Thursday, November 15, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin

Yesterday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall for the first time this season to hear a recital given by the school's Piano Performance Forum.  The recital featured four pianists who among them performed works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin.

The program opened with Ke Wang performing Mozart's Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (1789), one of six written for the Prussian Princess Friederike.  It is the extensive use of counterpoint in both the opening and final movements that renders this sonata so difficult to perform.  As a program note from the Seattle Symphony states:
"A playful Allegretto born of a simple melody sets the music in motion. Once Mozart presents the tune he immediately adds a contrapuntal second theme constructed from rapid 16th-note triplets. This new motive appears in inverted form above the main theme, creating an example of expert double counterpoint, a nod to Baroque era polyphony. The composer had clearly absorbed old Bach’s rich fugal style that Mozart first fully explored in 1782 when Baron von Swieten, Imperial Viennese Court librarian, had lent the composer scores from his collection of music by the Cantor of Leipzig."
I had last heard this work performed almost exactly three years ago by virtuoso András Schiff in one of a series of recitals that featured the late sonatas of the four great masters of that genre - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 (1820) as performed by Jansen Ryder.  This piece was the first of the master's three final sonatas and, together with the Diabelli Variations he wrote during the same period, the culmination of his thoughts on music composed for the piano.  In its structure, the Op. 109 differs so markedly from all the Beethoven sonatas that had preceded it that it is fair to call it revolutionary.  The first movement is extremely short, so much so that it has been suggested that the composer originally intended the work to consist of only the latter two movements and added this one on later.  The third movement is most unusual for a sonata in that it contains a theme and variations.  Beethoven wrote the piece at the same time he was working on the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis and it was obvious that he was moving into uncharted territory.  His inability to hear his own works or those of other composers had completely isolated him by this point from the world around him.  Terrible as it must have been to have been so afflicted, his condition can actually be seen as an advantage in the sense that he was free to move forward with the development of his own musical ideas without having to concern himself with popular taste or even the sound of his own works when played.  More than any other artist before or since, he was locked into the world of pure imagination and freed from any other considerations.  

This sonata too I had heard performed in 2015 by András Schiff in still another of his recitals featuring late sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The series culminated the following year when Sir András peformed the very last sonatas by the same four masters. That performance turned out to be one of the most thrilling piano recitals I've attended at Carnegie Hall.

The next pianist to take the stage was Angie Zhang who proceeded to perform works by Beethoven and Debussy, respectively the Variations WoO 80 and the lyrical L'Isle Joyeuse.

Beethoven's works without opus number generally date from the earliest part of his career and for the most part represent youthful efforts that the composer did not consider worthy enough to be assigned a number, that designation being reserved for more important pieces.  The 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806), however, date from the middle period when Beethoven had attained full mastery of his talents and are roughly contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony.  Although the variations certainly do not constitute a major work, it's not entirely clear why Beethoven held them in such low esteem.  They are actually quite powerful.

Debussy's L'isle joyeuse (1904) was inspired by a painting, Watteau’s enigmatic L’embarquement pour Cythère, that actually exists in two versions, the first completed in 1717 and the second the following year. Debussy was always seeking to promote French culture and would take this passion even further a decade later when his country confronted Germany in World War I. For example, his 1890 Clair de Lune was inspired by a poem by Verlaine who not so coincidentally also wrote another in praise of Watteau. There is more to Debussy's musical piece, however, than a mere a celebration of French culture. As the article in Wikipedia indicates, the painting depicts a fête galante and "celebrates love." And love was very much in the mind of the middle aged composer in 1904. He had secretly begun an affair with a banker's wife and had impetuously taken her on a romantic getaway to the island of Jersey where he revised the present work (hence the use in the title of the English "isle" rather than the French "île"). As in his orchestral work La Mer, Debussy in this piece invokes at points the movement of the sea. Far more than an impressionistic rendering of nautical sounds, though, this is an impassioned paean to illicit love as only a Frenchman could write.

The program closed with a very brief work by Scriabin, the wonderfully titled Poème satanique, Op. 36 (1903) performed by Armen Sarkisian.  The composer himself did not think highly of the work.  He complained to the critic Leonid Sabaneyev that it was "the apotheosis of insincerity. It is all hypocritical, false."  The work was written at the very end of the composer's first period when he was still very much under the influence of such Romantic composers as Chopin and Liszt, and this may account for the disdain he later felt for it.

Juilliard has an incredibly strong piano department, and the musicians at this recital demonstrated a high level of skill in performances of works that were without exception technically challenging.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Schumann and Ravel

It was a madhouse on the Upper West Side on Sunday afternoon as runners from the New York City Marathon and the families and friends who had come to cheer them on thronged the streets and avenues.  Since many streets had already been closed off due to security concerns, traffic was at an absolute standstill.  In spite of these hectic conditions a loyal group of classical music lovers somehow managed to make their way to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Omega Ensemble.

The first musician to take the stage was "Next Generation Artist" Astra Phoon, a ten-year old prodigy who proceeded to dazzle the audience with performances first of Fabel, No. 6 of Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) and then of Liszt's Au Bord d'une source, though the program failed to note which of the three versions was used.

The recital proper opened with Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927). As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata. The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed. The No. 2 was an entirely different matter. This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel is masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano. This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another. But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting. Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. The work was performed by violinist Kevin Zhu and pianist David Fung.

The next work was another Schumann "fantasy piece," Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849), originally written for clarinet and piano but here arranged for cello and piano. Though Schumann was the first to coin the term fantasiestücke, the concept of fantasy was at the heart of the Romantic movement; its origins can in fact be traced back to the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The present piece fits the term very well. The first two movements are for the most part dreamy and ethereal but the third, marked Rasch und mit Feuer ("Fast and with Fire") spins off crazily as if the musicians were suddenly possessed. One thinks, of course, of Schumann's breakdown five years later and wonders if there is in this music a premonition of that calamity. On this piece pianist David Fung was joined by cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

After a brief intermission, all three musicians returned to the stage for a performance of the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808). Not nearly as famous as its companion piece, the "Ghost," the No. 2 is nevertheless a major work. At the time he wrote it, Beethoven was at the height of his powers and so confident in his abilities that he no longer worried himself over comparisons to his predecessors. He could instead afford to pay an appreciative tribute in this work to his old teacher Haydn. The trio's opening, for example, in its use of a slow introduction followed by a lively allegro hearkens back to Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," also in the key of E-flat major, while the double variation in the second movement allegretto mimics the use of that same device in the symphony's second movement andante. But Beethoven then proceeds to dazzle his audience with audacious innovations that demonstrate he owes nothing to anyone. This can best be seen in the recapitulation of the opening movement's first theme, introduced in D-flat major by the cello only to be immediately taken up by the piano in E-flat major, a correction so swift and drastic it seems almost a mistake.  But it is when comparing the present piece to Haydn's own piano trios that the differences between the two composers can best be appreciated. Although Haydn composed some forty-five trios, many of them of the highest quality, he invariably assigned the most importance to the piano part and used the strings primarily as accompaniment. In so doing, he was following the tradition of the Baroque trio sonata, in which one or two instruments are given prominence as "soloists" while the others, generally harpsichord and cello, are used as continuo. In contrast, Beethoven here gives all three instruments major roles in working out his musical ideas. As a result, this work is necessarily more complex and better balanced than the trios of Haydn. The interaction among the three instruments imbues the trio with greater depths of expression than would otherwise be possible.

The Omega Ensemble has been in existence since the 1970's and consistently provides a high level of musicianship at its performances.  Sunday afternoon's recital was no exception.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the first installment of this season's Wednesdays at One, Juilliard's midday series of concerts and recitals at which promising musicians have an opportunity to display their talents.  On this occasion it was the solo piano music of Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff that that was featured during the hour-long recital.

The program opened with a performance by Sylvia Jiang of Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 (1722-1723).  The French Suites (a name never given the work by Bach himself) are a set of six keyboard suites, each of which contains several Baroque dance movements, written for instructional purposes during the composer's sojourn in Köthen. a period during which he wrote some of his most important works, including the cello suites, the orchestral suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos.  The Suite No. 5 contains seven movements, the most famous of which is the gavotte.

There were several works by Chopin on the program.  The first was the lovely Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 (1845-1846) as performed by Alexander Yau.  The barcarolle form itself is derived from Venetian gondoliers's traditional folk music and is charactierized by a rhythm reminiscent of the sweep of oars through still waters.  Probably the most famous example of this genre is the hauntingly beautiful Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour that opens the third act of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.

The next pianist to take the stage was Jun Hwi Cho who performed Haydn's two-movement Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:48 (1789).  Although short in length, the sonata contains some of Haydn's most original music as the composer here took advantage of recent improvements in fortepiano design.  The opening movement is a free form fantasia that employs Haydn's signature alternating, or double, variations while the second movement rondo is filled with the wit that would characterize his later works.  It's apparent from this sonata that Haydn was finding new confidence as a composer even before achieving the fame that accompanied his first visit to London two years later in 1791.

Rachmaninoff, one of the twentieth century's greatest composers for solo piano, was represented at this recital by four of his Op. 23 Preludes (1901-1903) - No. 1 in F-sharp minor, No. 2 in B-flat major, No. 3 in D minor, and No. 5 in G minor - as performed by Aleksandra Kausman.  Though for obvious reasons Rachmaninoff's Preludes are often compared to those by Chopin, the two actually have little in common.  To me, Rachmaninoff's have always seemed to display deeper feeling; they are truly suffused with the spirit of Russian Romanticism.  I once heard Vladimir Horowitz play two of the Op. 32 Preludes (the G major and G-sharp minor) and thought them the high point of that long ago recital.  The Op. 23 G minor, composed two years before the others, is deservedly the best known of the earlier set.  The pervasive sense of melancholy in the central section never fails to move the audience. 

The program concluded with a performance by Biguo Xing of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842, revised 1843).  The ballade genre itself was Chopin's own invention and was reputed, at least by Robert Schumann, to have been inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz.  All four are extremely complex works but the fourth most especially so in its extensive use of counterpoint and its simultaneous development of both the first and second themes.  It's a truly amazing work and arguably Chopin's greatest achievement as a composer.

This was an excellent recital with an eclectic program in which the Romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff was nicely balanced by the Bach and Haydn selections. The Juilliard pianists were all extremely skilled and each drew a large round of applause from the audience.