Six Sonatas K 491 – K 454 – K 239 – K 466 – K 342 – K 146
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 the Iberian peninsula, where Scarlatti worked at the royal courts of Spain and Portugal.
A frequent pattern in these works is for technically challenging figurations in the right hand to be repeated in the left, so their value as teaching pieces was recognized early. They were, in fact, first published under the title Esercizi. Their survival in the modern repertoire no doubt derives from the flurries of repeated notes 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 ending 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 sounds of court life come alive in the ceremonial fanfares of trumpets and volleys of brass choirs in the Sonata in D major K 491, with its simple repeated phrases and stomping cadence patterns enhanced with big cadential trills.
A similar ceremonial atmosphere reigns in the repeated-note drum beat of the Sonata in G major K 454 – until it erupts into exuberant multi-octave runs and frothy patterns of keyboard effervescence.
The clicks of castanets are heard in the snappy rhythms of the ever-so-Spanish Sonata in F minor K 239 while the following sonata in the same key (K 466) strikes a more wistful poetic mood with its plaintive whimpering phrases of complaint and heart-breaking cadential harmonies.
The Sonata in A major K 342 chases its own tail with scurrying patterns of scale patterns that only rarely stop to catch their breath.
The final work in the set, the Sonata in G major K 146, balances elegantly trilled scraps of melody with diving arpeggio gestures that suggest the brash strokes of the flamenco guitarist.
The Italian composer Luciano Berio had a gift for aphorism, for saying much and suggesting more in a brief span of time. His Six Encores written between 1965 and 1990 represent well Berio’s fascination with the piano as an instrument that generates pure sound rather than harmony or polyphony. Each piece demonstrates a single process at work, the unfolding of a single formal principle. The first two pieces in the set, for example, are concerned with the resonance that lingers when a piano key is played and not released.
The delicacy of Brin (French for “wisp, strand”) can be intuited from its name. A single, colourfully chromatic chord played at the very end contains all the notes “wispily” spun out before it arrives, the “strands” out of which it is slowly being put together. The pedalling here is watery, the mood reflective and sentimental, in keeping with Berio’s dedication of this piece to a friend who died at the age of 20, commemorated in the chiming of a high B-natural, the highest note in the piece, which occurs exactly 20 times.
In Leaf the overtones of notes held down cast a haze over the fistfuls of tone clusters punched out staccato. This and the preceding Brin, in the kaleidoscopic variety of viewpoints from which they present the same small amount of tonal material, have been compared to a “sound mobile” twisting in the air, to be taken in from all sides.
The four remaining pieces view the piano as a means of evoking the qualities of the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – and are named to associate each element with the keyboard (Klavier) of the instrument.
Wasserklavier is devoted to water and has been called “a loving forgery.” It re-imagines the Brahms Intermezzo in B flat minor Op. 117 No. 2 and the Schubert Impromptu in F minor Op. 142 No. 1 by passing their motivic components through a “refracted” contemporary lens. The descending 2nds of the Brahms Intermezzo, in particular, seem to come at the ear as if from a kind of fun-house distorting mirror.
Erdenklavier evokes the solidity of the earth with ringing open intervals – 4ths and 5ths – in a single line of melody featuring notes struck at widely differing dynamic levels and pedalled so as to last different amounts of time.
Luftklavier paints the air, a medium vibrating with energy, thanks to a colourful ostinato in the mid-range against which isolated pitches play in the wind on either side. The persistent fluttering tremolos in the score are reminiscent of Debussy while the rat-tat-tat of repeated notes recall Prokofieff’s Toccata Op. 11.
The last in the series of “elemental” pieces, Feuerklavier, rivals Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme in its tremolo-crazed depiction of the unpredictable patterns of flickering flames as they lick the air.
Sonata in B flat major D 960
It would be wrong to judge Schubert by the standards set by Beethoven, who represented the logical extension of an outgoing rationalist Classical age. Schubert represented the intuited beginning of a new Romantic age, an age in which formal models, previously held together by patterns of key relationships and motivic manipulation, would find coherence in a new kind of structural glue based on the psychological drama of personal experience.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Schubert’s approach to the Classical era’s pre-eminent formal structure, the sonata. Like a good tailor adjusting an old suit, he lets out the seams of strict sonata form to allow it to breathe with the new lyrical air of his age. Concision and argumentative density are replaced with timeless daydreaming and lyrical breadth. Schubert’s sonata movements often contain three major themes instead of the standard two, arrived at and departed from by way of unexpected, sometimes startling modulatory surprizes. By this means he blunted the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving large-scale tonal tensions. Rather, he directed the listener’s attention to the moment-by-moment unfolding of melodic contours and harmonic colours. And yet even these moments are frequently punctuated by thoughtful pauses. In the end, what Schubert aims to create is a balanced and satisfying collection of lyrical experiences within the formal markers of the traditional sonata: exposition, development, and recapitulation.
Given these lyrical aims, it should not be surprizing that he favoured moderate tempos such as the Molto moderato of the first movement of his Sonata in B flat D 960, a work composed just months before his death in 1828. Its opening theme features a peaceful melody, with a hint of pathos in its second strain, supported by a simple pulsing accompaniment and ending with a mysterious trill at the bottom of the keyboard. This trill will be an important structural marker in the movement, repeated (loudly) at the first ending of the exposition and just before the start of the recapitulation.
A second theme of a more serious cast and a third of hopping broken chords round out the exposition, each passing fluidly between the major and minor modes like a tonal dual citizen, mirroring the dual modes of sweet yearning and inner anxiety that characterize the composer’s ‘outsider’ persona generally in works such as Die Winterreise. Major becomes minor and minor major as well in the development, which maintains the initial pulse of the opening as it builds to a fierce climax.
The second movement Andante sostenuto is surreal in its starkly spare texture of layered sonorities, featuring a somber but halting melody in the mid-range surrounded on both sides by a rocking accompaniment figure that quietly resounds like the echo inside a stone tomb. Only Schubert could create such a melody, one that combines sad elegy with tender reminiscence and pleading prayer, relieved only by the nostalgic strains of the movement’s songful middle section.
The third movement scherzo is surprizingly smooth-flowing in a genre known for its mischievous wit, but mixes it up with twinkling echo effects in the high register and exchanges of melodic material between treble and bass. The trio is more sombre and contained, expressing its personality more through syncopations, sudden accents, and major-minor ambiguities than through wide-ranging scamper and exuberance.
One might actually think that some of the lightness of mood from the previous movement had influenced the start of the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which keeps wanting to start in the ‘wrong’ key (C minor, for a movement in B flat), but quickly sorts itself out to offer us one of Schubert’s most unbuttoned, ‘bunnies-hopping-in-a-box’ merry themes. And more still await us as a gloriously songful melody takes over, only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatically forceful new motive in a dotted rhythm that charges in, like a SWAT team breaking down the door of an evil-doer’s lair. But it was all a misunderstanding, of course, and these threatening minor-mode motives are soon dropped in favour of an almost parodistic variant of the same material in the major mode, something that kindergarten children might skip to at recess. The force of Schubert’s imagination ensures that this last movement of his last sonata is as vivid and riotous a ride through the rondo genre as that of his Erlkönig “through night and wind.”
Donald G. Gíslason 2018