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PROGRAM NOTES: IGOR LEVIT

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms)

The Bach revival of the 19th century began with a performance of the
 St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, conducted by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It reached its stride at mid-century with the founding, by Robert Schumann and others, of the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society tasked with the publication of Bach’s complete works. Over the next 50 years, European musicians had ever-greater access, at a pace of almost one new volume a year, to the complete range of Bach’s creative output: cantatas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral suites, as well as works for harpsichord, clavichord and organ – the whole lot of it.

Only one problem remained: getting the public on their side. The most popular solo instrument of the 19th century, both on the concert stage and in the family home, was the piano, and while Bach wrote for virtually every performing instrument of his time, the piano was not one of them. The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel- framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription.

And the transcribers were many. Each saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own individual aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a lonely, moody, solitary figure capable of making the stone walls of his great church tremble with the force of his musical personality. Brahms, who became a subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft edition in 1856, took another view. For him, Bach was a musical craftsman whose surpassing merit resided deep in the formal structures of his scores, not in their surface effect.

His transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004 is thus an attempt to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sound of the violin on the piano. And in keeping with the severity of his approach, he wrote for the left hand alone, in order to reproduce for the performing pianist the challenges this polyphonic work would have originally posed for the solo violinist.

These challenges were not trivial. The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations. Bach’s Chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic pro le of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor.

The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavichord. Those used to hearing the Chaconne played in the more popular Busoni transcription will hear a new work in this rendition, one much more dependent on the musician’s ability to convey with fewer notes the greatness of its musical design through nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and expressive detail.

Ferruccio Busoni
Fantasia after J. S. Bach KiV 253

Busoni’s Fantasia was written in 1909 as an expression of personal grief at the death of his father, Ferdinando Busoni, the person who first introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is a hybrid between transcription and original composition, containing elements of both in equal measure.

Bach is present in fairly literal quotations from three works: the organ chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, who art the light of the day), from which the ‘tolling bell’ motive of four long repeated notes comes; the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen (God’s son is come) from the Kirnberger chorale settings; and the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to Almighty God) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.

Busoni’s own writing in the Fantasia envelops the quotations from Bach in shrouds of downcast rumination, as symbolized by deep explorations of the low range, and by recurring gentle echoes in the high range that are emblematic of a mystical contemplation of the Beyond. How earthly pain vies with religious faith for the mourner’s cast of mind is easily grasped

in the way that some of the chorale melodies are rhythmically displaced relative to the regular beat structure of the bass, especially in the dark and brooding introduction.

The high degree of harmonic indeterminacy in the writing gives it a ‘floating’ quality, as if the thoughts behind it were struggling through a fog of confused emotions. At times piercing, patterns of falling semitones evoke the stabbing pain of mourning. This heightened degree of expressiveness, and the means used to convey it, are much akin to the pianistic rhetoric of Scriabin.

The composer’s emotional ambivalence in this liturgical collection of consecrated memories is evident in the work’s closing gestures: a pair of echoes, the first up high, in the major mode, symbolizing heavenly peace, the last down in the bass, in the minor mode, symbolizing earthly grief.

Robert Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme in E at major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24

In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter, or perhaps because of it, he wrote down a theme o ered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.

The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized
hymn that in its downward-seeking phrases blends the pious fervour
of communal singing with the tenderness of personal reflection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring to vary instead its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices, the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.

It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment, the aural traces of a mental window gently closing on the world .

Richard Wagner
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal (arr. Liszt)

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual, glorifying the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood owing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined, military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera
in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of the actions and psychological states of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mood of mystery and the religious symbolism radiating out from the rst great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

Franz Liszt
Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam (arr. Busoni)

In 1847, Franz Liszt ended his career as a touring virtuoso pianist and took up residence in Weimar to concentrate on composition. Perhaps it was the experience of living in a place where Bach had lived and worked that prompted his interest in organ music, or perhaps it was the awakening of the religious feelings that would later see him take minor orders in the Catholic Church. Or indeed, perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t resist the temptation of writing for an instrument that could make even more noise than the iron-framed Érard pianos on which he broke so many strings in his concert career.

His first major composition for organ came in 1850, a gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue (lasting a good half hour) based on a chorale melody from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, which had premiered in Paris in 1849. In the opera, three evil Anabaptist fanatics in 16th-century Holland connive to convince the Dutch population that they all need to be re- baptized in order to get on the right side of the Almighty. Their recruiting song Ad nos ad salutarem undam (Come to us, to the waves of salvation) is a snivelling little tune in the minor mode with numerous awkward intervals in a demonic dotted rhythm.

Liszt’s treatment of this theme unfolds in three distinct sections. In the opening section the theme is teased out in small dramatic fragments, bit by bit, its character hinted at strongly by menacing snippets of dotted rhythm that unfold in a wide variety of styles, from bombastic assertion to hushed recitative, over vast swathes of the keyboard.

The placid and quietly lyrical Adagio second movement provides much welcome relief from the rough-textured and rambunctious Fantasy preceding it. This movement presents the theme in its entirety, in the major mode, and calmly meditates on its melodic character.

All this daydreaming, however, is interrupted by a sweeping cadenza that announces a return to the minor mode and the last movement’s fugue. Liszt’s fugue subject is a nasty piece of work, highlighting the aberrant intervals and pointed dotted rhythms of the original theme. Of course, Liszt can’t stay long in a purely contrapuntal texture and his fugue soon devolves once again into free fantasy to end in a blaze of triumphalism that would make even Napoleon blush.

Busoni does a masterful job of translating Liszt’s somewhat awkward and unidiomatic organ figurations into the virtuoso language of the piano paraphrase. Mimicking characteristic keyboard textures from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Réminiscences de Norma to convey the sonic heft of the original organ work, he seems at every turn to ask: Why use just one note when ten will do?

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: EVGENY KISSIN

Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann

“…calling it a sonata is a caprice if not a jest for Chopin seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into company where them might not be considered individually presentable.”

That’s the perceptive way Robert Schumann – composer, critic, and journalist – referred to Frédéric Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in 1841.

Schumann and Chopin knew each other and each other’s work. How intriguing, then, to compare music by both in the revised first half of Evgeny Kissin’s long-awaited return to the Vancouver Recital Society.

Chopin was born in March 1810, Schumann in June of the same year. They started out as fellow poets of the piano. By the 1830s the piano had become a bourgeois status symbol; there was a reliable market for published piano compositions and an appetite for recitals by piano virtuosi.

Chopin’s career played out in two decades that were a charmed moment for the piano and piano composers. He released small-scale works regularly; the more accessible of his pieces fueled demand for his more adventurous works. When he withdrew from active concertizing, his compositional desire to explore, innovate, and experiment had free rein. Robert Schumann might have followed a similar path had he not abandoned piano performance even before his intended career trajectory was launched (due, so the legend goes, to a hand injury).

Many new fans of the VRS may not know of the long, rich history of VRS Schumann performances dating back to the earliest days of the society. British cellist Stephen Isserlis, for example, interested the organization in “Schumann and his Circle performances” that included music not just by Robert but by his wife Clara, his brother-in-law Woldemar Barqiel, and others connected with that charmed group of Romantic-era talents.

The VRS has heard remarkable Schumann performances by Sir András Schiff, Radu Lupo, and Maria Tipo. Indeed, for a while it seemed that all young pianists offered Schumann’s magisterial Fantasy Op. 17 on their debut VRS programs.

What VRS fans have not heard with any regularity are Schuman’s three piano sonatas. And it is where piano sonatas are concerned that some of the telling distinctions between Chopin and Schumann become clear – distinctions which will no doubt be explored as Evgeny Kissin presents a uniquely interesting first half program consisting of two Chopin nocturnes and Schumann’s third and final piano sonata.

Chopin had something of a problem with (and possibly not that much interest in), the idea of extended and/or multiple movement compositions. He did create a pair of concertos that were early calling-card pieces, very useful for a touring pianist/composer; there’s a piano trio, a cello sonata, and a pair of piano sonatas. But all are considered to some degree – problematic.

Much of Chopin’s most effective music consists of relatively short pieces that define a particular sub-genre of keyboard music in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. There are dances: waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises; there are “narrative” pieces in a type of glorified but non-specific storytelling, like the ballades and the scherzos.

Then there are the nocturnes. Simple enough to call them “night pieces”, but this misses two important bits of their musical DNA. Chopin transferred the singing lines of opera into keyboard guise – pianistic bel canto, if you will. The many and varied nocturnes can be considered prime examples of cavatinas for piano: plenty of emphasis on a singing right hand, with lots of flourishes and subtle bits of decorative embellishment.

Then there is the unabashedly erotic content of the nocturnes and barcarolles. While the proper bourgeois of his era were disinclined to discuss this impulse in the frank post-Freudian terms we use today, they certainly understood the thoughts and feelings music could evoke.

The two nocturnes on Evgeny Kissin’s revised program appear to have been written in 1843 and 1846, respectively. (Intriguingly, Chopin’s last sonata, and his second last large-scale work, was written between the two.) The Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 #1 is one of the most popular, a staple of the keyboard repertoire. The Nocturne in E major Op. 62 #2 is most likely the last nocturne Chopin composed, a fundamentally quiet and introspective piece; as such, it’s far less frequently performed than the F minor. Both are relatively straightforward and focus on depth of feeling, not virtuoso display.

Robert Schumann loved Chopin’s music (the favour was not reciprocated, apparently) and his 1841 assessment isn’t as harsh as it might first seem. Rather, it’s what a fellow composer saw in the work: it may not quite fit the standard definition of a sonata, but it’s not without interest.

Schumann certainly knew firsthand the struggle to go from poetic aphorisms to more substantial and formal (in every sense) compositions. He wrote his three piano sonatas right after he had created a trilogy of his most popular “anthology” compositions, the multi movement collection of miniatures: Papillons Op. 2, Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 and Carnaval Op. 9.

Many have speculated that Schuman’s move to sonatas, chamber music and symphonies came at the enthusiastic urging of his soul mate and, ultimately, wife Clara, a remarkable if conservative talent in her own right. Clara worshiped tradition. She was the first pianist to play all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in public. She composed preludes and fugues. It’s easy to think that she encouraged Robert to work in all the great classical forms.

Robert’s trio of piano sonatas predate his first attempts at extended chamber works and symphonies by about half a decade. The Grand Sonata #3, in F minor Op. 14 had a troubled launch. Schumann initially conceived of it in five movements with two different scherzo sections but he was “persuaded” by his Viennese publisher to release it in a three-movement version. No doubt the publisher was concerned with commercial possibilities: a five-movement behemoth was just too long for most amateurs to bother with. The same publisher thought up the name “concert sans orchestra” which has bedeviled the work ever since.

For close to two decades, Schumann left well enough alone. Then in 1853, the year Robert and Clara met the twenty-year-old Brahms, he decided revisions were in order, ultimately deciding on a four-movement structure, shortening the central Quasi variazioni: Andantino de Clara Wieck movement but reinstating one of the pairs of scherzos cut in the initial publication.

It was one of Schumann’s last artistic decisions. After 1853, he was unable to complete any further compositions. He died in 1856. Johannes Brahms gave the revised composition its premiere in 1861.

David Gordon Duke 2018

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Preludes Opp. 23 and 32

The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff seems to glimmer out from somewhere deep in the Russian soul. With the minor mode as his preferred tonal colouring, Rachmaninoff crafted achingly nostalgic melodies à la Tchaikovsky alongside sharply chiselled passages of muscular pianism that evoke the heel-clicking traditions of the Russian military. Prominent in his sound world is the ringing of bells large and small, from the tintinnabulation of sleigh bells to the weighty pendulum swings of cathedral bells evoked so dramatically in the opening of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex two-hand textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament. These traits are particularly concentrated in his two sets of Preludes Op. 23 (1902) and Op. 32 (1910), works more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 & 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

*                      *                      *

The Op. 23 set of preludes begins with a whimper. The hauntingly fragile melody of the Prelude in F sharp minor Op. 23 No. 1 calls out tenderly in timid, tentative phrases to an almost indifferent accompaniment of constantly wavering chromatic figures. This is Rachmaninoff at his most intimate, his most confessional, his most vulnerable.

The majestic Prelude in B flat major Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and bravura of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over 3 octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied – but equally tumultuous – middle section.

While the Prelude in D minor Op. 23 No. 3 is marked Tempo di minuetto, there is a ‘snap-to-attention’ military crispness to its dotted rhythms and stop-and-go pacing that points more to the parade ground than to the palace ballroom.

The Prelude in D major Op. 23 No. 4 is a lulling nocturne. Its melody sings out from the middle of the texture, swaddled at first by a sonic glow of bell-like overtones, then topped with a gently undulating descant, and finally crowned with echoing chimes in the highest register.

The real jackboot-strutting military march of the set is the Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5, perhaps second in fame only to the celebrated Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2. Punchy, menacing, and triumphant by turns, it yields in its middle section to a bout of soldierly homesickness to spin out a lyrical melody of yearning sighs and wistful countermelodies.

Unruffled calm reigns over the elegiac musings of the Prelude in E flat major Op. 23 No. 6, that offers as much melodic and contrapuntal interest in its ornately winding accompaniment in 16ths as in the 8ths and quarters of the placid melody floating on top of it.

The Prelude in C minor Op. 23 No. 7 is a tour de force of whirlwind energy and boldly flickering tonal colour that sweeps across vast swathes of the keyboard in myriad dark figurations, a moto perpetuo prelude that emerges from the darkness for a triumphant final cadence in C major.

*                      *                      *

The Prelude in B minor Op. 32 No. 10 is Russian to the core. Pianist Benno Moisevitch, in conversation with Rachmaninoff, wisely guessed its emotional wellspring: the yearning for a homecoming that would never come. Its principal motive is a dotted figure, wavering modally between major and minor, that is soon accompanied – and then overwhelmed – by an utterly heartbreaking storm of throbbing triplets that reverberate clangorously like massive swaying church bells, thundering towards a resolution that never arrives.

The sound of sleigh bells greets the ear in the jangling accompaniment figure of open 5ths that begins the Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12, tempting and taunting a pensive baritone melody that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency in the darker regions of the keyboard below.

The Prelude in D flat major, 13th and concluding prelude of the Op. 32 set, has a reflective, commemorative quality to it, rehearsing in its musing dotted rhythms and rich, wide-ranging sonorities the inner feelings of a composer who would soon be forced into exile from his native Russia.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: GEORGE LI

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: MURRAY PERAHIA

Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817

The spirit of the dance can be felt across a wide range of Bach’s works, from the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Mass in B minor. For Bach lovers with toes eager to tap, then, an entire suite of dance pieces comes as veritable picnic for the ear. In this regard, the French Suites are among Bach’s most immediately appealing keyboard works and the Sixth Suite especially so for the wide range of dance genres represented in it.

The standard Baroque suite as practiced in German lands comprised an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, with any number of other dances filling out the space between sarabande and gigue – the so-called galanteries. These latter Bach lays on with a liberal hand, giving us in his French Suite No. 6 in E Major a largely French-inflected list of additional dances, including a gavotte, a polonaise, a minuet and a bourrée.

The influence of French lute music is apparent in the opening allemande with its pervasive pattern of arpeggiated chord guration. Broken chord gures in the so-called style brisé (“broken style”) were a staple of the lute repertoire and widely adopted in the harpsichord literature of the late Baroque era because they provided a means for implying a multi-voice texture within a continuous stream of short-value notes. The peppier courante, while also unfolding in a steady stream of 16ths, relies far more on the impressive effects to be gained from standard idiomatic keyboard writing, especially runs and single lines passed between the hands.

The dignified sarabande expresses its grandeur by means of a gradual widening of the distance separating left and right hands, extending out to more than three and a half octaves at its height in the second half. It is also the most ornamentally decorated of the dances in this suite, simply rippling with trills in its melodic line against more philosophical ruminations in the bass.

The galanteries (gavotte, polonaise, minuet & bourrée) are typically French, with all the fashionable frills and ruffles of the early-18th-century style galant on full display. The gavotte hops while the polonaise purrs and twinkles, with an abundance of mordents. The minuet is a moderately paced sequence of short elegant phrases, breathlessly outpaced by the more rustic bourrée that follows.

The gigue nale displays the traditional mix of leaps and scales that normally characterize this exuberant English dance, with its opening theme turned upside down, as is the custom, at the start of the second half.

Franz Schubert
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935

Schubert was a pianist, but not a touring virtuoso trying to carve out a career for himself by burning up the keyboard in front of an ever-changing audience of strangers in the various capitals of Europe. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and his smaller pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

The first impromptu in F minor is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern introduction that soon dissolves into the kinds of buoyant, quivering keyboard textures that “spoke” very well on the Viennese piano, with its relatively light action. The utterly enchanting B section features a whispering murmur of broken chords in the right hand over top of which the left hand enacts a dialogue between bass and treble on either side.

The second impromptu, in the form of a minuet and trio, is simplicity itself, dividing its attention between an anthem-like chordal opening theme, of small range and intimate character, and a wide-ranging middle section of rippling broken chords that drives (lovingly) to a sonorous climax.

Impromptu No. 3 in B at is theme and five variations. The theme is a gently toe-tapping melody of balanced phrases, varied in all the standard ways: rhythmic subdivision, textural infilling, elegant ornamentation, and a thickly scored, passionately throbbing minore variant. The last variation resembles a Czerny piano etude of unusual elegance and élan.

The impromptu with the most personality in the set is the last one in F minor, a rondo that really wants to be a scherzo. It hops and bounces, twinkling away in the minor mode, full of restless energy that erupts from time to time into overt displays of keyboard moxie in sudden outbursts of jarring trills and dazzling runs.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece as a whole are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn gure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos-tinged whimpering of chromatic half steps and the mood of forthright self-assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the Major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale gures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last piano sonata presents the composer in the two guises that characterized his musical genius: as earth-bound raging titan and heaven-seeking poet of the human spirit. Its two movements correspondingly display the widest possible contrast in structure and mood, comprising a restless and argumentative sonata-form allegro in the minor mode followed by a placidly serene variation-form adagio in the tonic major. Both movements strive to push musical expression beyond known limits with an almost religious intensity of feeling, but they address different gods. Dionysus provokes the frenzied ravings of the first movement, Apollo the mystical contemplations of the second.

The first movement’s maestoso introduction presents the ear with a defiant gesture, a jagged downward leap of the harmonically unstable interval of a diminished 7th, answered by a jangling trill higher up. There seem to be volcanic forces at play in the way that much of this movement’s turbulent musical material rises abruptly to the surface after suspenseful passages of eerie calm. Scurrying passages of unison between the hands lend a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric while contrapuntal episodes of fugato only seem to concentrate its fury, not tame it. Emblematic of the extremes within which the argumentation of this movement operates is the sheer amount of sonic distance that often separates the hands. One climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass takes place over 6 octaves, and the movement’s final chord, which arrives more out of emotional exhaustion than from a sense of resolution, extends over a space of 5 octaves.

This spaciousness of sound distribution characterizes the way in which the second movement’s opening theme is harmonized, with a good two octaves separating the angelic melody of the right hand from the bass tones giving it harmonic meaning down below. The movement begins in a mood of elegy and contemplative repose, moving by small steps in its initial variations into more animated figuration, each growing naturally out of the previous. Contrast and variety is not the aim here, but rather organic development. Particularly spectacular is the arrival of a sparkling and jazzy third variation out of the dotted rhythms of the second. From this point on, however, the mood turns increasingly poetic, with a concentration on the heavenly timbres of the high register lovingly supported, from time to time, by a plush carpet of rumbles from the deep bass. Beethoven seems to be speaking to us outside of the world of normal harmony, in pure sound. In a blurry texture of tremolos and trills spanning the full range of the keyboard, his theme rises above all earthly cares, as if transfigured, leading the movement to a serene close.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

Program Notes: Winterlude – Suite Saturday with Jean-Guihen Queyras

A Bit of History

Few scholars doubt that Western music was better off for the release of a certain “Bach, Johann Sebastian” from the county jail in Weimar where he had languished, in unsuitable company, for the better part of a month in the autumn of 1717. Court organists can be a stroppy crew at the best of times, and court music directors even more so. But Bach, court organist and music director at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, had pushed ducal patience to the limit.

The cause of all this workplace turmoil was a job offer that Bach had received from the Duke’s brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. In his rush to pack his bags and cancel his magazine subscriptions, it appears that Bach had failed to observe the finer points of court etiquette – like getting official permission to leave – and several weeks in hoosegow was Officialdom’s response.

Now, readers of a no-nonsense mindset will no doubt be wondering just where all this is leading, and the answer is simple: it leads to the six suites for solo cello that Bach composed at the court of Prince Leopold in or around 1720.

The Prince, you see, was a Calvinist. He had no need for the type of liturgical warbling that composers at Catholic courts were required to produce en masse, as it were. But the Prince was indeed a music-lover. He is said to have played the harpsichord, the violin, and perhaps also the viola da gamba. When the orchestra at the court of Prussia was dissolved in 1714, Leopold eagerly scooped up the best orchestral players to form the core of his own musical establishment and made instrumental music the centrepiece of his princely entertainments.

Bach’s move from Weimar to the court of Prince Leopold, then, pointed his compositional activities firmly in the direction of secular music, and it was to his tenure as the Prince’s Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723 that we owe such works as the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and the Six Suites for Solo Cello.

* * *

No autographed manuscript of the cello suites has survived, although numerous copies were made, the most authoritative being that of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, made c.1730. After Bach’s death, these works seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century these works were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.

All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Having been intrigued by a 19th- century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began to study the cello suites seriously and performing them in public. Then in 1936 he recorded Suites 1 & 2 at the Abbey Road Studios in London and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.

From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world and Casals’ recordings from the 1930s are still an important point of reference for cellists performing today, alongside another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

 

The Baroque Dance Suite

Bach’s time at the court of Anhalt-Köthen had one lasting influence on his compositional life: it instilled in him a love of the dance, as evidenced by the number of dance suites he composed while there.

The Baroque suite, a collection of dances all in the same key, was the ideal DJ party mix for an evening of toe-tapping entertainment among the European middle to upper classes with a taste for international musical culture. In its standard form it presented a buffet-style sampling of the major musical styles of Europe: the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante (or its peppier Italian variant, the corrente), the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue.

Additional optional dances known as galanteries were often added to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. Among these insertions were the courtly minuet (or menuet in French), the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.

All of the dances following the prelude are composed in binary (two-part) form. The task of the first part is to find its way to the key of the dominant (five scale tones up from the home key) and land on a satisfying cadence there in its final bar. The job of the second part is then to find its way back to the original key and lay down an even more satisfying cadence – a kind of “Honey, I’m home!” gesture – to let you know that the piece is now finally over. The fact that each of these two parts is normally played twice seemed to matter little to the Baroque ear.

One other practice worthy of note is that of returning to the first of the minuets, gavottes or bourrées after playing the second (contrasting) one, giving a rounded A-B-A form to this brace of optional inserted dances.

* * *

Dance suites were a popular genre of keyboard music in the Baroque period but writing for a solo instrument like the cello, that could play only a single melodic line, posed distinct challenges. Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.

But hold on. How do you play harmonies – which is to say chords – on an instrument that only plays a single melodic line? Multi-string chord-playing is possible, of course, but writing multiple stops in every bar is a sure way to send your performer into physio looking for multiple finger splints. The answer is to imply the harmonies you want your listener to hear by slyly emphasizing – and frequently returning to – important fundamental chord notes and tendency tones so that one actually begins to hear a multi-voiced harmonic structure beneath all the fancy filigree. This is how harmonic tension and anticipation is created and when done well you find yourself expecting a certain chord pattern to follow another one – even if neither is stated outright.

This the monetary magic of Quantitative Easing applied to harmonic voice-leading.It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand, this aural perceptual “dance within the dance.”

 

A Few Recommendations

While every listener will have his or her favourites from among the 42 individual dance movements in this collection of suites, the following have etched their way into my musical memory in a way that I cannot, in all honesty, fail to mention.

The opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in G has almost become synonymous with Baroque cello music itself. Its nobility of sentiment far transcends what one might expect to admire in a simple repetitive pattern of broken chord figures and connecting scales. The key of G is important here, as the bottom two strings, low G and the D above it, are open strings on the cello and Bach plays to the natural resonance of these two strings in crafting this prelude. The result is a rocking, undulating pattern of tones that evokes a sense of being at peace with the world.

Bach’s sense of sonic resonance is operating at a high level, as well, in the massive build-up of sound in the Prelude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, but this one puts you through the ringer. It features the same rocking pattern of wide-stretching broken chords, made all the more sonorous by the stabilizing presence of the low G used as a pedal tone beneath increasingly dissonance harmonies striving above it.

For sheer grit and dogged resolve it would be difficult to beat the headlong thrust of the Courante from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. This dance turns the cello into a veritable street fighter with bravado to spare. The perky lilt of the Courante from the Suite No. 6, however, makes this same dance form into a real toe-tapper by simply arranging 8ths and 16ths in the right pattern of leaps and scales.

Among the sarabandes, that of the Suite No. 2 D minor wins the prize for wringing the greatest amount of expression out of a single, slow melodic line. But the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C minor is memorable in a different way. Consisting entirely of 8th notes leaping widely over the entire range of the instrument, it manages nonetheless to tell a gripping story full of harmonic tension and much anticipated tension release.

There really is no contest among the galanteries. The Bourrée from the Suite No. 3 in C major has been a favourite since my early adolescence, probably because of the number of popular arrangements that have been made of it. Its easy- going mood and self-evident harmonic drive make it the sort of thing you hum to yourself in the shower. Almost as hummable is the Bourrée from the Suite No. 4 in E flat, with its wonderfully symmetrical phrases.

The gigue with the street cred to really jig it up big time is the one from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. The huge leaps in this movement give this dance movement a specially memorable swagger that stays in the memory long after it has finished.

And finally, a special note of admiration is due to the cellist himself, who in the Suite No. 6 in D will be playing, on a four-stringed cello, a piece originally written for a five- stringed instrument!

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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