The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.
The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half that ends in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K.) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L.) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.
The Sonata in D minor K. 9 has long been among the most popular of Scarlatti’s sonatas, acquiring its nickname, the Pastorale, from a concert arrangement with that title published by pianist Karl Tausig (1841- 1871). Tausig’s title may well have originated in the impression of rural peacefulness summoned up by the sonata’s gently flowing melody in 6/8 time, with its Pan-flute-like trills and breathless runs up to the high register. Whoever this flute-playing shepherd is, though, he seems to have acquired a little drummer boy following hard behind, arguing via leaps in the bass that the piece would make a nice courtly march.
Drums are heard, as well, accompanied by trumpets, in the very fanfare-like Sonata in E major K. 380, with its many open fifth sonorities. We hear in this sonata an echo, in miniature, of the music of court ritual that must have been part of the everyday life of Scarlatti’s patron, employer and pupil, the Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal and Spain. And yet this piece arrives at a surprisingly intimate level of expression, given the ceremonial premise from which it sets out.
The Sonata in G major K. 455, by contrast, is unabashedly dancelike and popular in tone, filled with the rhythmic click and snap of the castanets. The idiomatic figurations of the guitar are heard in the repeated-note patterns that dominate the last section of each half, making this piece an impressive showpiece of digital dexterity while it evokes Spanish popular musical culture in the most vividly direct way.
Sposalizio from Années de Pèlerinage II
The three books of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) detail the cultural impressions left on the Hungarian pianist-composer by his travels through Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Sposalizio is the first entry in the second book of this musical diary, a collection of pieces devoted to Italy. It takes its name from the 1504 painting by Raphael, Lo Sposalizio della Vergine (The Wedding of the Virgin), a representation of the joining of the Virgin Mary and Joseph in holy matrimony, pictured as taking place in the open square of an Italian city with numerous witnesses gathered round.
Liszt’s builds his evocation of this scene out of two simple motives presented at the outset: a wandering collection of notes in the pentatonic scale (remarkably similar to the opening of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, also in E major) and a short, slightly hesitant dotted figure. These two figures permeate the texture ever more urgently until a bell-ringing climax is reached with crashing octaves in the left hand to create what Alfred Brendel has called “an aura of elated innocence.”
Valse in A flat Major Op. 38 Vers la flamme Op. 72
Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 Fantasy in B minor Op.28
It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” He wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études, just like his Polish musical forebear.
The influence of Chopin is most readily seen in his Valse in A flat Op. 38 with its achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass clarifying the underlying harmony. Unlike Chopin, however, is the rhythmic pulse, which is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern expected of a well-behaved waltz. This is a waltz that ‘flutters’. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand will have none of it, and cheerfully ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy by wandering widely in 4-to-the- bar and 5-to-the-bar melodic units to create a perfumed distillation of waltz gestures, interrupted by bold outbursts of inner passion.
The ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (Towards the flame) is far from the salon demeanour of Scriabin’s early ‘Chopin’ period, being among the last works that he composed. It represents a psychedelic aural imagining of the world moving slowly and inexorably ‘towards the flame,’ heating up until it is finally consumed in a great conflagration of fire and light. The harmonic vocabulary of this piece is extremely advanced, based on chromatically modified dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in fourths rather than thirds. The harmonically subversive sound of tritones rings in the ear from the very start of the piece, when time seems to stand still, frowning in worry at what is to come. A second stage is reached when deep bass rumblings arise in a murky 5-against-9 rhythm, while the treble remains obsessed with the semitone motive that pervades the piece. Tongues of flame arrive in the treble when double tremolos curl around the middle register, eventually breaking out into silvery flashes of brilliance above until the piece ends in a dazzling aural snapshot of pure white light.
The piano textures of Chopin are apparent once again in the Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 with its sweeping left-hand accompaniment figures, studded with countermelodies in the tenor. And yet its wistfully lyrical melody, doled out in poised, evenly balanced phrases, barely ranges over more than an octave.
A much more muscular posture, very much at odds with Scriabin’s reputation for finely shaded melodic nuance and perfumed harmonies, is presented in his mid-career Fantasy in B minor Op. 28. While moments of lyric relief do arrive in this piece (and in canon, no less) it is overwhelmingly dominated by Lisztian figurations of flying octaves, thick chordal textures, disruptive rhythmic convulsions and flamboyant multi- octave arpeggiations in both hands. Swaying between a brooding restlessness and a search for ecstatic release, the mystic side of Scriabin comes clearly to the fore in this work, a worthy successor to the deeply chromatic yearnings of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
6 Songs (arr. Alexis Weissenberg)
The history of the 20th-century poetic chanson, long associated with the names of Edith Piaf, Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, would not be complete without Charles Trenet, familiar to music- lovers in North America as the author of La Mer, recorded in the 1960s by Bobby Darrin as Beyond the Sea. Known for his velvety baritone voice and slightly loopy singing style, he was called le fou chantant (the singing madman) and enjoyed immense popularity in a career that flourished between the 1930s and 1950s, although he continued to perform and record virtually up till his death in 2001.
Charles Trenet’s success was not only due to the charm of his nostalgic songs about young love and the city of Paris, but also to the unique blend of swing, jazz, waltz and tropical dance elements that characterized his musical style. This was music that was ideal for the ‘piano stylings’ of a jazz musician and, sure enough, sometime in the 1950s an extended-play 45 rpm record appeared on the market entitled Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet. But who was this Mr. Nobody?
The name of the musician responsible for these exuberantly lavish arrangements and improvisations has only recently come to light, and the name surprised (and delighted) many in the classical music community. It was the Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. At a time when classical musicians would sooner have eaten wood shavings on toast than be caught performing (let alone recording!) songs from the French music-hall repertory, Weissenberg had evidently shimmered unobserved into a recording studio in a curly wig and nose-and-moustache glasses to secretly record this tribute to one of his favourite popular singers.
Coin de rue (Street corner) evokes memories of the old neighbourhood and pleasant daydreams of days long past. Its nostalgic tone is captured in the blur of slightly ‘watery’ harmonies.
Boum! imitates the pounding heartbeat of those newly smitten with the joys of love. It begins in a very modernist style before launching into an extroverted keyboard-chuckling texture of added-tone jazz chords and sparkling fill-in figurations.
Vous qui passez sans me voir (You pass by without seeing me) is a love song about a young man who can’t even get the woman of his dreams to notice him. His awkwardness is cleverly expressed in the bass drones with crushed-note ornaments.
En avril à Paris (April in Paris) is a waltzing tribute to the City of Lights, with sweeping figuration swirling around each melody note.
Vous oubliez votre cheval (You’re forgetting your horse) is a surreal ditty about trying to leave your horse at the coat check. It’s homage to the Roaring Twenties hit tune Ain’t she sweet is just one of the inexplicable features of this song.
Ménilmontant pays tribute to the vitality of the working class quartier of Paris where Maurice Chevalier was born, in a moto perpetuo style with many a clever reference to the Flight of the Bumblebee.
Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor Op. 36
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, premiered by the composer in Moscow in 1913, is an ambitious large-scale work in three movements bound together by elements of cyclic form and thematic reminiscence. Indeed, the quiet ending of its first movement and the bridge leading directly from the second movement to the finale make it seem like one continuous work in three parts.
This sonata was obviously written for the massive ‘mitt’ of Rachmaninoff himself, who is said to have been able to stretch a 12th (an octave and a 5th), and it represents virtually a compendium of the lush keyboard textures characteristic of the composer’s best work. It also contains large-scale formal features typical of the piano concertos, viz., a frenetic speed- up of tempo in the middle of the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis-style summing up of lyrical thematic material at the end of the finale—prominent features of both his second and his third piano concertos.
The work opens with a dramatic gesture emblematic of the formal grandeur underlying Rachmaninoff’s conception of the sonata as a whole: an arpeggio plunging down to the abyss, answered by a cannon- echo of a theme comprised of a falling 3rd (was he inspired by a similar opening to Beethoven’s equally grand Hammerklavier sonata?), a chromatically descending melody and chordal outline, all chiselled out over a quivering tremolo accompaniment. Nothing is small-scale in this opening theme. Virtually the entire span of keyboard real estate available to the pianist is traversed in a series of cadenzas before a much more modest and intimate second theme appears.
This tentative, delicate, chromatically descending second theme is obviously derived from the first. Its contrasting nature lies not just in its being in the major mode, but also in how it represents a complete scaling down, texturally, of the amount of sound coming out of the piano. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fistfuls of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a feverish rage that has ebbed, but not ended.
The second movement begins with a series of questioning phrases before a sadly lilting, almost apologetic theme appears. This down-in-the-mouth theme, however, leads to happier thoughts in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright ringing bell- strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The swelling, heart-breaking series of sequences that follows is the lyric climax of the movement from which a ruminative middle section mulls over memories of the first movement and churns itself into quite a froth.
The opening of the second movement ends as it began, with the same exploratory harmonic questioning, but this time answers itself by plunging into one of the most heaven-storming finales in the Rachmaninoff canon, one in which the lowest B flat on the keyboard booms out like cannon-fire, over and over again. Gradually cooler heads prevail and there blossoms, under the generous tone-giving care of the right-hand pinky finger, a nostalgic and lyrical second-theme melody to melt the heart of a tyrant. The development section thunders with renewed vigour as the first theme rushes headlong back onto the scene. But it is the achingly heartfelt second theme that triumphs in the end in a glorious hymn to all that is right with the world, leading to a coda bristling with pianistic fireworks that lights a path to the work’s final chords.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2015