Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Programme Notes — romantic piano

Nocturne in F minor (Op 48, No. 2) —  Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

A nocturne is supposed to be inspired by, or evocative of, the night, or at the very least played at night. Mozart wrote 'notturnos' for mixed wind and strings, but the Nocturne as a short piano piece was more-or-less invented by the Irish pianist/composer John Field (1782 – 1837).  However the form was made his own by Chopin who, between 1830 and 1846, wrote 21 of these characteristically short, moody, pieces. This nocturne was written in 1841 and published the following year. It is marked Andantino.

12 Etude Opus 25   ———   Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

Chopin wrote 27 Studies in all; 12 in the opus 10 set published in 1832, and 12 in this set written over a space of 4 years but published in 1837. They are, of course, studies for the establishment of fundamental piano technique, and many piano virtuosi have composed studies for that purpose, but these by Chopin rise far above the majority in artistic merit, and can be seen as compositional studies over and above their technical role. Chopin himself performed this opus 25 set at a concert, greatly impressing Robert Schumann. Except that 2 and 11 are both in A minor, each is in a different key.

++++++++ Interval ++++++++++++

Rhapsody Opus 79/1 —— Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

The two " Klavierstücke " of opus 79 were written in 1879 at the summit of his career. They were dedicated to his musical friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (herself a composer), and it was she who suggested the slightly pompous renaming of them as 'Rhapsodies'. This No. 1 Rhapsody is like a compressed sonata; the Agitato outer sections (in 'sonata-form') are in B minor, but they surround a more lyrical section in B major.

Nutcracker Suite — Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)/Mikhail Pletnev

This is a piano transcription made by our contemporary Russian virtuoso pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev (1957 - ) of Tchaikovsky's Suite for Orchestra which lasts 20 minutes. The original ballet of 1892 was based on a story by ETA Hoffmann and is in two acts. In Act 1 the characters are human (adults and children) and the toys are toys; in Act 2 they are fantasy — the toys coming to life. There are 23 sections in the ballet, all with evocative titles like 'Decoration of the Christmas Tree', 'Children's Gallop and Dance of the Parents',  'Waltz of the Snowflakes', in Act 1; while in Act 2 taking place in the Land of the Sweets there are: Chocolate (Spanish dance), Coffee (Arabian dance), Tea (Chinese dance), Waltz of the Flowers,  Pas de deux (Sugar-Plum fairy and her Chavalier),  a Tarantella, the famous Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, and a Final Waltz and 'Apotheosis'. In Pletnev's version there are 7 pieces:  March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tarantella, Intermezzo, Trepak (Russian Dance), Tea (Chinese Dance), Pas de Deux.

Scherzo & March (Love of Three Oranges) Op. 33 tert – Sergei Prokofiev

When Prokofiev was in Chicago in 1921 he was commissioned to write an opera. Fortunately he had a draft libretto for a satirical opera in his bag. Knowing as little English as the Americans had Russian, the opera came out first in a French version – "L'amour des trois oranges". The critics were initially doubtful ("The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it."). Prokofiev prepared a 20 minute orchestral suite derived from the music (Styled Opus 33 bis); and from that himself prepared this Scherzo and March for solo piano (Op. 33 tert).

Piano Sonata A minor, Op. 28  ––––  Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)


Prokofiev composed his first opera when he was 9. His father died in 1910 and with him financial security, but the 19 year old son was already becoming known as a composer, albeit in a very 'modernist', polytonal, discordant, vein.  Prokofiev's 3rd piano sonata was 10 years in the making; it was published in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution (Feb), and Prokofiev's departure for America (May). It is a short (8 min) work in one movement, and illustrates Prokofiev's interest in departing from the norms of the romantic school; in shock, dissonance, harsh clusters of notes, and dynamic surprises. (Apparently, he was throughout his life an excellent chess player.)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

String Quartet in D, K. 575   —— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 1791) 

i. Allegretto;   ii. Andante;   iii. Menuetto (Allegretto);  iv Allegretto

In April we heard Mozart's Quartet No. 22 in B flat major (K589, Prussian No. 2); today its predecessor, No. 21, the first of the so-called 'Prussian Quartets'. In April 1789, Mozart's wife claiming illness and needing a spa cure (where however she flirted to Mozart's distress), left Mozart desperate for money. Hope came when Prince Lichnowsky, an aristocratic pupil, offered to take him to Berlin and present him to King Friedrich Wilhelm II (himself an amateur cellist). He came back to Vienna intending to write 6 quartets for the King and 6 'easy' piano sonatas for his daughter Princess Frederike. Of the latter, only one was written — Mozart's last piano sonata. Of the quartets, Mozart wrote only 3. Somewhat neglected, these quartets are overshadowed by his earlier 'Haydn' quartets and the later quintets. Some of his contemporaries got the impression that Mozart wrote with a facility bordering on flippancy for he would write out the score without errors while talking to friends, but others insisted that he spent much of the night at the piano, and it was only his extraordinary memory that enabled him to write the fair copy at speed. A distinctive feature of all 3 'Prussian' quartets is the prominent and interesting cello part, intended for the king himself to play. In this, the first of the set, 3 of the 4 movements are marked allegretto ('mildly cheerful' ?). The outer movements are in D major; the andante second movement is in A, the minuet (in D) has a trio section that swithers between D and G.

String Quartet No. 2, (Op. 17)   —— Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)

i. Moderato;   ii. Allegro molto capriccioso;   iii. Lento

At the age of 21 Bartók, travelling abroad as a virtuoso pianist, was stimulated by Strauss's Zarathustra to try his hand at composition (Kossuth in 1903). In 1904, hearing a nanny sing a folk song he was stimulated to take up the collecting and study of Folk Music as his main preoccupation and life's work, with only occasional diversion into composition: the 1st quartet (1909), an opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), 2nd quartet (1917), the ballets Wooden Prince (1916), and Miraculous Mandarin (1919). In 1909 the 28 yr old Bartók married 16 yr old Marta. By then, he was living in Budapest as professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music (where one of his pupils was Sir Georg Solti). The First World War was a relatively peaceful time in Hungary. For Bartók and his colleague, great friend and fellow collector Kodály, it meant that they had to give up their travelling abroad collecting folk songs onto wax cylinders and return to Hungary; turmoil came with Hungary's Soviet revolution after the war. So Bartók spent most of the war simultaneously writing the Wooden Prince and his 2nd quartet; both showing the influence of Debussy. Bartók apparently described the first movement as being in sonata form, the second as "a kind of rondo" and the third as "difficult to define" but possibly a sort of ternary form (Wikipedia). It is not in his 'mature' style, which developed only in the twenties and thirties.

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, (Op. 13)     Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

1. Adagio/allegro vivace, 2. Adagio non lento, 3. Intermezzo (allegretto con moto/allegro di molto), 4. Presto


This quartet, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was 18 years old, is actually his first, as Opus 12 (though called Quartet No. 1) was written two years later. It astonishes the listener with its assured mastery of the medium, and its bold originality; but then we remember that he wrote his superb String Octet (1825) two years before that. Many musicologists have compared Mendelssohn's opus 13 with Beethoven's late quartets, the last of which, though not performed in public till 1828 was published in September 1827 (Beethoven died March 1827). (See e.g.: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/mendelssohn-quartet-in-a-minor-op-13.)  While most contemporaries regarded these late Beethoven quartets as flawed, and even 'horrible', the young Mendelssohn must have obtained and studied the score in the weeks before writing his opus 13. An easily conceded but trivial similarity between older and younger master is that the final movement of Beethoven's last quartet (Op. 135) opens with a musical motif under which Beethoven wrote "Muß es sein?" ("Must it be?"), while in the last 5 bars of the opening adagio, adolescent Mendelssohn quoted the "Ist es wahr?" motif from a song he had previously written (of which the words run "Is it true, is it true that you are always waiting for me in the arboured walk?"). But the one utterance is a disturbed, existential question, while the other expresses the uncertainty and excitement of a youthful romantic yearning. So differ also the works.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Programme Notes: Schubert piano works

Four Impromptus, (Op. 90), D. 899    Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

These 4 impromptus were composed in 1827 (a year before Schubert's untimely death), and published the same year; the first half of a set of 8. In that year Schubert composed, besides these exquisite short piano pieces, yet another failed opera (The Count of Gleichen), a superb German Mass, the E flat piano trio and the sombre song cycle "A Winter Journey". A year of great happiness and sadness; a torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral, letters from 3 publishers asking to publish his compositions, a holiday in Upper Austria (said by Hutchings to be "perhaps the most happy time Schubert had ever known outside Vienna, or in it"). The first Impromptu, in C minor, is a set of variations on two themes; both slow. It ends peacefully in the major. The second, in E flat major, is in ternary form, but with a B-like coda (ABAB'). The A section is a moto-perpetuo of running triplets for the right hand; the contrasting B section drops into a minor key and, approaching the return, it intriguingly combines hints of the running triplet figure. The third, a peaceful, lyrical, reassuring piece in G flat major (6 flats), was reissued 30 years later by the same publisher in G major (1 sharp; for amateur players?)  The fourth Impromptu, in A-flat major, is perhaps the most famous of all Schubert's piano compositions. Its opening consists of cascading arpeggios in the right hand, nowadays usually trivialized by being played too fast in an attempt to bring out the left hand melody. It begins transiently in A-flat minor, though this is written as A-flat major with accidentals. It is in ternary form (ABA) with a calmer middle section. Was this set a sonata taken apart? Probably not, as Schubert numbered his next 4 impromptus 5,6,7,8. However, these 4 impromptus played in this order fit nicely together in mood and key.

Three Piano Pieces, (Op. 90), D. 946   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Schubert died on 19th November 1828. Between March and the beginning of November he wrote: the C major String Quintet, 3 piano sonatas, 2 piano duets (includning the profound Fantasie dedicated to the young countess Caroline Esterhazy), these 3 Klavierstücke, The Shepherd on the Rock, the Schwannengesang songs, and 3 pieces of church music. It was doubtless the fugal writing of the latter that prompted Schubert to turn up on 4th Nov with friend Lanz on the doorstep of Simon Sechter's house for lessons in counterpoint. He missed the second lesson on 10th, and took to his bed 4 days later, fiddling still with the unsuccessful opera The Count of Gleichen. So, a year that saw written much of his sublimest music. These 3 Klavierstücke, written in May, were published (by Brahms) in 1868. It seems likely that there were to be 4, but it is not clear whether they were to be Impromptus or Moments Musicaux, nor even that they were conceived as a set. They are more complex in structure than the preceding set of impromptus (e.g. the 1st is in what could be called compound ternary form: A,B,A',C, D,E,A,B,A',C), they favour remote keys (e.g. 6 and 7 flats), continuous triplets and repeated semiquavers or tremolo effects; all typical of late Schubert. The first is in E minor and marked Allegro Assai. The second, in E major is Allegretto. The third is an Allegro in C major, in which it sounds as though the left hand is behind the beat, but it is really the right hand that is before the beat.

Sonata in D major, (Op. 53), D. 850   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

1. Allegro (vivace), 2. Andante (con moto), 3. Scherzo & Trio, 4. Rondo  (Allegro moderato)
After Schubert's despair in 1824, 1825 was a relatively happy year. He was solvent with Esterhazy guilders, and becoming known to publishers and the musical world of Vienna. He spent from May till September in the ravishing countryside of upper Austria with the retired opera singer Vogl who was a native of that area, moving from place to place, singing and charming as they went, welcomed and dined by the local big-wigs, and charmed in their turn by the young ladies. But it was not all sight-seeing and letter-writing, for Schubert composed his Great C major (9th) Symphony, the Walter Scott songs (which include his Ave Maria), and this D major sonata. For the last 3 weeks, paid for by a well-wisher, he and Vogl stayed at the famous health spa of Bad Gastein (therapeutically investigated by Paracelsus 300 years earlier); so this is called the Gasteiner Sonata. Schubert's composer brother Ferdinand, when offering to sell it to Diabelli after Schubert's death, distinguished it as a Grand Sonata; perhaps on account of its length. It is, however, relatively light hearted, and in many passages has an improvisatory feel. The 1st movement is vigorous; the long andante (in A major), dreamy rather than sombre or painful; the scherzo, rousing, with a sharply contrasted sweet trio section; the rondo almost cheeky in the nursery-like simplicity of its recurring theme.