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Program Notes: Yuja Wang

Baldassare Galuppi
Andante from the Sonata in C major

The Venetian musician Baldassare Galuppi was one of the most successful composers of the 18th century. While his prodigious output of vocal music, comprising more than 100 operas, did not survive in the repertoire, interest in his keyboard music was revived in the last half of the 20th century, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1965 recording of the Sonata in C major providing an important stimulus for the resurgence.

The Andante first movement of this sonata displays all the major characteristics of Galuppi’s pre-Classical galant style of keyboard writing. It features a naively simple melody bejewelled with ornament supported by a broken-chord accompaniment moving placidly through a series of stock harmonic progressions.

Grace, charm and a childlike simplicity of affect are the principal aesthetic aims of this style, with the steady tick-tock of the Alberti bass suggesting the innocent chiming of a toy music-box.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 

The toccata originated in the 17th century as a display vehicle that highlighted the “touch” of the keyboard player. It was laid out in a sequence of rhapsodic or improvisatory passages alternating with more learned passages of imitative counterpoint. Bach’s seven toccatas for harpsichord most likely date from his twenties, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player.

To begin his Toccata in C minor BWV 911, Bach takes the measure of his instrument with a pepper spray of 32nd-note runs spanning its entire range from high to low. Soon, however, the ruminative Adagio of imitative counterpoint, full of yearning dissonances and based loosely on the rising harmonic minor scale, lurches pleadingly towards a cadence.

The first fugue is a real toe-tapper, with a subject created almost exclusively out of notes of the C-minor triad. Its countersubject (the melody frequently accompanying it) is by contrast constructed out of octave leaps and scalar runs. Both feature an extraordinary amount of sequential repetition, which as the fugue continues on almost blurs the distinction between subject entries and episodes.

A reminder of the fantasy-laden improvisations that began the work intervenes to cleanse the palate before the fugue continues on with the same subject. But this time Bach, the clever lad, shows off with a countersubject that is mostly an inversion of the previous one.

The second edition of the fugue gets an added boost of rhythmic ginger from the use of figure corte: fleet little melodic nibbles in 32nd notes that ornament the interplay of contrapuntal lines. The work ends with a weighty and solemn reminder of the opening, with the initial pepper spray transformed into a bear spray of keyboard sonority across the entire range of the instrument.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Selected Mazurkas Opp. 30, 67 and 68

Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi, from the melancholy to the exuberant. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.

Characteristic features retained from the original dances include drone tones in the bass, rhythmic emphasis on the second or third beat of the bar, and melodies using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major). The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated units of rhythm and recurring melodic motives. As examples of European “art music,” though, Chopin’s mazurkas are mostly in ternary (ABA) form and often colourfully chromatic.

Chromatic inflection is a prominent melodic characteristic of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4. Its sinewy, winding melody, gentle oom-pah-pah accompaniment and major-mode middle section are reminiscent of the composer’s Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2.

The mysterious Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4 is thicker in texture and more heavily scored than most but still light on its feet thanks to a number of teasing rhythmic anomalies. First amongst these is the irregular accent pattern of its two “tambourine shake” figures: a shivering triplet-trill leading to the 2nd beat of one bar followed by a mordent emphasizing the 1st beat of the next. The descending chromatic sequence of parallel 5ths and 7ths leading up to its conclusion must have shocked conservative audiences of the time.

The Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 is a product of Chopin’s early years, before he arrived in Paris, and must surely count as one of the most naively simple pieces he ever wrote. The uniform chordal texture and repetitive military rhythm of its opening section suggests a patriotic march, perhaps of a village band, while its crude contrasts of tonal colour bespeak the limited harmonic vocabulary of rural music-making. Most clearly folk-like are the drone 5ths of its middle section, supporting a fife-like lydian melody (with sharpened 4th degree) in the treble high above.

 

Johannes Brahms
Late Piano Pieces  Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119

Brahms’ late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.

While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’ musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.

The Intermezzo in A Minor Op. 116 No. 2 is reflective but serene, quietly rippling with 2-against-3 polyrhythms. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of minor-mode wistfulness and major-mode contentment. A livelier middle section seeks higher ground in the treble register but the sense of yearning only becomes more intense.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor Op. 119 No. 2, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C# minor Op. 117 No. 3 is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

The Romanze in F major Op. 118 No. 5 sounds vaguely archaic. Its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode while its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

 

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op. 30

In this short two-movement work from 1903—the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas—we find the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.

A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th and the tripping little rising scale figure that follows it. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable three-hand effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the upper mid-register, surrounded on either side by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic pulsations in the other voices.

The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie and the breathless, ‘panting-puppy’ quality of its playful two-note ‘hiccup’ motives make one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.

The apotheosis-style ending of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Op. 47 provides the model for the final section of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the first movement’s delicate, tentative opening theme reframed as the object of throbbing jubilation in a triumphant display of pianistic fireworks.

 

Maurice Ravel
Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs

Une Barque sur l’Océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.

 

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key, a key from which they would depart, and to which they would return at the end—in a way “that will bring us – back to – doh,” to quote child-minding music theorist Julie Andrews. And it was furthermore understood that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed, at a minimum, from a root, a third and a fifth.

The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric. This is most evident in his graduation exercise for Schoenberg, the Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910, a work described by Glenn Gould as “expansive, pessimistic and unquestionably ecstatic.”

This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. However, its principal melodic motives, presented in its two opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, announced in the opening bar in a dotted rhythm, and (b) a sequence of falling thirds in the following bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.

And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff  (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.

What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, in the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.

 

Federico Mompou
Secreto

Catalan composer Federico Mompou described himself as “a man of few words and music of few notes.” Best known as a miniaturist, he was much influenced by French impressionism and developed an intimate and subdued style that owes much to the shy, discreet charm of Fauré, the spare textures and repetitive accompaniments of Erik Satie.

The very Satie-like Secreto comes from Mompou’s first set of piano pieces entitled Impresiones intimas (1911-1914) and displays what pianist Arkady Volodos describes as his “Zen spirit,” a meditative musical aesthetic that treasures silence as much as sound.

 

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 5 in F# major Op. 53

Early in his career Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” As he developed as a composer, however, he moved away from the Romantic style of Chopin to embrace a more mystical, ecstatic conception of music, becoming the first real “crazy man” of classical music. His aesthetic aims were in fact so expansive as to hardly fit within the scope of piano music, and as he advanced in years his solo sonatas became more and more like seances, channelling mystical forces through the fingers of the pianist.

Long before the arrival of LSD and Dr. Timothy Leary, Scriabin established “trippy-ness” as an aesthetic goal in his music. And in his first single-movement sonata, the Sonata No. 5 in F# major from 1907, we catch him tripping in mid-flight.

The first thing to know as you fasten your seat-belts to hear this work is that it displays an extreme volatility of moods that represent the ever-changing cosmic forces that Scriabin feels moving through him as he composes. Listening to some of the slower, more vaporous passages, you get the eerie feeling that you’re walking around in a trance, as he repeats the same simple motive—a third rocking back and forth—over and over again.

Another mood that strikes the composer in this sonata is a kind of jumpy excitement, a prelude to the extravagant gesture of ecstasy that will overtake him before this work is finished. This sense of mounting excitement is conveyed in the way that successive passages keep leaping up to a higher register as they repeat. In this way, Scriabin uses the registers of the keyboard to create his own Stairway to Heaven.

But the most memorable mood of all in this sonata is Scriabin’s portrayal of a kind of languid voluptuousness, created by his unique harmonic vocabulary of chromatically altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for added resonance. These spacious chords allow him to spread a lush carpet of sonorities over a wide swath of the keyboard, and it is their perfumed overtones floating mystically in the air that paint the altered psychological state he wishes to evoke.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program notes: Andrew Tyson

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key – from which they would depart, and to which they would return – and that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed from a root, a third and a fifth, at a minimum. The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric, as is evident in his Sonata Op. 1, published in 1910.

This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. Its principal melodic motives however, presented in its opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the successive intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, spanning a minor 7th in a dotted rhythm, announced in the opening bar, and (b) a falling sequence of thirds, in the next bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.

And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.

What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.

Francis Poulenc
Napoli Suite FP 40

The aesthetic attribute most prized by the French is that utterly indefinable quality known as ‘charm’. Among its leading proponents among 20th-century composers is Francis Poulenc, whose picture-postcard piano suite Napoli whimsically evokes the seaside pleasures, the serene beauty and urban bustle of Italian life as seen through the lens of an urbane French tourist in Naples.

The opening Barcarolle imitates the rocking of a small boat lapped by the choppy waves of the sea. Its left-hand triplets of widely-spaced sonorities are pedalled into blurry billows of watery wetness while cross-rhythms in the right add an extra element of wobble to its cheery melodic flow.

The middle-movement Nocturne is all stillness and moonlight, with open sonorities sounding out across a wide swathe of the keyboard over a stabilizing pedal tone in the bass, interrupted only by melancholy musings of a sharper harmonic colouring in its central section.

The Caprice italien that ends the suite is a virtuoso tour de force modelled, according to the composer, after Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Poulenc’s capricious finale, like its model, alternates chatty, slightly manic sections of moto perpetuo animation with more lyrical moments of reflection. The lyrical section at the centre of this movement is almost melancholy, its sudden outpouring of sentiment after so much cheekiness balancing precariously on the knife-edge of parody. Given that Poulenc’s night haunts included music halls and gay bars, might we not be hearing here the teasingly intimate stage confessions of a drag-queen Marlene Dietrich on a stool in net stockings with a cigar?

Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2
Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52   

Chopin was of mixed Polish and French parentage. He spent the first half of his life, up to the age of 20, in Poland. The last half of his life, until his death at 39, was spent in France. It should be no surprise, then, that his musical style is a similar cross-breeding of French elegance and Slavic soulfulness. His nocturnes, with their intimate songful melodies, breathe the perfumed air of the Parisian salon. The exotic scales and displaced accents of his mazurkas, by contrast, convey more the flavour of his native soil.

Fundamental to an appreciation of Chopin’s music is the recognition that he was a composer of small pieces to be performed in small spaces. While Liszt filled concert halls with his Freddy-Mercury-sized ego, Chopin wrote exquisite miniatures directed towards a select audience of aristocratic patrons playing or listening to his music in the comfort of their more-than-comfortable homes. In his entire career he gave no more than 70 public performances, and even at these the complaint was frequent heard that his playing was too soft to fill the hall. His is music of refined sentiment and nuance, to be heard close-up.

*                      *                      *

The opening section of his Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 in the sugary key of F-sharp major features a melody with the languidly falling sighs and ecstatic leaps up to the high register of an opera diva singing Bellini. A major challenge for the pianist in this section is how to incorporate Chopin’s delicate dribbling ornamentation into the melodic line without disrupting the poised unfolding of the melody itself. The middle section in doppio movimento (double movement) introduces an element of drama, with its insistently repeated dotted figures atop a rippling accompaniment of quintuplets, symbolizing the quickening heartbeat of an anxious soul. The return of the innocent opening material then seems to ask: was it all a dream?

There is an Eastern, Oriental flavour in the tonal realm occupied by the brief, melancholy Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2. The wincing bite of its opening melodic interval, a dissonant minor 9th, is further elaborated in the bittersweet chromatic wanderings of a plaintive melody constantly hovering between major and minor.

The Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3 is haunted by wistful remembrance, symbolized at its opening by pedal tones in the mid-range held over several bars while dancelike harmonies echo eerily around on either side. These memories of the dance become more forceful and assertive in the mazurka’s middle section before the opening mood of pensive reflection returns.

*                      *                      *

Chopin’s Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of story-telling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842-43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems to reign unperturbed but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones heard in the opening carry real pathos, and are made more plangent and urgent when repeated with a countermelody in the alto.

The 2nd theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the 1st theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then … magic! The bell tones of introduction return and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.

But the 1st theme’s lament intrudes on the daydream, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The 2nd theme follows, but it, too, finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until … magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.

Five angelic chords descend from Heaven but cannot stem for long the coda’s hellbent fury, a fury that drives the work to its apocalyptic conclusion with bitter and tragic resolve.

Franz Liszt
Les Cloches de Genève

The three collections of piano pieces entitled Années de Pélerinage represent Liszt’s poetic response to the cultural landmarks and picturesque natural settings of the places he lived in or visited in his travels throughout Europe. The idea of ‘pilgrimage’ (pélerinage) in the title is a literary reference to Goethe’s famous Wilhelm Meister novels in which a young protagonist embarks on a spiritual quest to ‘find himself’ through his wanderings. That Liszt should present his life experience as ‘literature’ should be no surprise, given that he presented his concerts as ‘poetry’ – having invented the term ‘recital’ for his solo public appearances.

The first book of Années de Pélerinage is devoted to Switzerland, where Liszt lived in the mid-1830s with his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The last piece in the collection, Les Cloches de Genève (The Bells of Geneva) is dedicated to his daughter Blandine, born to the Countess in Geneva in 1835. The work is a classic piece of Lisztian musical pictorialism.

Subtitled Nocturne, it opens in the stillness of the evening with a distant carillon of bells that then gently transforms into the rocking accompaniment of a tender lullaby in honour of the newborn baby girl.

The work progresses in a series of ingenious keyboard textures imitative of first the chiming, then the sonorous ringing, and finally the hefty swaying of bell-towers and churches throughout the city. It ends poetically with a return to the innocent bell sounds with which it began, their sonic resonance fading softly into the distance.

Maurice Ravel
Miroirs

Ravel was a member of an avant-garde coterie of musicians, writers and visual artists who jocularly called themselves Les Apaches, Parisian argot for “ruffians” or “hooligans”. Between 1904 and 1905 he composed Miroirs, a suite of five pieces, each describing “in a mirror,” as it were, a fellow member of the club. While the connection with individual personalities is unclear (and may even have been fanciful), these pieces remain among the most pictorially vivid—and technically challenging—in the piano repertoire.

Ravel vividly depicts the irregular flight of night moths in the first piece of the set, Noctuelles, which opens with a busy blur of chromatic flutter extending over vast swathes of the keyboard but centring on the upper range. The unpredictability of the moths’ flight is depicted in phrases of uneven length that rev up out of the blue in rapid-onset crescendos, with brief silences punctuating the succession of sweeping phrase gestures. The moths seem to settle on some object of mothy interest in the slower-paced central section, but soon lose interest and flit back to life in the closing section.

Ravel described Oiseaux tristes as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” As the piece opens we hear one solitary bird, singing alone, but soon joined by others. Fauré describes the texture as follows: “Fundamentally Ravel set store by the player bringing out two levels: the birdcalls with their rapid arabesques on a higher, slightly strident level and the suffocating, sombre atmosphere of the forest on a lower level which is rather heavy and veiled in pedal without much movement.”

Une Barque sur l’océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.

Alborada del gracioso is a satirical portrait of a character from Spanish theatre, the crude and clownish gracioso, the equivalent of Beaumarchais’ Figaro but a touch more malevolent and mischievous. He is pictured singing an alborado, or morning serenade. The strumming of the guitar and distinctive punchy rhythms of Spanish folk music permeate this work. This is the most ‘pianistic’ piece in the set. Among the technical challenges keeping pianists practising after midnight are extended passages in rapid-fire repeated notes and double glissandi in 3rds and 4ths played by the right hand alone.

The suite ends with La Vallée des cloches, a multi-layered sonic depiction of the lingering overtones of bell tones hovering in the air. Sonorities based on 4ths and 5ths evoke the muffled metallic resonance that drifts in every direction as bell-clappers in towers near and far strike their target.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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