Sonata in B minor K 27
Sonata in D major K 96
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 B minor K 27 exemplifies many features of Spanish guitar music. Right from the opening (mm.3-6) you hear the flamenco Phrygian mode in the four-note descending bass line known as the “Andalusian cadence.” Even more guitar-like are the extended passages of rippling broken-chord figuration – but just how extended is one of the intriguing interpretive challenges of this sonata. There are in fact passages in both the first and second halves of this sonata in which the same measure is repeated – verbatim (!) — seven times in a row.
The Sonata in D major K 96 is sound theatre of a high order. While guitar figuration is in evidence here as well, especially in the many passages of repeated notes, more imposing on the ear is the military flavour of the opening trumpet fanfare, the trilled flourishes of snare-drums, and the stomping cadence patterns with big cadential trills. Add in copious passages of hand-crossings and you have a performance show-piece worthy of opening a piano recital.
Kreisleriana Op. 16
Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented for Robert Schumann the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fictional writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.
Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work is comprised of contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.
Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.
Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.
Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the Sehr lebhaft (very slow) fifth movement and fugato in the Sehr rasch (very quick) seventh, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.
But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.
Pictures at an Exhibition
In 1874 Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg featuring the paintings, drawings and sketches of the Russian artist, architect and designer Victor Hartmann (1834–1873), who had died the previous year at the age of 39. Aggrieved at the loss of his friend and fellow artist, Mussorgsky set about to create his own unique memorial to Hartmann in a piano suite comprising 10 musical depictions of the works he had seen in St. Petersburg, with a recurring intermezzo melody, the Promenade, to represent the composer as he strolls along between the works displayed.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an overtly nationalist work, as is evident from many of the scenes he chose to set to music: fairy-tale creatures from Russian folklore, everyday life in the Russian countryside, and landscapes symbolic of the nation’s glorious past. This nationalism extends to his musical vocabulary as well, which at times evokes the melodic style of Russian folk tunes, at other times the austere choral hymns of the Orthodox Church and the clangorous resonance of cathedral bells.
Very Russian as well is Mussorgsky’s expressive vocabulary, which is raw, bluntly chiselled and often brutally direct, with a pictorial vividness that anticipates modern film scores. Sometimes he is Warner Bros. cartoonish, as in his depiction of the animated scurrying of gaggles of small chicks in their shells, or the chatty bickering of women in the market square. But more often it is the dark side of this alcohol-addicted composer that comes to the fore. His ghoulish evocations of the spirits of the dead put one in mind of The Blair Witch Project while his terrifying portrait of the lumbering, child-eating witch Baba Yaga recalls the most panicky chase scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
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The Promenade opens the work, proceeding at a walking pace of even quarter notes structured in an alternating pattern of 5/4 and 6/4 measures. As it recurs throughout the work its forthright melody is delivered at times sparely, in a single line, at other times richly harmonized, grand and imposing, to reflect the imposing size and stature of the composer himself as he travels from picture to picture.
We are first presented with the arresting portrait of The Gnome, whose darting movements are immediately suggested by restless keyboard gestures and sudden contrasts of dynamics. You can almost see him, scrambling into a corner, crouching down, then springing up with a toothy grin. Set in the rather ‘evil’ key of E-flat minor, this portrayal is chock full of ugly chromatic intervals. And the disquieting left-hand trills in the final section only add to the sense that this menacing mischievous creature is up to no good.
After a soft and almost heavenly rendition of the Promenade, we come upon The Old Castle, which represents a troubadour singing his mournful song before a mighty stone fortress. The melody is modal, suggesting the Middle Ages. A dull throbbing pedal point, droning throughout, creates a blurry tonal mist that casts the scene far back into the legendary past.
The Promenade that follows is strongly assertive, projected in bold octaves and full chords, leading to the first whimsical scene in the collection, Les Tuileries. Here we witness the animated scene of children at play in the Jardin des Tuileries, a public park in Paris where nannies would often take the young ones in their charge for a bit of fresh air. An ostinato of coy rocking chords opens the scene and continues throughout, regularly relieved by short scampering scale passages, communicating the wide-eyed innocence and youthful exuberance of the frolicking tykes.
Next comes Bydło, a scene emblematic of the daily struggles of rural life. A Polish oxcart heaves into view from afar, the plodding of hooves getting gradually louder as it draws near, and diminishing as it passes off into the distance.
A deeply reflective version of the Promenade then cleanses the aural palette to prepare us for a welcome contrast, a scene as feather-light and treble-centred as the previous portrait was ponderous and bass-heavy: the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Keen to be released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter about in their shells so as to get out and explore their new barnyard home.
We are then introduced to the two Polish Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the first rich, arrogant and overbearing, the second poor, craven and whimpering. The frequent use of augmented 2nds in scale patterns is meant to suggest the character of traditional Jewish music. Such caricatures testify to the casual antisemitism that blighted Russian culture in the late 19th century, and that continued to stain the nation well into the Soviet period of the 20th century.
A repeat of the opening Promenade suggests a new beginning for our art tour as we enter The Market at Limoges, where the local women are engaged in a raucous, finger-pointing, shoulder-poking dispute over some trivial matter, their hysterical exchanges indicated by a constant chatter of 16th notes.
Then as the fracas is reaching its height of hysteria, we are stopped ‘dead’, as it were, by the arresting sight of Catacombs, where the implacable finality of the grave is symbolized in a series of starkly dissonant chords alternating in dynamics between loud and soft. Soon we are ushered even nearer into the presence of the dead in a section entitled Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead, in a dead language) in which spooky octave tremolos in the treble accompany intimations of the eerie peacefulness of post mortem subterranean existence.
We are then jolted out of this bittersweet reverie by the sudden arrival of the witch Baba Yaga who lives in The Hut on Chicken Legs—an unusual kind of home construction, to be sure. In Mussorgsky’s depiction we catch her out on the hunt, stomping her way around the forest in search of prey, her terrifying gait easily a match for the glass-jiggling foot-fall of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. A quieter, but no less unsettling middle section with some bitonal writing brings us little relief from the sheer nightmarish terror of this scene.
Then just as the monster is closing in on us, ready to grab us by the heel, we are saved by the appearance of The Great Gate of Kiev, imagined from a sketch by Hartmann for a gigantic entrance gate to be constructed in Kiev, ancient capital of the state of Kievan Rus whence the Russian nation traces its origins. The awe-inspiring majesty of the scene is evident from the proud chords that underpin a transfiguration of the Promenade theme as the scene opens out before us. A solemn hymn steeped in the tonal colours of Eastern Orthodox choral singing twice interrupts this stern processional to sprinkle holy water on the proceedings. Eventually the piercing metallic peel of cathedral bells is heard, interspersed with reminiscences of the original Promenade theme chiming in the high treble, as Mussorgsky strains to make the piano proclaim the same ecstatic utterance that crowned the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov: Слава! Glory!
Donald G. Gíslason 2021