On Wednesday the 25th, I returned to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the second of two recitals given only a week apart by the Piano Performance Forum. On this occasion, the recital lasted almost exactly an hour and featured the works of two of the greatest composers for keyboard, J.S. Bach and Liszt.
The program opened with Bach's Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 (1717-1723) as performed by JiNa Kim. I've always considered this to be Bach's finest work for keyboard and am surprised it's not played more often. The piece was most probably written during Bach's sojourn in Köthen where he served as kapellmeister to Prince Leopold and composed primarily secular music. The position allowed Bach comparatively more freedom of expression, and he made full use of it in creating some of his most iconic works, most notably the cello suites, the violin sonatas and partitas, and the Brandenburg concertos. It did initially strike me as strange to encounter the word "chromatic" in association with Bach since the term usually signifies to twenty-first century listeners the twelve tone scale and hence atonal music. But chromaticism - the interpolation of diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale - was widely used by many composers, including Mozart, and does not in itself denote atonalism. In fact, the chromatic fantasie itself did not originate with Bach - it had been in use as early as the sixteenth century in the music of John Dowland and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
The next work was Bach's Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto ("Concerto in the Italian taste"), BWV 971 (1735); it was performed by Christian DeLuca. Together, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, which I had heard at the prior week's recital, make up the composer's second book of keyboard exercises, Clavier-Übung II. Another feature these works share is that both the Concerto and the Overture were originally intended for the two-manual harpsichord, a rare occurrence in Bach's oeuvre and one that can cause problems in interpretation when played on a modern piano. In publishing the two pieces together Bach was attempting to contrast for his German audience two "foreign" styles of musical composition. Accordingly, while the movements of the French Overture correspond to dances popular in the Baroque era, such as the sarabande and gigue, the three movements of the Italian Concerto use the markings andante and presto that are more familiar to modern audiences. Bach had already spent a great deal of time transcribing for solo keyboard various works by Vivaldi, and this was his own attempt at a concerto grosso in the style of the Italian master but composed for one instrument alone. Bach held Vivaldi in very high esteem, and perhaps for this reason the Italian Concerto is a more successful endeavor than the French Overture. In the Concerto one hears a playfulness and lightness of touch not often found in Bach's music.
The program concluded with a rendition by Qilin Sun of Liszt's famous Sonata in B minor (1853). Perhaps what's most interesting when studying the history of the piece is that it demonstrates that as early as 1853 there were already in place the fault lines that were to divide music lovers in the second half of the nineteenth century. Wagner, proponent of the "new music" and Liszt's future son-in-law, found the piece to be beautiful "beyond all conception" and "sublime." This is not surprising since the sonata makes full use of the device of "thematic transformation" that formed the basis of Wagner's operas. On the other hand, Brahms, who was to become the acknowledged leader of "Classical Romanticism," fell asleep while hearing Liszt play the piece. In much the same manner, Brahms's future champion Eduard Hanslick (the same who was to refer to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto as "music that stinks to the ear") wrote dismissively: "whoever has heard that [the sonata], and finds it beautiful, is beyond help." Even Clara Schumann joined the chorus, writing "This is nothing but sheer racket – not a single healthy idea, everything confused, no longer a clear harmonic sequence to be detected there!" It's fascinating to speculate what her husband Robert, to whom Liszt's work had been dedicated, might have thought of it, but by the time he received his copy he had already been institutionalized and never had an opportunity to hear it performed let alone play it himself. And yet it's evident that Robert's own Fantasie in C major, dedicated to Liszt, influenced the composition of the sonata in both length and structure as well as in the quiet ending that fades to nothingness. The sonata also hearkens back to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy in its single movement form (in the sense that the entire work is performed without pause). Certainly, today these three works are seen as the essence of Romanticism, at least as far as the repertoire for solo piano is concerned.