Program notes by Bill Crane for Boris Giltburg’s SOLO recitals on November 10 and 11, 2018.
SAT / NOV 10, 2018 / 4PM
Maurice Ravel, Le tombeau de Couperin, M. 68
"Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second." M.R.
One is so immediately drawn into Ravel’s voluptuous sound world with the very first notes of Le Tombeau. This surely must be some of his most personal, intimate music and, indeed, it is. Begun in 1914, it is one of several such suites in a long French tradition of pieces written in tribute to a departed colleague or master. A literal translation of tombeau, of course, is “tomb,” but in French it also carries the sense of “memorial.”
Ravel sought originally to honor the great 18th-century composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733), called Le Grand, for his establishment of clarity, grace, and refinement in keyboard music and to celebrate the tradition thus begun and continued in French music for a very long time. He sought to do so by using the characteristic, dance-inspired compositional forms of Couperin’s time, but, of course, with his own twists on the ideas.
That original intention, though, would be greatly altered by the coming of World War I. Ravel turned his project into a set of memorials for personal friends who had died in conflict, all the while honoring Couperin’s creative spirit. Although he was 39 when the great war began and he had earlier been exempted from military service, in 1915, he enlisted in an artillery unit as a truck and ambulance driver.
He served on the exceptionally dangerous front until he had to be hospitalized in 1916 and then was finally discharged in 1917, having witnessed indescribable horrors and the deaths of many friends. He returned to the Tombeau project and its movements, hence, were dedicated to particular people who had given their lives for their country.
The music comprised of these six movements is not necessarily better apprehended by detailed descriptions of each. Rather, one can just really enjoy the perpetual motion, fluid and smooth, of the opening, that gives over to a fast dance in 6/8, the evolves into a minuet of a slightly melancholy elegance, and so on until the ending with a lively courtly dance in C Major – light even in the face of mourning. Ravel, in fact, had once harshly replied to a critic who had claimed that the music was not serious enough for a memorial, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
One should listen, I believe, to Le Tombeau with especially keen attention as Ravel here is sharing his most personal reactions from experiences that almost no one in this hall will have had. This is music that invites a deeper engagement in its significance, beyond just enjoying its astounding beauty. It is arguably a perfect opening for a recital in our own troubled times.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in f minor, Opus 57, No. 23
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” L.v.B.
In the popular imagination, or at least in the cartoon-informed version, of Beethoven’s character, one always easily thinks of his angry, difficult temperament, his seeming to defy anything and everything that would constrain his singular will to expand the limits of music. And, hardly anyone ever talks about Beethoven without mentioning his going deaf in the latter part of his life. He had good reason to be angry at the world!
But his music, it seems to me, never has that sort of scattershot rage that one sees now and then in the hysterical. Rather, again and again, he distills his crimson emotions into exceptional and recognizable, coherent portraits of the human condition. Passion, indeed, has many facets. So many things can be felt simultaneously by a pounding heart.
It is thus in this sonata with its exceptionally appropriate subtitle, “Appassionata,” albeit posthumously so designated by a publisher. Musicologists will tell you that it is one of the three most recognized sonatas from Beethoven’s middle period, “Les adieux” and “Waldstein” being the others. After he had written his first 15 sonatas (up to Opus 28), he wrote to a colleague, “From now on, I’m going to take a new path.” And, oh boy, did he ever.
With an exceptional economy of motives (fancy musicologist talk for “ideas”), Beethoven plunges right in to tell a tale of a heart bursting, utterly, with emotion. From the very first da-dah-dumm of the opening notes, the listener cannot fail to be engaged. With sounds and ideas that race all over the keyboard, the music is so dense and full of fury that the listener can easily be overwhelmed. The end of the first movement, a coda, seems about to burst into flames, but then ends in a tenuous tremolo. What will come next?!
Well, a remarkable contrast, that’s what. The slow movement, a theme with four variations, is a great relief from all that drama. That is not to say that it is without great beauty nor less vivid emotion. On the contrary, it can draw one in sneakily to a place of cautious repose. (The theme also can easily get stuck in the mind’s ear, delightfully for the most part, for a long time.)
Ah, but whatever that burning emotion was about in the beginning returns amplified in the final movement. A “wrong” chord acts as a call to battle over that great emotion from the beginning. A fusillade of 16th notes up and down and up and down the keyboard develops and amplifies the straightforward, but poignant motives of the movement. Finally, in the Presto section, the whole of it is caught up into a whirlwind conclusion. The performer and the audience may, indeed, be near exhaustion, but Beethoven then ups the game: a coda with pounding sforzando phrases over insanely rapid running accompaniment leads to f-minor chords at the bottom of the keyboard, bringing us back to the harmonic center where we started. It would not be wrong to feel worn slick by the end.
This unprecedented revelation of personal emotion, neatly and pointedly formed into musical perfection, moved the parameters on depth of expression in music. The music of the composers of the Romantic period that followed was indelibly influenced by Beethoven’s daring. This was music that changed the world. We are the better for it.
Dimitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Opus 73, as transcribed by Boris Giltburg
“What can be considered human emotions? Surely not only lyricism, sadness, tragedy? Doesn’t laughter also have a claim to that lofty title? I want to fight for the legitimate right of laughter in ‘serious’ music.” – Soveskoye, 1934, D. S.
Shostakovich wrote only one piece of music in 1946, the same year that Boris Pasternak began writing Dr. Zhivago, and it was this quartet, heard today brilliantly transcribed for one (very brave) pianist. This was just after his Ninth Symphony had been condemned by the Soviet artistic authorities about a year after its premiere. About that work, he had predicted, accurately, that “musicians will like to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it.”
The criticism was blunt: “ideological weakness” and a failure “to reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union.” Thus, it is easy to imagine that Shostakovich felt pretty tender around the edges. He knew that he was officially in trouble.
Thus, one comes to the intriguing matter about the descriptive titles that he originally gave to the quartet’s movements:
1. Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm
2. Rumblings of unrest and anticipation
3. Forces of war unleashed
4. In memory of the dead
5. The eternal question: Why? And for what?
One can easily imagine that he feared being accused of formalism or elitism in those terrifying years. However, he soon dropped those indications and gave the normal ones that one might expect: allegretto, etc., as indicated in today’s program.
Yes, this is very passionate music. But, as it proceeds, there is an ample helping of enigma, ambiguity, and a sense of a sort of spiritual progress. The final ending, pianissimo, ultra-calm in plain old F Major, borders on un-nerving. But, let us start at the beginning.
The first movement begins in the “pastoral” key of F Major with a very pleasing first theme, but then drifts away from that clear tonal center. A sense of unease grows in the movement until its end. Worried that it might be misunderstood, though, Shostakovich wrote to his composer and teacher colleague Edison Densov that the first movement should be played not forcefully but with tenderness.
The second movement opens with melody above an ostinato (serially repeated notes) driving toward danger, but arriving in a seeming pastoral idyll.
In the third movement, energetic and in g-sharp minor, quite blatant mocking of all things military is evident. (Shostakovich had called this a “war quartet,” after all.) Its dissonance and disjointed variations in timing would appear again in his later symphonies.
The simple straightforwardness of the first movement returns in the fourth and unfolds a piercing grief through the compositional device of the passacaglia, many musical figures structured upon a repeated figure. The relentless repetitions of the passacaglia lend it an unstoppable momentum.
The final C of the fourth movement leads immediately (attacca) to the fifth, a whirlwind of fierce, melancholic, taunting motives. A sad melody builds in tension, full of pathos, with the theme from the prior movement returning. From there, the music ends in a peaceful conclusion, albeit quite different from the calm with which the quartet began. The three final F Major chords are quite evanescent.
Shostakovich himself thought of this quartet as one of his best compositions. And, it certainly held memories of an exceptionally fraught time for him. Some years after it was composed, premiered, and then dropped from concert performance, when it came back into accepted repertory officially, he went to a rehearsal by the Beethoven String Quartet, the ensemble who had premiered it some years earlier. A colleague from the group remembered:
“Only once did we see Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. We were rehearsing his Third Quartet. He’d promised to stop us when he had any remarks to make. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat in an armchair with the score opened out. But after each movement ended he just waved us on, saying, ‘Keep playing!’ So we performed the whole quartet. When we finished playing, he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face. This was the only time that I saw Shostakovich so open and defenseless.”
As much as an astounding accomplishment, Boris’s transcription and performance today seem like an unparalleled gift and an intimate homage. Bravo, B.G.!
Prokofiev, Sonata No. 3 in a minor, Opus 28 (“From Old Notebooks”)
“I have never doubted the importance of melody. I like melody very much, and I consider it the most important element in music, and I labour many years on the improvement of its quality in my compositions.
“I want nothing better, more flexible or more complete than the sonata form, which contains everything necessary for my structural purposes.” S.P.
At 26 years of age, in the tumultuous Russian year of 1917, Sergei Prokofiev was exceptionally productive. It is from this time that his Classical Symphony, First Violin Concerto, and the Visions Fugitives all come, as did his third and fourth piano sonatas. A decade before, he had sketched out several piano sonatas and decided to return to those earlier thoughts – now a more “developed” composer – and to bring their themes into bigger blossom.
Of unusual brevity, only seven minutes, and in just one movement, at that, the Third Sonata, nonetheless, is a grand work, in all the meanings of that term, with an easily perceptible architecture and majesty. Beginning with a meter marked as 4/4 (12/8), the music takes off in a fury, stating the main idea right at the get-go. The contrast of the second theme, all melody, moderation, tranquility, and simplicity, could not be more profound. Then the fury returns, with the ideas developing around each other, leading to a giant climax, fortissimo, and a long coda of anxious energy that delivers a final cadence of real thunder.
Prokofiev himself gave the premiere in April of 1918, appropriately anxious about the changing political climate in Russia. He left for the United States three weeks after and did not return to Russia until 15 years later.
SUN / NOV 11, 2018 / 4PM
“The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt - they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.” S. R.
Well, if you’re ready to exalt today, you’ve come to the right place. There will likely be more exaltation erupting from the Lincoln Performance Hall stage today than a revival in a Southern tent meeting on a balmy evening.
That, I claim, is because our recitalist today is giving us all 24 preludes of Rachmaninoff, a crazy, generous, wonderful thing to do. Many composers have worked up sets of 24 preludes. (Bach did it twice and with fugues! Chopin had his in Opus 28. Debussy wrote two sets of 12 preludes. Scriabin contributed his in Opus 11. Shostakovich put his forth with fugues, as well. Charles-Valentin Alkan went slightly overboard with 25. And the contemporary Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach has composed three sets of 24 preludes!)
But, for grandeur, inventiveness, daunting technical demands, heart-felt musicality – in short, all the stuff for which we love the Russian piano tradition – it is hard to find a shorter route to exaltation than Rachmaninoff’s preludes.
Of course, they are not a “set” like some of the other composers noted above. They come from different times in the composer’s life over a period of 18 years and do cover all the major and minor keys. Rachmaninoff did not care to play all 24 at once in concert, as is the case today, and recorded only eight of them in his lifetime, but played groups of them in most of his many concerts. With some accessible to good amateur pianists, others significantly more demanding (and rewarding), their popularity remains undiminished.
The opening prelude this afternoon, the c-sharp minor, gave Rachmaninoff sudden fame in 1892 at the age of 19. Perversely, it was so often demanded by his audiences, who so often cried “Play it, play it!” that Rachmaninoff simply referred to it as the “It Prelude” and grew tired, then resentful, of it. (This was true in 1921 when Rachmaninoff played it himself in a concert in Portland at the Marquam Grand Opera House, which stood just north of the present Pioneer Courthouse Square.) If one, though, gets rid of any memories of cartoon background music or tortured performances from long-ago teachers’ studio recitals, it is a stirring work.
And, with that, we’re off to even bigger exaltation. In the Ten Preludes of Opus 23, one may hear that it was a joyful time for the composer. He had married his cousin, Natalia Satin in 1902, and they were expecting their first child. The set is dedicated to another cousin and patron, Ziloti, who regularly performed Rachmaninoff’s music abroad and made it known to a wider public. (Rachmaninoff had, though, also commented to a friend that he composed this set of preludes because he needed to make some money.)
About the preludes, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy remarked that they contain “an unmistakable Russian intensity, strong lyrical melodies, and changes of character that range from sublime sweetness to passionate virtuosity.” It seems to me a bit too pedantic to comment on each of them individually, but it can be said candidly that they are by turns, lyrical, gloomy, idyllic, ironic (but never ambiguous), sometimes like marches and often overwhelmingly beautiful. Once asked about his compositional process, Rachmaninoff said, “I hear the music in my head. When the music stops, I write it down.” Indeed!
It is good to hear the whole of Opus 23 at one sitting today as they have thematic and harmonic similarities from one prelude to the next, revealing a larger, connected structure. It is a lot to take in all at once, nonetheless.
Maxim Gorky’s note will probably seem especially appropriate at this juncture: “How well he hears the silence.” We might need some just now.
It was seven years after the Opus 23 that Rachmaninoff, more confident, productive, and stable, undertook the project of Opus 32, which would complete the cycle of preludes for all the major and minor keys (as the composers noted above had done.) Amazingly, he completed it in just 19 days in 1910, with three of them (Nos. 5, 11, and 12) being written in just one day!
Although Rachmaninoff retained his characteristic style/tone/approach throughout his compositional career, Opus 32 does show a slightly more subtle and harmonically advanced style the he developed in his middle years. These preludes are just a bit more complex and original overall than the earlier set. The technical demands are increased a bit. The poignancy of the themes, at times, seems increased. One might even argue that they exalt just a bit more. Let’s talk about that in the foyer after today’s concert.
Rachmaninoff was an extraordinarily private, introverted man, particularly as he got older. Even if one reads many of his some 1,000 extant letters, it is hard to gain a sense of the man as a man. He hated interviews and rarely wrote of his personal feelings, preferring to put such things into his music. His first child, Irina, born when he was finishing Opus 23, when older once heard her father say, “. . . all I feel and experience is told far better, more clearly and truthfully in my compositions.” In getting to hear 24 very personal statements all at once about the human condition, good and bad, beautiful and challenging, we may come away from this concert with a better, more heart-felt understanding of a composer long beloved by everyone for whom the piano is important. Congratulations for the exaltation.