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Program Notes: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: JULIA BULLOCK & JOHN ARIDA

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Four Lieder

About the Composer

Franz Schubert established the German lied as an important art form and then set a standard of excellence that no one since has quite matched. Schubert created more than 600 songs in a prodigious outpouring that sometimes saw him composing five songs in a single day. However, it is not the sheer number that matters, but rather the songs’ extraordinary quality and enormous emotional range. At the heart of Schubert’s genius lay his unrivaled gift for melody, whether it be the perfect melody to cover all verses in a strophic song or a theme for the piano that is even more crucial to the song’s emotional color than the singer’s line.

About the Works

No less an authority than Johannes Brahms called “Suleika I” of 1821 “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The poem for this song and its companion, “Suleika II,” is often attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe since it can be found in his compilation West-östlicher Divan, inspired by Goethe’s fascination with the work of 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz (Suleika is one of Hafiz’s characters). However, it was actually written by Marianne von Willemer, an Austrian actress who had a brief but intense relationship with Goethe, who edited the poem for his collection. Written while Willemer was traveling in 1815 from Frankfurt to Heidelberg to meet Goethe, it is a song to the East wind that blows on her outbound journey. The wind is heard in the piano’s opening measures before a whirling ostinato takes over, conjuring both the carriage’s motion and Willemer’s agitated heartbeat. Near the end, the tempo eases, a new three-note motif rings softly, and the key moves from B minor to a brighter B major as the singer anticipates meeting her lover.

The Friedrich Rückert poem to which “Lachen und Weinen” (“Laughing and Weeping”) is set portrays the instability of an adolescent’s emotions, oscillating rapidly between laughing and crying. Schubert adds a tenderly sympathetic touch at the words “Bei des Abendes Scheine” as the flightiness briefly falters and the harmonies slide to minor. Setting a true Goethe poem, the wonderfully concise song “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (“Wanderer’s Nightsong II”) is an example of Schubert’s sublime simplicity in capturing a poem’s mood, which, in John Reed’s words, is a “progression from outward calm to inner peace.” Written in 1816, “Seligkeit” (“Bliss”) sets one of Schubert’s favorite poets, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty. An uncomplicated strophic song, it is a giddy little waltz that perfectly matches the mood of uncomplicated joy.

SAMUEL BARBER (1910–1981)
Hermit Songs, Op. 29

About the Composer

From an early age, Irish poems and tales fascinated Samuel Barber, who was partly of Irish descent himself. In the summer of 1952, he finally traveled to Ireland, and while visiting sites connected with William Butler Yeats during a trip to Donegal, he found Yeats’s grave to be surrounded by tombstones belonging to people with the Barber name. When Barber returned to the United States, his research turned up some texts in old Gaelic written during the early Middle Ages by anonymous Irish monks and hermits. Their pithy power and earthy expressiveness captivated him.

About the Works

In a note Barber wrote for the publication of his Hermit Songs, he described them as “written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of the manuscripts they were copying or illuminating—perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small poems, thoughts, or observations—some very short—and speak in straightforward, droll, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, animals, and to God.”

With a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Barber wrote his 10 Hermit Songs between November 1952 and February 1953. A painstaking text setter, Barber carefully selected translations; dissatisfied with the versions of two of the texts, he asked W. H. Auden to prepare fresh ones. Barber was considering various famous international singers to debut the Hermit Songs, until he heard the young Leontyne Price—then completely unknown—in her teacher’s studio. Barber and Price performed the premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, on October 30, 1953. It was the beginning of a long creative partnership between Barber and Price, culminating in Antony and Cleopatra.

A Closer Listen

From the 13th century, “At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” is a pilgrim’s tormented song as he travels to Loch Derg (Red Lake) in County Donegal, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The pianist’s left hand measures out his relentless steps while the right hand’s bell motif suggests the spiritual solace awaiting him. As with most of the songs, Barber establishes no meter, allowing the singer freedom to follow the irregular rhythms of the words.

The 12th-century “Church Bell at Night” is one of the aphoristic songs in which Barber captures the blunt speech of the monks. A shimmering bell chord irradiates the song. Attributed to Saint Ita of the eighth century, “Saint Ita’s Vision” is one of the loveliest of the Hermit Songs. A broad narrative recitative leads to a rocking lullaby as the saint experiences her mystical vision of the infant Jesus nursing at her breast. Attributed to the 10th- century’s Saint Brigid, “The Heavenly Banquet” is another joyful vision in which denizens of Heaven appear as ordinary human beings at a celestial banquet. The piano’s racing scales fuel the singer’s delight.

“The Crucifixion” comes from a 12th-century anthology, The Speckled Book. The piano’s fluting high motif mimics “the cry of the first bird.” The singer’s phrases evoke pain and grief powerfully but without exaggeration. The final twist is the shift of focus away from Christ’s suffering to the suffering of his mother, Mary. Marked “surging,” “Sea-Snatch” is a panicked cry to Heaven by sailors drowning in one of Ireland’s wild storms. Equally brief, “Promiscuity” is a bit of sly gossip told by piano and singer with the same caustic sing-song melody.

From the eighth or ninth century, “The Monk and His Cat,” translated by W. H. Auden, is the cycle’s most infectious song, as it describes the contented partnership between the scholar and his cat, whose frisking movements are heard in the piano’s two-note motif. It is also the only song with a fixed meter: a relaxed, lilting 9/8 beat. Also translated by Auden, “The Praises of God” (11th century) is a wild, dervish-like dance with eccentric rhythmic stresses and cross rhythms.

“The Desire for Hermitage” (eighth or ninth century) seems to be the personal expression of the composer, a man who indeed craved solitude all his life. The stark beginning of the song is a repeated G that first sounds in the piano, then joined by the singer; this single note represents the state of aloneness, as well as the surrounding hush. Gradually, the piano and vocal lines become more active, even ecstatic, culminating in a passionate piano interlude that seems to proclaim the joy of solitude.

GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845–1924)
Selections from La chanson d’Ève, Op. 95

About the Composer

In 1905 at age 60, Gabriel Fauré was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire, a revered establishment of French music. In a period of upheaval at the Conservatoire—culminating in the scandal of Maurice Ravel (Fauré’s student) being refused the institution’s top award, the Prix de Rome—Fauré was chosen because he was considered to be a trusted outsider able to bring reform. Not a product of the Conservatoire himself, Fauré had been trained instead at the smaller and less hidebound École Niedermeyer.

This heavy responsibility, however, did not keep Fauré from pursuing his composing career. In fact, he was about to embark on a radical transformation of his musical style from the limpid, lyrical mélodies that had characterized much of his earlier songwriting. Having already made a shift in his previous song cycle, La bonne chanson, Fauré would now develop a late style that de- emphasized melody in favor of vocal and piano music combining an almost austere simplicity with extraordinary sophistication, particularly in the harmonic realm.

About the Works

On a trip to Brussels in March 1906, Fauré became acquainted with the poetry of Belgian symbolist Charles van Lerberghe. In 1904, Lerberghe published a volume of 96 poems, La chanson d’Ève, which imagined Eve coming to life in the Garden of Eden without Adam, giving human meaning to nature’s magnificent creations, of which she is a part. Lerberghe had been inspired to create this work by a glorious garden outside Florence, and Fauré—also a lover of gardens—had matched this by beginning his composition near another sumptuous garden at Lake Maggiore. Fauré reduced the cycle to 10 songs, written off and on between 1906 and 1910 while he was simultaneously creating his opera Pénélope.

The narrator of the cycle is Eve herself, a wondrous creature who is mortal and very feminine, and at the same time a representation of all Creation. In his definitive analysis of Fauré’s songs, pianist Graham Johnson describes the implied time scale as immense: “as if Eve is born and dies at opposite ends of the same cosmic day—a day perhaps encompassing millennia.” Omitting the very long first song, “Paradis,” Ms. Bullock sings six of the 10 songs in the cycle on this evening’s program.

A Closer Listen

“Prima verba” (“First Word”) is La chanson d’Ève’s second song, in which Eve realizes her first words bring the souls of everything in nature to life. The piano and vocal lines initially seem bare and static—in Johnson’s words, “like an empty void.” But they soon flower into extraordinary harmonic complexity as nature takes on a new dimension. Eve’s identification with the rose permeates the cycle, as we hear in “Roses ardentes” (“Ardent Roses”). The pantheistic vision of poet and composer reaches an apotheosis at song’s end as the previously restricted vocal line climbs joyously toward the sun, the “supreme force.”

Far from the traditional imagery of a white-bearded old man, God shines as the young creator embodied in his world in “Comme Dieu rayonne” (“How God Radiates”). As Johnson writes, “the third verse weaves a glorious light- filled tapestry of sound,” as the piano shimmers around the increasingly ecstatic vocal line. “Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil” (“Are you watching, my scent of sun”) combines the sights, sounds, and scents of nature into one rapturous whole. “In this song, sunlight … is uncontainable: With Fauré’s help it searches out and pervades every nook and cranny of harmonic possibility” in the extraordinary piano part.

Composed in June 1906, “Crépuscule” (“Twilight”) was the first song Fauré composed, even before knowing it would spawn a cycle. Until this point in the cycle, the songs have been filled with joy and sensual pleasure. Then Eve hears a cry of pain, a sigh in the night that portends sadness. She has by now tasted the forbidden apple that gives knowledge, and she realizes that she, like all natural things, will die. The rising chords of the piano introduction are a recurring theme that represents Eden, now being disturbed. The cycle’s final song, “O mort, poussière d’étoiles” (“O death, dust of stars”) brings the presence of death. Always at one with nature, Eve does not fear it, but instead welcomes her dissolution into all of creation. Fauré’s son Philippe described this stark, uncanny song as “a sort of funeral march toward an open-armed nirvana.”

ALBERTA HUNTER, CORA “LOVIE” AUSTIN, BILLIE HOLIDAY, and NINA SIMONE
Four Women of Blues and Jazz

In the final section of this evening’s program, Ms. Bullock pays tribute to some of the leading African American musicians who shaped American jazz, blues, and popular song throughout the 20th century. First we hear the sultry blues ballad “Driftin’ Tide” from 1935, which was closely associated with renowned jazz singer Alberta Hunter. The infectious, up-tempo “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” also comes from 1935 and was frequently sung by Hunter. It was composed by Maceo Pinkard, one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a highly successful composer, lyricist, bandleader, and music publisher.

Cora “Lovie” Austin was a formidable jazz pianist and the founder and leader of her own popular band, the Blues Serenaders. Based in Chicago, she specialized in accompanying the leading blues singers of her era, including Hunter, with whom she wrote one of the greatest of all blues classics, “Downhearted Blues,” the lament of a woman who loved the wrong man. We also hear “Frog Tongue Stomp: A Lovie Austin Tribute,” a solo piano piece written by one of today’s prominent jazz pianists, Jeremy Siskind, saluting the legacy of Austin’s flamboyantly distinctive style. With the exception of “Revolution,” which Ms. Bullock will sing a cappella, Siskind arranged all of the songs in this section of the program.

This evening’s program concludes with two iconic African American singers, whose fame has never faded: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Holiday renamed herself and was also dubbed “Lady Day” by her music partner Lester Young. The tragedy of Holiday’s life added to the power of her artistry, but her serene love song “Our Love Is Different” shows her at her romantic best. Renowned as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, originally aspired to be a classical pianist. When she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music, undoubtedly for racial reasons, her career took a different trajectory. Discovering her voice as well as her keyboard skills, Simone became one of the most compelling musicians of the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Selma to Montgomery marches. Ms. Bullock has selected Simone’s famous Civil Rights anthem “Revolution,” as well as her provocative song “Four Women,” in which women of various skin tones protest the Eurocentric beauty standards imposed on black women.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2018 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

 

PROGRAM NOTES: INON BARNATAN

George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major

While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.

A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major   BWV 828

The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.

Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.

Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Courante from the Suite in A minor

Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.

One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.

François Couperin
L’Atalante

It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.

Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.

Maurice Ravel
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.

The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.

Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

György Ligeti
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.

This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.

The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”

Samuel Barber
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26

In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.

The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.

Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.

Thomas Adès
Blanca Variations

British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.

The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.

Johannes Brahms
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.

Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.

In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.

Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?

The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.

The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

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