Music Toronto - Chamber Music Downtown

Program Notes

Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at 7:30 pm
Vadym Kholodenko

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A, Op. 120, D. 664 (1819 or 1825)
Allegro moderato
Ballade (2005)
Selection of Preludes
Piano Sonata No. 2, in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (1913 rev. 1931)
   Allegro agitato - meno mosso –
   Non Allegro - Lento - più mosso –
   Allegro molto - poco meno mosso - Presto

Born in Vienna, Austria, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
Piano Sonata in A, Op. 120, D. 664 (1819 or 1825)

Born just a generation after Beethoven, Franz Schubert was not intimidated by the huge reputation commanded by the senior Viennese composer. Schubert could absorb and draw inspiration from Beethoven's rhetoric. He turned Beethoven’s forceful, affirmative statements into music that speaks with more open-ended questions and contradictions. His piano writing is frequently unpredictable. He has no interest in conventional showpiece virtuosity and the structure of his piano sonatas seems to break many of the textbook ‘rules’. Schubert steers clear of wrestling the piano sonata into an architecturally subjective, combative medium. Where Beethoven introduces the seriousness and single-mindedness of the string quartet and symphony to the piano sonata, Schubert arrives with a song. The lied’s delicate lyricism and subtle ambiguity lie at the heart of his piano writing and determine the direction that his sonatas frequently take. They often arrive via the side door and not by the most direct route. This is not goal-oriented music. It takes time to pause and contemplate the scenery and savour its beauty.

The A major sonata opens with a smile – reflective, perhaps, of the happy circumstances and ‘unimaginably lovely’ countryside where he wrote the piece. Both themes of its opening movement are unhurried and expansive, but Schubert keeps the momentum by adding an occasional brief turn to the minor key and, with it, just a hint of pessimism. Much of the writing falls in the upper register of the piano, adding a bright, bell-like quality to the tone. The central development section, with its agitated volley of double octaves, in triplets, presents the stormiest music in the sonata.

The slow movement picks up on the very last two notes (B – A) of the Allegro moderato and develops them, over a rocking accompaniment figure, in an amiable, sometimes radiant song. The last time they appear, Schubert shifts the mood momentarily to the minor key (B-flat – A) and provides a striking contrast to the bright descending scale that opens the finale. This movement is characterized by humour and playfulness, with surprising melodic twists and turns in abundance, and piquant harmonic shifts. The movement’s stormy arguments develop out the opening scale, but always manage to morph into the most winning of Viennese waltzes. D. 664 is the earliest and shortest of Schubert’s mature sonatas. It is sometimes known as the ‘little’ A major sonata to distinguish it from the later A major sonata, D. 959. It is more concise than these later, more ambitious piano sonatas, yet it makes a personal statement and has held a secure place in the repertoire.

Born in Helsinki, Finland, October 14, 1952
Ballade (2005)

One of a generation of Finnish musicians with prominent international careers, Kaija Saariaho studied the visual arts before focusing on music. Her music is often said to reflect visual thinking, with musical textures that evolve from colour and timbre rather than from traditional tonal musical gestures or rhythm. Her language is highly refined, constantly evolving and coloured by the electronics she has incorporated into her music since moving to Paris in 1982 – where she has worked frequently at IRCAM and raised her family. Saariaho’s short Ballade was commissioned by Emmanuel Ax in July 2005 for a wall-to-wall recital of piano ballades. Historically, (think Chopin, Brahms and Liszt), the Ballade does not have a set form or mood and is driven largely by a narrative element of having a tale to tell. Saariaho’s Ballade goes down a productive musical path, incorporating extremes of register from which a single note rising theme evolves. This recurs several times throughout the piece before becoming immersed in dense multi-layered, sometimes dark and mysterious musical textures.

Born in Moscow, December 25,1871 / January 6, 1872; died in Moscow, April 14/27,1915
Selection of Preludes

Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was an accomplished pianist and most of his compositions are for solo piano. After a pampered childhood, a succession of sponsors organised his life and business affairs. In 1895, the wealthy Russian industrialist and philanthropist Mitrofan Belaieff challenged him to produce 48 preludes within the year. Scriabin rose to the challenge, drawing on material from the past and adding many new preludes while on concert tours. Belaieff published the first 24 as Scriabin’s Op. 11 and the remaining 24 in his Op. 9, 13, 15, 16, and 17 collections. The original plan was to follow the key pattern of Chopin's Op. 28 Preludes. But Scriabin's preference for black notes over white and the darker, richer colours of the sharp and flat keys led to the pattern being broken. In all, Scriabin wrote over 80 preludes out of a total output of some 200 piano pieces. The final set of five, Op. 74, appeared in 1914, shortly before his death.

Born in Semyonovo, Russia, March 20 / April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943
Piano Sonata No. 2, in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (1913 rev. 1931)

Rachmaninoff wrote the second of his two piano sonatas as a virtuoso showpiece for his own recital tours, immediately prior to the Russian Revolution. He began work on it in Rome in 1913 while staying in the very apartment in the Piazza di Spagna where Tchaikovsky lived and worked during his several visits to that city. He completed it at the family estate of Ivanovka, where he would find solitude . . . and breed racehorses. The sonata is monumental in scale, full of turn-of-the-century romantic opulence. It makes great demands on the pianist, both in its 1913 original version and in the revision Rachmaninoff made in 1931, where he cut some 120 bars and clarified the musical texture. "I look at my earlier compositions and see how much surplus material they contain," Rachmaninoff wrote while editing the sonata. "Even this sonata has too much unnecessary movement of voices, and it is too long. Chopin's Second Sonata lasts 19 minutes and all has been said."

Like much of Rachmaninoff's music, and that of many other Russian composers including Stravinsky, the Second Sonata is haunted by the sound of church bells. In fact, while drafting the piano sonata in Rome, Rachmaninoff also wrote his choral symphony The Bells. The music plunges headlong into the dramatic rhetoric that is a distinctive trait of the composer. The opening gesture of the sonata, a short, drooping four-note figure, is to return as a motto theme throughout each of its three movements, which are played without a break. It gives rise to the deep turmoil of the middle movement, which gives voice to a feeling of deep melancholy, another recurring feature of Rachmaninoff's music. The finale begins with almost frenzied exuberance in a fortissimo four and a half-octave plunge and ends in shimmering cascades of chords.

— Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: