Program notes by Bill Crane for Behzod Abduraimov’s SOLO recitals on January 26 and 27, 2019.
In these present concerts, it seems to me, the astonishing young Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov has invited us back to one of the “golden eras” of the piano, the one that is usually called “the great Russian tradition.” Of course, not all the music on these programs is by Russian composers (Liszt was Hungarian, for instance, and Wagner a German), but the characteristic feats of superhuman technical virtuosity, utterly voluptuous sensuality and drama in both melody and overall structure of the composition, and great eruptions of anxiety, pathos, passion, and transcendence are all here in over-abundance. This is music that came into being at the dawn of modernity, if we may by that term mean the beginnings of scientific understanding of the mind and human impulses (psychology), the utter transformation of work away from agriculture and craftsmanship toward industry and the increasingly fast pace of everyday life, and, in European culture, a growing focus on the individual artist and her or his soliloquy on meaning and personal experience.
This music comes from an exceptionally fecund period in which so much music and art was created as to make a catalog of it almost incomprehensible to modern eyes and ears. The greatest composers and performers of the time were what we might today call “rock stars,” knew one another well, or, at least, knew of one another well, and audiences ached for the next gems to come from the famous. Conservatories in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Vienna, to mention only three prominent centers, conserved and promoted evolving musical traditions through vigorous, orthodox, methodical instruction. In later years, as we know, the Soviet government even strictly regulated the nature of music and swiftly and severely punished Russian composers who strayed from their precepts. Thank goodness those days are over!
In these programs, hence, we will rediscover a famous composer transcribing and elaborating upon the celebrated compositions of another famous composer (Liszt praising Wagner), hear once again a legendary solitary artist’s most ardent expressions of the passions noted above (Liszt’s Sonata), and risk stupefaction at the blaze of notes comprising this music. All of this will be given by Behzod within the context of what, to our ears, must be called the great Russian tradition, of which he is, if not the scion, at least one of its greatest modern progenitors. And, he has even invited his splendid colleague, Stanislav Ioudenitch, to join him at a second piano on Sunday for added fireworks. To be here to hear one, then two, of the greatest living exemplars of this overwhelming tradition of sonority, virtuosity, and unrestrained passion is, I think, a wonderful opportunity to step away from our day-to-day world of recorded everything and facsimiles of everything else and to luxuriate in a sound world that, a century and a half ago, changed so utterly how we experience music.
Fur muffs, vodka, and superficial manners are not required of today’s audience, by a long shot, but it could be a good thing to let one’s mind wander to that other, former world where audiences truly hung on every note in recitals just like today’s. A bazillion notes will fly out of the piano(s), and, more than that, so will thrilling music. Here are some thoughts on the individual pieces, their historical and musical contexts, and why I think they’re fun.
SAT / JAN 26, 2019 and SUN / JAN 27, 2019 / 4PM
Isolde’s Liebestod, Wagner/Liszt
Even if I know I shall never change the masses, never transform anything permanent, all I ask is that the good things also have their place, their refuge. – R.W.
Richard Wagner, of course, so significantly changed the practice of musical composition in the 19th century, that even now he and his music can form the basis of heated discussion among admirers and detractors about just what he did to music. In his striving to unite many art forms (music, poetry, libretto, drama, visual aspects, etc.) into one new and “complete” art form, a proposal he called Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning a “total work of art,” Wagner utterly revolutionized opera with this new synthesis of many elements, even making the music subsidiary to the drama of the story. So committed to this idea was he that he published dozens of essays on the subject between 1849 and 1852 and even built a special “music drama” theatre in the town of Bayreuth, a house that still very much operates, presenting his works and others, under the management of some of his descendants.
His Gesamtkunstwerk ideas were initially fully realized in his four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung and would be even more fully developed in his opera composed in 1857-59, Tristan und Isolde. Moving away from what had been normal tonal and harmonic practices in composition, Wagner went forward with an unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity (What key are we in?!), and harmonic suspension, meaning harmonies resolving endlessly into one another without ever getting to a sense of “home” tonally. Too, inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner wrote his own librettos and, in Tristan, elaborated upon a 12th-century legend, a romance of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The tale is well beyond passionate and lack of space here doesn’t allow re-telling it, but its concluding moments are all bound up in verbally inexplicable carryings-on about eternal love and the mystery of death. In fact, he called the last moments of the opera, the Liebestod, the “Love-Death.” It is an emotionally overwhelming aria for Isolde as she mourns her dead lover, shortly before her own life ends.
Of course, the promulgation of anyone’s music in this era beyond the very few lucky people in opera and concert hall audiences fell to transcriptionists and traveling performers, etc., who enthusiastically shared the newest things coming from the minds and pens of the great composers. One of the most prolific progenitors of these transcriptions for drawing room music and “advertising” promotion of new works was the unparalleled piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt. Wagner and Liszt were well acquainted and admired each others’ work and the transcription that opens these concerts is arguably one of Liszt’s most successful.
In it, Liszt takes Wagner’s shimmering strings and the aria, rendering them into quiet tremolos accompanying the singer’s line. The harmonies are swirling, if not dizzying, and there are many counter-melodies to be dealt with and complex chords to nurture. The passion builds in a series of sequences (things said over and over again, each time slightly differently), building to an ecstatic, shattering climax that is, at least, unnerving. In crafting such a tour-de-force, Liszt must have felt frustration, as do all performers of the work, with having only ten fingers to get huge sound from the piano, mimicking a huge orchestra. It requires fistfuls of pounded chords and an exceptionally sustained energy. The Liebestod then ebbs away gradually, softly into a sort of bliss, as Isolde joins her lover in death. What a way to open a program!
Liszt, Sonata in B Minor, S.178
My piano is to me what a ship is to the sailor, what a steed is to the Arab. It is the intimate personal depository of everything that stirred wildly in my brain during the most impassioned days of my youth. It was there that all my wishes, all my dreams, all my joys, and all my sorrows lay.— F. L.
The very influential Viennese music critic of Liszt’s time, Eduard Hanslick, was awfully critical of the Sonata on first hearing it: “. . . whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” That may be a little too cranky, I think.
A keystone in the great architecture of the celebrated canon of virtuoso music for the piano, Liszt’s b-minor sonata is so many things and has so many descriptors. Is it a musical portrait of the Faust legend? Is it autobiographical? Is it allegorical about things divine and devilish? About creation and human frailty? Does it actually have no programmatic allusions? (Liszt was effectively silent on this question, although asked about it frequently.) Is it just a huge, monumental thing sui generis? (I think so.)
Composed in 1852-53 and published in 1854, it was dedicated to Robert Schumann, essentially in reciprocity for Schumann’s dedication to Liszt of his great Fantasy, Opus 17. Robert’s wife, Clara Schumann, stewarded her husband’s compositional output after he became mentally disabled in later life, and had her own great career as a touring virtuoso pianist. She could have included the Liszt Sonata in her repertory if she had wanted to do so, but she chose not to. In her diary, she described the sonata as “a blind noise . . . and yet I must thank him for it. . . It really is too awful.” Not everyone, particularly in succeeding generations, has agreed with her opinion. It remains very popular and is very frequently performed.
It is a stupendous thing – one overwhelming, non-stop musical statement about 30 minutes in duration, in which myriad themes and ideas tumble over one another. The development of these ideas takes place, actually, in the pretty much orthodox manner of idea-other-idea-development-recapitulation that is the recipe of nearly all sonatas. But, Liszt actually developed little sonata microcosms within the big framework of the whole piece, using that tried and true formula for four identifiable sections of the work corresponding to the traditional four movements of most sonatas of the time, but also utilizing that outline to give a skeleton, an infrastructure, to the whole piece. Striving to perceive all that machinery may not be the most important effort that one can make in receiving a performance of the Sonata. But, knowing that he was intent on a certain kind of organizing principle can make an experience of it slightly less intimidating.
The first, ominous theme, a descending scale, will reappear at important moments throughout the work. The second idea, pounded out by the left hand, proposes a dialogue, leading to a grandiose moment. That all gets transformed into melody of an exceptionally lyrical nature. The middle Andante sostenuto is the graceful, haunting center of the work. Ideas churn – a little fugue (themes talking to one another in radical agreement) appears – themes appear and reappear from prior moments in the sonata – the music builds to a breathtaking climax – then . . . silence. The tender melody of the Andante sostenuto reappears and the storm concludes serenely.
Liszt had originally intended for the sonata to end loudly and dramatically, but appended the quiet ending seemingly as an afterthought. At least, it seems that way from the manuscript. Thus, with a quotation of the gentle theme from the middle of the piece, a sort of benediction gets put over the whole thing and the sonata ends with the same descending scale with which it began.
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, Opus 75
“I strenuously object to the very word “grotesque” which has become hackneyed to the point of nausea . . . I would prefer my music to be described as “Scherzo-ish” in quality, or else by three words describing the various degrees of the Scherzo – whimsicality, laughter, mockery.” – S.P.
An important aspect not to be forgotten about the great Russian artistic traditions and heritage is, of course, the ballet. Indeed, the influence of the Russian ballet tradition throughout the world persists to our day, even if it has been greatly influenced by its having passed through Paris and having been embraced vividly in America and elsewhere around the world. Myriad Russian composers wrote for the great choreographers and the legendary government-sponsored ballet theatres, Prokofiev being singularly prominent among them.
In 1935, working on inspiration from a pair of writers who made a balletic synopsis or arrangement of Shakespeare’s original play, Prokofiev composed 52 movements to have the story unfold. The whole of the project became, as was so often the case, entwined in controversy between the Kirov and Bolshoi theatres and was not finally performed in its entirety until 1938. However, wisely, Prokofiev had re-purposed some of the material for three orchestral suites and ten of the movements for solo piano, the suite we will hear this afternoon, first performed publicly by Prokofiev himself in Moscow in 1937.
In the interim between the presentation of the piano suite and the eventual production of the full ballet, the piano suite, like Liszt’s piano transcriptions, such as the Liebestod one, heard earlier today, proved very useful in “advertising” this new music. But, the suite is, of itself, a marvelous work of contrasts and dazzlingly emotive power. In that Prokofiev assigned the suite its own opus number and performed its premier himself, and quite a few subsequent performances, indicates his own affection for this music. The contemporary listener, happily, will easily perceive the “Prokofiev-ness” of it, with its fine dissonances, unparalleled melodies, and, at times, “whimsicality, laughter, and mockery.”
SUN / JAN 27 / 4PM
Arensky, Suite for Two Pianos, No. 1, Op. 15
If one pianist playing a piano is a great thing (none of us would be here this afternoon if we didn’t think so), then two pianists on two pianos has to be considered a very great thing or maybe even more than that. When conceived by a great composer, music for two pianos can, indeed, be very greatly more than the sum of its parts. Of course, there is more volume and twice as many notes, but, most important, the opportunities for nuance, dialogue, surprise, etc., is greatly increased. When the two pianists are very attuned to each other, as certainly Behzod and Stanislav are, the results are always electrifying.
Thus, we get to luxuriate in this splendid sound-bath and hear two great works for 176 keys! Ta-da!
Anton Arensky’s five Suites for Two Pianos, sadly, are rarely heard today, save the waltz from the suite (composed in 1888) we will hear today. Tastes change from generation to generation, year to year, and the charming and fun pieces that constitute the suites are reminiscent of a joyous time (at least for some) in the Tsarist era, but their unfettered sentiment seems to modern ears a thing of a decidedly past time.
Rimsky-Korsakov even predicted that Arensky’s works would be forgotten. But, their not-faded elegance, craftsmanship, and nostalgic, lyrical quality have kept many of them in the concert repertory. The influence of Tchaikovsky is obvious in this music. Today’s Suite No. 1, Opus 15, is made of deceptively simple tunes. Yet, Arensky succeeds in delighting us with graceful arabesques and virtuosic embellishments that reflect the glittering social background of late 19th-century Russia. The last movement, the Polonaise, is not so much a dance as a promenade, a nod to the tradition of royal entrances at court balls of the time. All in all, the First Suite provides a welcome respite from the heightened drama of so much of the music of the Russian piano tradition.
Because his name is less well-known than many other composers that we follow in the piano world, it is worth noting that Arensky was born into an affluent, music-loving family, that he began composing at the age of nine, that he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov in St. Petersburg, and that he taught at the conservatory in Moscow and, from 1901, conducted the Imperial Choir. Retiring at a relatively young age, albeit with an admirable career, he of tuberculosis died at 44 years of age.
Rachmaninov, Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos
The virtuosos look to the students of the world to do their share in the education of the great musical public. Do not waste your time with music that is trite or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.— S. R.
The lives of great composers, like the lives of most anyone, are scattered (littered?) with joys and sorrows, challenges and rewards, and, more often than one would think, with especially significant challenges to mental health, or at least cheerfulness, that can be debilitating to the compositional process. Such an episode was true for Sergei Rachmaninov in 1897, when his First Symphony was met with public derision and his own evaluation of its being a failure. It is an understatement to say that he went into a deep depression. Composition seemed impossible, yet he knew that he was obliged to compose another piano concerto for a soon-to-arrive scheduled concert.
On urging from relatives, Rachmaninov undertook therapies with one Dr. Nicolai Dahl, including hypnosis and, happily, was relieved of his problems in not too long a time, then was suddenly inspired with musical ideas for his required concerto. In fact, he found so many good musical ideas coming on that in short time he had sketched most of what we will hear today as the two-piano suite. He saw Dr. Dahl on a daily basis from January to April of 1900 and soon completed both the concerto and the suite. From Italy, where he had composed it, he sent the score of the suite to his teacher, Alexander Goldenweiser, in 1901, just for a play-through with him, then in November of that year, gave the first public performance with his cousin, composer Alexander Siloti. It was published shortly thereafter and has remained very popular in the two-piano literature ever since.
The Suite begins with a perky-yet-relentless march, reaching a great climax before calming down, as if in the distance. The second movement, a waltz, starts off, as one would expect in the normal 3/4 meter, but sometimes gets stretched in its phrases to sound as if it is in 6/4, a sort of rhythmical mix-up at once both intriguing and charming. A trio in the middle of the movement sets up a waltz at normal speed in one piano and at half speed in the other, no small trick, to glorious effect.
A “typical,” voluptuous Rachmaninov melody gives a theme to the Romance, then is embroidered and fancied up, growing to a fortissimo climax. The Romance itself belongs on anyone’s list of Rachmaninov’s All-Time Best Slow Movements. It’s a bit of a surprise that it has never been co-opted by a film score or pop composer for something sappy or overly sentimental. (Don’t mention it to any of your pop music friends!)
It can be imagined that in the Tarantella, Rachmaninov quoted a known Italian tune, but such a source has never been found. Nonetheless, the whirling, frantic dance that erupts is none the less for that. The fury and ecstasy that erupt from this movement, to my mind, make it exceptionally difficult to remain in one’s seat for the whole duration of the movement. I think that I will sit in the back row of the hall for both of these concerts, just in case.
A final, fun note about the Suite: in Los Angeles in the early 1940s, just before Rachmaninov died, he and Vladimir Horowitz were at a party and played the piece for the other guests, the only time that they ever played it.