Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32 Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

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PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Ludwig van Beethoven
11 Bagatelles Op. 119

Beethoven’s Op. 119 is a catch-all collection of pieces written without any preconceived formal plan for the enjoyment of amateur piano enthusiasts. The last five were published first as a contribution to a pedagogical publication called the Wiener Piano-Forte Schule (1821), with the first six added to that set for a separate publication in 1823.

The popular market into which they were lightly tossed may account for the dance-like pieces in the set: No. 1 is a minuet, No. 3 an allemande and No. 9 a frenetic little waltz. Some of the two-voice writing in these pieces has an archaic, baroque feel to it, especially in the florid ornamentation of No. 5.

Beethoven may not have always had the amateur performer in mind, however, given the technical challenges written into some of these short “Kleinigkeiten” (trifles), as he called them in German. Some feature sustained passages of awkward hand-crossings (Nos. 2 and 7) and casually inserted left-hand trills. No. 7 even demands the pianist to play sustained trills and a separate melody line, all in the same hand – a texture found in the composer’s most advanced piano works, such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 111. Others, like No. 8, are harmonically adventurous in a manner that anticipates the character pieces of Schumann.

It is obvious that Beethoven granted himself free rein in composing these pieces, and the prize for eccentricity goes to the laconic Bagatelle No. 10. In its short frantic 13 bars of staggered left- and right-hand entries, it pants away like a family dog leaping up at the dinner table for treats.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat Hob. XVI:49

This sonata was dedicated to Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s personal physician at the Esterhazy court, where Haydn was employed. From their correspondence, it appears that Haydn was carrying on something of a dalliance with her and this sonata, composed between 1789 and 1790, seems designed to address both her feminine sensibility and her considerable skills as an amateur pianist.

And yet there is a Beethovenian directness to the way that the first movement’s thematic material is thrown out in bitesized bits, similar to the brusque opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, Op. 2 No. 3. Haydn does us a favour here by isolating these short motivic units – two snappy questions and a lyrical reply – because virtually the entire range of ideas explored in this movement derives from them.

When Haydn got an idea in his head, he liked to run with it as far as he could go. So many of this sonata’s movements are monothematic, their nominally contrasting themes all variations on a small sequence of motives declared at the outset. In this sonata movement, the mere rhythm of the ‘lyrical reply’ – dum-dum-dum DUM – becomes an important motivic element throughout, and in fact, in its stripped down form becomes the obsession of the development section.

The Andante cantabile second movement is in a simple A-B-A formal layout, with its A section a poised and perky slow melody dolled up from the get-go with frilly ornaments of a distinctly feminine stamp. Its B section takes the melodic curve of the opening bar of the movement and plunges it dramatically into the minor mode, with a visual drama created, as well, by the many hand- crossings effected by the left hand.

The finale combines the repeating refrain and contrasting episodes of a rondo with the minuet structure featuring a contrasting trio (hinted at in its Italian indication Tempo di minuetto). The breezy whistling-in-the-wind quality of the opening tune has a folk-like simplicity about it, reinforced by its drone bass. But Haydn widens the range of theatrical roles that his dedicatee-performer can play when, halfway through the movement, he casts this blithe little tune into the minor mode.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

The jovial, witty and ever-cheerful ‘Papa’ Haydn writing in a minor key? What brought that on?

The 1770s, when Haydn’s Sonata in B minor was composed, was the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in German culture, an age when aberrant emotions were all the rage in music; and what better tonal avouring than the minor mode to convey these emotions? Composers such as C. P. E. Bach rode this cultural wave with enthusiasm, writing works that elicited powerful, sometimes worrisome, emotions by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps and poignant harmonies of the type that minor keys were especially adept at providing.

It is also important to note that the 1770s was the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you find in the first movement, especially, is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

This cross-over period between harpsichord and fortepiano plays out in the nature of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. The first is austere and slightly mysterious, amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style mordents on its opening melody notes. The second churns away in constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious Sturm und Drang tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a lyrical slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio – but where is the emotional drama in that? Haydn has a plan. His minuet and trio feature thematic material as dramatically contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps everywhere, one as large as a 14th. The trio, normally con gured as sugary relief from the sti formality of courtly dance ritual, is daringly in the minor mode, set low, and grinds grimly away in constant 16th-note motion.

Haydn wouldn’t be Haydn if he didn’t send you away with a toe-tapping finale and such a movement ends this sonata. To that end, Haydn’s go-to rhythmic device is repeated notes, and this nale chatters on constantly at an 8th-note patter, interrupted at random, it would seem, by surprising silences and dramatic pauses – as if to allow the performer to turn sideways and wink at his audience.

Johannes Brahms
Vier Klavierstücke Op. 119

Brahms’s last works for the piano were a set of Four Keyboard Pieces, Op.119. Like the previous short piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117 and 118, they are complex, dense and deeply introspective works, full of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities but by no means obscure. They are works to be savoured for Brahms’s mastery of compositional technique and for the bountiful wellspring of Viennese sentiment and charm that animates them from within.

Written with complete disregard for the kinds of piano textures considered normal in the late 19th century, the piano pieces of Op. 119 explore new possibilities in harmonic and rhythmic practice, as well. Harmonic changes frequently occur on weak beats, and metrical regularity is often attenuated by harmony notes held over from the previous bar.

The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set is a prime example. Its glacially descending arpeggios in chains of falling thirds create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between left and right hand.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.

The Rhapsody in E at major is the longest of Brahms’s late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet gures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of a debonaire A at major section in the classic style of late-19th-century salon music. A amboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece, surprisingly, with a triumphant cadence in E at minor.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: GEORGE LI

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

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