Friday, January 26, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Shostakovich, Brahms, Corigliano, Szymanowski and Prokofiev

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to Paul Hall to hear the first 2018 recital given by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum.  The program, which lasted approximately 75 minutes, featured works by prominent twentieth century composers - Shostakovich, John Corigliano, Karol Szymanowski and Prokofiev - as well as three brief excerpts by Brahms.

The recital opened with two selections - the No. 7 in A major and the No. 15 in D-flat major - from Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 (1950-1951).  The cycle was the composer's response to Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier; he was inspired to write it immediately after having helped judge a Bach piano competition in Leipzig in 1950.  The gold medal winner at that competition was in fact a Russian pianist, Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing the composer so admired that he dedicated his work to her.  But this was not Shostakovich's first encounter with Bach's monumental keyboard exercise; he had already in his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932) explored the same concept though not so extensively as here.  While the Op. 87 is inarguably one of Shostakovich's greatest achievements in piano writing, its great length makes performance of the entire work in a single recital problematical with the unfortunate result that the full cycle is not often heard.  Recognition of Shostakovich's accomplishment was also hindered by Soviet censorship that took exception to the work's dissonance and labeled the fugue itself a decadent musical form.  At this recital pianist Anna Han gave so brilliant a performance of the two selections that I wished there had been enough time for her to have played the entire work.

The next piece, performed by Jina Kim, consisted of three selections from Brahms's 8 Klavierstücke, Op. 76 (1878).  These were the No. 1, Capriccio in F-sharp minor; the No. 5, Capriccio in C-sharp minor; and the No. 6, Intermezzo in A major.  In titling the anthology "Piano Pieces," the composer was most probably trying to avoid any programmatic associations.  By taking this route, Brahms consciously distanced himself from the approach taken by his one time mentor Schumann whose solo piano works almost invariably followed some form of extra-musical program.  This may have been an indication that Brahms at this point in his career finally considered himself to have come into his own (his first great success, A German Requiem, had had its premiere in 1869), but it may also have been that he simply wished to call attention to the music rather than to any outside associations that might distract from it.

Following the Brahms came Corigliano's Etude-Fantasy (1976).  Until recently, though I had long considered Mr. Corigliano one of the most exciting and adventursome American composers now active, I had never heard very much of his piano music.  A few weeks ago at ChamberFest, however, I heard a performance of his two-piano Chiaroscuro (1997) that really shocked me with its originality.  In much the same way, I was deeply impressed with the earlier five-movement Etude-Fantasy performed at this recital.  The composer's own notes to the work are worth quoting in full:
"My Etude Fantasy is actually a set of studies combined into the episodic form and character of a fantasy. The material in the studies is related most obviously by the interval of a second (and its inversion and expansion to sevenths and ninths) which is used both melodically and in the building of the work’s harmonic structure.
"The first etude is for the left hand alone—a 3½-minute, bold, often ferocious statement which introduces both an opening six-note row (the first six notes of the work) and a melodic germ (marked ‘icy’ in the score) which follows the initial outburst. This etude reaches a climax in which both the row and the thematic germ are heard together, and ends as the right hand enters, high on the keyboard, playing a pianissimo, slow chromatic descent which introduces the next etude—a study in legato playing.
"In this short second etude both hands slowly float downward as a constant crossing of contrapuntal lines provides melodic interest. The sustaining of sound as well as the clarity of crossed voices is important here.
"The third etude follows—a fleet development on the simple pattern of a fifth (fingers one and five) contracting to a third (fingers two and four). In this section there is much crossing of hands and during the process a melody emerges in the top voices. A build-up leads to a highly chromatic middle section (marked ‘slithery’) with sudden virtuosic outbursts, after which the melody returns to end the etude as it began.
"The fourth etude is a study of ornaments. Trills, grace notes, tremolos, glissandos and roulades ornament the opening material (Etude 1) and then develop the first four notes of the third etude into a frenetically charged scherzando where the four fingers of the left hand softly play a low cluster of notes (like a distant drum) as the thumb alternates with the right hand in rapid barbaric thrusts. This leads to a restatement of the opening six-note row of the Fantasy in a highly ornamented fashion.
"After a sonorous climax comes the final etude, a study of melody. In it, the player is required to isolate the melodic line, projecting it through the filigree which surrounds it; here the atmosphere is desolate and non-climactic, and the material is based entirely on the melodic implication of the left-hand etude, with slight references to the second (legato) etude. The work ends quietly with the opening motto heard in retrograde accompanying the mournful two-note ostinato."
My appreciation for the work was enhanced by the bravura performance given it on Wednesday by pianist Qilin Sun.  Unfortunately, the program notes to the recital did not indicate if Mr. Corigliano had coached this performance as he had that of Chiaroscuro, but as he's on the Juilliard faculty he most likely had some input.

The next work was "Schéhérazade," taken from Szymanowski's Masques, Op. 34 (1915-1916) and performed by Jiaying Ding.  Masques was written during World War I while the composer was residing at his parents' home in the Ukraine after having been found unfit for military service.  Perhaps it was to escape the immediacy of the war that the composer took refuge in writing programmatic music set in distant times and places.  Shortly after having completed Métopes, Op. 29, whose settings were based on incidents from Homer's Odyssey, Szymanowski again adapted literary sources in Masques but this time more with tongue in cheek, going so far as to describe the work's style to his friend Stefan Spies as "supposedly a parody."  Such a statement, however, belied the composer's serious interest in his sources.  Far from dabbling in Orientalism, Szymanowski had actually traveled to the North Africa where he had encountered Mideastern music first hand.  He was also widely read in Islamic culture.  There is consequently an authenticity in his evocation of The Arabian Nights that raises the music far above the level of a mere pastiche.

The program concluded with pianist Schuaizhi Wang performing Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83.  This is the second of the composer's "War Sonatas."  Although the piece was not completed until 1942, Prokofiev had already begun sketching it as early as 1939 when already at work on the No. 6, Op. 82.  The work was premiered in Moscow in January of 1943 by the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.  By then the Soviet Union was at war and fighting for its very survival as the decisive Battle of Stalingrad raged against the Nazi invaders.  The work captures perfectly the spirit of the times.  If anything, the mood of desperate uncertainty expressed in the No. 6 is only heightened in this work whose opening movement is marked allegro inquieto.  As Richter later remarked:
"With this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by before thereby ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force."
The most interesting movement, for me at least, is the second marked Andante caloroso.  This part could at first be mistaken for the work of Rachmaninoff, so completely does it recall the Russian Romantic tradition.  Though Prokofiev could never have admitted it, the movement seems filled with nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Russia.  To Soviet citizens living through the horrors of war and Stalinism the old days must have seemed in retrospect an ideal time now lost forever.

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