Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Haydn - Piano Sonata No. 59 In E-flat Major Hob. XVI/49

Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn was not a virtuoso pianist. He could get around on the keyboard well enough, but most of his playing was with other instruments in chamber music or (as was the practice of his day) leading the orchestra from the keyboard and playing along to fill out the ensemble.  He did practically no solo playing in public. But the number of pieces he wrote for solo keyboard is substantial, with 62 sonatas (by modern reckoning) for the instrument alone, plus numerous other pieces.  Haydn not only saw the keyboard sonata evolve during his lifetime, he participated in its evolution.

Haydn played the harpsichord, clavichord, organ and later in his career the piano. Haydn wrote many of his early sonatas for harpsichord, a few for harpsichord or piano, but seven out of the last eight sonatas he wrote specifically for the piano. In the later sonatas for piano Haydn's style of writing changed to take full advantage of the dynamic capabilities of Viennese pianos and extended these changes after his introduction to the large 6 octave range and increased dynamic capabilities of English pianos during his two concert tours of the country. But the Sonata No. 59 in E-flat was written in 1789 before his trips to England. The expression markings are sparse (at least in the first edition, later editors added more) but they are there, especially sforzando markings that denote a sharp, sudden emphasis on a note.

The sonata is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro -  Haydn opens the first movement with a theme in the tonic of E-flat:

Not much of a theme perhaps, but Haydn makes much of the theme later. The second theme appears and is even more plain but it does 
manage to contrast the first theme enough to keep things interesting. The second theme leads to a repeat of the initial theme, but the theme has already gone through a change and is now more ornamented than before. After the decorated initial theme plays through there is a coda that offers up some new material, a theme that is played by crossing hands and a short section in thirds answered in the bass then the treble. After the repeat of the exposition, the development section grows out of the last notes of the coda to the exposition into counterpoint that leads to the first theme reappearance in changing keys. Material from the exposition coda returns and is developed.

After a short cadenza the recapitulation begins. The second theme returns, transformed to the home key, there is a short coda and the section comes to an end with a flourish. As with many sonatas of the time, Haydn directs the entire development and recapitulation sections be repeated. to my ears, the beginning of the repeat is rather jarring after hearing the close of the section the first time, but perhaps that is what Haydn intended. He wasn't above such things.

II - Adagio e cantabile - A tender adagio in B-flat that is interrupted by an impassioned section in a minor key. The alternation between the major and minor themes continues with both themes being decorated and expanded. The initial theme finally wins out and leads to a short coda that wraps up this gentle movement.

III. Finale : Tempo di Minuet - The minuet is in the home key, while the middle section is in the key of E-flat minor. The minuet returns the music to the home key and the sonata is finished with a short coda and a final cadence.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 27 In E Minor, Opus 90

Beethoven's career took a different turn after the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon in 1805 and 1809. The stress caused by the occupation, plus his increasing deafness put serious composing on the back burner.  In the years 1812 to 1814 after composing his 7th Symphony Beethoven did little composing except for a few pot boilers like Wellington's Victory and the revision of his only opera Fidelio.  

Beethoven finally returned to his more serious composition efforts in 1814 with his 27th piano sonata. It is a two-movement work, and at one time had a program for it written by the composer himself.  The first movement is in E minor, and has the heading Conflict between head and heart, the second movement is in E major and has the heading Conversation with the beloved. The origin of these titles stems from when his friend Count von Lichnowsky, whom Beethoven dedicated the sonata to, asked for the meaning of the music. Beethoven replied that the sonata was a representation of the Count's love life. The Count was contemplating marriage to a woman his family disapproved of, the conflict between head and heart, and a a vision of marital bliss, the conversation with the beloved. Presumably the two had a good laugh over the titles and Beethoven did not have them published with the score. But the music does have the feeling of Beethoven's descriptive headings.

Each movement is prefaced by tempo indications in German instead of Italian, Beethoven's answer to musical nationalism. Tempo indications had traditionally been given in Italian because the first large music publishers happened to be in Venice, Italy. Beethoven was serious about his music and serious about how he valued German music, hence his break with tradition for the sake of German art.

The first movement is restless, the second peaceful. Beethoven was a composer of contrasts, and these two movements contrast each other very much. And it is interesting to note that the second movement is longer than the first, almost twice as long.  Is the second movement wish-fulfillment on the part of Beethoven, a man who had many conflicts, illness and stress in his life, that he could have double the peace and calm in his life as he had stress?  Recent scholarship has shown that for much of Beethoven's life, especially the final decade, he was an ill man. Add to that his deafness, and the will to not only go on living but to grow as an artist must have taken every ounce of strength and determination he could muster.

Whether this sonata actually does follow the program Beethoven gave to the Count, or is something much more personal can never be ascertained. That this is a sonata of contrast is certain. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Shostakovich - Concerto For Piano, Trumpet, And Strings In C Minor, Opus 35

Shostakovich was the soloist at the premiere of this 1st Piano Concerto, also known as Concerto For Piano And Trumpet because of the prominent part for the trumpet.  At the premiere, Shostakovich had the trumpet player sit next to the piano instead of with the rest of the orchestra, which is usually done in modern performances as well. The concerto was premiered in 1933, before Shostakovich's first official government censure.  The concerto is in 4 movements:

I. Allegretto - The piano and orchestra toss out the themes in this movement while the trumpet comments on them. The mood of the movement changes quickly. This is some of Shostakovich's most sarcastic, witty and pithy music and it is reminiscent of  the spontaneity of the first symphony. The movement ends with a dialogue with piano and trumpet.

II. Lento - This movement opens with a slow waltz-like melody. The piano enters,  and expands the waltz into a passionate outburst from the piano and orchestra.  After the climax fades, the strings re-enter gently, with the trumpet playing the waltz theme (with none of the sarcasm of the first movement) over the accompaniment of the orchestra.  The piano and orchestra combine for a heart-felt, gentle close to the movement.

III. Moderato - This movement is less than 2 minutes long, and is generally thought to act as an introduction to the final movement. It is played with weight and depth of tone by the strings, but the piano shines through the quasi-seriousness and the music segues into the finale...

IV. Allegro con brio - The tempo increases, the piano chatters away. In this movement the trumpet becomes more prominent, almost on a par with the piano. The music becomes manic in tempo and intensity. Shostakovich was fond of quoting motifs from his and other composers music. This movement makes reference to Haydn, Mahler, a Jewish folk song, and others. The cadenza for solo piano is derived from Beethoven's Rage Over A Lost  Penny for piano solo.  The music gets more and more animated, until the trumpet plays a repeated figure while the piano and orchestra pound out chords.  The entire ensemble joins together to bring the music to a rousing finish.

Shostakovich was in his late 20's when he wrote this concerto.  His music was everywhere, his fame and popularity assured. In this period of relative freedom to do what he pleased, he composed a concerto that wavers from giddy to serious, music that toys with the listener. After the fiasco instigated by his opera of 1936 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich's life would change, along with his music, to a certain degree. But all that was to come. For the moment, Shostakovich wrote a concerto that thumbed its nose at tradition.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Tchaikovsky - Capriccio Italien, Opus 45

The truth about Tchaikovsky's secret has been long known to the world since his death. The fact that he was homosexual at a time and place where it was looked upon as a very serious matter no doubt contributed to the periods of emotional fragility he had throughout his life.  Tchaikovsky himself fought with his tendencies, for he knew well the consequences if they were discovered. He even went so far as to get married to try and become more normal as defined by society, or at least to give him the appearance of appearing more normal.

That the marriage was a total disaster should be no surprise. Tchaikovsky immediately left his new bride after the honeymoon and promptly had a nervous breakdown. Just what a nervous breakdown is, I've never had explained to me. No doubt it's a catch-all phrase for depression or some such other mental problem. In any case, Tchaikovsky fled to Switzerland. He tried to divorce his wife, and she at first agreed but she changed her mind and threatened to disclose his secret should he press for a divorce.   They stayed married and Tchaikovsky seems to have come to terms with who he was.

After he recuperated from his emotional crisis, he went on to finish an opera, his fourth symphony and violin concerto. Then he roamed Europe and Russia for a few years, never staying in one place for long. He made a trip to Rome during carnival season and it was there he was inspired to write a piece for orchestra based on Italian folk songs. He wrote down some of the songs he heard being played and consulted a volume of Italian folk songs for other examples. It ended up being a very loosely organized composition with songs linked together to make a whole.  In the hands of a lesser composer, the work might have been put together slipshod with the seams showing. But Tchaikovsky was a master composer and excellent craftsman, and the Capriccio Italien works very well on all levels.  It is brilliantly orchestrated and constructed. It has been a crowd-pleaser since it was written and premiered in 1880 in Moscow with Nicolai Rubenstein conducting.

The work opens with a fanfare for trumpets, a tune he heard played outside the window of his hotel in Rome. The piece goes through a number of folk songs of differing moods, and ends with a rousing tarantella, the dance that legend says is caused by the bite of the tarantula spider and makes the victim dance a frenzied dance until death.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Beethoven - Piano Trio In B-flat Major, 'Gassenhauer' Opus 11

When Beethoven came to Vienna in 1792 he began to make a name for himself with his piano playing.  He made the rounds of the elite salons in Vienna and stunned listeners with his impassioned playing and remarkable skill as an improviser.  He had composed and performed his first two piano concertos within three years and began to make a name for himself as a composer. In his early years Beethoven managed to nominally stay within the bounds of musical forms as practiced by Haydn and Mozart, but his harmonic audacity was evident from the start, as well as his delight in sudden dynamic changes and accents. A music critic of the time wrote:
If the composer, with his unusual grasp of harmony, his love of the graver movements, would aim at natural rather than strained or recherché composition, he would set good work before the public, such as would throw into the shade the stale, hurdy-gurdy tunes of many a more talked-about musician.
The Opus 11 trio is written for clarinet, cello and piano and was published with a part for violin instead of the clarinet for use by amateur musicians. Of course the late 18th century had no sound recording technology, so the only way music lovers could hear compositions were by playing them themselves or hiring professional musicians which only the rich nobility could afford. There were some complaints about the difficulty of  Beethoven's compositions, but they still sold well.

The trio was written and published in 1798 and is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro con brio - The trio begins with a unison statement of the first theme. The rest of the themes in the exposition come one after the other and it is difficult to tell what is a theme and what is transitional material, quite similar to what Mozart did (and Beethoven was a great admirer of Mozart) in some of his expositions. There is a full close that does at least divides the themes into two groupings. The exposition is repeated and with such a wealth of thematic material, it needs to be to help the listener grasp what is going on. The development section begins with one of the secondary themes, with a variant of the opening theme following, along with development of it. The recapitulation consists of some of the secondary themes going through Beethoven's highly individualistic modulations until a short coda is reached that abruptly ends the movement.

II. Adagio - The cello sings the opening theme first, then the clarinet. The piano makes its own statement after the two solos, then the instruments gently play off each other. A most satisfying, gently moving interplay between the three instruments keeps the music moving towards the gentle close done by the piano.

III. Allegretto -  This is a set of variations on a tune from a popular opera of the time, The Corsair In Love by Joseph Weigl, which premiered in 1797. The tune is called Pria ch'io l'impegno - Before beginning this awesome task, I need a snack.  Some credited Beethoven's publisher with suggesting the tune to Beethoven, others credit the idea to a clarinetist that commissioned the work from Beethoven.  Whatever the circumstance, it was one of the few times Beethoven used another composer's music for a set of variations. This tune is the basis for the nickname of the trio, Gassenhauer or Popular Song trio. Beethoven writes nine variations full of surprises on the tune and a quirky finale that is no less surprising.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Rimsky -Korsakov - Capriccio Espagnol

Rimsky-Korsakov composed three brilliantly orchestrated works in 1887-1888; Scheherazade, Russian Easter Festival Overture and the first piece composed, Capriccio Espagnol. The orchestration is colorful and bold, with numerous opportunities for the first-chair players for solos, and the Spanish tunes used are memorable.  

The work is in one continuous movement but consists of 5 different sections:

Albarado - A festive dance celebrating the morning sun opens the work.
Theme and variations - The tune is first played by the horns and then is carried to different instruments of the orchestra.
Albarado -  The same tune as in  the first section, but in a different key.
Scene and gypsy song -  This section begins with five solos by different instruments played over drum rolls that lead into a fast dance in triple time.
 Fandango from the Asturias - A fast and energetic dance that leads to a repeat of the Albarado theme which finishes the work.

Rimsky-Korsakov originally was going to compose a virtuoso work for violin and orchestra on Spanish themes but he changed his mind. Evidently he kept some of the solo violin virtuoso passages and gave them to the concertmaster of the orchestra.

At the premiere of the piece in 1887 with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting, the audience demanded that the entire work be repeated after the first hearing. During rehearsals of the work the orchestra members kept interrupting the rehearsals to applaud the composer.  Even so, Rimsky-Korsakov took exception to positive reactions of the piece that reacted to the orchestration of the piece,while seeming to ignore other aspects of the work. He vented his displeasure in his autobiography:
The opinion formed by both critics and the public, that the Capriccio is a magnificently orchestrated piece - is wrong. The Capriccio is a brilliant composition for the orchestra. The change of timbres, the felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas for instruments solo, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration. The Spanish themes, of dance character, furnished me with rich material for putting in use multiform orchestral effects. All in all, the Capriccio is undoubtedly a purely external piece, but vividly brilliant for all that. 
It is hard to imagine that Rimsky-Korsakov first had a career in the Russian Navy. He began composing as an untrained amateur and actually was appointed Professor of Practical Composition at the St. Petersburg conservatory despite his lack of even some basic music fundamentals. He managed to stay one step ahead of his students and studied all of these on his own and formed himself into an excellent teacher, master of orchestration, composer and conductor.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Rachmaninoff - Trio Élégiaque No. 1 In G Minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote two piano trios within a year of each other, and both were called Trio Élégiaque (elegiac, or mournful trio). The first was written in 1892 when Rachmaninoff was 19 years old. He wrote it in a three-day period, and he was the pianist at the premiere of the work a few days later.  The second trio was written in 1893 shortly after the death of Tchaikovsky, a composer Rachmaninoff admired. So the second trio is actually an elegy in remembrance of Tchaikovsky, but the first was written when Tchaikovsky was in good health the year before.

The first trio is in but one movement, and is modeled somewhat after Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio In A Minor written in 1882, which was written in memory of Tchaikovsky's deceased friend Nicolai Rubinstein. This work made a lasting impression on Rachmaninoff and influenced him greatly when he composed his own trios.

The work opens with the violin and cello slowly and softly playing a repetitive figure that gradually grows in intensity. The piano enters with the theme that dominates the work:

This theme goes through various changes in the twelve sections that make up the trio, and in the end is transformed into a funeral march, as the Tchaikovsky trio does.

Rachmaninoff was still a student when he composed this trio, but he already had the emotional intensity and sense of instrumental color that was to be a part of his future compositions.

On account of it being a student work or its short length (it takes about 15 minutes to perform),  Trio Élégiaque No. 1 In G Minor was not published in Rachmaninoff's lifetime. The first edition appeared in 1947, and the work has no opus number.