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Program Notes: Tristan Teo

Robert Schumann  
Widmung (arr. Franz Liszt)

The year 1840 was Robert Schumann’s Liederjahr, his ‘year of song’. After 10 years of writing almost exclusively for the piano, Schumann in 1840 burst into song, composing well over a hundred Lieder.

One song collection, Myrthen Op. 25, had a special meaning for the composer. It was a wedding gift to his young wife, the pianist Clara Wieck, whom he married on Sept 12, 1840, the day before her 21st birthday. The ‘myrtle flowers’ of the song collection’s title are associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love, and thus with marriage.

The first song in the collection, Widmung (Dedication) was a setting of a love poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). The intense fixation of the lover on his beloved is reinforced by the poem’s frequent repetition of “you” in virtually every line:

You my soul, you my heart,
You my rapture, O you my pain,
You my world in which I live…

Schumann’s song begins with an evocation of blissful emotional fulfillment in a series of rippling arpeggios topped by a dotted rhythm, indicative of a quickened heartbeat. Liszt preserves the original scoring, but in his repeat of the first section he reverses the roles of the left and right hands, allowing us to savour even more Schumann’s gorgeous melody—and his own pianistic ingenuity.

The middle section pulses with soothing triplets, underscoring the text’s reference to peace and heavenly repose (“You are bestowed on me from heaven”). Liszt, of course, can’t help but beef up the texture just a tad but is generally on his best behaviour—until, that is, the reprise of the first section, when he reveals the identity of his own true love: the piano itself.

Schumann’s simple, reverential restatement of the opening section becomes, in the hands of Liszt, a glorious apotheosis. In a brilliant application of the ‘three-hand effect’ popularized by Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871), Liszt keeps the melody singing out in the mid-range, richly supported by a resonant bass texture, while a full-on Fourth of July fireworks show sizzles up and down in the treble, splattering the celestial regions of the keyboard with tonal sparkle.

In the film Song of Love (1947) Katherine Hepburn, playing Clara Schumann, indignantly turns up her nose upon hearing Liszt play his self-aggrandizing adaptation of her wedding present. But notwithstanding this swipe from Hollywood, Liszt’s transcription has remained a favourite encore piece among concert pianists right up to this day. And justly so.

 

Nikolai Kapustin
Variations Op. 41

If the aesthetic chasm separating the concert hall from the jazz lounge has narrowed in recent years, thanks must go to the late pianist-composer Nikolai Kapustin (pronounced kah-POU-steen), whose works have been performed in concert by Yuja Wang, recorded by Marc-André Hamelin, and selected for performance at major international piano competitions—by Tristan Teo, among many others. And we are not talking ‘crossover’ here. Kapustin was an authentic virtuoso pianist, a graduate of the piano program at the Moscow Conservatory, who simply turned out to be a classical composer working in the jazz idiom, as his website puts it.

While his harmonic vocabulary is American jazz to the core, his formal structures are those of Western classical music. He has written a Baroque suite, like Bach, a set of 24 Preludes, like Chopin, and even a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, like both Bach and Shostakovich.

His Variations Op. 41 (1984) features a theme and six variations unfolding in a continuous stream, without formal breaks. The theme itself is a jazzy variant of the opening bassoon solo from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, presented in a remarkably relaxed and breezy manner. The pagan tribes that scandalized Paris in 1913 seem to have scrubbed off their war paint and are all now vacationing at a seaside resort, in Hawaiian shirts, sipping mint juleps.

Kapustin’s absorption of the widest possible range of jazz styles is evident in the variations that follow. Many feature ostinato patterns in the left hand against an ecstatically free floating, bee-boppy right hand. Oscar Peterson can be heard in parallel left- and right-hand lines at double octave distances. Count Basie’s punchy chords in the mid-range make their presence felt in syncopated response to both stride bass and walking bass keyboard styles. Whatever the style, Kapustin’s sense of forward momentum is irresistible.

In keeping with classical tradition, he offers a slow variation right before the finale, one in which the Rite of Spring motive is presented most clearly in the opening phrase.  After that, the finale is an exhilarating race to the finish in a breathless display of jazzy pianistic panache.

 

Modest Mussorgsky
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.

Mussorgsky’s expressive vocabulary is very Russian as well, which it to say it 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 pens, 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.

*                      *                      *

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 Hatched Chicks. Just released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter as they try out their wings and feet in a joyous exploration of 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 kind of 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 gate 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

 

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