A selection of programmes notes written by Abigail.
 

Frederic Chopin Barcarolle, Op. 60

Franz Liszt Ballade No. 2 in B minor, S. 171

Schumann – Humoreske, Op. 20

Faure Theme and Variations, Op. 73

Claude Debussy L’Isle Joyeuse (1904)

Alexander Scriabin - Vers la flame, op. 72

Alexander Scriabin - Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, op. 30

Maurice Ravel – Sonatine

Maurice Ravel – Oiseaux Tristes and Alborada del gracioso from Miroirs

Charles T. Griffes- Sonata (1918)

Henri Dutilleux - Sonata (1948) III. Choral et variations.

Gian Carlo Menotti - Ricercare and Toccata on a theme from The Old Maid and the Thief

 

 

J.S. Bach - Toccata in C minor, BWV 911

 

The seven Toccatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are relatively early works, composed between 1705-1714, after Bach had made his trip to Lubeck to hear the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. The young Bach, then working at Arnstadt, was so determined to hear Buxtehude that he made the ten-day journey on foot and overstayed by at least two months.

Bach’s encounter with Buxtehude in Lubeck had a significant impact on him. Buxtehude use of stylus fantasticus (a free, improvisatory style of composition) was a technique that Bach adopted in the opening measures of each of his 7 Toccatas. The virtuoso elements in the Toccatas were perhaps a direct outcome of hearing Buxtehude’s brilliant organ playing. Bach’s own skills as a keyboardist were widely acclaimed by his contemporaries. The Toccatas were the perfect vehicle for him to display his virtuoso abilities at the keyboard as well as his unmatched mastery of counterpoint, which is evident in the complex fugues.

The Toccata in C minor, BWV 911, opens with a declamatory flourish, covering more than three octaves in the opening gesture. This is followed by a contemplative Adagio section, which moves through various harmonies with dignity and grace. The fugue of the C minor Toccata is one of the longest Bach fugues ever written. With a second subject introduced midway through the fugue and no less than seventeen subject entrances, it takes both the performer and the listener on an epic journey, exploring a vast array of tonalities, textures and emotional states.

Highlights of the “voyage” include a luminous section in E flat major, invoking the angelic qualities of an organ flute stop, a dramatic return to C minor with the subject strewn over the entire length of the keyboard and several free-wheeling episodes that propel the piece into new key areas. The fugue eventually dissolves back into the improvisatory nature of the beginning, bringing the piece to an end with dramatic chords and a glittering run that sweeps down the keyboard, landing emphatically on the low C.


J.S. Bach - Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, BWV 992
 

The Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother is the only instrumental composition by Johann Sebastian Bach which is programmatic - that is, it tells a story. It is believed that Bach wrote the Capriccio in 1704 as one of his older brothers was leaving to work as a musician in the Swedish army. At that time, the nineteen-year-old Bach had already developed a formidable reputation as a keyboardist and was employed as the organist at the church in Arnstadt.

The six movements of the Capriccio outline the events leading up to his brother’s departure. The Arioso sets the scene with a radiant opening gesture. This lyrical movement glows with warmth and tenderness, reflecting the affection of his friends as they persuade him not to leave. The fugato second movement travels through several different tonalities in rapid succession with no stable sense of a home key, as the friends warn him of the dangers that may await him. The third movement is a lament, with heart-wrenching chromaticism and sighing, descending melodic motifs. The repetitive bass line is similar to that of a Passacaglia. In this movement, the performer is required to fill in the texture with notes of their own choosing, as the score only provides a figured bass and a bare melodic line.

The fourth movement is the pivotal point in the work where the mood shifts from sorrowful to festive, as his brother’s friends gather to send him off. The fifth movement announces the arrival of the post carriage with a joyous motif featuring a downward leap of an octave. The final and most substantial movement is a fugue, which features the motif from the fifth movement as a countersubject. One can imagine a bustling string orchestra amid blazing horns and trumpets, as Bach depicts his brother’s leave-taking as a truly grand and jubilant affair.

Joseph Haydn - Andante and Variations in F minor, Hob XVII:6

 

The Andante and Variations in F minor is one of Haydn’s most sublime compositions. It was composed in 1793, in between Haydn’s two journeys to London in 1791-92 and 1794-95. After years of service at the Esterhazy court, Haydn’s visits to London, at the invitation of concert producer Johann Peter Salomon, were extremely rewarding for him both personally and professionally. Some of his greatest compositions, including the Andante and Variations in F minor and the 12 “London” Symphonies, were written with the London audiences in mind.

Although the Andante and Variations was composed for the pianist Barbara von Ployer, some believe that the piece was a personal elegy for Marianne von Gezinger, an intimate friend of Haydn who had died earlier that year.  In fact, the first theme of the Andante and Variations is derived from a phrase in an aria from Haydn’s opera Orfeo ed Eurydice, in which Orpheus, inconsolable after having lost Eurydice for the second time, longs for death himself. A sense of desolation and anguish pervades the entire work, contained within an almost impenetrable façade of dignity and poise.

The Andante and Variations is a set of double variations on two alternating themes, the sorrowful Orpheus theme in F minor and a consoling theme in F Major. There are two variations for each theme, with each section more florid than the next, before the original Orpheus theme returns, even more withdrawn and mournful than before. This leads into a massive coda, a final desperate outpouring of grief and anger, before the piece subsides and drifts away in weary resignation.

Ludwig van Beethoven - Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10 No. 3

 

In a letter to his friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler  in 1801, Beethoven exclaimed, “O how beautiful it is to live life a thousand times!” The Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10 No. 3, written 3 years earlier in 1798, perfectly captures the young Beethoven’s sense of fervour and desire to embrace life and all of its extremes. Beethoven used vivid contrasts of range, characterization, texture and dynamics in this tautly-constructed masterpiece, which affirmed his standing as the leading keyboard virtuoso of Vienna.

The first movement is remarkable in that all its thematic material is derived from the opening motif of four descending notes. The music is full of vibrancy and energy, with rude jolts, unexpected harmonic twists and dramatic silences. The second movement, marked Largo e mesto, roughly translated as “broad and mournful”, is one of the most tragic slow Sonata movements Beethoven ever wrote, foreshadowing his later Sonatas, particularly the Arioso of Op. 110. It is steeped in darkness and anguish, interspersed with momentary glimpses of hope and other-worldly beauty. The Menuetto that follows is like a gentle ray of sunshine, with a boisterous Trio section. The final movement is full of good-natured teasing and improvisatory flair, bringing the Sonata to a close with effortless charm.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31 No. 2

 

The Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2, nicknamed the “Tempest”, was completed in 1802, a hugely significant period in Beethoven’s evolution as a composer, and his personal spiritual development. That year, Beethoven expressed dissatisfaction with his previous compositions and vowed to “take a new road”. He was also beginning to come to terms with his encroaching deafness, which caused him extreme humiliation, frustration, loneliness and despair, almost to the point of suicide. Beethoven poured his emotional torment into what is now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, a will addressed to his brothers, which sheds light on his private anguish but also his faith and unshakeable devotion to his Art and his fellow man.

This Sonata is one of Beethoven’s finest achievements in the genre, transforming the sonata into a drama of epic proportions. It is an extraordinary innovation in motivic development and structural cohesiveness. The musical “DNA” of the entire sonata can be found within the 3 motivic ideas in the first 6 bars: the ascending broken arpeggio, the gasping descending two-note slurs and the oscillating turn.

The first movement is full of drama and dark mystery, with a tangible sense of supernatural terror. Beethoven himself describes the famous recitative passage at the beginning of the recapitulation as a “voice from the tomb”. The second movement is an oasis of calm and sublime beauty. However the ominous drumrolls in the bass hint that this tranquility is only temporary. The finale is a molto perpetuo movement that seems to be driven by a force beyond the realm of human consciousness. Marked Allegretto, it remains perfectly poised, yet seethes with intensity, verging on the point of delirium.

Frederic Chopin - 24 Preludes, Op. 28.
 

The 24 Preludes, Op. 28, is an epic yet exquisitely intimate exploration of what it means to be human. It contains some of Chopin’s most personal, radical and enigmatic music. This cycle of preludes in every major and minor key was undoubtedly inspired by J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which Chopin studied extensively. However, unlike Bach, Chopin transformed the genre of the Prelude, dismissing the notion that a prelude was merely an introduction to another more substantial composition. Each one of Chopin’s Preludes can stand alone as a perfect, distinct miniature, each a world unto itself. Yet they are all intrinsically connected, forming a single entity, with a unified style of expression that is uniquely Chopin’s. In his review of the Preludes, Robert Schumann famously hailed Chopin as “the boldest, the proudest poet of these times”.

The Chopin Preludes take the listener on a journey through a wide spectrum of moods, colours, textures and forms of musical expression. Even in the very opening of the cycle, the joyous C Major Prelude is immediately contrasted by the morbid, barren landscape of the A minor Prelude, one of Chopin’s most bizarre and harmonically ambiguous compositions. Some Preludes like the A Major and E flat minor Preludes, are fleeting visions, barely a minute long, while others, such as the famous “Raindrop” Prelude, are lengthier and more fleshed out. There are solitary laments (E minor and B minor), grand royal processions (E Major and C Minor), simple, tender melodies (B flat major and B Major) as well as flashes of rage (F minor and B flat minor). The entire narrative is drawn inexorably to the final Prelude in D minor, which soars, defiant in the face of tragedy, before tumbling down the entire length of the keyboard and landing on three emphatic low Ds that could almost self-combust from sheer emotional intensity.

Frederic Chopin – Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35
 

Frederic Chopin composed his second Piano Sonata at George Sand’s estate in Nohant in 1839, which was a relatively happy period in their relationship. The famous Funeral March in this Sonata was not directly inspired by personal tragedy, but rather by Beethoven, whose shadow loomed large over the pianist-composers of the Romantic period. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 12 in A flat Major, Opus 26, is the only other piano sonata in the repertoire which also contains a funeral march. Opus 26 is said to be Chopin’s favourite Beethoven Sonata and he frequently taught it to his students. Chopin mirrors Beethoven’s sequence of scherzo, funeral march with trio and molto perpetuo finale in his own Sonata, subverting the Classical period convention of placing the slow movement before scherzo movement.

The opening motif of the first movement is another reference to Beethoven. The dramatic plunging diminished 7 th brings to mind the opening of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111. The galloping main theme, which practically froths over with breathless agitation, is contrasted with the warm, consolatory second theme. In the second movement, the driving, surging outer sections of the scherzo frame a lilting waltz-like trio section, in which a tender melody wafts in and out like unfinished thoughts.

One can imagine the footfalls of the mourners in the Funeral March, which provides a powerfully raw account of grief. Anguished, declaratory outbursts punctuate an almost impenetrable façade of somber dignity. The middle section descends like a vision from heaven, pure crystalline beauty unstained by the troubles of this world. It is a glimpse of the other side of death: transfiguration and eternal bliss. The mysterious finale is a whispering whirlwind without any recognizable melody, much like the Prelude No. 14 in E flat minor in the 24 Preludes Op. 28. Arthur Rubinstein described it as the "wind howling around the gravestones". This swirling other-worldly madness sweeps the entire work along to an abrupt explosive conclusion.

Frederic Chopin - Nocturne in E flat Major, Op. 55 No. 2
Frederic Chopin Barcarolle, Op. 60
 

The Nocturne in E flat Major, Op. 55 No. 2 and the Barcarolle, Op. 60 reflect Chopin at the height of his creative powers, with complex harmonies, intricate polyphony and a consummate understanding of the sonorous possibilities of the piano.

The Nocturne in E flat Major, Op. 55 No. 2 is considered to be one of Chopin’s finest works in this genre. Dedicated to his pupil Jane Stirling, it contains all the elements that pianists and audiences love about Chopin’s writing- a soaring melodic line enriched by an inner voice, devastatingly beautiful harmonic progressions and improvisatory vocal figurations. This plaintive, heartfelt outpouring of unrequited longing and grief is brought to a close with a magical coda section, where time seems to stop as the glittering melody reaches into the stratosphere and drifts gently back down to earth.

Chopin completed the Barcarolle in 1846 and performed it in his last recital in Paris in 1948, a year before his death. A Barcarolle is a boat song, sung by Venetian gondoliers. It resembles a Nocturne in form (A-B-A), albeit on a much grander scale. After the radiant opening gesture, the boat pushes off and the Barcarolle begins. Chopin marvelously captures the hypnotic paddle pattern and the gentle rocking of the boat in the undulating left hand accompaniment as a sublime love duet unfolds in the right hand. The audience (and the performer!) is taken on an extraordinary journey of emotions, harmonies and textures, with new, unforgettable vistas around every corner. However, even in its most exultant moments, there is always a subtle undercurrent of despair in the Barcarolle. As the ailing Chopin probably knew all too well, beauty, and life itself, no matter how glorious, is only fleeting.

Franz Liszt Ballade No. 2 in B minor, S. 171
 

As a concert pianist, pedagogue and composer, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was one of the most innovative and influential musicians of the 19 th Century. Arguably the greatest virtuoso pianist of his time, Liszt took piano technique to new heights, not merely in terms of flashy physical feats, but in the way one harnessed the sonorous capabilities of the instrument. His experimentations with harmony and form, in particular his use of thematic transformation, had enormous significance for many composers who came after him.

The Ballade No. 2 in B minor is one of Liszt’s greatest compositions, in which his explorations of form and pianistic textures come into full play. The Ballade was written in 1853 and is closely related to the monumental Piano Sonata in B minor, which was also completed that year. As with the Sonata, Liszt uses thematic transformation to provide a sense of direction as well as structural unity in the Ballade.

The entire Ballade is woven out of four simple thematic ideas: the foreboding first theme based on an ascending natural minor scale, the stormy surging chromatic pattern beneath the first theme and two lyrical interludes, one glistening and dreamy, the other plaintive and heartfelt. The first theme, together with the chromatic accompaniment, appears in different guises and keys as the Ballade unfolds. Each appearance is more urgent and turbulent than the other, until the music comes crashing down in a stunning climax. The most magical transformation of this theme occurs after the climax, where it finally reaches its goal of B major. The theme is restated twice after this, with triumphant chords and sky-rocketing scales that unexpectedly lead to a reprise of the first lyrical idea, drawing this epic tale to a close.

Schumann – Humoreske, Op. 20
 

“I’ve been sitting at the piano all week, composing and writing, laughing and crying all at once. All this you will find beautifully depicted in my Opus 20, the great Humoreske”, wrote Schumann to his future wife Clara Wieck in 1839.

Schumann’s Humoreske is one of his most personal and enigmatic compositions. Though the Humoreske lacks the gravitas of works like Kreisleriana and the Fantasie, its title does not mean that it should be interpreted as merely funny or light-hearted. Instead, Schumann is alluding to the concept of humour proposed by one of his favourite writers, Jean Paul. For Schumann, humour is used as a means of contrast to explore different moods and identities, and to examine what happens when those disparate worlds collide. In the Humoreske, both sides of Schumann’s musical personalities, extroverted Florestan and dreamy Eusebius, are present. But sometimes, there is also contentment in melancholy, unfulfilled longing in moments of happiness and absurdity in anger. Schumann’s Humoreske continuously swerves from one elusive emotional state to another in an uninhibited stream of consciousness, “laughing and crying all at once”.

The opening of the Humoreske transports us into a nebulous world of starlight and dreams, starting on an augmented chord and morphing into G flat Major immediately after establishing B flat Major as the tonic. This is followed by a skipping, playful melody, a brief anthem-like declaration, and a scampering tarantella, before the pensive opening is reprised to bring this section to a close. In the next section, in a typically inexplicable Schumannesque gesture, there is an "Innere Stimme" (inner voice) written on a separate staff that is not to be played but only to be thought about by the performer, like a intimate secret acknowledged with a wry smile. The music launches forward again with streaks of colour, deliberately lopsided rhythms and a comically serious march, before returning to the opening material of this movement via an ethereal, stripped down presentation of its harmonic outline in simple rolled chords.

The third section is in ABA form, with a tender narrative in G minor intercut by an energetic, showy Intermezzo with scales cascading all over the keyboard. The next section is marked “Innig”, a special term for Schumann, and the music is infused with a sense of warmth and inner joy. Florestan then makes a boisterous appearance and the piece builds to a blinding, triumphant climax. However, the tonic key of B flat major is pompously shoved aside by A flat major, posing as the neopolitan of G minor. This trails off into the final section, “Zum Beschluss” (Towards a resolution), which yearns and consoles and doubts and hopes with a wide-eyed sincerity that is so unabashedly ‘Romantic’ and so quintessentially Schumann. The brief coda charges to the finish line with a celebratory flourish, awakening us from the dream and leaving us to wonder and marvel at what we had just experienced.

Gabriel Fauré - Theme and Variations in C sharp minor Op. 73
 

The Theme and Variations in C sharp minor Op. 73, written in 1895, is Fauré’s most substantial work for solo piano. This work was likely inspired by Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, also a set of variations in C sharp minor. Fauré’s prevalent use of displaced rhythmic stresses, the mercurial changes of mood and the sheer variety in the eleven variations point to Schumann’s influence. However, the Theme and Variations inhabits a precisely-sculpted, luminous sound world that is uniquely Fauré’s, with crystalline melodies, transparent, refined textures and kaleidoscopic, intoxicating harmonies.

The stately theme consists of two main units: a first phrase with an ascending natural minor scale and throbbing chords in the bass, presented with an uncompromising sense of foreboding, and a contrasting second phrase which offers a muted, distant response. In the first variation, the theme is in the bass while the right hand drifts and dips delicately in the high register. Syncopations start to come to the foreground in the lively second variation and the joyous third variation is characterised by asymmetrical patterns of triplets and quavers. This leads directly into the lush fourth variation, sending radiant sprays of colour shooting into the air, only to be met by a haunted, deliciously vague response in the middle section. The theme reaches up into the stratosphere in the fifth variation but sinks into the depths in the eerily still sixth variation.

Canons are the hallmark of variation seven while the eighth provides a moment of reflective calm. Variation nine is perhaps the most gorgeous of the set, described by Alfred Cortot as “a dark, lifted ecstasy, where on the high G sharp, the curve of the melody, the heart sinks down like a star in the evening”. The scintillating tenth variation with its impassioned outburst at the end could well have been the concluding variation. However, variation eleven serves as an epilogue, a rapturous benediction where the theme is transfigured into C sharp major.

Fauré once confided to his son that for him, “art, and especially music, exists to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.” I think that the Theme and Variations in C sharp minor certainly fulfils that vision.

Claude Debussy L'Isle Joyeuse (1904)
 

“How difficult it is to play!” Claude Debussy once wrote of L’Isle Joyeuse. “This piece seems to embrace every possible manner of treating the piano, combining as it does strength and grace.” L’Isle Joyeuse is indeed an exhilarating work, with sensuous textures and sonorities that showcase the tremendous colouristic possibilities of the piano. Debussy’s fascination colour and timbre in music went hand in hand with his interest in literature and painting. L’Isle Joyeuse is one of many works by Debussy that was inspired by a painting, in this case, Watteau’s “Embarkation for Cythera”, in which lovers set out for the mythical birth place of Aphrodite.

In this piece, Debussy evokes several images and impressions of a voyage at sea, such as the cries of swooping seagulls, the play of sunlight on water, the listing of a boat, waves crashing against rocks and vast sea caverns with the song of sirens echoing off the walls. The music certainly takes the listener on a remarkable journey, from the mysterious, languorous mood of the opening to the unbridled exultation and ecstasy of the finale. Indeed the sheer joy of arriving at the mythical island destination is unmistakable, leading the listener into one of the most memorable climaxes in the repertoire.

Alexander Scriabin - Vers la flame, op. 72
Alexander Scriabin - Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, op. 30
 

Composers of the Romantic period were somewhat apprehensive of composing Piano Sonatas, thinking there was little left to be said after the monumental achievement of Beethoven’s “32”. Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and Schumann were each satisfied with just one or two major statements in this genre before moving on to different forms. In this aspect, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who lived from 1872-1915 and composed Sonatas throughout his life, stood apart as perhaps the most important composer of Piano Sonatas after Beethoven.

Scriabin’s ten Sonatas were highly personal works as they were his only large-scale compositions besides Symphonies. He infused his Sonatas with extensive symbolism and programmatic elements about his personal philosophy on life and the supernatural. Through his Sonatas, one can trace his development as a composer as well as his evolving personal worldview. The shifts in his personal philosophy can be seen from his meditation on religion in the 1 st Sonata to the influence of Nietzsche in the 3rd Sonata and the Messianic visions of the 7 th Sonata (the “White Mass”). The changes in his compositional style are especially noticeable after the 4th Sonata, as his harmonic language became more atonal and as his experiments with form and motivic unity in the earlier Sonatas came to fruition with a deliberate shift to a single-movement mold.

Scriabin’s 4 th Sonata was written in 1903. This Sonata has an affixed poem, written by Scriabin himself, describing the contemplation of a distant star, the journey towards it, and the eventual free-fall into its core. The poem suggests that Scriabin conceived this two-movement Sonata as an effectively “single-movement” work, with the first movement functioning as a prelude to the Sonata-form second movement.

The opening bars of the first movement contain virtually all the thematic material that Scriabin uses in the entire piece, particularly in terms of the melodic shape and the chromatic voice-leading of the ambiguous, swooning harmonies. The mood here is languorous and mysterious, with ravishing textures that encapsulate the beauty of the cosmos and an underlying sense of unfulfilled desire. The second movement is volatile and air-borne, darting and dancing with breathless excitement. Scriabin himself described it as a “flight at the speed of light, straight towards the sun, into the sun!” The final appearance of the opening theme at the end of the second movement quakes with unbridled ecstasy and jubilation, bringing the Sonata to a spectacular close.

Vers la flamme (Towards the Flame), written in 1914, might have become Sonata No. 11 but Scriabin published it as a “Poem” due to financial constraints.  Like the 4 th Sonata, it depicts a journey into a fiery inferno. The cold, static opening gestures soon give way to strange guttural rumblings and luminous tremolos, evoking the sensation of being gradually engulfed by flames- a bizarre blend of both pain and pleasure. With booming chords in the bass and blinding flashes in the high register of the piano, the music relentlessly rises in intensity before it finally explodes. The pianist Vladimir Horowitz once remarked candidly on Vers la Flamme, “This is a little frightening music - be prepared for big sound!”

Maurice Ravel – Sonatine
Maurice Ravel – Oiseaux Tristes and Alborada del gracioso from Miroirs
 

Maurice Ravel is a rather unusual musical figure, full of quirks and paradoxes. Regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20 th Century, he nonetheless had a difficult time gaining recognition from the academic establishment in his youth, having been expelled from the Paris Conservatoire twice and failing to win the prestigious Prix de Rome on five attempts. Though he grew up in Paris, he was steeped his mother’s Basque-Spanish heritage and he also inherited a fascination with mechanical objects from his Swiss-engineer father. He had a reputation for being emotionless and aloof, yet he was generous in his praise of other composers and had a wicked sense of humour. While known for the innovation and individuality of his compositions, Ravel constantly acknowledged his models, looking to past composers as well as to contemporary influences such as jazz for inspiration.

The title of “Sonatine” is misleading, bringing to mind miniature teaching-pieces aimed at young pianists. Ravel’s Sonatine, while diminutive in length, is by no means simplistic. At its premiere, critics as well as Ravel himself remarked on the technical difficulty of the piece, especially the mercurial last movement which resembles the harpsichord toccatas of the Baroque period.

Ravel completed the Sonatine in 1905, having already composed Jeux d’eau and his String quartet. In some ways, the Sonatine encapsulates the best elements of both pieces, with its shimmering textures and liquid sonorities as well as its classicism and concise construction. The conventional sonata form of the first movement is belied by its sensuous harmonies and languid main motifs. The second movement is a miniature minuet with the trio section omitted, but ironically contains some of the richest orchestral sonorities in the entire work. The finale is dazzling and volatile, a precursor to the famous Toccata in Le Tombeau de Couperin composed more than ten years later.

Miroirs was completed around the same time as the Sonatine. Ravel dedicated each of the five pieces in the set to members of his close circle of artistic friends, known as Les Apaches (The Hooligans). It is somewhat typical of Ravel’s ironic wit that he would dedicate the most technically demanding piece of the set Alborada del gracioso to a non-pianist, the writer M.D. Calvocoressi, while giving the strange and decidedly “un-showy” Oiseaux tristes to the only distinguished performer in the group, the Spanish virtuoso Ricardo Viñes. Viñes gave the premiere performance of Miroirs in 1906.

Calvocoressi described Oiseaux tristes (Sad birds) as “something extremely new, a rather extended etude (in the sense that painters use this word).” Ravel is indeed “painting” with sonorities, using deft brushstrokes to conjure a desolate, macabre landscape. Exotic birds cry and caw from the treetops in a humid, sweltering forest, perhaps having borne witness to some unspeakably tragic scene below. The interlocking rhythms and bell-like sound qualities resemble gamelan music, which Ravel might have encountered as a young boy at the 1889 Paris Exposition.

Ravel’s Basque-Spanish heritage comes to the foreground in Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester). The gracioso in Spanish literature is a court jester or entertainer who, as a lower-class, sometimes outcast, figure, often cuts to the quick of the drama with sharp insights masked in humour. This highly-spirited piece contains an element of the grotesque, with dirty harmonies and biting rhythms. One can hear the swooning troubadour’s song, chattering castanets, the buzzing and strumming of guitars, the swishing of skirts and the clicking and stamping of heels.

Charles T. Griffes- Sonata (1918)
 

Charles Tomlinson Griffes was one of the most important American composers of the early 20th Century. Born in Elmira, New York in 1884, he studied piano and composition in Berlin for four years before returning to the America to work at a boys’ school to support his widowed mother and family. He frequently visited New York City to promote his compositions and his reputation as a composer was very much on the rise. However, the burden of his full-time job as a school teacher, combined with the strains of producing new compositions while arduously copying out orchestral parts by hand because he could not afford to pay a copyist, took a toll on his health. Griffes died in 1920 at the age of 35.

Griffes’s musical outlook was extremely eclectic, embracing the sonorities of German Romanticism and French Impressionism while also acknowledging the innovations of Stravinsky, Scriabin and Schoenberg. His orchestral works, in particular the tone poem The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan and the theatre piece Sho-Jo, reflect his fascination with Oriental music and synthetic scales. According to Aaron Copland, Griffes’s main legacy was his “sense of the adventurous in composition, of being thoroughly alive to the newest trends in world music and to the stimulus that might be derived from such contact”.

Griffes's Piano Sonata was his only large-scale work for solo piano. The musicologist Wilfrid Mellers described this "disturbingly powerful" work as a parable of "the ego alone in the industrial wilderness" while Virgil Thomson hailed it as "shockingly original". Although there are three distinct movements, the entire work is conceived like a one-movement sonata played almost without a pause, much like what Scriabin had begun to do with his sonatas. The sonata possesses a kind of grotesque beauty, full of pungent dissonances and exotic Asian and American Indian scales, though gravitating towards D as a tonal centre. Above all, the sonata showcases Griffes's extraordinary mastery of resonance and colour at the piano.

The first movement is launched with a violent, explosive gesture which melts into the sensuous main theme. The music writhes and churns with pent-up intensity, alternating moments of smouldering lyricism with high-octane drama. The second movement is austere and chant-like, with melodies that bathe in a strange, celestial luminosity. The finale is a pulsating, manic dance, which engulfs the entire span of the keyboard. The relentless activity is suddenly suspended with the unexpected reprise of a theme from the second movement, which appears like a shimmering mirage. The ensuing coda bursts forth with raw, seething energy, arriving at an impassioned climax, which erupts with a sense of both tragic desperation as well as exultant defiance.

Henri Dutilleux - Sonata (1948) III. Choral et variations.
 

Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916) is one of the most important French composers of the 20th Century. Keenly aware of the legacy of earlier French composers and the developments in contemporary music, yet refusing to identify with any particular school, Dutilluex has developed a truly individual compositional style which defies easy classification. He is self-avowed perfectionist who firmly believes in “quality over quantity”. His works are generally regarded as being of a uniformly high quality, with a refined yet adventurous use of instrumental timbre and sonority.

Dutilleux composed his Piano Sonata in 1948 for his wife, the pianist Genevieve Joy. He considers this Sonata to be his "Opus 1" and has renounced almost every piece that he had written before it. With this Sonata, Dutilleux was trying to find his own voice as a composer, experimenting with harmony and form. Dutilleux, a competent pianist himself, was especially interested in exploring colours at the piano, seeking to create an "alluring, voluptuous piano sound". The Sonata is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of sonorities and textures, a testament to Dutilleux's natural affinity with the instrument.

The final and most substantial movement of the Sonata, “Choral et variations”, has been described by the composer as a “Sonata within a Sonata”, with the four variations resembling the different movements of a traditional Sonata. The Choral theme opens the movement with an explosion of colour, bringing to mind blinding neon flashes of lightning amid imposing Grecian columns. Canons, diminutions, augmentations and other polyphonic devices figure prominently in the theme and throughout the entire work. The 1st and 2nd variations are really, in themselves, an extended chain of variations escalating in activity and intensity, before dissolving into the slow, ethereal 3rd variation where the choral theme is surrounded by clouds of drifting vaporous harmonies. After the scintillating, virtuosic final variation, the choral theme returns in a blaze of triumph, bringing the work to a thunderous conclusion.

Gian Carlo Menotti - Ricercare and Toccata on a theme from The Old Maid and the Thief
 

Born in 1911, the Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti is recognized as one of the most successful opera composers of his generation. He was also a skilled librettist, writing the libretti for most of his twenty-five operas as well as for Samuel Barber’s celebrated opera, Vanessa. Menotti’s operas such as “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “The Medium” achieved widespread popularity during his lifetime and continue to be performed regularly by both amateur and professional opera companies.

Menotti’s wicked sense of humour, his deft skill with orchestral colour and his knack for writing gorgeous lyrical melodies are hallmarks of his compositional style. He had a consummate understanding of musical drama, creating compelling protagonists and arresting plots that delved deep into the human psyche. Above all, Menotti understood the importance of staying in touch with his audiences, creating an operatic language that was easily accessible and well-loved by fellow Americans. Menotti died in 2007 at the age of 95.

“The Old Maid and the Thief” was Menotti’s first opera written in English and was the first opera ever commissioned for radio. It was first broadcast in 1939. In 1953, Menotti transformed one of the themes from the opera into a Ricercare and Toccata for piano solo. It is probably the only known solo piano work of Menotti today. The entire piece is based on an oscillating chromatic motif that expands in range before contracting back into a single note. The delicious, expressive intervals in this motif hark back to the instrument that was closest to the composer’s heart: the human voice.

The plaintive opening of the Ricercare evolves into a vast, panoramic soundscape, with stark harmonies, glittering streaks of colour, and moments of stillness and contemplation. This is followed by an effervescent Toccata that is full of unflagging high spirits and youthful energy. The piece ends with gentle, understated humour, like an operatic character disappearing offstage with a knowing smile and a twinkle in his eye.

 
 
[ My Programme Notes ]

Copyright (C) 2017.   All Rights Reserved.      Engineered by
ADN