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Back to CalendarYefim Bronfman, piano
Friday, May 11, 2007 at 8:00 PM
Music Center at Strathmore

Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, op. 27, no. 1
Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

In 1801, Beethoven completed two piano
sonatas that he would publish jointly as
his op. 27. The second of these, in Csharp
minor, has become one of the most
famous pieces of music ever written—we
know it as the “Moonlight” Sonata. The
first, however, remains almost unknown
to audiences today, and it is this music
that opens this evening’s recital.

By the year 1800, Beethoven had
reached a moment of transition. He
had spent the previous decade mastering
classical form, and his achievement was
signaled by the completion that year of
the six string quartets of his op. 18 and
of his First Symphony. Three years later,
Beethoven would compose the “Eroica”
Symphony and in the process revolutionize the possibilities of sonata form, but even
by 1800—just as the 30-year-old composer
was completing his first symphony
and quartets—he was already beginning
to experiment with that form. Beethoven
realized that works in classical form tended
to be dominated by their first movements.
In a form that depended on the
conflict and resolution of theme and
tonality, the opening movement set the
character for the rest of the work. Now
Beethoven wondered if it might be possible
to shift the weight of a piece of music
to later in the work, and to do that, he
needed to de-emphasize the first movement.
Neither opening movement of the
two sonatas of op. 27 is in sonata form;
instead, each has a free, improvisational
character. Beethoven understood that
what he was doing changed the entire
nature of sonata form, and so when he
published these two sonatas in 1802,
he specified on the title page that each
should be understood as a Sonata quasi
una fantasia: “in the nature of a fantasy.”

The Sonata in E-flat Major is original
in a thousand ways. It is in four brief
movements, but these are played without
pause. Beethoven blurs the outlines of
sonata form, sometimes keeping the
general shape of the form, sometimes
dismissing it altogether. Part of the originality
here is rhythmic, for this sonata
alternates quick and slow tempos, and
often the rhythmic sense defeats our
expectations with extended syncopations
and displaced attacks.

The opening movement is defiantly a
non-sonata-form movement—it truly is
a fantasia. It is in ternary form, based on
a murmuring, amiable opening section
that is cast aside as the music suddenly
leaps into 6/8 and C Major and rushes
vigorously across the keyboard; Beethoven
rounds off matters with a reprise of the
opening. The Allegro molto vivace, which
lasts barely two minutes, functions as the
scherzo. Its flowing opening is interrupted
by sharp attacks, the theme of the brief
trio section is completely off the beat, and
the reprise is truncated and syncopated
as it cascades directly into the Adagio.
This movement brings a world of calm
as its poised main melody proceeds
chordally along a very slow pulse. A
cadenza-like flourish plunges the music into the concluding Allegro vivace. This
is a rondo and in that sense might seem
the most “normal” movement in the
sonata, except that even here Beethoven
has surprises. He breaks off the rondo to
include a vigorous development section,
and just before the ending, he brings the
music to a pause and recalls the theme of
the Adagio. A crisp Presto coda drives this
very original sonata to its firm close.

Fantasy in C Major, op. 17
Born June 8, 1810 in Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856 in Endenich, Germany

In 1835, the 25-year-old Robert Schumann
learned of plans to create a Beethoven
monument in Bonn and, fired with
enthusiasm for the project, he resolved
to compose a piano sonata and donate all
receipts from it to support the monument.
He wrote to his publisher, suggesting an
elaborate publication in which the score
would be bound in black and trimmed
with gold, and he proposed a monumental
inscription for that cover: “Ruins.
Trophies. Palms. Grand Piano Sonata For
Beethoven’s Monument.”

Yet when Schumann began composing
this music the following year, his plans
had changed considerably. He had fallen
in love with the young piano virtuosa
Clara Wieck, and her father had exploded:
Friedrich Wieck did everything in his
power to keep the lovers apart, forbidding
them to see each other and forcing
them to return each other’s letters. The
dejected Schumann composed a threemovement
sonata-like piece that was
clearly fired by his thwarted love: he
later told Clara that the first movement
was “the most passionate thing I have
ever composed—a deep lament for
you.” Yet the score, published under the
neutral title “Fantasy” in 1839, contains
enough references to Beethoven (quotations
from the song cycle An die ferne
Geliebte at the end of the first movement
and from the Seventh Symphony in the
last) to suggest that some of Schumann’s
original plans for a Beethoven sonata
remained in this music. And finally,
to complicate matters even further,
Schumann dedicated the score not to
Clara but to Franz Liszt, who would become one of its great champions.

If the inspiration for this music is in
doubt, its greatness is not: the Fantasy
in C Major is one of Schumann’s
finest compositions, wholly original in
form, extremely difficult to perform,
and haunting in its emotional effect.
Schumann was right to call this music a
Fantasy—it may seem like a piano sonata
on first appearance, but it refuses to conform
exactly to the rules of sonata form.
The first movement, marked “Fantastic
and passionate throughout,” begins
with an impassioned falling figure that
Schumann associated with Clara. In the
quiet middle section, which Schumann
marks “In the manner of a legend,” the
music moves to C minor; yet the conclusion
does not recapitulate the opening
material in the correct key—the music
returns to C Major only after the reference
to Beethoven’s song from An die
ferne Geliebte.

The second movement is a vigorous
march full of dotted rhythms; Schumann
marks it “Energetic throughout.”
Curiously, Clara—the inspiration for the
first movement—liked this movement
the best; she wrote to Schumann: “The
march strikes me as a victory march of
warriors returning from battle, and in
the A-flat section, I think of the young
girls from the village all dressed in white,
each with a garland in her hand crowning
the warriors kneeling before them.”
Schumann concludes with a surprise:
the last movement is at a slow tempo;
it unfolds expressively, and not until
the final bars does Schumann allow this
music to arrive, gently and magically, in
the home key of C Major.

The Fantasy in C Major is one of
Schumann’s finest works, yet within
years of its composition, Schumann
himself was hard on this music, calling
it “immature and unfinished ... mostly
reflections of my turbulent earlier life.”
By this time, he was happily married
to Clara and may have identified the
Fantasy with a painful period in his life,
yet it is precisely for its turbulence, its
pain, and its longing that we value this
music today.

Gaspard de la nuit
Born March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrennes,
Died December 28, 1937 in Paris, France

Maurice Ravel had a lifelong fascination
with magic and the macabre, and they
shaped his music in different ways. While
still a student at the Paris Conservatory,
he fell in love with a curious book written
60 years earlier: Gaspard de la nuit, a
collection of prose-poems by Aloysius
Bertrand (1807-1841). Bertrand said
that these spooky tales from the middle
ages were “after the manner of Callot
and Rembrandt” (it was an engraving by
Callot—“The Huntsman’s Funeral”—that
earlier had inspired the third movement of
Mahler’s First Symphony), and Bertrand
gave these tales a further whiff of brimstone
by claiming that the manuscript
had been delivered to him by a stranger:
Gaspard himself, simply an alias for Satan.

Ravel composed his Gaspard de la
nuit—a set of three pieces that blend
the magic, the nightmare, and the
grotesque—in 1908, at exactly the same
time he was writing his collection of
luminous fairyland pieces for children,
Ma Mère l’oye. Ravel’s completed work
descends from a curiously mixed artistic
ancestry: Bertrand’s prose-poems were
originally inspired by the visual arts, and
in turn—his imagination enlivened by
Bertrand’s literary images—Ravel composed
what he called “three poems for
piano.” This heterogeneous background
makes itself felt in the music, for at its
best Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit blends
word, image, and sound.

Each of the three pieces in Gaspard
de la nuit was inspired by a particular
prose-poem, and Ravel included these
in the score. But Gaspard de la nuit
should not be understood as the attempt
to recreate each tale in music; rather,
these pieces evoke the particular mood
inspired by Bertrand’s prose-poems.
Still, there are moments of such detailed
scene-painting that one imagines Ravel
must have had specific lines in mind as
he wrote.

“Ondine” pictures the water sprite
who tempts mortal man to her palace
beneath the lake. Ravel’s shimmering music evokes the transparent, transitory
surfaces of Bertrand’s text, the final line
of which reads: “And when I told her
that I was in love with a mortal woman,
she began to sulk in annoyance, shed a
few tears, gave a burst of laughter, and
vanished in a shower of spray which ran
in pale drops down my blue windowpanes.”
It is impossible not to hear a
conscious setting of these images over
the closing moments of this music,
which vanishes as suddenly as the water
sprite herself.

“Le gibet” (“The Gallows”) evokes
quite a different world, and all commentators
sense the influence of Poe here
(during his American tour of 1928, Ravel
made a point of visiting Poe’s house).
Bertrand’s text begins with a question:
“Ah, what do I hear? Is it the night wind
howling, or the hanged man sighing on
the gibbet?” He considers other possibilities,
all of them horrible, and finally
offers the answer: “It is the bell that
sounds from the walls of a town beyond
the horizon, and the corpse of a hanged
man that glows red in the setting sun.”
Muted throughout, this piece is built on
a constantly-repeated B-flat, whose irregular
tolling echoes the sound of that bell.

The concluding “Scarbo” is a portrait
of some bizarre creature—part dwarf,
part rogue, part clown—who seems to
hover just beyond clear focus. The text
concludes: “But soon his body would
start to turn blue, as transparent as candle
wax, his face would grow pale as the
light from a candle-end—and suddenly
he would begin to disappear.” Ravel’s
music—with its torrents of sound, sudden
stops, and unexpected close—suggests
different appearances of this apparition.

It should be noted that Gaspard de la
nuit is music of stupefying difficulty for
the performer and that this was by design:
Ravel consciously set out to write a work
that he said would be more difficult than
Balakirev’s Islamey, one of the great tests
for pianists (and the work heard next on
this recital). He succeeded brilliantly.
From the complex (and finger-twisting)
chords of “Ondine” through the dense
textures of “Le gibet” (written on three
staves) and the consecutive seconds of
“Scarbo,” Gaspard de la nuit presents hurtles
that make simply getting the notes almost impossible. And only then can the
pianist set about creating the range of tone
color, dynamics, and pacing that bring
this evanescent music to life.

Born January 2, 1837 in Nizhny-Novgorod, Russia
Died May 29, 1910 in St. Petersburg, Russia

From Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central
Asia to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade,
the Far East has exercised a strong imaginative
pull on Russian composers, and
Mily Balakirev’s famous piano showpiece
breathes that same exotic atmosphere.
Balakirev wrote this brief but fiery composition,
which he subtitled “Oriental
Fantasy,” during the late summer of 1869,
when he was 32. Islamey has become
famous not just for its exotic color and
excitement but also because it is so difficult
for the performer. The music sends
the pianist flying across the complete
range of the keyboard, employs gigantic
chordal melodies that require huge
hands, and goes at a dizzying speed.
Islamey may have become famous as a
virtuoso piano piece, but Balakirev himself
regarded it as a preliminary sketch
for a symphonic work. Its thunderous
passagework and bright colors make it
an ideal candidate for orchestration, and
it was in fact orchestrated by the Italian
composer Alfredo Casella in 1907.

Islamey begins with a great rush of
notes (the meter is 12/16), and this
opening idea is treated almost obsessively,
repeating constantly and growing more
complex as it does. The middle section,
marked Andantino espressivo and set in a
gently-rocking 6/8, builds to a climax full
of runs and massive chords. The opening
material returns, and Balakirev propels
Islamey to its close with a brilliant coda
marked Presto furioso.

Balakirev was by all accounts a first-rate
pianist, but even its creator found Islamey
too difficult to perform. The premiere
was given by the dedicatee, Nikolay
Rubinstein (brother of Anton), on
December 12, 1869. More than 30 years
later, Balakirev came back to this music
and revised it; this version, completed in
1902, is the one usually heard today.

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