Program notes by Bill Crane for Rachel Cheung’s SOLO recitals on December 1 and 2, 2018.
SAT / DEC 1, 2018
If , by chance, you have come to the hall this afternoon through a typical Portland autumn rainy afternoon, it might well be worth remembering its look and feel as in this program there is a lot of evocation of rain and mist and the sparkling of light on water and so on. Even the pieces that are not specifically “program music” about rain and water have tons of very rapid notes that sweep and swoop along to great musical effect. And, there is more than a touch of melancholy – often the companion of gray, raining afternoons – and longings of the heart. Today’s recitalist invites us on a special journey of challenge, reflection, refreshment, even exhilaration. No umbrella needed.
But, first, let us consider the innocent, charming Rondo of Mozart.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Rondo in a minor K. 511
Such a tender opening for an afternoon recital, rainy/misty or not! The theme of this rondo, with its vascillation between minor and major tonalities, and its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme, is a masterpiece of the concentration of ideas and the showing forth of emotion. Listen carefully to the little ornament that Mozart places right at the very beginning of the theme – and that he will utilize again in the piece about 50 times – and the descent and rising up of the melody, sometimes in regular old scales, sometimes in chromatic complications for nuance, and you will begin to be haunted by the magic of a piece atypically short on display and long on expression.
The ornamentation and increasingly adventuresome harmonies proceed throughout the Rondo’s five episodes (the bits different from the main theme), but never merely for silly, decorative purposes. The score bears no dedication and scholars have mused that Mozart may have written the piece just for himself. The famous musicologist and pedagogue Charles Rosen once declared the Rondo in a minor to be Mozart’s finest composition for the piano. Please tell me at intermission in the lobby if you agree.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Fantasie, Opus 17
“ . . . the most passionate thing I have ever composed – a deep lament for you.” R. S. in a letter to Clara Wieck, when still courting her.
Anyone who cares much about the piano and its vast concert literature, and that would be pretty much everyone here today, is certainly acquainted with the history of Robert and Clara Schumann, their many challenges in life, their robust friendship with Johannes Brahms, and so on. Many will also know the Clara was the daughter of one of Robert’s early teachers and that Friederick Wieck tremendously disapproved of their budding romance. In fact, he sent Clara quite far away to make their continued courtship impossible and it was in this time and context that Robert began the work now called the Fantasie, Opus 17.
Beginning in 1836, Robert began the work, first struggling with its form. Should it be a sonata (premeditated, tightly-constructed music) or a fantasy (a nearly improvised outpouring of spontaneous feeling with looser construction)? Once a champion of the balance and perceptibility of the normal sonata form, he had begun to change his mind:
“It looks as if this form has run its course, which is indeed the nature of things; we should not repeat the same thing century after century and also have an eye to the new. So, write sonatas, or fantasies (what’s in a name!), only let not music be forgotten meanwhile.”
Well, whatever his compositional process, it certainly revealed his intense longing for his beloved. Effectively, their only means of communication about their feelings for each other was by musical exchange. In the very first minutes of the Fantasie, one hears a music ultimately imbued with passionate and unresolved longing. And, as one hears almost always in Schumann, it continues in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments.
Clara, far away, was quite touched on receipt of the score: “Yesterday I received your wonderful Fantasy;” she wrote on May 23, 1839, “today I am still half ill with rapture.”
But, there is still more to the history of the marvelous piece. Schumann was already quite successful in his musical world, well acquainted with other active performers and composers. On learning of a plan led by Franz Liszt for a Beethoven memorial to be erected in Bonn, Schumann took his one-movement fantasy and added two more movements (back to that old is-it-a-sonata question!), and proposed that a hundred copies of what he now considered a “Grand Sonata” should be sold for the benefit of the Beethoven statue memorial fund. The fundraising effort was a success and Schumann dedicated the piece to Liszt, but none of that describes its most important affects.
The first movement includes a quote from a Beethoven song cycle, “To the distant beloved;” throughout the work, a distinct “Clara theme” is heard in the form of descending octaves. It is not too much, I think, to call it an ultimate love letter.
The second movement was quite something for Clara: “It makes me hot and cold all over.” Continuous dotted rhythms intensify its obsessive march-like qualities.
A sublime “song without words,” (my designation, not his), is the offering of the third movement. It is, in a way, a surprising tenderness at the concluding stage of this large work. With adventuresome departures into far-away keys, it concludes with C-Major chords, as did the first movement, but with a very different feeling. At the first, they seem hopeful, if longing; in the last, there is much resignation and unbearable sadness. What an astonishing, personal testament to the steadfastness of their love during those turbulent years.
Leo Janacek - In the Mists
Things do, indeed, get “mistier” as we proceed in this program. I offer that adjective in all its senses.
Composed in 1912, In the Mists is a piano cycle that was to be the last of his more substantial works for the piano. With his operas still being rejected by the Prague opera houses, and a few years after the death of his daughter Olga, Janacek set forth on a project resulting in intimate and emotionally available music that sits right between the aesthetics of eastern and western Europe. He had not been a great success professionally and felt himself trapped in a disappointing career and, equally, an unhappy marriage. Some writers even speculate that professionally and personally Janacek felt himself to be “in the mists.”
Thus, there is more than a touch of melancholy, but not of bitterness or anger. Here we hear sounds reminiscent of fiddles and hammered dulcimers from the Moravian folk music tradition. Small melodic fragments from that folk tradition get repeated and transformed in various ways. But, his harmonies are informed by an impressionist tradition. One writer called it “impressionism as heard through Czech ears.”
Characterized by often ambivalent tonalities, seemingly un-related ostinatos, endless transformations of short melodic ideas, many changes of meter, and, at times, a rhapsodic, improvisational style, this music invites a different kind of listening. Let your inner gypsy out a tiny bit, if you like.
Franz Schubert, arr. Franz Liszt - Auf dem Wasser zu singen
One is tempted in considering any of Liszt’s many transcriptions of Schubert’s songs to describe them as “pieces of music in love with pieces of music.” Actually, I do that pretty often. It seems to me a better way to talk about Liszt’s glowing admiration for Schubert’s music than to be a cranky musicologist and to describe the way that Liszt derived florid, brilliant parlor or even encore pieces from merely pretty songs (as though that were a bad thing!) It seems to me that this song transcription is a sweet homage to a beloved melody, a barcarolle that in its accompaniment certainly reflects the shimmering waves upon which the narrator of the text found himself. In its text, the narrator reflects on the passing of time. Liszt somehow, to my ears, makes Schubert’s original even more touching, more haunting.
Published in 1838, it is the first of a group of thirteen similar transcriptions. Liszt insisted that those who played them should be aware of the words and that the texts should be published above the transcription. Perhaps one of Liszt’s American pupils, Amy Fay (1844-1928) had the best thing to say about this music:
“Not only is Liszt’s music brilliant, not only does he pour his wealth of pearls and diamonds down the keyboard, but his pieces rise to great climaxes, are grandiose in style, overleap all boundaries, and whirl you away with the vehemence of passion.” (A musician in love with a musician? Hmm.)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - Les jeu d’eaux a la Villa d’Este
“Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague by immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined by real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.” - F.L.
Arguably one of the 19th century’s most brilliant demonstrations of “pictorial” music, and one of the most difficult pieces Liszt ever wrote, the “Fountains at the Villa d’Este” is truly a tone poem, in a sense presaging what Richard Strauss would later write for orchestra. Through cascades of notes, we nearly see and hear the fountains of the famous estate just outside Rome in the sparkling sunshine. Bouncing water droplets are suggested by staccato passages. From tittering figures at the highest end of the keyboard through dramatic chords over the entire range to the lowest end, the music is wildly evocative of a place Liszt obviously loved during his third of the “Years of Pilgrimage.”
Liszt had spent the late 1830s traveling throughout Switzerland and Italy with his mistress Marie d’Agoult and during that time and subsequent years he composed intense personal reflections of the landscapes and art masterworks of the Italian Renaissance that they had seen. In the third volume of these Annees de Pelerinage, published about 25 years after the prior two volumes, three of its seven pieces were inspired by the Villa d’Este, to which he had been invited by the resident Cardinal.
Opening with brilliant arpeggios of complex chords of rich harmonies and plenty of tremolos, all of it starting in the piquant key of F-sharp Major, here is pianism at its most athletic and stirring. The drama goes on and on, but then suddenly departs from the description of beautiful water to a, perhaps, spiritual consideration. A simple melody, accompanied by sweeping arpeggios, invites a different consideration, one for which Liszt wrote an inscription in that place in the score: “Sed acqua quarm ego dabo ei, fiet in eo fons acquae salientis in vitam aeternam.” (“But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life.”) Not to remain too long in Biblical meditation, music much like the beginning ensues and erupts, then yields to the plain chords of the closing to refocus on the mystical element of the middle section. Quite a “musical postcard,” Liszt’s Jeux would prove to be the inspiration for all manner of musical fountains later, including Ravel’s own Jeux d’eau.
Mephisto Waltz No. 1
The first, and most celebrated, of four “Mephisto Waltzes,” written in about 1859, was originally composed for orchestra, then transcribed for piano solo, duet, and two pianos. Of indescribable technical difficulty, it is a perennially favorite “show stopper” for pianists and a real winner for audiences. It is movingly descriptive of the age-old tale of selling one’s soul to the devil, or more discretely invoked as “The Faust Legend,” as written not by Goethe (the most well-known version), but by Nikolaus Lenau. Liszt, in fact, published this program note from Lenau in the score:
“There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter a take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song.”
The early 20th-century American music critic James Huneker described the work’s “languorous syncopated melody” as “one of the most voluptuous episodes outside of the Tristan score.” Mephisto, the character, of course, is the devil, and Liszt does an excellent job of portraying the evil temptations generated by him, gleefully luring Faust and the villagers into sin. In imitation of a fiddle being tuned up, the music begins with a certain mood, then launches into a frenzied theme. A second theme, that “languorous, syncopated melody,” follows, and proceeds, at first reflective, then agitated, and, ultimately, quite erotic as it describes Faust’s amorous advances. The two themes get unified in pianistic fireworks of great complexity. Then, nightingale is heard, representing a passionate love scene, just before the piece proceeds to an exceptionally dramatic coda.
Written some years after Liszt had ended his tours as a performer to concentrate on composition, the waltz clearly reflects his own remembered experiences and, in a way, feeds the widespread 19th-century fascination with the virtuoso as someone demonic himself. Oh, the fevers he must have induced!
SUN / DEC 2, 2018
Cesar Franck, arr. Harold Bauer - Prelude, Fugue, and Variation in b minor, Opus 18
“Franck is enamored of gentleness and consolation; his music rolls into the soul in long waves, as on the slack of a moonlit tide. It is tenderness itself.” – Harriet Brower
Full disclosure: your annotator here is an organist first and a pianist second, so may reveal certain prejudices! Kidding! I actually think that this transcription of one of Franck’s most famous and most beautiful organ works is splendidly, voluptuously wonderful. Its ethereal nature is, if anything, enhanced by the dynamic possibilities of the piano. Nonetheless, it was originally for the organ and I hope that you will get to hear someone play it in that form, too, one day soon.
It should be remembered, though, since I made that little caveat, above, that Franck was first a pianist and very much an organist second. In fact, when he began his organ study, the pedals were for him, his “third hand.” But, he took like a proverbial canard to water and became one of the most famous organist/composers of the Romantic era. At a young age, he was appointed organist (having been choirmaster there for some years) at the Basilica of Ste-Clotilde in Paris, a very prestigious post, and remained there for decades. (There is a great high-relief statue of him at the console in the garden in front of the church. Do go see it next time you’re in Paris.)
He wrote volumes of music for Ste-Clotilde’s new organ, an instrument in a very special tonal style by the inventor/builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll. The “P, F, & V” is probably his most immediately engaging work from that tall stack of dramatic pieces.
A pastoral Prelude opens the piece with a sinuous melody, extended wonderfully over a simple accompaniment in triple meter. A bridge of just nine bars of dense chords leads to a plaintive Fugue, almost narrative in its unfolding, although one might be challenged to say just what the tale is about. The sole Variation reprises almost note-for-note the original theme, but this time enhanced by a counterpoint that Mendelssohn would have been proud of, then ends quietly in a profoundly satisfying kind of way.
Very few quotes exist from Franck himself, but I do so like this one: “I, too, have written some beautiful things.”
Frederick Chopin - 24 Preludes, Opus 28
“I don’t know where there can be so many pianists as in Paris, so many asses and so many virtuosi.” - F.C.
“Hats off gentlemen, a genius!” – Robert Schumann on Chopin
It was, as you probably know, in the early days of his often tempestuous relationship with the writer Georges Sand (nee Amantine Dupin), starting in 1838, that Chopin composed his 24 Preludes of Opus 28. Chopin was at a very high point in his career, with countless successes of composition and performances and with an enviable position in “society” in Paris, along with long lines of students eager to take lessons from him. He and Sand decamped for Majorca, but, alas, were exiles there because of his diagnosis of tuberculosis shortly after arrival. Volumes have been written about that remarkable episode in both their lives and it would be easy to read extra-musical influences into the origins of these breathtaking, if often-heard, preludes, but let’s leave all that to another time. Or, if you like, run to the library or Powell’s for any of the significant treatises on this unique history.
“Prelude,” of course, so often has the connotation of being something before something else; that is, a piece of music to set up the tonal and mood context of a following piece of music. Such is not the case here, though, as these are all pieces that quite stand on their own, separate from one another and from other musical works.
Many composers, probably beginning with Bach, and continuing through Debussy, Scriabin, Shostakovich, plus others, have composed sets of 24 preludes on each of the major and minor keys of the 12 notes within the octave. Chopin did likewise, but took a different path. Instead of marching right up the keyboard, white-note-black-note-white-note-etc., he paired each major key with its relative minor (meaning that they use the same number of sharps or flats in the key signature) and proceeds through the whole bunch by a path that every intermediate music student learns to call the “circle of fifths.” It’s a cool way to organize these splendid pieces, more than just cataloging them.
As is always true with the music of Chopin, they vary widely and wildly in style and emotion. The markings for each forewarn this: agitated, slowly, lively, very slowly, quite quickly, very fast, sustained, with fire, in a singing style, quickly passion, and so on. Each is concise and very focused in its architecture. Chopin avoided giving them titles, so not as to confuse their musical intent beyond what is presented in the notation, but scholars and even Sand herself liked to append these descriptive elements. I won’t note any of them here. You might like to jot down your own musings at home tonight.
The preludes are very short, many of them lasting under a minute. As Thomas Jefferson noted about letter-writing, it is much harder to say something in a shorter framework than a longer one. Thus, the Preludes are unique exemplars of Chopin’s aesthetic: lyricism, beauty, along with anxiety, virtuosity, remarkable intellect, and a prescience of mortality. They stand as a distillation of his style and character in only 45 minutes.
Franz Schubert - Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
One must be a very brave and very accomplished pianist to take on the great B-flat Sonata of Schubert. It helps, too, to be wise, if not wise-in-years, as is certainly the case with Rachel Cheung today, to approach this vast work, spanning, as it does, a remarkable vista of the human experience, all in one sitting at the piano.
This is acutely true, it seems to me, when the artist contemplates that this is effectively Schubert’s last instrumental composition, something written just two months before he died prematurely. It was one of the really triumphal masterpieces that he completed in those last months of his life. Much of the music of that period was recognized for its excellence in the time right after his death, but not so much his piano music, particularly the three final piano sonatas. They appeared, actually, a full decade after Schubert’s death and it was a publisher who added a dedication to Schumann, one of Schubert’s greatest admirers, in publication.
One must not necessarily read into this wonderful sonata indications that Schubert was utterly anticipating his own demise. There are composers, Mahler and Shostakovich prevalent among them, who have very much “spoken” of their mortality in their late compositions, but that may not be the case here. Schubert’s health had failed more and more in his final year and his music of this time bears an especial depth and poignancy (albeit these things not being lacking in his earlier music), but this sonata is not a “farewell.” Let me say below why I think this is the case.
The first movement begins quite simply with an unusually expressive, flowing melody with straightforward chordal accompaniment, but only eight measures in is fractured by a low trill deep in the left hand and the music utterly stops. A really significant silence, marked with a fermata to be certain that the pianist really plays the silence, interrupts this gentle first idea in an almost frightening way. It seems somehow a premonition of something beautiful cut short, way too early. The theme resumes, the trill interrupts again, but, somehow, the music continues. In the proceedings of this first movement, the longest part of the sonata, we hear some of the very most expressive music Schubert ever wrote, full of the harmonic freedom and occasional surprises for which we have come to love his music, then ends quietly with a restatement of that original theme. But that “beauty cut short” bit, for me at least, remains haunting.
The second movement is no less moving than the first. Its solemn first melody in a surprising key is put forth with an unusual accompaniment that, in its wide range over the keyboard, envelopes the main idea. Its middle section is of an exceptional nobility – a really sit-up-straight gorgeousness.
The scherzo flashes all over the keyboard and in its delightful flowing along seems almost a waltz. Schubert specified in the score that it should be played con delicatezza; what a fine gift for the ears.
The final Allegro “but not too fast” dances magically with two ideas developed brilliantly, navigating round and round in harmonically surprising ways. There is plenty of the dazzle that one would always expect in Schubert, particularly in such a grand work, but there is a wistfulness, too, always present, that lends a gravity, a profundity, that can haunt one for a long time. It certainly has me.