Sonata in B minor K 197
Sonata in G major K 455
“Probably one of the most outrageously individual compositional outputs of the Baroque era is to be found in the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti,” writes Yevgeny Sudbin in the liner notes to his 2004 Scarlatti album.
This may explain why Scarlatti’s 550-odd sonatas 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.
Scarlatti’s early career was based in Naples, and his introverted Sonata in B minor K 197 displays the recurring streaks of pathos that Neapolitan music revels in. The melodic line whimpers with plaintive little appoggiaturas as harmonic tension accumulates from the use of stubbornly immovable pedal points in the bass.
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. Guitar idioms are heard in the repeated notes that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity for the performer.
In his Scarlatti liner notes, Yevgeny Sudbin lays stress on the spontaneous, improvisatory quality of these sonatas. “It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas,” he writes, “there were 50 or so other versions.” His performance this afternoon may well pay tribute to these “plausible other versions.” As to where this might occur, the smart money is on the repeats.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Bagatelles Op. 126
Throughout his career Beethoven had found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience members knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some of these he published in collections, such as his seven bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119 came out in 1823.
The six bagatelles of Op. 126, though, were more than just a collection: they were a matched set, conceived of as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. More importantly, the set constitutes Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they were no mere baubles. Composed at the same time as he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that characterizes his late style.
Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing, a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, and the boldness to write his contrapuntal voices several octaves apart. Beethoven the architect of massive great formal structures shows himself in these pieces to be equally a master of the small miniature, deftly creating an immediate impression with his opening gestures and developing his motives with unfettered originality.
No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section.
No. 4 in B minor has character and personality in spades. It contrasts a strongly driven contrapuntal opening section with a dreamy section that alternates with it. No. 5 in G major is quietly expressive, its continuous pattern of triplets gently varied by syncopations across the bar line. No. 6 in E flat opens and closes with a riotous churn of piano sound that sandwiches a much more poised main section. This section starts out like a barcarolle, but then drifts off to explore a wealth of musical ideas, some of them coy and playful, other verging on pure sound theatre.
Ballade No 3 in A flat major Op. 47
Chopin’s four ballades all share a tone of epic narration but the third of the set, the Ballade in A flat Op. 47, stands apart for its bright sonorities and healthy, optimistic mood. It lacks the vehemence of expression that characterizes the other three ballades, Opp. 23, 38 and 52, with their terrifying codas of whirlwind intensity.
The work is dominated by two principal themes of contrasting character but united by common elements of basic melodic structure. The first, announced at the outset, is a songful melody that begins by rising up six scale notes, echoed by antiphonal responses in the left hand. Its contrapuntal profile is that of two voices expanding out in opposite directions from a central point, a pattern that intensifies on the following page into celebratory cadences exploding out into ecstatic arpeggios to the low and high registers simultaneously.
The second theme changes the mood completely. It is a dancelike melody of instrumental character that descends six scale notes, outlined in a series of coquettish leaps made all the more coy by the constantly syncopated rhythm in which they are presented. While this second theme dips often into the minor mode, it rarely stays there long, often slipping back into the major when cadencing. The minor mode is thus constantly restrained from taking on the mask of tragedy.
While the first theme remains elegantly static throughout the work, the second undergoes considerable development in a texture of ornamental figuration that dances alternately above it and then resonantly rumbles below. This development is the dramatic heart of the piece, and immediately follows a third theme area of remarkable flamboyance, with extroverted multi-octave arpeggios issuing into joyously rambunctious passagework over large swaths of the keyboard.
YEVGENY SUDBIN: NOTES ON SCRIABIN
Piano Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp major, Op.53
Oh how easy it is to become possessed by Scriabin, one of the most enigmatic and controversial artistic personalities of all time. Once one is bitten and the venom, in the form of his sound world, enters the body and soul, the e ects become all-encompassing, even life-threatening! Not only emotionally – as one’s desperate quest for answers only results in more questions – but also physically, the reactions can be severe. Scriabin was not only the rst to introduce madness into music; he also managed to synthesise it into an infectious virus that is entirely music-borne and a ects the psyche in a highly irrational way. Thus ‘mystical experiences’ have been reported by listeners. One London critic described: “In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant ashes of blinding coloured lights during performances of Scriabin’s music… It was totally di erent from the “thrill” of sensation or “tears” of pleasure, those emotions more commonly associated with conventional music… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.” Others describe having visions of waves of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of re during performances, even without the help of LSD. In all seriousness, however, if the e ects are as radical on the receiving end, they are certainly no less intense on the performer’s part.
The Sonata No.5, Op.53 was written in 1907 and is often referred to as a glorious afterthought to his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905- 08). In fact, the sonata is headed with an extract from the poem, which accompanied the symphonic work:
I summon you to life, hidden longings!
You, sunken in the sombre depths of creative spirit, You timid embryos of life,
To you bring I daring!
The basic idea behind the symphonic poem was to permit the freedom of unconstrained action to su use the entire world and dissolve it into ecstasy. Just like the poem itself, some of Scriabin’s score markings for both the orchestral piece and the sonata provide a memorable, naughty read: accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed) and avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic). The key word in the sonata, however, is the final estàtico (ecstatically), which signals self-assertion. Scriabin triumphs in ‘light and ecstasy’. ‘I am’ would be the corresponding passage in the poem, only reached after the full range of emotions and experiences has been exhausted: luscious stimulation followed by soothing languor, doubt,‘the maggot of satiety… the bite of hyenas… sting of serpent’, intoxication, burning kisses, love-making and finally, the all-encompassing experience of ecstasy. (Scriabin wrote: “the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…”) The Fifth Sonata, regrettably, is only a do-it- yourself version of all this.
The delirious Fifth sonata was his quickest composition – it only took him six days. Although nominally in F-sharp major, this one-movement sonata proudly announces a new, atonal era in Scriabin’s development, as it cuts the moorings to tonality. From this moment, there are no more compulsory modulations; cadences vanish and the elements that constitute the sonata form become more di use. Unusual clusters of chords based on tritones and diminished sevenths begin to appear, foreboding Scriabin’s ‘Mystic Chord’ that he developed and used extensively later, particularly in Prometheus and his 9th Sonata (Messe noire) sonata. From this point, Scriabin’s harmony becomes impossible to comprehend under traditional tonal rules; melody and harmony become one indivisible whole. For 60 years musicologists tried to break the code behind his harmonic system and only in 1968 did the Soviet musicologist Dernova managed it. The reason the code was unbreakable was mainly because the chords were thought to relate to some kind of a tonal centre. But the key was to view the chords themselves as independent, self-sustaining tonal centres with their own implied or expressed simultaneous ‘tonics’.
Scriabin’s chords have a sound similar to Debussy’s post-Wagnerian ‘enhanced’ dominant seventh chords and even share characteristics with the typical ‘terminal’ chord in jazz and ragtime which was starting to blossom around the same time (c.1900). The actual ‘Mystic Chord’ can be broken up into six notes to produce simultaneously harmonies, chords and melodies in a serialist manner – a term not coined until 1947. Scriabin did exactly that in Poème, Op. 59 No.1 (1910), before Schoenberg came up with his twelve-tone technique, one of the main di erences being that Scriabin did not use his system as rigidly. It is obvious, however: had Scriabin lived a little longer, the twelve-tone technique that sparked a whole new movement could easily have been conceived under his pen, instead of Schoenberg’s.
Apart from its architectonic properties, another perplexing quality of a Scriabin chord is the sheer variety of moods it can induce, depending on the context: in the Fifth Sonata the same chord can sound icy, cosmic and even frightening (bar 23) or warm, hopeful and nostalgic (bar 183). The warmth radiating from this particular chord – the ‘warmest’ place in the piece – feels like a heated blanket gently enfolding the cold universe. This is where, for me, Scriabin wins over serialism where any potential variety of moods is mostly a by-product of randomness within the limits of the simplistic rules applied.
Danse Macabre arr. Yevgeny Sudbin
Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.
Such is the scene of the Danse Macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.
Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.
Liszt’s transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout. Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement but Yevgeny Sudbin takes a middle path, pruning some of the textural additions of Horowitz while adding a few of his own.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019