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Program Notes: Ksenija Sidorova

The Concert Accordion

 

Early Beginnings

The accordion has for centuries been associated with music of a light or popular nature. Its portability, full harmonic texture and penetrating, reedy timbre have made it the ideal mini-orchestra for country dances and the perfect one-man house band for city cafés and music halls. The very sound of the accordion oozes nostalgia. Indeed the sound of accordion music has long been cinematic shorthand for identifying a film’s setting as the city of Paris, even before the Eiffel Tower comes into view.

It took a long time to develop the idea that the accordion might be taken seriously as a concert instrument, partly because opportunities for developing skill in performance through professional instruction were few. Then, of course, there was the problem of repertoire. What pieces were there for concert accordionists to play? And finally, the instrument itself needed to be improved, in the way the piano and orchestral instruments had been strengthened and made more versatile in the 19th century, in order to provide a worthy vehicle for the compositional inspirations of major composers.

In the early 20th century, major progress on these issues was made in the Soviet Union, with meaningful contributions from Denmark and England. Folk music, the core of the accordion repertoire, was at the centre of Soviet policy on music education and so the first professional accordion program was established at the Kiev Conservatory in 1927, with similar programs subsequently appearing in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Russian cities.

On May 22, 1935, the renowned accordionist Pavel Gvozdev gave the first accordion recital in the Soviet Union in Leningrad and two years later performed a new concerto for accordion and orchestra by Feodosiy Rubtsov (1904–1986) in the Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, events which greatly stimulated interest in the artistic potential of the accordion.

 

The Accordion Gets a Makeover

Of even greater importance were changes made to the instrument itself in the period following WWII. Two types of accordions were in use. The traditional Russian accordion, the bayan, had buttons on both sides of the bellows while the piano accordion featured a regular piano keyboard on the right and buttons on the left. Both used the Stradella bass system for the left hand, an arrangement of single bass notes over a single octave alternating with buttons that played major, minor, diminished, or dominant 7th chords. While this configuration was ideal for the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern of dance music, it represented a serious barrier to composing for the concert repertoire.

With the arrival of the free-bass system with its arrangement of single-note buttons extending over a wide range, accordionists were able for the first time to play bass melodies and create their own chords, instead of having to use the pre-set chords of the Stradella system. In addition, new stops were devised that expanded the range of timbres available on the instrument. The accordion had now become a fully polyphonic instrument, capable of performing in chamber ensembles and of performing transcriptions of classic works in the concert repertoire.

 

The Modern Accordion

One of the first to exploit the new possibilities of these improvements was the Danish accordionist Mogens Ellegaard (1935–1995) who, from the 1950s onward, challenged composers to write serious works for the accordion. One of his first commissions was the Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro for accordion and orchestra (1958) by the Danish conductor and composer Ole Schmidt (1928-2010).

While the Russian bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips (b. 1948) moved the bar forward in his country, championing in particular the music of Astor Piazzola, Ellegaard’s student, the Scots-born Owen Murray, brought his teacher’s enthusiasm for the accordion back to Britain. After graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1982, Murray made history by being appointed professor of accordion at the Royal Academy of Music in 1986, marking the arrival of academic respectability for the accordion in one of the most prestigious musical institutions in Europe.

Murray’s student at the Royal Academy, Ksenija Sidorova, continues the work of creating a place for the accordion on the concert stage, playing both transcriptions of established works in the classical canon and a growing number of modern and contemporary compositions written specifically for the accordion. She plays an artisan-crafted instrument from the workshops of the Italian manufacturer Pigini in Ancona, considered the Rolls-Royce of accordion-makers. Her instrument (which she calls “the Beast”) has a left-hand range of four and a half octaves, and a special chin-activated stop which allows lightning-fast changes in timbre.

 

Program Notes

 

Piotr Londonov

Scherzo-Toccata

Piotr Petrovich Londonov was a prolific contributor to the accordion repertoire through his many arrangements of Slavic and Scandinavian folk songs. This breathless, almost frantic, Scherzo-Toccata is extremely popular among accordionists, judging from how often it has been played at international competitions and the number of YouTube videos of the piece currently online.

Written for bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips as a test piece for a competition in Geneva in 1979, it combines the repeated-note figuration of the traditional chattering toccata with the repeated short phrase fragments of the scherzo, alternating between sections of purposeful drive and carefree cheerfulness.

From Kesenija Sidorova: Scherzo-Toccata was a compulsory piece for several accordion competitions, and is frequently performed by accordionists all over the world. It is a cheerful short piece, which explores different techniques on this versatile instrument.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” K. 265

The sheer audacity of writing piano variations on a theme so childlike and innocent as “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”) is a gesture uniquely Mozartean in its impertinence. The only modern equivalent would be the fugues based on tunes by Britney Spears that are so impudently posted on YouTube nowadays by composition students with too much time on their hands.

Mozart’s treatment of the theme is for the most part figural. He slices & dices the structural harmonic outline of his thematic material to re-present it with pearly right-hand decorations and insurgent left-hand runs, in coy echoes and ever-so- serious imitative entries, and finally with the obligatory set pieces: a poised and elegant operatic adagio followed by a rousing eggbeater of a finale.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Barcarolle Op. 10 No. 3

Rachmaninoff completed his group of Salon Pieces Op. 10 in 1894. The third of the set is a barcarolle, a type of character piece patterned after the boat songs of Venetian gondoliers. But the rocking motion typical of the barcarolles of Chopin and Mendelssohn is here given a mere suggestion by Rachmaninoff in the quavering triplet figures that flutter throughout the first section, perhaps in imitation of water lapping at the edge of a boat.

In the middle section, the accompaniment evolves into an animated swirl of frothy running figures that only serve to further emphasize the lonely isolation of the main melody singing out below in the baritone range. This hauntingly timid, rhythmically uncertain melody comes across particularly well in the plaintive reed timbre of the accordion, so well that one could easily imagine this mood piece having been originally written for the instrument.

 

Anatoly Kusyakov

Autumnal Sceneries

Composer Anatoly Ivanovich Kusyakov paints the autumnal geography of his native Russia in six musical landscapes that employ the full sonorous resources of the accordion. His musical language is a modernist extension of traditional harmony that features dense chordal structures marbled through with contrapuntal motives.

Autumn reveries introduces us to the Russian landscape in a series of bellows-heavy sighs alternating with simpler phrases of a more optimistic stamp. Leaf-fall paints the dance of leaves in the wind with a fast-moving treble scurrying above a slower- moving melody in the bass below. The quirky gate of Soiree Mood conjures a vision of some character out of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. One could easily imagine the scene of an ugly duckling moving slowly and awkwardly across the landscape.

Forgotten Chimes has a chorale-like dignity reminiscent of Bach’s organ music with its monumental build-up of harmonic tension and instrumental sonority. Cranes describes the passing of majestic birds overhead in a series of soulful dissonant chords over a relentless ostinato bass. The final scene, Wind Dance, is the most virtuosic of the set, featuring both hands moving in fast figuration at a breathless pace.

From Kesenija Sidorova: The first movement, Autumnal reveries, immerses us in the spirit and mood of autumn—rain drops, wind, distant memories of summer. The second movement reminds us somewhat of the last movement (Presto) of Chopin’s B flat minor piano sonata, Op.35, “wind howling around the gravestones”.

The third movement is very picturesque, with interweaving lyrical and wild themes.

The fourth movement, Forgotten chimes, depicts the ruins of the cathedral and the distant sound of the church bells. The fifth movement, Cranes, is inspired by a poem of the same name by Rasul Gamzatov about the souls of the fallen soldiers, who,

“Were buried not in soil to be forgotten,

But turned into white cranes in flight instead.”

The final movement dispels the heavy dark mood with its sarcastic accentuated patterns and melodies inspired by Russian folklore.

 

Semionov Viatcheslav

Red Guelder-Rose (“Kalina  Krasnaya”)

From Kesenija Sidorova: Semionov is regarded as one of the pioneers of the contemporary accordion and is a well-known concert performer, pedagogue, and composer. Since 1995 he has held the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation. Guelder  Rose was composed in 1976 in memoriam to a great Russian film director, Vassily Shukshin, who directed and acted in the movie of the same name. It was the most successful film of the year (1974) and is widely known even outside of the USSR.

The song is about an unrequited love. It instantly became popular and sometimes is mistakenly regarded as traditional.

 

Alfred  Schnittke

Revis Fairytale

Satire is a powerful force in politics. The Soviet authorities knew this when, in 1978, they banned The Inspector’s Tale, a stage adaptation of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel satirizing official corruption in czarist Russia. But Alfred Schnittke’s incidental music to this production survived the ban to resurface in in the 1985 ballet Esquisses (Sketches), which added a whole host of other Gogol characters to the mix. The music from this ballet lives on in the suite created by accordionists Yuri Shishkin, Friedrick Lips, and Ksenija Sidorova, entitled Revis Fairy Tale.

This is music with satiric intent woven deep into its fabric. Chichikov’s Childhood attempts to reveal the psychological make-up in early childhood of the central protagonist in Dead Souls, who absurdly seeks to buy from Russian landowners the ownership rights to their deceased serfs. The musical styles of Haydn, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky bear witness to the grotesquely simplistic thinking that was Chichikov’s special gift since birth.

Officials scurries along in mock-bureaucratic haste, helped along by snippets of Mozart’s Magic Flute  overture, while Waltz channels Shostakovich’s genre-deflating practices with slow-motion oom-pah-pahs and a comic choice of timbres.

The last piece in the set, Polka, evokes the improvisational whims of the gypsy violinist, starting slow but then accelerating to an exhilarating pace, flickering all the while between major and minor tonalities.

From Ksenija Sidorova: This fairy tale was first transcribed by Russian accordion virtuoso Yuri Shishkin, and subsequently by F. Lips and K. Sidorova. In the first movement, the happy childhood of Pavel Chichikov is polystylistic, combining familiar themes from many sources such as Mozart’s Magic Flute  and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The waltz represents one of the scenes in Gogol’s Dead Souls, and the last movement, a Polka, recalls the character Akaky Bashmachkin from a short story, The Overcoat, also by Gogol. In the story the hero scrimps and scrapes in order to buy himself an overcoat to replace his threadbare one, but late one night he is mugged by two robbers who steal it. Receiving no help from the authorities, but rather a reprimand, Bashmachkin becomes ill and dies but his ghost haunts the city, stealing other people’s coats in revenge.

 

Program notes: Yun-Chin Zhou

Domenico Scarlatti
Three Sonatas

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half that ends in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K.) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L.) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The Sonata in D minor K. 9 has long been among the most popular of Scarlatti’s sonatas, acquiring its nickname, the Pastorale, from a concert arrangement with that title published by pianist Karl Tausig (1841- 1871). Tausig’s title may well have originated in the impression of rural peacefulness summoned up by the sonata’s gently flowing melody in 6/8 time, with its Pan-flute-like trills and breathless runs up to the high register. Whoever this flute-playing shepherd is, though, he seems to have acquired a little drummer boy following hard behind, arguing via leaps in the bass that the piece would make a nice courtly march.

Drums are heard, as well, accompanied by trumpets, in the very fanfare-like Sonata in E major K. 380, with its many open fifth sonorities. We hear in this sonata an echo, in miniature, of the music of court ritual that must have been part of the everyday life of Scarlatti’s patron, employer and pupil, the Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal and Spain. And yet this piece arrives at a surprisingly intimate level of expression, given the ceremonial premise from which it sets out.

The Sonata in G major K. 455, by contrast, is unabashedly dancelike and popular in tone, filled with the rhythmic click and snap of the castanets. The idiomatic figurations of the guitar are heard in the repeated-note patterns that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity while it evokes Spanish popular musical culture in the most vividly direct way.

 

Franz Liszt
Sposalizio from Années de Pèlerinage II

The three books of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) detail the cultural impressions left on the Hungarian pianist-composer by his travels through Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Sposalizio is the first entry in the second book of this musical diary, a collection of pieces devoted to Italy. It takes its name from the 1504 painting by Raphael, Lo Sposalizio della Vergine (The Wedding of the Virgin), a representation of the joining of the Virgin Mary and Joseph in holy matrimony, pictured as taking place in the open square of an Italian city with numerous witnesses gathered round.

Liszt’s builds his evocation of this scene out of two simple motives presented at the outset: a wandering collection of notes in the pentatonic scale (remarkably similar to the opening of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, also in E major) and a short, slightly hesitant dotted figure. These two figures permeate the texture ever more urgently until a bell-ringing climax is reached with crashing octaves in the left hand to create what Alfred Brendel has called “an aura of elated innocence.”

 

Alexander Scriabin
Valse in A flat Major Op. 38 Vers la flamme Op. 72
Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 Fantasy in B minor Op.28

It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” He wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études, just like his Polish musical forebear.

The influence of Chopin is most readily seen in his Valse in A flat Op. 38 with its achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass clarifying the underlying harmony. Unlike Chopin, however, is the rhythmic pulse, which is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern expected of a well-behaved waltz. This is a waltz that ‘flutters’. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand will have none of it, and cheerfully ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy by wandering widely in 4-to-the- bar and 5-to-the-bar melodic units to create a perfumed distillation of waltz gestures, interrupted by bold outbursts of inner passion.

The ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (Towards the flame) is far from the salon demeanour of Scriabin’s early ‘Chopin’ period, being among the last works that he composed. It represents a psychedelic aural imagining of the world moving slowly and inexorably ‘towards the flame,’ heating up until it is finally consumed in a great conflagration of fire and light. The harmonic vocabulary of this piece is extremely advanced, based on chromatically modified dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in fourths rather than thirds. The harmonically subversive sound of tritones rings in the ear from the very start of the piece, when time seems to stand still, frowning in worry at what is to come. A second stage is reached when deep bass rumblings arise in a murky 5-against-9 rhythm, while the treble remains obsessed with the semitone motive that pervades the piece. Tongues of flame arrive in the treble when double tremolos curl around the middle register, eventually breaking out into silvery flashes of brilliance above until the piece ends in a dazzling aural snapshot of pure white light.

The piano textures of Chopin are apparent once again in the Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 with its sweeping left-hand accompaniment figures, studded with countermelodies in the tenor. And yet its wistfully lyrical melody, doled out in poised, evenly balanced phrases, barely ranges over more than an octave.

A much more muscular posture, very much at odds with Scriabin’s reputation for finely shaded melodic nuance and perfumed harmonies, is presented in his mid-career Fantasy in B minor Op. 28. While moments of lyric relief do arrive in this piece (and in canon, no less) it is overwhelmingly dominated by Lisztian figurations of flying octaves, thick chordal textures, disruptive rhythmic convulsions and flamboyant multi- octave arpeggiations in both hands. Swaying between a brooding restlessness and a search for ecstatic release, the mystic side of Scriabin comes clearly to the fore in this work, a worthy successor to the deeply chromatic yearnings of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

 

Charles Trenet
6 Songs
(arr. Alexis Weissenberg)

The history of the 20th-century poetic chanson, long associated with the names of Edith Piaf, Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, would not be complete without Charles Trenet, familiar to music- lovers in North America as the author of La Mer, recorded in the 1960s by Bobby Darrin as Beyond the Sea. Known for his velvety baritone voice and slightly loopy singing style, he was called le fou chantant (the singing madman) and enjoyed immense popularity in a career that flourished between the 1930s and 1950s, although he continued to perform and record virtually up till his death in 2001.

Charles Trenet’s success was not only due to the charm of his nostalgic songs about young love and the city of Paris, but also to the unique blend of swing, jazz, waltz and tropical dance elements that characterized his musical style. This was music that was ideal for the ‘piano stylings’ of a jazz musician and, sure enough, sometime in the 1950s an extended-play 45 rpm record appeared on the market entitled Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet. But who was this Mr. Nobody?

The name of the musician responsible for these exuberantly lavish arrangements and improvisations has only recently come to light, and the name surprised (and delighted) many in the classical music community. It was the Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. At a time when classical musicians would sooner have eaten wood shavings on toast than be caught performing (let alone recording!) songs from the French music-hall repertory, Weissenberg had evidently shimmered unobserved into a recording studio in a curly wig and nose-and-moustache glasses to secretly record this tribute to one of his favourite popular singers.

Coin de rue (Street corner) evokes memories of the old neighbourhood and pleasant daydreams of days long past. Its nostalgic tone is captured in the blur of slightly ‘watery’ harmonies.

Boum! imitates the pounding heartbeat of those newly smitten with the joys of love. It begins in a very modernist style before launching into an extroverted keyboard-chuckling texture of added-tone jazz chords and sparkling fill-in figurations.

Vous qui passez sans me voir (You pass by without seeing me) is a love song about a young man who can’t even get the woman of his dreams to notice him. His awkwardness is cleverly expressed in the bass drones with crushed-note ornaments.

En avril à Paris (April in Paris) is a waltzing tribute to the City of Lights, with sweeping figuration swirling around each melody note.

Vous oubliez votre cheval (You’re forgetting your horse) is a surreal ditty about trying to leave your horse at the coat check. It’s homage to the Roaring Twenties hit tune Ain’t she sweet is just one of the inexplicable features of this song.

Ménilmontant pays tribute to the vitality of the working class quartier of Paris where Maurice Chevalier was born, in a moto perpetuo style with many a clever reference to the Flight of the Bumblebee.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, premiered by the composer in Moscow in 1913, is an ambitious large-scale work in three movements bound together by elements of cyclic form and thematic reminiscence. Indeed, the quiet ending of its first movement and the bridge leading directly from the second movement to the finale make it seem like one continuous work in three parts.

This sonata was obviously written for the massive ‘mitt’ of Rachmaninoff himself, who is said to have been able to stretch a 12th (an octave and a 5th), and it represents virtually a compendium of the lush keyboard textures characteristic of the composer’s best work. It also contains large-scale formal features typical of the piano concertos, viz., a frenetic speed- up of tempo in the middle of the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis-style summing up of lyrical thematic material at the end of the finale—prominent features of both his second and his third piano concertos.

The work opens with a dramatic gesture emblematic of the formal grandeur underlying Rachmaninoff’s conception of the sonata as a whole: an arpeggio plunging down to the abyss, answered by a cannon- echo of a theme comprised of a falling 3rd (was he inspired by a similar opening to Beethoven’s equally grand Hammerklavier sonata?), a chromatically descending melody and chordal outline, all chiselled out over a quivering tremolo accompaniment. Nothing is small-scale in this opening theme. Virtually the entire span of keyboard real estate available to the pianist is traversed in a series of cadenzas before a much more modest and intimate second theme appears.

This tentative, delicate, chromatically descending second theme is obviously derived from the first. Its contrasting nature lies not just in its being in the major mode, but also in how it represents a complete scaling down, texturally, of the amount of sound coming out of the piano. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fistfuls of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a feverish rage that has ebbed, but not ended.

The second movement begins with a series of questioning phrases before a sadly lilting, almost apologetic theme appears. This down-in-the-mouth theme, however, leads to happier thoughts in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright ringing bell- strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The swelling, heart-breaking series of sequences that follows is the lyric climax of the movement from which a ruminative middle section mulls over memories of the first movement and churns itself into quite a froth.

The opening of the second movement ends as it began, with the same exploratory harmonic questioning, but this time answers itself by plunging into one of the most heaven-storming finales in the Rachmaninoff canon, one in which the lowest B flat on the keyboard booms out like cannon-fire, over and over again. Gradually cooler heads prevail and there blossoms, under the generous tone-giving care of the right-hand pinky finger, a nostalgic and lyrical second-theme melody to melt the heart of a tyrant. The development section thunders with renewed vigour as the first theme rushes headlong back onto the scene. But it is the achingly heartfelt second theme that triumphs in the end in a glorious hymn to all that is right with the world, leading to a coda bristling with pianistic fireworks that lights a path to the work’s final chords.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

 

Program Notes: Marc-André Hamelin

Alban Berg: Piano sonata, Op. 1

“Among the most auspicious Opus Ones ever written,” was Glenn Gould’s assessment of Alban Berg’s piano sonata. Berg wrote this work in 1907-08 while studying with Arnold Schönberg. Originally it was intended to have three movements but, after completing the first, Berg found that “for a long time nothing worthwhile occurred to me, whereupon Schoenberg remarked, “In that case, you have said everything there was to be said.”

Schönberg’s instincts were correct, for Berg’s fourteen-minute, one-movement sonata is indeed a totally unified dramatic event that speaks volumes with the utmost economy. In spite of the music’s modern sound, it is nevertheless grounded in the formal classical layout consisting of a repeated exposition, development and recapitulation. Although a principal subject (opening phrase) and a subordinate theme (possibly two subordinate themes, depending on how you regard Berg’s “developing variation” procedure) can be identified, it is more through tempo changes than through contrasting tonalities or moods that they are recognizable. The second theme is slower, the third slower still. The moment of greatest tension arrives registrally, dynamically and texturally at just about the midpoint, which Berg marks ffff. By the end, the listener has experienced a sense of fulfillment, a sense that Berg has indeed said everything there was to say, and that he has left, in Gould’s words again, “the impression of great peaks and lesser crests, calibrated as carefully and achieved as inevitably as in music of a more orthodox nature.”

 

Gabriel Fauré: Impromptu no. 2 in F minor, Op. 31; Barcarolle no. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

Like Chopin, Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms. For both, the piano was central to their mode of expression, and both excelled in harmonic sophistication and in advanced techniques of modulation.

The term impromptu implies something conceived on the spur of the moment, born of poetic fancy, giving less heed to structure and formal procedures than to delicacy of ornamentation and casual style. Nevertheless, Fauré’s five works in the genre, like Chopin’s, exhibit well-defined formal balance. The second (1883) is one of his most beloved and frequently heard piano pieces, written in the tarantella rhythm (a pulse of two triplets per bar in a rapidly swirling pattern). The third of Fauré’s thirteen barcarolles (1885) is filled with a sense of languor, but one spiked with piquant dissonances. The tonality weaves in and out between major and minor, while the delicate and pervasive ornaments to the melodic line caused the famous French pianist Marguerite Long to poetically remark that, in one instance, they “crown the theme like sea foam on the edge of a wave.”

 

Claude Debussy: Images, book 1; L’isle joyeuse

“I love pictures (images) almost as much as music,” Debussy once wrote. Hence, we find not only a great many sound pictures throughout his music, but no fewer than three groups of pieces actually entitled “Images,” each a triptych in itself: two for piano (1905 and 1907) and one for orchestra (1906-1912).

Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) represents one of the finest examples of musical Impressionism. Whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales, floating blocks of parallel chords, vague washes of tonal color, subtly blurred sonorities, long pedal-points and a new kind of “harmonic chemistry,” as Debussy called it, all are elements in the world of musical Impressionism. In the second piece, Debussy pays his respects to the eighteenth-century master Jean-Philippe Rameau. The choice of the sarabande (a slow, stately dance in triple meter) is in itself an act of homage to Rameau’s predilection for classic dance forms. Impish humor, gaiety and a sense of irony infuse Mouvement.

L’isle joyeuse (1904) ranks as one of Debussy’s most ambitious, sensual and dazzling piano works. It is sometimes regarded as a musical representation of Watteau’s Embarquement pour Cythère, for, like the painting, it is richly imbued with gaiety and animation.

 

Marc-André Hamelin: Variation on a Theme of Paganini

In the tradition of so many great pianists of the past (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Rachmaninoff … ), Marc-André Hamelin the virtuoso is also a composer. To showcase his diabolical virtuosity, Hamelin wrote in 2011 a ten-minute series of variations based on the famous theme of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other composers have also been stirred to this task, but none with greater panache and brilliance than Hamelin. Even the likes of Liszt and Rachmaninoff would surely blanch in face of the fiendishly difficult technical acrobatics found in Hamelin’s work. By turns, devilish, mischievous, playful, coy, mysterious and convulsive, it remains continuously fascinating. Hamelin himself concedes that it “breaks the mold; it constantly tries to push the envelope as far as what may be esthetically acceptable!”

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff: two Preludes; Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36

In 1903, Rachmaninoff brought out a group of ten preludes (Op. 23) which, as one writer ventured, was an act of self-defense, an attempt to channel the overwhelming popularity of the C sharp minor prelude of 1892, into other, similar pieces. A further group of thirteen was published as Op. 32 in 1910. Each seeks to capture the essence of a mood through the elaboration of a specific figuration, motif, or rhythmic pattern. The G major Prelude is one of the most sublime, reposed and sheerly beautiful. “A feeling of tranquility dwells here,” writes biographer Max Harrison, “and this piece stands with the G-sharp minor prelude [the one we hear next on Mr. Hamelin’s program] as the purest expression of lyricism in all Rachmaninoff’s piano music. The melody sings limpidly above evanescent arpeggios [in the left hand].” The G sharp minor prelude, another popular favorite, shimmers throughout with coruscating brilliance.

Rachmaninoff 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. 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, is 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. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure. The second serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third.

 

Program Notes by Richard Markow, 2012

 

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