Sonata in B flat major D 960 Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

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Program Notes: Steven Osborne

Franz Schubert
Impromptu No. 1 in F minor  D. 935

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 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.

Schubert was a pianist, but he was not a touring virtuoso. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears in them the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

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The Impromptu in F minor Op. 142, No. 1 is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern ‘Beethovenian’ introduction featuring jagged melodic gestures and cadences that promise weighty things to come. But instead, we are led into a Schubertian world of gentle pathos and delicate sentiment, framed in the kinds of buoyant, fluttering keyboard textures that tended to ‘speak’ well on the light-actioned Viennese piano of Schubert’s day. A subsequent theme in repeated chords evokes the lilting rhythms of music in the Austrian capital.

The texture of Schubert’s B-section is utterly enchanting. He uses rippling arpeggios to create a purling stream of piano sonority in the mid-range of the keyboard, across which velvety dreaming voices in the treble exchange loving phrases with tender baritone echoes in the bass, undergoing wondrous modulation-induced changes in tone colour as they go.

 

George Crumb
Processional

American composer George Crumb is known for his haunting, mystical, almost surrealist scores that explore unusual instrumental timbres. Crumb’s Processional (1983) focuses our attention on incremental changes in tone colour by laying down a constant patter of eighth notes, configured as dense tone clusters, within which a six-note descending melodic line emerges as a principal motive.

The harmonic language is ambiguous, sometimes appearing to be based on the whole-tone scale, at other times traditionally tonal or modal. Like many of Crumb’s works, the piece unfolds at a low dynamic level (beginning and ending ppp) and its constant pulsing in a sonic space densely saturated with overtones has the hypnotic effect of suspending our sense of time.

Crumb describes the work as “concerned with the prismatic effect of subtle changes of harmonic colour and frequent modulation”, while contemporary music specialist Jeffrey Jacob describes the work as follows: “The basis of the piece is a series of repeated chords which very gradually move toward or away from major climaxes. The mesmerizing effect of the chordal repetition is countered by the rising and falling dynamics.”

 

Claude Debussy
Étude retrouvée
Douze Études  Livre II

It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano études, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with musical monotony, and since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic-level narcissism and circus-inspired showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection, and his public persona was light-years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.

So, his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, the aim of which is to build endurance for when it might be needed in ‘real’ music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedalling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity alone is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.

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Debussy’s Étude retrouvée was ‘found’ (hence the title) amongst the composer’s papers in 1977 and it appears to be a 13th étude which the composer decided not to include in his published set of 12. The chief technical difficulty addressed is that of bringing out scattered fragments of lyrical melody floating atop an absolute riot of shimmering multi-octave arpeggio figurations that at times involve both hands simultaneously.

The second book of Debussy’s Douze Études begins with Étude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques, a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right-hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings. Out of this sound-swirl, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody emerge in the left hand. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an étude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.

Étude 8 Pour les agréments (ornaments) has, in the words of Debussy, “the form of a Barcarolle on a rather Italian sea.” And indeed there is a kind of ‘watery’ feel to the texture, at times reminiscent of the composer’s L’Isle joyeuse. The ‘ornaments’ with which this étude’s melodic content are encrusted are not just your regular mordents and trills but mostly chordal arpeggios that delicately rain down on their melody notes like sprinklings of sonic mist.

Étude 9 Pour les notes répétées is marked scherzando, a mood created not only by its effervescent texture of peppery repeated notes but also by its scampering melodies and quixotic stop-and-go changes of mood, all at a piano dynamic level.

Étude 10 Pour les sonorités opposées gets to the heart of the Debussyan sound world. This is an étude more for the ear and pedal-foot than for the fingers, featuring multi-layered sonorities spaced out over as much as five octaves, rich in dark pedal tones low down in the bass to be balanced against iridescent tonal accents high up in the treble and murmuring melodies emerging out of the mid-range.

Étude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of ‘composite arpeggios’ (multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.

Bold, exuberant and flashy, Étude 12 Pour les accords (chords) seems to be simply screaming with exclamation points. It has been called “a barbarous dance” and indeed it has no shortage of élan with its beastly difficult pattern of wild leaps in opposite directions playing out counter-metrically in duple groups across its triple-metre bar lines. A radically relaxed middle section almost makes you forget what all the excitement was about until the springboard rhythms of the opening slyly work their way back into the texture to end this gymnastic étude as acrobatically as it began.

 

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B-flat major  D. 960

Schubert’s last piano sonata, written in 1828 a scant few months before his death, exemplifies in one single work the full range of his gifts as lyric melodist, serious musical dramatist, and refined exponent of the light, dance-besotted musical style of Vienna.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is typically generous in its bounty of themes. It opens with a softly whispered melody, humbly small in range and accompanied by a repeated pedal tone in the left hand, like a pulsing human heartbeat. This opening theme has a sweet yearning quality that gives it an ineffable, almost nostalgic charm, urging it to burst more fully into song, which it soon does. A second theme introduces a tentative note of worry, but Schubert’s constant harmonic wavering between the major and minor modes prevents the emotional tone from becoming downcast. A third theme of a triadic stamp scampers over the full range of the keyboard, in both hands, to re-establish a more directly buoyant emotional tone, disturbed only by a recurring low trill in the left hand that acts as a sectional marker within the movement. The development is where all the drama lies, as Schubert passes his melodic material through a harmonic colour wheel, building to an intense climax that acts as a rare moment of sonic emphasis in the centre of what is, essentially, a movement of delicate shades of nuance.

Much more starkly dramatic is the Andante sostenuto slow movement which features an introspective melody in the mid-range of the keyboard, surrounded by sonic ‘echoes’, both above and below, implying that this lonely plaintive voice is pleading its mournful case in a vast, but empty enclosure. It is hard not to think of the more militant middle section as an attempt to take heart, an attempt that inevitably fails as the opening mood returns to conclude the movement.

The third movement scherzo, Allegro vivace con delicatezza, is indeed ‘delicate’ if judged by the standards of Beethoven’s ‘rough-house’ humour. More typically Viennese in its subtlety, it generates good-natured humour from its frequent changes of register and twinkling grace notes. A steady interchange of material between the hands creates the impression of a dialogue between two real musical ‘characters’. The contrasting trio in the minor mode is much more sedate, sitting in the middle of the keyboard and shifting its weight around in gentle syncopations.

Still in a humorous frame of mind, Schubert begins his rondo finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with a mock ‘mistake’. Starting off in the minor mode, he then ‘remembers’ that he wants to be in a major key and makes a mid-course correction at the end of the first phrase. This joke of changing dramatic masks from the serious to the comedic is played out frequently during the movement, with intervening episodes of songful respite in between. This is a finale filled with congenial joking of the most sophisticated kind, created by a true Viennese pianistic ‘sit-down comic’.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ANDREA LUCCHESINI

Domenico Scarlatti
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.

Luciano Berio
Six Encores

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.

Franz Schubert
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

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