasy, unconstrained by pre-conceived formal patterning, was well known to Chopin from an early age. As a boy he would entertain his classmates at his father’s boarding school by improvising at the piano on Polish popular melodies. Liszt, among others, relates how he would do the same at aristocratic social gatherings of the Polish exile community in Paris.
There is reason to believe, then, that his Fantaisie, Op. 49 of 1841 is composed in the spirit of such improvisations, containing as it does nostalgic allusions to many patriotic tunes sung by Poles in the aftermath of the failed insurrection of November 1830 in Warsaw.
Emblematic of the free associative processes at work in the piece is the opening march—a genre little known for emotional or psychological complexity. And yet Chopin imbues it with an aura of mystery, not only from its slow pace and low register on the keyboard, but also from the vaguely tragic echoes that reply to it from above. What begins as the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a ghostly military parade glides imperceptibly into the lilting pulse of a graceful dance fit for the salon. Similar patterns of free association mark the main sections of the work, which are separated by improvisatory bridge passages featuring a flurry of arpeggiated figuration spanning the keyboard.
The main thematic material passes through musical moods that progress from anxiety to sanguine exuberance, then defiance (expressed in a series of octaves in contrary motion) and finally military triumph (in a more traditional march). These musical associations pivot on either side of a remarkable still point in the middle of the work, its elegaic Lento sostenuto, nostalgically recalled at the closing of the piece in an evocative recitative.
Camille Saint-Saëns (arr. Liszt/Horowitz): Danse macabre
Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.
Such is the scene of the Danse macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.
Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.
Liszt’s attraction to the work is not hard to understand. He was well-known for his virtuoso transcriptions of opera classics such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bellini’s Norma and the toxic mix of religion and death had already infused such works as his own Totentanz for piano and orchestra, as well as piano solo pieces such as Funerailles. This transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout.
Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement of the Saint-Saens work, thickening some passages to add greater resonance, thinning out others to make them “speak” more effectively on the modern piano, and even adding extra bars to the score, starting with the misty cadenza that immediately follows the tolling of the midnight bells at the work’s opening.
The Danse macabre that results is thus a refracting prism of the picturesque, virtuoso and pianistic contributions of three great exponents of the Romantic tradition in music.
Franz Schubert: Impromptus Op. 90, Nos. 2 & 3
The impromptu is just one of a number of small-scale instrumental genres arising in the early 19th century, known under the collective title of character pieces. Cultivated by composers in the emerging Romantic movement, these pieces presented a simple musical idea in an intimate lyrical style with the aim of evoking a particular mood or moment of personal reflection, spontaneously experienced and communicated.
The typical construction was a simple three-part form (A-B-A), with a middle section that contrasts in mood or emotional intensity with the outer sections. The eight impromptus that Schubert composed in late 1827 are classic examples of the genre, and indeed are the first pieces bearing the name impromptu to establish themselves permanently in the repertoire.
The Impromptu in G flat, Op. 90, No. 3 presents a lyrical vocal melody over melt-in-your-mouth harmonies laid out in a gentle but ever-moving accompaniment pattern that perfectly paints the fluttering of the human heart.
A much wider emotional range is explored in the Impromptu in E flat, Op. 90, No. 2, which contrasts the carefree mood of its opening running scale passages with a more emphatic middle section dominated by vigorous emotional outbursts. Recent developments in the design of the Viennese piano made possible the extreme range of the right-hand scalar passages, which Schubert exploits to create thrilling crescendos in the high register.
Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Ravel’s depiction of three poems from the collection by French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand strikes terror into the hearts of pianists and listeners alike. Its audience enters a dark but lucid dream world of the magical, the macabre, and the grotesque while the performer confronts pianistic challenges unique in the repertoire of his instrument.
Written expressly to be, in the words of the composer, “more difficult than Islamey” by Balakirev, Ravel’s 1908 masterpiece bristles with the kinds of pianistic difficulties only the Impressionists could create: fleet patterns of figuration across the full range of the keyboard interspersed with colorful but dense tone structures that must be parsed, at a lightning pace, with extreme delicacy of pedaling and with infinitely fine gradations of dynamics.
Ondine is a mermaid who whispers her message of seduction into the ear of a mortal man, trying to tempt him to join her in her shimmering watery world. When he confesses that he is married already, she disappears in a burst of laughter and brilliant splashes of scattered water.
Le Gibet paints the picture of a man hanging from the scaffold, the slight swaying of his body grimly imitated throughout by the implacable ringing of a repeated B-flat in the mid-range of the keyboard as the sifted sonorities of surrounding chord streams evoke the setting sun.
Scarbo is a dwarfish evil imp that flits about the room terrifying a man in his bed. It buzzes in dark corners and dances menacingly in and out of the shadows until, like the flame of a burning candle, it vaporizes into the air and its presence is extinguished.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
Avi Avital: Kedma
“To open the concert, I have chosen to perform a composition- improvisation of my own. Unlike a composer’s relationship to an instrument and to a musical form, the performer’s relationship to his instrument, as in this case, is expressed in a frequent dialogue to “get to know” each other better. This improvisation, in which I have modified the mandolin’s traditional tuning, is sub-divided into four parts; each part concentrating on a unique character and on one of the mandolin’s four pairs of strings. These four parts are then followed by a finale that reminds us of a kind of folk dance, where all of the strings and characters participate and reunite.
I have called the piece Kedma, which in Hebrew means “eastwards” or “towards the orient”. “Kedma” also contains the Hebrew root of other words with very different, apparently contradicting, meanings: kodem – before and kadimah – forward; kedem – antiquity and kidma – modernization, avant-garde.” – Avi Avital
Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004
The practice of composing an ordered collection of rhythmically contrasting dance pieces in the same key for a single instrument arose in the 17th century. Published under the name of suite or partita, the genre normally comprised an allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, to which Bach added a mighty chaconne to crown his Partita in D minor for violin solo, composed in 1720.
The problem of creating full harmonies on a single-line instrument is addressed by Bach in his use of the style brisé (“broken style”) typical of 17th-century French lute music: chordal progressions are “broken up” into irregular patterns of arpeggios and runs to create a continuous flow of sound for the performer to shape expressively in performance. The opening allemande is a classic example of this lute-inspired texture and its (re-)transcription for a plucked, stringed instrument such as the mandolin is therefore especially apt.
The courante lives up to its name in a series of flowing runs in triple metre while the deliberate and serious sarabande, with its grave emphasis on the 2nd beat of the bar, sets the stage for the jaunty and dancelike gigue (“jig”) that follows.
The chaconne which concludes the suite is one of the most celebrated works in the classical canon, having inspired transcriptions and adaptations by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Busoni and Segovia, among others. Exceeding in duration the length of all the preceding pieces combined, it is conceived in three parts, with a middle section in the major mode. It presents an evolving set of ever-more probing variations on the repeating bass line D-C#-D-Bb-G-A-D given in the first four measures. The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier.
Yasuo Kuwahara: Improvised Poem
The Japanese mandolinist Yasuo Kuwahara was a prolific composer for his chosen instrument who made important contributions to both the solo and ensemble repertoires of the mandolin. He enjoyed an international reputation for compositions ranging from lush romantic scores such as Song of Japanese Autumn (a favourite with mandolin ensembles both in Europe and the United States) to works in a more challenging modern idiom for solo mandolin.
Improvised Poem falls into the latter category. Its exploitation of the full sonic potential of the instrument in frenetic chordal tremolos and abrupt cross-accents, only occasionally interrupted by episodes of reflective calm, put it on even terrain with the boldest flights of fancy of the flamenco guitar.
Maurice Ravel: Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera
Maurice Ravel was born in a small Basque village near the border with Spain and although thoroughly Parisian in his artistic sensibilities was constantly drawn to the rhythms and melodies of Spanish music.
In this vocal exercise, composed in 1907, we hear both Paris and Madrid. The pastel chord streams and scintillating flecks of harmony in the piano exemplify French impressionism at its height, while the dark melodic contours and biting ornamental inflections of the solo line evoke exotic locales of the Iberian peninsula. Pulsing beneath both is the slow, suave and lilting rhythm of the habañera.
Manuel de Falla: Siete Canciones Populares Españolas
de Falla’s most popular vocal work was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.
The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), gives a none-too-veiled warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair. The Seguidilla murciana is an intenseargument of insistent taunts and bitter banter.
The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the piano evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.
The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that de Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created in the piano by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.
The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities in the piano part supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.
Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances
Transylvania held a particular fascination for Bartók, who visited the region several times in the years preceding the First World War to collect folk tunes from the local peasant population. Its very remoteness and primitive way of life, he believed, offered the opportunity to discover the authentic roots of an important indigenous musical tradition, so different from what passed for “gypsy” music in the salons of Budapest and Vienna.
His settings of these Romanian folk tunes were composed in 1915 for piano solo, and subsequently published in other instrumental arrangements in the following years. His modest but harmonically pungent accompaniments frame these haunting melodies in simple rhythmic garb while evoking the sonorities of the original village instruments on which they were played: the fiddle, shepherd’s flute and bagpipes.
The simple titles of the dances themselves give an idea of the kinds of choreography they were meant accompany. The opening Jocul cu bâtă, which Bartók originally heard played by two gypsy violinists, involves dancing with a stick or staff, while the following Brâul uses a sash or waistband as its visual prop.
A dark mood broods over the third piece, Pe loc, presumably danced “in one spot.” The recurring interval of an augmented second suggests its origin in regions south of Romania, perhaps the Middle East. The same interval pervades the melodic inflections of Buciumeana, a gypsy violin piece.
A more boisterous mood is evoked in the last two dances. Poarga Românească (Romanian polka) alternates 2⁄4 and 3⁄4 metres while the aptly named Fast Dance (Mărunțel) picks up the pace with a rhythmically intense accompaniment supporting the melodic twists and turns of the gypsy violin above.
Program notes by Donald Gislason, 2013.
Eric Owens’ recital divides neatly into two halves – a German half and a French half, with the final song a true rarity that bridges the geographical and cultural divide. The German songs (Lieder) all tend to be of a dark, serious or melancholic nature, while the French songs (mélodies) are lighter, even airy and effervescent, the perfect antidote to the German half. As Eric Owens puts it, Debussy “brings us out of the land of despair.”
Hugo Wolf may well be the only major composer who is remembered today for his songs alone. If it was Schubert who put the Lied on the musical map, it was Wolf who epitomized this genre to the exclusion of almost everything else. In his musical depictions of poets’ words, Wolf has few equals and no superiors. Accents, pauses, harmonic twists, modulations, textures and figurations all play a role in illuminating the text, in both the vocal and the piano writing. The Michelangelo Lieder were Wolf’s last songs, written in March of 1897 as he was approaching the onset of dementia from the syphilitic infection that later killed him. In their bare harmony, declamatory style and absence of melodic lines, these songs show the composer’s single-minded intent to concentrate on the essence of the words to the exclusion of all else. The texts are three sonnets (in Walter Robert-Tornow’s German translation) of the famous painter, sculptor and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), written when he was an old man reflecting pessimistically on life. In the first, the poet thinks back to the days when he was young and unknown. The second is an observation on the ephemeral nature of all earthly things, and the third a memory of lost love.
Although Robert Schumann wrote less than half as many songs as Schubert, his achievement is hardly less impressive, for most of them were composed in a single year, 1840, the year of his marriage to Clara Wieck. Schumann’s wedding present to Clara was the collection of 26 songs entitled Myrthen (myrtles, the flowers traditionally associated with weddings). No. 15 of this collection is the strangely despondent “Aus den hebräischen Gesängen” (From Hebrew Melodies), set to words by Lord Byron in German translation. Muttertraum” (Mother’s Dream), set to words of Hans Christian Andersen, paints a consoling picture of a mother gazing fondly at her infant son while outside ravens lurk. They look forward to feasting on his corpse hanging from the gallows, as they know the child will grow up to be a criminal. Gruesome imagery is found also in Der “Schatzgräber” (The Treasure-seeker), a magnificent and graphically realistic setting of Joseph von Eichendorff’s morality tale of a man obsessively seeking buried treasure and finally being buried himself. A different kind of desperation pervades “Melancholie,” a song of unrequited love.
The three songs of Franz Schubert on Eric Owens’ recital all deal with epic subjects of classical mythology, carry dark messages, and were composed by a young man still in his early twenties. “Prometheus,” with its frequent changes of texture, tempo and mood, and with its essential instrumental component, is more an operatic scene than a mere song. “We may all be made of Promethean clay, but only genius can be fired to produce a work as extraordinary and highly-colored as this,” writes pianist Graham Johnson. “Fahrt zum Hades” (Journey to Hades) is another impressive setting, this one to a description of a despairing man’s crossing of the River Styx and his last glimpse of earthly beauties. The poem by Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer inspired the composer to create what John Reed calls “a dramatic aria of solemn grandeur, tragic in tone and classical in its combination of deep feeling and formal restraint.” In “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” (Scene from Tartarus) we find a viscerally powerful song that none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau claimed can leave a listener “stunned and terrified.” Set to a passage from Schiller, its text alone is frightening enough, but underscored by Schubert’s chromatic, discordant music, this through-composed song in several linked sections takes on colossal proportions.
The majority of Claude Debussy’s 85 known, authenticated songs are early works, composed between 1880 and 1892. So too are the three we hear tonight. “Beau soir” was his second song to be published, yet, as Barbara Meister notes, “it is already the work of a master. From the very first measure one is intrigued by the rhythmic pattern …” There are numerous harmonic felicities as well. Despite the song’s title (Beautiful evening), the message of Paul Bourget’s poem is that happiness turns to sorrow, life leads to death. “Fleur des blés (Wheat flower) immediately followed “Beau soir,” but whereas in the earlier song the piano had essentially an accompanying role, now it is nearly an equal partner with the voice. André Girod’s poem invites images of pastoral loveliness, which are compared to features of the poet’s beloved. “L’Âme evaporée (The evanescent soul), another Bourget setting, is the first of two Romances published in 1891. Meister calls it “really a perfect duet for the two performers.” For the most part each has his or her own part, but at the song’s climax their lines join.
Cervantes’ picaresque novel Don Quixote, which recounts the adventures of the legendary “knight of the sorrowful countenance,” has inspired no end of musical compositions. Maurice Ravel’s contribution to this literature took the form of three short songs that Don Quixote addresses in homage to his ladylove Dulcinea. Composed in 1932, it was his last work. Ravel had already proven himself a master at composing music to Spanish subjects (L’heure espagnole, Rapsodie espagnole, Boléro, Alborada del gracioso). The first song is a highly fanciful Chanson romanesque, in which Don Quixote offers to fulfill whatever whimsical requests Dulcinea may present. It is set to the meter of the Spanish guajira, which alternates between 6/8 and 3/4. The second is a prayer at the shrine of the Madonna, set to the 5/4 meter of the Basque zortzico. Finally comes a drinking song in the manner of an Aragonese jota. The first performance was given by baritone Martial Singher in Paris on December 1, 1934.
During his Paris sojourn of 1839-1841, Richard Wagner composed half a dozen songs to French texts as part of his effort to become better known there. He hoped the popular singers of the day would add them to their repertories, but, as musicologist Werner Breig informs us, “the songs did not meet with much success at the time, perhaps because they were too complicated for the function they were supposed to serve.” For “Les deux Grenadiers,” Wagner used a translation by François Adolphe Loeve-Veimar of Heinrich Heine’s original ballad in German. Two of Napoleon’s troops are en route home from the disastrous Russian campaign. They mourn the capture of their beloved Emperor. One wants only to get back to his family, the other wishes for the comfort of the grave on French soil. To the sounds of the Marseillaise, the latter imagines his heroic deeds in defense of Napoleon.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata (“Moonlight”) in C sharp minor, Op.27, no.2 (Sonata quasi una Fantasia)
The year 1801 marked not only the dawn of a new century, but also a significant new approach on Beethoven’s part to matters of form and structure in the piano sonata. The bold use of unusual and exotic keys, quasi-programmatic elements, irregular forms and unorthodox ordering of movements all contributed to heralding a new note in Beethoven’s sonatas. The composer called each of his two sonatas Op. 27 quasi una fantasia. In these works, the improvisatory impulse, free flights of fancy and avoidance of conventional forms are carried further than ever before. In Eric Blom’s words, these sonatas “show the composer emancipating himself from the classical sonata pattern and doing it as drastically as possible by substituting pieces in a freely chosen form for the traditional first movement that was always the most important part of a sonata, though not invariably in what we now call sonata form.”
While the first of the two Op. 27 sonatas may be one of Beethoven’s least-known, its sister, the Moonlight, is surely the best-known. The subtitle, as many people are aware, was not given by Beethoven. It came from the German critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab (l799-l860), who once commented that the first movement made him think of “a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.” In point of fact, the composer never saw the Lake of Lucerne, and in any case, the mood ascribed to the sonata fits only the first movement. Furthermore, Beethoven never even heard of the appellation “Moonlight” Sonata, as it was not affixed until five years after his death. The work was very popular in Beethoven’s lifetime, though the composer himself did not have a particularly high regard for it, and was annoyed that the public afforded it greater status than many of his other works.
The musical and structural (as opposed to the romantic and fictitious) elements of the sonata are considerable. The Moonlight is written in a rarely-used key, especially for the periodC-sharp minor. Mozart did not write a single work in this key, and Haydn did so only once. Also, most unusually, all three movements are based in the tonality of C-sharp: minor for the outer movements, major for the central one, at least to the ear. (The Allegretto is technically in D-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major, and easier to read than C-sharp major; the latter would require seven sharps in its key signature!) Like the two previous sonatas, this one is an experiment in form, with Beethoven attempting to build a successful structure with the main weight at the end, not the beginning, of the sonata.
The opening movement in each of the two previous sonatas had been in slow or moderate tempo, while the finale was not only fast but also the most substantial movement. In the Moonlight, this approach is carried to extremes. In addition, each movement inhabits a single emotional world without contrasts: the unbroken placidity of the first movement gives way to the blithe, innocent charm of the second, which in turn is succeeded by the tempestuous upheavals of the third.
Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Gaspard de la nuit ranks as one of the most highly original, imaginative, evocative and technically difficult works in the entire piano repertory. Its composer made no bones about this surreal, hallucinatory music, describing it as “three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity” in which he deliberately set out to surpass even Balakirev’s notorious Islamey in terms of sheer technical difficulty. The great French pianist Alfred Cortot called the composition “one of the most astonishing examples of instrumental ingenuity ever contrived.” Pianist Charles Rosen has called the second of the three pieces (“Le Gibet”) “an assault on the nerves of the listener, a creation of tension through insistence, like the Chinese water torture,” and the composer Henri Gil-Marchex once enumerated 27 different kinds of touch in this one piece alone. Clearly, Gaspard is something special indeed!
Ravel’s inspiration to write Gaspard de la nuit derived from vivid and macabre poems by the French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), to whose work Ravel was introduced by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, a fellow pupil at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1908 Ravel set three poems from Bertrand’s eponymous collection, written in 1830. Viñes gave the first performance on January 9, 1909. Each piece is dedicated to a different musician, respectively Harold Bauer, Jean Marnold and Rudolph Ganz.
ONDINE: Ondine is a beautiful, mischievous water sprite who tries to attract mortal men to her magical kingdom through seductive singing. Ravel portrays her in the rare key of C-sharp major (seven sharps!) with glistening, delicate, “water-music” as befits Bertrand’s description of “Ondine who skims over the drops of water that resonate on the diamond-shaped segments of your window illuminated by the dismal rays of the moon.”
LE GIBET: A sinister atmosphere of desolation and ghostly terror pervades “Le Gibet.” The dynamic markings never rise above mezzo-piano. In some of the eeriest sounds in all music, Ravel portrays a corpse hanging from a gibbet, swaying in the wind against a sky reddened by the setting sun. The implacable tolling of a distant bell, represented throughout by the piano’s persistent B-flat octaves, is set against a richly varied harmonic landscape. So pervasive is this tolling B-flat that “Le Gibet” has been called “a fantasia on one note.”
SCARBO: This piece, no less eerie than “Le Gibet,” portrays the unpredictable, lightning-like appearances and disappearances of the malicious dwarf Scarbo, who changes his shape, size and colour at will. The scintillating, hallucinatory effects require such technical dexterity as to have earned Gaspard an almost mythic status among pianists.
Sergei Prokofiev: Visions fugitives, Op. 22
Like many of the great composers, Sergei Prokofiev showed his talent early. He was composing before he was six, he had produced an opera by twelve, and for his application to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, at thirteen, he submitted four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and several piano works. During his teens he studied with such luminaries as Glière, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Tcherepnin.
As a pianist he was no less sensational. He appeared as soloist in his own First Piano Concerto when he was 21 (July 25, 1912, in Moscow) and less than two years later played the same work, in place of the traditional classical concerto, for his final examination at the St. Petersburg Conservatory before a panel of twenty judges, each of whom had the published score in his hands. Prokofiev considered it his first “more-or-less mature composition,” and it became his first published work. For the piano alone he left a canon of nine completed sonatas and innumerable smaller pieces, including many written as a boy.
The Visions fugitives date from the years 1915-1917. These twenty miniatures (average length about a minute) take their cue from Beethoven’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes, their title and inspiration from these lines by the Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont: “In every fugitive vision I see worlds, / Full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” While overall the expressive range is oriented more toward the restrained end of the emotional spectrum, they nevertheless serve as a workshop for a great variety of colourful, experimental epigrams. Prokofiev’s biographer Israel Nestyev describes them as “something like entries in a diary” and as “experiments from a laboratory, a storehouse of materials to be used in the future large works of a composer always eager to increase the scope of his art.” Moods range from the lyrical to the whimsical, from the spirited to the serene, from the sedate to the seductive.
Sergey Rakhmaninov: Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 26
Rakhmaninov wrote only two piano sonatas, the First in 1907, the Second in 1913. He heavily revised the original version of the Second in 1931, considerably shortening it and lightening the textures in numerous passages. In 1940, with the composer’s permission, Vladimir Horowitz made his own variant, combining elements of both versions, and continued to make additional revisions over the years. Pianists today often feel free to create their own synthesis of Rakhmaninov’s and Horowitz’s versions.
Although not especially long in minutes, this sonata is big in scope and impact, embracing an enormous emotional range, and approaching symphonic proportions in its textures and polyphonic complexities. The sound of heavy, pounding bells, which fascinated the composer all his life, and which found their way into so many of his scores, are evoked frequently over the course of the sonata.
The three movements are not defined as such in the score, and are played without pause, underscoring their close interrelationship. Thematic ideas are shared among the three movements, particularly motifs deriving from the drooping four-note figure first heard in the sonata’s opening gesture under a rapidly pulsating B-flat minor chord. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure, whose second subject (D-flat major) is announced during the first moment of relief from the furious onslaught of dense textures, rhythmic complexities and dramatic flourishes. Nevertheless, upon close investigation, this “new” theme reveals itself as a transformation of the first.
The second movement serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third. Both main themes from the first movement make return appearances.
The third movement is launched with a precipitous plunge, fortissimo, spanning four and a half octaves. The first subject is less a theme than a seismic upheaval. Rakhmaninov saves his “big tune” for later, one that might well have found its way into a concerto instead, characteristically decked out with richly layered accompaniment. The sonata ends with a grand salute to B-flat major.
Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2012.