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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

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: Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis

Gabriel Fauré
Dolly Suite  Op. 56

In the 1890s Gabriel Fauré would often compose or revise small pieces for the infant daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac (1862-1934). These affectionate pieces celebrated a birthday, a pet, or a special person in the life of the young Regina-Hélène, known in the family as “Dolly,” and six of them from the years 1893 to 1896 form the suite for piano duet named after her.

In keeping with their pose of childlike naïveté, the texture of these pieces is music-box light, with little exploration of the lower reaches of the keyboard, but Fauré’s classic qualities are in evidence on every page of the score: refinement of musical gesture, a watery transparency of harmony, and that indefinable French attribute known as charm.

Berceuse marks Dolly’s first birthday in 1893 with a dreamy lullaby. A cozy mood of slumbering repose is created by drone tones in the bass and a cradle-rocking accompaniment.

Dolly’s brother Raoul is commemorated in Mi-a-ou, an approximation of how the young girl pronounced Messieu Aoul. A rambunctious melody with constantly shifting accents describes the restless energy of the young boy.

Le Jardin de Dolly evokes the calm of the perfect garden as a young girl might imagine it, her childlike delight in what she sees symbolized by frequent modulations.

Kitty-valse paints the playful character of the household dog, whose tail-wagging ramblings through the house are gently parodied as a ‘waltz’ of canine choreography.

Tendresse explores the concept of “tenderness” through a very personal lens of introspection, using the lyrical but highly chromatic language used in Fauré’s Nocturnes and other ‘adult’ pieces.

The suite ends with Le Pas espagnol, a tribute to the castanet-clicking sounds and heel-stomping dance rhythms of Spain.


Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Piano Duet

The young Francis Poulenc was a naughty boy, a very naughty boy indeed, who dared to inject the musical styles of jazz, cabaret and other popular music genres into ‘serious’ composition. As the gay son of a wealthy family, he roamed freely among the more louche enclaves of Parisian nightlife, picking up a taste for the type of devilish wit and stylish parody that we would probably associate with drag shows today.

Poulenc was still in his late teens when he composed his three-movement Sonata for Piano Duet, a work both serious and anything but. Its modest dimensions and simple presentation of musical ideas qualify it as a miniature sonata at best, so the ‘sonata’ label is likely applied tongue-in-cheek. It does, however, engage seriously with the new trend of musical primitivism introduced by Stravinsky, who in fact was something of a mentor to the young Poulenc and used his influence to get him a publisher for this work.

Stravinsky’s influence is amply apparent in the barbarous repetitive rhythms that open the first movement Prélude, and the lyrical (or at least whistleable) melodies inhabiting the middle section of this movement could have come straight out of Shrovetide Fair.

Most Stravinskian of all is Poulenc’s use of small melodic phrases, usually five notes in range or less, both as the repeating units of an ostinato pattern, or in creating the larger phrase structure of a foreground melody.

The second movement, entitled Rustique, is especially interesting from this point of view. Its simultaneous use of similar melodic material in both 8th-note and 16th-note figuration patterns is reminiscent of the fractal-type layered textures of Balinese gamelan music.

The Final, while still rhythmically propelled, is not quite so static in its use of ‘wallpaper’ patterns of rhythm and melody.  It employs a wider variety of rhythms, and in a nod to (or dig at) Classical tradition, recalls themes from previous movements and seems set to build up momentum for a bang-up finish. But in a gesture of cabaret cheekiness, Poulenc turns on a dime and closes out the movement with a smokey jazz chord as if to say: “Gotcha!”


Claude Debussy
Six Épigraphes antiques

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to generate enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality, he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—poems that featured lines such as: I undressed to climb a tree, my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897. Debussy also wrote incidental music for a dramatic reading of the poems that took place in 1901, reusing much of this material in 1914 when composing his similarly themed Six Épigraphes antiques for piano duet.

In each of the six pieces in this set Debussy meditates on a wish, a prayer or a dedication such as those found in the epigraphs on the walls of ancient buildings or tombs.

He begins with a description of pastoral life in the ancient world by invoking Pan, god of the summer wind, who is heard playing his pan pipes as the piece opens. Used throughout is the pentatonic scale, neither major nor minor, symbolizing the call of the natural world.

A quizzical whole-tone scale, however, is used to summon up the mystery surrounding a Tomb without a name, its anonymous occupant mourned by the chromatic descent of distant voices.

A wish That the night may be propitious paints the silence of the night, and the various creatures moving about within it, in a richly layered texture of ostinato patterns and animal calls.

A Dancer with cymbals then appears on the scene, her dainty steps and waving gestures imitated in graceful triplets while exuberant ornamentation conveys the sound of her instrument.

She is followed by the Egyptian woman, as dark and mysterious as the drone tones quietly drumming in the bass register. Sensuous, snaking lines of an oriental flavour, rich in augmented 2nds, accompany her lascivious movements.

The final epigraph expresses a wish To thank the morning rain. It features a delicate imitation of raindrops in a constant patter of 16th notes that only ceases when the the pan pipe melody that opened the work is recalled, marking the return of the sun.


Igor Stravinsky
Trois Pièces faciles

The neo-classical style that Stravinsky was to adopt after the Great War can already be seen taking shape in such works as his Three Easy Pieces for piano duet of 1914-1915.  In their stripped down, bare-bones textures and identification with established genres of European music—march, waltz and polka—they foreshadow the treatment that Stravinsky would soon apply to the music of Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella.  The March, in fact, seems to be a prototype of this procedure, based as it is on the old Irish folk melody The Blacksmith and his Son.

What Stravinsky does in these pieces, however, is closer to parody than to hommage, and closely resembles what the Cubist painters did in visual art by presenting conflicting ‘planes of perception’ simultaneously.

The genre of each piece is easily recognizable by its characteristic pulse and rhythmic style: the steady walking beat of the march, the lilt of the waltz, the hop-hop-hop of the polka. Layered on top of that, however, are melodies full of ‘wrong notes,’ melodies that often seem to be in another key.

Stravinsky had already used this polytonal effect before when he combined two key centres a tritone apart (F# major and C major) to create the famous Petrushka chord in his 1911 ballet of the same name. In these pieces, however, this picturesque ‘spot’ effect is transformed into a basic operating procedure.

The result is an exhilarating aural experience as prismatic shimmerings of tonal colour in the primo part are splashed over a mechanical and boringly repetitive accompaniment pattern in the secondo.


Maurice Ravel
Mother Goose Suite

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.


Donald G. Gíslason 2020



Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008

The instrumental suite, with its predictable allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue sequence of dances and its un-predictable addition of various galanteries (minuets, bourrées, gavottes, etc.), was a staple of the Baroque.

Arising from neither of the period’s two great wellsprings of musical emotion – religious piety and operatic bombast – the subtext of the suite was social gaiety in an intimate setting, but not just any setting. The tone had more than a whiff of aristocratic elegance about it, its imaginary terpsichorean world being one of crisp court etiquette rather than rollicking village merriment. This was the music that housewives of the Baroque era’s rising middle class heard in their head as they reached for Hello magazine, or Majesty, in the checkout line at the local fishmonger’s.

In this context, the second of Bach’s set of six cello suites from ca. 1720 is a remarkable example of the genre. Written in a minor key, it constitutes an exceptionally dark and serious take on the dance culture of the French court, from which the religious and dramatic impulses of Lutheran Germany cannot be excluded as inspirational prompts in its creation.

The opening Prelude is homogenous in its texture of running 16th notes, from which a recurring habit of pausing on the second beat of the bar stands out
as a distinctly sarabande-like feature. Its opening arpeggio spelling out the D minor triad sets out a pattern of similar arpeggiated approaches to this second- beat pause that will pervade the movement as a whole, building tension in waves of melodic and harmonic sequences that seek ever higher ground.

The dances that follow are in binary form, each comprised of a first section that drifts away from the home key followed by a second section that returns to it, with each section played twice. The Allemande begins assertively, with
a quadruple stop that establishes its punchy style of rhythmic emphasis
that, combined with its wide range of motion, provides it an exceptionally rambunctious start to the dance set. The Courante hikes up the intensity a notch further in a driven moto perpetuo of virtually constant 16th-note motion.

The clear harmonic outlines of this breathless movement make it one of the most toe-tapping of the suite.

Darkest of the dark in this collection is the extraordinarily grave Sarabande, set in the deepest register of the instrument. A feeling of intense longing comes through in its long-held dissonances and its bewildered, searching phrases beset with anxious hand-wringing trills.

Minuets I & II form a matched pair of musical contrasts: the first in D minor, thickly scored in multiple stops but with an overtly dancelike lilt; the second in a contrasting D major, sparingly laid out in a single owing line of melody. We see in this pairing a precedent for the future matching of minuet & trio in the Classical era.

The concluding Gigue is true to its origins in the English or Irish jig, characterized by wild leaps, repetitive rhythms, and angular lines of melody that constantly change direction. Sombre as this suite is as a whole, its rollicking finale recaptures some of the genre’s elegant exuberance and élan.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109

The grandeur of Beethoven’s musical imagination is tellingly displayed in his antepenultimate piano sonata, a three-movement work that first dreams, then rages, and finally drifts beyond all mortal care to end at peace with the world. Its first movement is a gentle star-gazing fantasy, its second a sharply focused agitato of nightmarish intensity. To conclude, Beethoven reconciles these emotions – the lyrically expansive and the rhythmically driven – in a theme- and-variations finale that gives each its place in the sun.

The first movement is remarkable for its compactness. It opens with a pleasing sequence of harmonies divided between the hands that seems to oat in the air like the uttering of a bird’s wings until a harmonic surprise leads to an affectionate duet between soprano & tenor voices. This second subject is itself interrupted by a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soaring up and down the keyboard.

These three contrasting elements – uttering broken-chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement. But it is the first of these, the uttering broken-chord harmonies, with which Beethoven is obviously in love. It pulses through the entire development and concludes the movement in a coda that seems to drift to its conclusion, ebbing away rather than emphatically ending.

All the more shocking, then, is the contrast between this improvisatory first movement in E major and the arrival of its evil twin, the turbulent second movement in E minor, that follows without a pause. Here, signs of struggle are evident in the competing aims of a call-to-arms figure urgently rising up in the right hand and a stern passacaglia-like bass line grimly descending in the left.

This is no scherzo: there is no peaceful, contrasting ‘trio’ middle section. Rather, it is an unorthodox sonata-form movement driven to continuous contrapuntal development. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism manages to give a sharp edge of pathos to the movement’s violent outbursts and mysterious murmurings.

And then the clouds part, a warm spirit of peace and reconciliation shines down from the heavens, and the sonata ends with a theme-and-variations movement imbued with more than a hint of religious ecstasy.

And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while the same movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of keyboard-spanning arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to Baroque practice is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hiccupping division of material between the hands. Baroque instincts move into the foreground in the contrapuntal explorations of Variations 3 to 5. In his final variation, Beethoven transforms his theme from
a plain chordal harmonization into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before settling down to earth to take leave of his theme once again, presented once again in all its original simplicity – just the way Bach ended his Goldberg Variations.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D Major Op. 102 No. 2

The second of the two sonatas that Beethoven published as his Op. 102 is a particularly thorny creation: elemental, sinewy, and unyielding in its pursuit of musical ideas at the expense of musical sentiments. This is not the place to look for pleasant tunes to hum in the shower.

It comprises three sharply chiseled movements: a sternly brisk first movement with a drill-sergeant edge to it, an emotional black hole of a slow movement, and a full-on gritty fugue finale to let the duffers know just who they are dealing with. It’s quite a ride, this piece, and coming at the very start of Beethoven’s so-called “late period”, it gives a taste of the denseness and concentration of musical thought to come in future works.

The sonata opens with an arresting fanfare, ideal for deep-sleepers to program into their alarm clocks. These four quick notes and a big leap set the tone of brusqueness and forthright direct statement that characterizes the exposition throughout. The military bearing of its musical manner is reinforced by the frequent use of “snap-to-attention” dotted rhythms, bare-bones unison accompaniments, and the odd feeling that there is a bugle somewhere playing along with its many motives based on the major triad. Even the patriotic second theme sounds like a slow-motion fanfare. Only in the development section in the middle of the movement, and in the suspenseful coda at the end, does one move inside from the military parade square and begin to feel the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic plan, in place of the exposition’s barked-out orders and responses.

The second movement is oppressively Baroque in mood, its dark emotional tenor reinforced by a dirge-like pace and almost Brahmsian fascination with the low register of the piano. The movement’s opening melody of even 8th notes – with a pause at the end of each phrase – suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm that serves to accompany it. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. More expansive lyrical sentiments inhabit the middle section in the major mode, but all in vain, as the Grim Reaper returns to restore the grave tone of the opening, its rhythmic ‘limp’ having now become a twitching ‘tic’.

In keeping with Beethoven’s emerging tendency in his late period to isolate his musical material before developing it, he begins his transition to the finale by spelling out the rising scale figure that will become his fugue subject, first in the solo cello, then echoed back in the piano – like a magician who first shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. This fugue subject, when it arrives, is metrically a bit ‘o ’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar to the advantage of the second. This makes trying to follow the dazzling patchwork of fugal entries a daunting exercise in mental concentration, for which a tapping foot is only a distraction. The buzzing series of trills in the texture near the end point to their successors in the ‘sound-symphony’ finales of the last piano sonatas.

Claude Debussy
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme; tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by – or superimposed with – long strands of lyrical melody.

Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Cello & Piano in E minor Op. 38

Brahms’s first published duo sonata, written between 1862 and 1865, is sombre in tone and antiquarian in inspiration. It is a weighty work – so weighty, in fact, that it stands complete without the emotional ballast of a slow movement at its centre. It features a sonata-form first movement generously proportioned in its three themes, a remarkably dancelike minuet and trio, and a fugal finale.

The shadow of Johann Sebastian Bach hangs long and dark over this sonata. Its opening theme seems to owe much in its outline to an inversion of the opening subject of Bach’s Art of the Fugue while the fugue subject of the finale is a dead ringer for the opening of the Contrapunctus 13 from the same work.

The sonata opens serenely with the cello rising up from its deepest register underneath a plush covering of o -beat chords much akin to those accompanying the opening theme of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, also in E minor. A section of rippling triplets leads to a second theme in the minor mode that is evocative of struggle, with its close imitation between the instruments and its singularly Brahmsian metrical pattern of 3/4 groupings in 4/4 time.

A final theme emerges with the consoling character of a lullaby – and who better to write lullabies than Brahms? These themes are treated in sequence in the development section and reviewed in the recapitulation to complete a template-perfect sonata-form structure.

The second movement minuet is distinctly archaic in flavour, not only in its modal scale patterns and Phrygian cadences, but also in its dainty, genuinely danceable ‘minuettish-ness’. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrasts with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio, that comes replete with its own rhythmic irregularities and slightly gypsyish alternations between major and minor.

Is the last movement a real fugue? It would appear to begin like one, channelling Bach with its dramatic octave-plunge fugue subject. But doubt begins to creep in when a lyrical and owing second theme appears in the relative major. The relaxed graciousness of this theme, an evident contrast to the stern character of the opening fugue subject, puts us squarely in sonata- form territory. And sure enough, both themes are masterfully juxtaposed in the ensuing development section. The manner in which Brahms seems to amalgamate these two very different themes – the Baroque-fugal and the Romantic-lyrical – into one continuous thread of music narrative, switching from one to the other at close range, is the measure of his historical and musical imagination.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program notes: Steven Osborne

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E minor, Op. 90

The use of the piano sonata in marriage counselling has not found wide adoption in the profession since Beethoven first introduced the practice with his Sonata in E minor Op. 90. The curious story associated this sonata is as follows.

Beethoven’s biographer Anton Schindler relates that in 1814 the composer’s boon companion, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, was having girl troubles. The Count, younger brother of Beethoven’s patron Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, was romantically entangled with a stage actress many years his junior – a woman of undoubted charms but few dynastic connections – whom he wanted to marry. The Count’s family, of course, took a dim view of this prospect, but marry her he did, and it was not long afterwards that Beethoven informed the Count that a new sonata, dedicated to him, was soon to be published. Do tell, replied the Count, or wordsto that effect. And what might it be about? Making obvious jocular reference to the Count’s recent marital deliberations, Beethoven said that the first movement of his Op. 90 sonata was “a struggle between the head and the heart” while the second depicted “a conversation with the beloved.”

Now any musicologist worth his salt – whether Maldon flaked or Windsor free-pouring – would have reason to sniff at this account published, as it was, some years after both Beethoven and Lichnowsky had joined the Choir Immortal, and by a biographer with a less than sterling reputation for truthfulness in reporting. (Schindler actually forged conversations in the notebooks that the deaf composer had used to communicate with the outside world.) Besides, had not Beethoven been a student of Haydn, was he not a master of classical form and motivic development in the tradition of pure ‘absolute’ music? Are we to believe that this sonata from the late pen of such a master was intended as no more than a kind of film score to a Viennese ‘Pretty Woman’ rom com?

Absolute music and program music, its quarrelling proponents would have us believe, are as different as chalk and cheese. And yet both have valid claims to make in this unusual work. Partisans of the ‘chalk’ faction might rightly defend the two-movement structure as a perfectly normal inheritance from Haydn, who wrote many a two-movement sonata. They might point to the formal clarity of each movement: the traditional sonata-form structure of the first movement and sonata-rondo layout of the second. They might, not without justice, remark further on the intensity of motivic development in this sonata, particularly the importance of the first movement’s falling-third motive (G-F#-E) that not only opens the work, but also appears at important sectional divisions within it. They might even note how it recurs, transformed as a rising-third motive (E-F#-G#), at the start of the second movement: proof positive of the ‘absolute’ music composer’s mind at work.

Those of the ‘cheese’ persuasion, however, would see the two-movement layout as narrative in structure, with a tumultuously argumentative first movement resolving into a second movement lyrically evocative of marital bliss. For those steeped in the ‘cheesy’ faith, then, the transformation of the first movement’s falling (minor) third motive into the rising (major) third motive that opens the last movement is not simply an abstract musical transformation, but rather emblematic of the personal transformation of Count Moritz from a torn and tormented lover into a happy contented husband. While noting the traditional formal outlines of the two movements, they would see Beethoven working within these established forms to tell his romantic story in the smaller-level details: how the work opens with a gruff, head-strong pronouncement only to be answered immediately by a more submissive heart-felt restatement of it. Indeed, the whole first movement seems to alternate between forceful statements of irremovable principle made by the head and more submissive, emotionally inflected phrases (pathetically evoked in sigh motives with suspensions over the bar line) pleaded by the heart. To the esprit de fromage, then, the presence of such pervasive contrasts as these vividly suggests the interior dialogue of a mind in conflict, one that reaches its peak of argumentative intensity in the development section.

Especially intriguing in this movement is the retransition (the end of the development section leading to the return of the opening thematic material), which features two lone voices in stretto, like the opposing sides of an argument speaking on top of each other, repeating over and over the falling scale motive G-F#-E, slower and slower, as if gradually coming to the realization that they don’t disagree at all, since they are arguing the same point.

The second movement evokes the logical consequence of such agreement: the honeymoon, a period in which the maritally conjoined are given to staring languorously at each other with the eyes of dairy cows when together, and singing tra-la-la to themselves when alone. Pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, the first pianist to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas in the 19th century, described the difference between the two movements of this sonata as the difference between ‘speech’ and ‘song’. And Beethoven’s performance indication singbar (songfully) reinforces the eminently songlike character of the second movement. Indeed, one might almost suspect Beethoven of channelling Schubert here, but for the fact that young Franz was only 16 at the time that this sonata was composed, so the influence is more likely to have flowed in the other direction.

The other indication, Nicht zu geschwind (not too fast), was aimed squarely at pianists who considered every rondo coming under their fingers a rondo brilliant, to be taken at a breathless clip with the aim of bringing down the house and prompting riotous applause. Nothing could be further from the gentle onward pulse of this movement’s classically balanced, simply harmonized opening melody, that flows effortlessly between sections of episode and refrain without glaring contrasts of mood or tone. The last appearance of the refrain, presented in a ‘love duet’ alternation of tenor and soprano voices, confirms this match as a happy one, and the aptness of Beethoven’s own happy marriage of ‘absolute’ and ‘program’ music in this sonata.

Franz Schubert
Klavierstück in A major D. 604

This isolated movement, found amongst Schubert’s papers, is generally believed to be the Andante of a sonata composed in 1817 and published after the composer’s death as his Sonata in F# minor, D. 571. Its connection to the proposed sonata is not only based on manuscript evidence, but on its opening harmonic progression, a deceptive cadence in F# minor, presumably linking it to the opening movement of a sonata in that same key.

Structured in a sort of sonata form without development, it places its second theme, unusually, in the subdominant of D major. Maintaining an almost constant pulse of 16th notes throughout its entire course, it draws its principal musical interest from its harmonic fullness, textural variation (the melody is often placed in a middle voice), and imaginative filigree of ornamental figuration in the high register. Its pervasive chromaticism points to a Romantic style that would later emerge in the works of Chopin and Liszt.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A major Op. 101

In the Sonata in E minor Op. 90 a rough and argumentative first movement gives way to a sentimentally luxuriant last movement, but Beethoven’s next piano sonata does not make us wait quite so long for his lyrical side to emerge. In the Sonata in A major Op. 101, composed in 1817, lyrical effusion comes to the fore with a remarkable tenderness in the very first bars, stretching out its languorous melodic line to a length that won this sonata the admiration of Richard Wagner, that great champion of the ‘infinite’ melody. There is also a feminine grace to this opening melody that perhaps relates to the character of its dedicatee, Dorotea von Ertmann, a close friend of the composer as well as his student, whom he admired both personally and as a pianist.

And yet, despite its emotionally generous tone and mood, this first movement dallies little over its thematic material and is remarkably compact in form. After a few tuneful lines of melody that seem to be constantly searching for a home tonality, Beethoven emerges magically, like Esther Williams surfacing from the depths of her swimming pool, in the dominant (E major), without so much as a whiff of transition. Then, after a series of simple but wide-spanning gestures of almost Brahmsian dignity, he calls it a day and the exposition closes with a clutch of soothing cadences, the insistent syncopations of which blur the bar line out of existence (much to the delight Wagner, no doubt). Before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle!’ the exposition is over – on the very first page. But the development is even shorter, pulsing along with the aforementioned syncopations until the recapitulation sets things back on a more regular rhythmic track. A surprising moment of high drama arrives just before the coda when unusually thick 9-note chords loudly call a temporary halt to the proceedings, but calm is soon restored and the movement concludes quietly, with a cadence at the extreme ends of the keyboard.

Another example of Beethoven’s influence on the following generation of composers is given in the scherzo that follows. While the last movement of the Op. 90 sonata glows with the congenial songfulness of Schubert, this march of stirring patriotic fervour is more than a little reminiscent of Schumann, especially the second movement of his Fantasy in C major of 1838. What makes Beethoven’s march even more interestingly complex is the combination of a pervasive dotted rhythm with an equally pervasive texture of imitation and contrapuntal by-play between the voices. This intensely contrapuntal constructive principle is distilled, in the trio, into a mock two-part invention à la Bach, complete with little points of imitation in strict canon, a strange bedfellowing of the lively and the learned in a movement meant to be the ‘lightest’ of the sonata as a whole.

The slow introduction to the last movement, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (slow and with yearning), is one of those free-form intermezzos that Beethoven uses (in the Waldstein sonata, for example) to set up a weighty but exuberant finale. Its task is to make you stop and look the night sky for a while before the fireworks go off to rival the stars, and so its mood is introspective, its formal patterning improvisatory. It begins with a phrase containing a triplet motive that wanders, lonely as a cloud, though the various registers of the keyboard, sometimes ruminating in the bass, at other times pleading its case in the high register, until it loses all track of time in a dreamlike unmeasured cadenza, waking up to a reminiscence of the opening theme of the first movement.

The pace then picks up and after a few rousing trills we immediately find ourselves in the middle of the action, with a proud strutting theme that is continually leaping downward and then scurrying off in a series of runs. This sonata-form movement is packed with variety and no shortage of humour. Among its invited guests in the melody department are an Austrian yodel and a rollicking German country dance, all rubbing shoulders at the ball, of course, with a full-on fugue as a development section. Apart from the humorous incongruity of its melodic material, much of this movement’s knee-slapping merriment comes from Beethoven’s outrageous use of the low register, almost in imitation of a comic opera basso buffo.

The fugue, for example, begins low down in the bass, and ends in a trill that goes absolutely nowhere: it has no following note to resolve into, just an empty rest. And when it’s time for a good old-fashioned pedal point on the dominant, Beethoven stomps on the lowest E he can find, combining it with a few extra notes down there, just to goose up the ‘mud’ factor in the sound. This movement shows Beethoven at his most brilliantly infantile, sitting in his composer’s high-chair and gleefully flinging his sonic porridge with unerring aim against the wall.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in B flat major Op. 106 (Hammerklavier)

It has often been remarked that Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata of 1819 is a work more respected than loved. Many admire it as magnificently ‘expressive,’ but few hold it to be ‘beautiful’ in the classical sense. Its status as a monument of Western classical music is justifiably founded on the sheer grandeur of its musical ideas and the vast expanse of emotional space that these ideas both define and occupy: the explosive heroism of its first movement, the wilful caprice of its scherzo, the profound lyrical introspection of its Adagio, and the dazzling intellectual vigour of its massively intricate fugal finale.

The sonata is dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, a longtime friend and former student of Beethoven. An earlier sketch reveals that Beethoven had originally planned the dramatic opening of this sonata as the melody of a birthday greeting, for chorus, addressed to the Archduke with the Latin words: VI-vat, VI-vat Ru-DOLPH-us! (Long live Rudolph!)

But bypassing for a moment the high-minded dedication of this work, its extraordinary length (the Adagio alone is more than a quarter of an hour), and its vast emotional range, if we lift the lid and look at the compositional ‘plumbing’ that ties it together we find something very odd. We find the musical interval of the third, occurring over and over again, from the small-scale patterns of its melodies to the large-scale harmonic organization of its grand formal outlines. The musical space defined by three scale steps occurs so often, in fact, as almost to qualify as a constructive principle in this sonata, the steel rods in its reinforced concrete, if you will. When Beethoven thinks of what kind of melody to create, he thinks of using thirds. When he wonders what tonality to modulate to for the next section, he thinks that three notes away might do the job. When he thinks of the key to put the next movement in, he puts it three notes away. While he is careful not to to be too obvious about it – his choices are always effective musically – one thing is clear: the man has thirds on the brain.

The work opens with two arresting statements in the Vivat Rudolphus rhythm, each initiated by a cannon echo booming up from the bass and proclaimed by a brassy fanfare in the high register. These gestures cover virtually the entire range of the piano of Beethoven’s time, and lay out the extraordinarily wide tonal range within which his musical thoughts will travel in this sonata.

The work’s wide emotional range is hinted at, however, by the immediate change to a more lyrical tone of utterance, expressed in a much smaller tonal range, leading to a thoughtful pause. In a handful of bars we have gone from the explosive to the intimate, and we then head back into heroic territory as the opening salvos take centre stage again. A surprising cadence awaits, however, in D major, that grabs our attention, and as the dominant of G major, it leads us into that key for the second group of themes.

Without our noticing it, Beethoven, through all this, has been hammering thirds into our ears. The opening fanfares end ringingly and emphatically on two falling thirds (D to B flat and F to D). The melody of the lyrical passage which follows reverses these into a series of rising 3rds (as little 3-step runs). And the D major cadence is not coincidentally three notes up from the home key of B flat, and leads to G major, a key three notes down from it. (Normally the second theme area would be in the dominant, F major.) And as if to dispel all doubt, this second group of themes is largely occupied with a gracious series of descending running figures, figures that tumble by … thirds. And just to hammer the point home, the exposition ends with bluntly emphatic octaves in both hands, rising up three notes by step, with a big fat goose-egg pause at the end to let slower members of the audience catch up to the plot.

The development section begins by making much of the dramatic leap that began the work, but soon settles down to put its main centre of interest – three little descending scale steps – through the ringer in an extended fugato in E flat (three notes down from G major). No one should be surprised, of course, when even these little three-step motives begin confronting each other in double … thirds. The recapitulation solemnly reviews the ground covered in the exposition, but after a climactic passage buzzing with double trills, adds a coda that resounds with the opening volley of Vivat Rudolphus to bring the movement to a close as it began.

Although Beethoven had not written a full four- movement piano sonata since Op. 31 No. 3, he shows in the second movement of this work that he had not lost his knack for writing quirky, whimsical scherzos. The opening is spun out miraculously from a single one- bar cell of melodic material – a perky third up, followed by a third down – that extends itself out in a series of harmonic sequences, and then finds contrast in a moody trio in B flat minor with rolling accompaniment. This trio burbles along with grim determination until it suddenly finds itself emerging into a disorderly near-riot that hammers its way up and down until issuing into a breathtaking keyboard-spanning run to the high register. After a cutesy little measured tremolo to add a bit of camp flair to the proceedings (a twinkly sidelong glance at the audience would not come amiss here), we return to the opening material. But the tricks are not over. A stand-off breaks out in the coda over what the last note should be: B flat, or B natural. After a lot of hammering, B flat ducks ahead at the last minute and crosses the finish line in the key the movement started in.

The Adagio is a gigantic sonata form, without repeat, in F# minor, enharmonically G flat minor (three notes down from B flat). Exuding a grave tranquillity, its opening melody (which starts with a rising third, followed by two falling thirds) extends for a full 25 bars before contrasting material, scarcely less emotionally intense, appears. Despite its great length, and generally subdued tone, it achieves a remarkable degree of variety through its many changes in texture and rises to a quite passionate level of expression through its operatic style of ornamentation. One notable feature is the use of Bebung, a pattern of off-beat repeated notes that reproduce the syncopated effect of sobs. In some passages the style of melodic variation is almost reminiscent of Chopin, but then Chopin’s own style of ornamentation was also operatic, influenced as it was by the melodic style of Bellini. The extended filigree of 32nd notes in the development is the most magical passage of the movement, evoking perhaps a lonely nocturnal figure staring at the moon, cold and desolate but still admirably radiant.

The last movement, with its mighty fugue that weakens the knees of all but the most intrepid of pianists, begins with a palette-cleansing Largo of improvisatory character, spiritually much akin to the kinds of fantasias that Bach was wont to place before his titanic organ fugues. After many changes of tempo and mood, a series of high trills announces the arrival of the fugue subject, a half-note trill approached by leap from far below (parodying the opening fanfares of the first movement) followed by a series of small runs that descend by intervals of – you knew this was coming – thirds.

While Beethoven pursues his own musical agenda in this early-19th-century re-invention of the fugue, a musical form that had essentially died out with the deaths of Bach and Handel more than 50 years previous, he leaves us in no doubt that the time he had spent studying fugal procedure with Albrechtsberger and Haydn was not wasted. All of the most arcane contrapuntal devices and manners of treating a theme – augmentation, stretto, inversion, even cancrizans (playing it backwards) – sooner or later make their appearance in this mother of all fugues.

The performing pianist tasked with keeping all of this clear to his listeners, a task that may reasonably be compared to juggling chainsaws while reciting Shakespeare, must not only balance sounds at the extreme ends of the keyboard, but often do so while playing extended trills paired with contrapuntal countermelodies – in the same hand!

Just at the point, though, when both hands are chasing trills high and low at a firecracker pace, a moment of calm arrives, a moment in which the skies seem to open and a heavenly melody in even quarter notes descends from on high to spread soothing oil on the troubled waters of contrapuntal discord. But not 30 bars later, however, the old contrapuntal itch returns, and Beethoven begins to combine his fidgety fugue subject with this new peace negotiator in the texture, sweeping it along into the vortex of swirling melodies and melody fragments, with the omnipresent buzzing of trills leering incessantly through the texture with dogged persistence.

In the end, the trills win out. Beethoven concludes his sonata by reducing our focus down to the most ear- catching motives that have marked its first and last movements in a great series of leaping octaves that trill, and trill, and trill their way to a final cadence.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015





Program Notes: Steven Osborne

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata (“Moonlight”) in C sharp minor, Op.27, no.2 (Sonata quasi una Fantasia)

The year 1801 marked not only the dawn of a new century, but also a significant new approach on Beethoven’s part to matters of form and structure in the piano sonata. The bold use of unusual and exotic keys, quasi-programmatic elements, irregular forms and unorthodox ordering of movements all contributed to heralding a new note in Beethoven’s sonatas. The composer called each of his two sonatas Op. 27 quasi una fantasia. In these works, the improvisatory impulse, free flights of fancy and avoidance of conventional forms are carried further than ever before. In Eric Blom’s words, these sonatas “show the composer emancipating himself from the classical sonata pattern and doing it as drastically as possible by substituting pieces in a freely chosen form for the traditional first movement that was always the most important part of a sonata, though not invariably in what we now call sonata form.”

While the first of the two Op. 27 sonatas may be one of Beethoven’s least-known, its sister, the Moonlight, is surely the best-known. The subtitle, as many people are aware, was not given by Beethoven. It came from the German critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab (l799-l860), who once commented that the first movement made him think of “a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.” In point of fact, the composer never saw the Lake of Lucerne, and in any case, the mood ascribed to the sonata fits only the first movement.  Furthermore, Beethoven never even heard of the appellation “Moonlight” Sonata, as it was not affixed until five years after his death. The work was very popular in Beethoven’s lifetime, though the composer himself did not have a particularly high regard for it, and was annoyed that the public afforded it greater status than many of his other works.

The musical and structural (as opposed to the romantic and fictitious) elements of the sonata are considerable. The Moonlight is written in a rarely-used key, especially for the periodC-sharp minor. Mozart did not write a single work in this key, and Haydn did so only once. Also, most unusually, all three movements are based in the tonality of C-sharp: minor for the outer movements, major for the central one, at least to the ear. (The Allegretto is technically in D-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major, and easier to read than C-sharp major; the latter would require seven sharps in its key signature!) Like the two previous sonatas, this one is an experiment in form, with Beethoven attempting to build a successful structure with the main weight at the end, not the beginning, of the sonata.

The opening movement in each of the two previous sonatas had been in slow or moderate tempo, while the finale was not only fast but also the most substantial movement. In the Moonlight, this approach is carried to extremes. In addition, each movement inhabits a single emotional world without contrasts: the unbroken placidity of the first movement gives way to the blithe, innocent charm of the second, which in turn is succeeded by the tempestuous upheavals of the third.

Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit

Gaspard de la nuit ranks as one of the most highly original, imaginative, evocative and technically difficult works in the entire piano repertory. Its composer made no bones about this surreal, hallucinatory music, describing it as “three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity” in which he deliberately set out to surpass even Balakirev’s notorious Islamey in terms of sheer technical difficulty. The great French pianist Alfred Cortot called the composition “one of the most astonishing examples of instrumental ingenuity ever contrived.” Pianist Charles Rosen has called the second of the three pieces (“Le Gibet”) “an assault on the nerves of the listener, a creation of tension through insistence, like the Chinese water torture,” and the composer Henri Gil-Marchex once enumerated 27 different kinds of touch in this one piece alone. Clearly, Gaspard is something special indeed!

Ravel’s inspiration to write Gaspard de la nuit derived from vivid and macabre poems by the French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), to whose work Ravel was introduced by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, a fellow pupil at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1908 Ravel set three poems from Bertrand’s eponymous collection, written in 1830. Viñes gave the first performance on January 9, 1909. Each piece is dedicated to a different musician, respectively Harold Bauer, Jean Marnold and Rudolph Ganz.

ONDINE: Ondine is a beautiful, mischievous water sprite who tries to attract mortal men to her magical kingdom through seductive singing. Ravel portrays her in the rare key of C-sharp major (seven sharps!) with glistening, delicate, “water-music” as befits Bertrand’s description of “Ondine who skims over the drops of water that resonate on the diamond-shaped segments of your window illuminated by the dismal rays of the moon.”

LE GIBET: A sinister atmosphere of desolation and ghostly terror pervades “Le Gibet.” The dynamic markings never rise above mezzo-piano. In some of the eeriest sounds in all music, Ravel portrays a corpse hanging from a gibbet, swaying in the wind against a sky reddened by the setting sun. The implacable tolling of a distant bell, represented throughout by the piano’s persistent B-flat octaves, is set against a richly varied harmonic landscape. So pervasive is this tolling B-flat that “Le Gibet” has been called “a fantasia on one note.”

SCARBO: This piece, no less eerie than “Le Gibet,” portrays the unpredictable, lightning-like appearances and disappearances of the malicious dwarf Scarbo, who changes his shape, size and colour at will. The scintillating, hallucinatory effects require such technical dexterity as to have earned Gaspard an almost mythic status among pianists.

Sergei Prokofiev: Visions fugitives, Op. 22

Like many of the great composers, Sergei Prokofiev showed his talent early. He was composing before he was six, he had produced an opera by twelve, and for his application to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, at thirteen, he submitted four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and several piano works. During his teens he studied with such luminaries as Glière, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Tcherepnin.

As a pianist he was no less sensational. He appeared as soloist in his own First Piano Concerto when he was 21 (July 25, 1912, in Moscow) and less than two years later played the same work, in place of the traditional classical concerto, for his final examination at the St. Petersburg Conservatory before a panel of twenty judges, each of whom had the published score in his hands. Prokofiev considered it his first “more-or-less mature composition,” and it became his first published work. For the piano alone he left a canon of nine completed sonatas and innumerable smaller pieces, including many written as a boy.

The Visions fugitives date from the years 1915-1917. These twenty miniatures (average length about a minute) take their cue from Beethoven’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes, their title and inspiration from these lines by the Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont: “In every fugitive vision I see worlds, / Full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” While overall the expressive range is oriented more toward the restrained end of the emotional spectrum, they nevertheless serve as a workshop for a great variety of colourful, experimental epigrams. Prokofiev’s biographer Israel Nestyev describes them as “something like entries in a diary” and as “experiments from a laboratory, a storehouse of materials to be used in the future large works of a composer always eager to increase the scope of his art.” Moods range from the lyrical to the whimsical, from the spirited to the serene, from the sedate to the seductive.

Sergey Rakhmaninov: Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 26

Rakhmaninov wrote only two piano sonatas, the First in 1907, the Second in 1913. He heavily revised the original version of the Second in 1931, considerably shortening it and lightening the textures in numerous passages. In 1940, with the composer’s permission, Vladimir Horowitz made his own variant, combining elements of both versions, and continued to make additional revisions over the years. Pianists today often feel free to create their own synthesis of Rakhmaninov’s and Horowitz’s versions.

Although not especially long in minutes, this sonata is big in scope and impact, embracing an enormous emotional range, and approaching symphonic proportions in its textures and polyphonic complexities. The sound of heavy, pounding bells, which fascinated the composer all his life, and which found their way into so many of his scores, are evoked frequently over the course of the sonata.

The three movements are not defined as such in the score, and are played without pause, underscoring their close interrelationship. Thematic ideas are shared among the three movements, particularly motifs deriving from the drooping four-note figure first heard in the sonata’s opening gesture under a rapidly pulsating B-flat minor chord. The first movement conforms to a traditional sonata-allegro structure, whose second subject (D-flat major) is announced during the first moment of relief from the furious onslaught of dense textures, rhythmic complexities and dramatic flourishes. Nevertheless, upon close investigation, this “new” theme reveals itself as a transformation of the first.

The second movement serves as an oasis of quiet meditation separating the traumas of the first movement from the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the third. Both main themes from the first movement make return appearances.

The third movement is launched with a precipitous plunge, fortissimo, spanning four and a half octaves. The first subject is less a theme than a seismic upheaval. Rakhmaninov saves his “big tune” for later, one that might well have found its way into a concerto instead, characteristically decked out with richly layered accompaniment. The sonata ends with a grand salute to B-flat major.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2012.