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.