Performance Notes 2015


Jenna Sung: 26.2.15


Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY  1840-1893

Dumka, in C minor, op 59. Russian Rustic Scene

    Apart from the greatly unloved G major Sonata, this is the only Tchaikovsky piano piece which isn’t salon music. It was composed in 1886. The dumka is a Slavic folk-song, probably originating in Ukraine. The common quality which survived all its regional changes was the contrast of the extremes of sadness and joy. Tchaikovsky’s subtitle indicates that this will be ‘folksy’ piece, and so it is, along with imported sophistication and virtuosity. The opening section is distinctly melancholy, the music gathering emotion as it proceeds. The energetic central section is almost a piece in itself, something like a peasant dance framing new material. The return of the opening is gloomy indeed – but, lest we snooze, Tchaikovsky lets us know when it’s over!   


Fryderyk CHOPIN  1810-1849

Three Mazurkas, op 56

1. B major 2. C major 3. C minor


    The mazurka was originally a dance from Mazovia, around Warsaw, in triple time with accents on the second or third beat. Chopin’s utilisation of the mazurka (all-in-all, he wrote sixty-nine), as well as identifying himself with his native land while in self-exile in Paris, enabled him to experiment with melody, harmonic colour, texture, rhythms; the mazurkas were his laboratory.  These three examples from 1843 bear this out perfectly, and form a kind of triptych, with a short, rhythmically incisive central section (a little embrace of Poland), and outer pieces which are elusive and harmonically intriguing, the last also highly improvisatory in mood.


Scherzo no 3 in C sharp minor, op 39

    This is the shortest (8 minutes) of the four pieces Chopin called Scherzos, which, in fact offer some of his most powerful piano writing; the C sharp minor is certainly no exception. It is a ‘George Sand’ work, composed at the height of his liaison with the [female] novelist: begun in Majorca and completed at Sand’s château at Nohant in the summer of 1839.

    This is an incredible piece, its beauty and subtlety all there for the hearing.

After a brief introduction an impulsive theme strides forth in octaves. This is one set of material. The other has a solemn chorale (showing Chopin’s love of Bach) punctuated by cascades of descending notes. Now just listen.


Maurice RAVEL  (1875-1937)

Gaspard de la nuit

1. Ondine  2. Le Gibet  3. Scarbo


    The peak of Ravel’s piano music, Gaspard de la nuit was composed in 1908. The title? Well, what we have here are three pieces based on ‘fantasies’ published by Aloysius Bertrand in 1836, in a book in which he appeared as both title and author, Gaspard de la nuit. Ravel had known the book for years, but the pieces were doubtless prompted by its 1908 reissue. The prose-poems are printed in the score. Later the composer made one of his laconic comments on the work: Gaspard de la nuit is a set of three romantic poems of transcendental difficulty’.  As you will hear!

    Firstly appears the water nymph, Ondine. We hear her song, amidst the rippling of the water on the moonlit lake, a song in which she tries to coax the watcher into marrying her and thus becoming ‘king of the lakes’. The music rises to a majestic climax. She is refused; ‘And because I replied I loved a mortal, she – vexed and sulking – shed a few tears and burst into laughter and vanished in a white spray…’  Le Gibet evokes ‘… a bell tolling at the city walls, on the horizon, and the body of a hanged man, reddened by the setting sun’. The obvious difficulties of the outer pieces might cloak the enormous task of holding these slow 52 bars together, maintaining the tension at the same time as doing justice to their macabre poetry, with over 200 strokes of the bell ‘on the horizon’. ‘Through to the end without hurrying or slowing down’, wrote Ravel on the score. What a contrast in the protean Scarbo, always a top nomination for the most difficult of all piano pieces. Scarbo is a devilish imp of the house who appears ‘when the midnight moon shines’. We hear him ‘pirouette on one foot and cartwheel around the room like a spindle fallen from a witch’s spinning wheel’, and grow longer ‘between the moon and myself – like a church steeple, a golden bell shaking from his pointed cap’. The whole is erected on three motifs, with much that is quiet – making the climaxes even more ‘diabolical’. Scarbo ‘expires’ at the end, mirroring the exodus of Ondine. Throughout the work has been a masterpiece of evocation and portrayal.   




Harry Nowakowski Fox: 9.4.15


Robert SCHUMANN  1810-1856

Kreisleriana. Eight fantasies, opus 16


    The first masterpiece of today’s recital: like the Chopin a key work of Romantic piano music. Along with the Fantasy in C major op 17, it is Schumann’s greatest claim as one of the supreme composers for the instrument.

    The title? ‘Kreisler’ was the eccentric, indeed half-mad, composer-creation of ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822), the great polymath, in his short stories called Kreisleriana and his second (and brilliantly entertaining) novel, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr…. One suspects Schumann, with more than hints of bipolarity in his own character, would have responded with near-painful empathy to Kreisler’s unstable character. At the time of the work’s composition (three days! in April 1838) he was harried by his tormented and thwarted feelings for Clara Wieck (he had not seen her for several doubtless agonising months: Play my Kreisleriana often. There is a thoroughly wild love in some of the movements, and your life and mine, and the way you look… he wrote to her… You and your ideas play the main role, and I will dedicate it to you – yes to you and no one else –then as your recognise yourself you will smile fondly. (In the event, the work was dedicated to Chopin.) Thus here we have a work jointly inspired by an oh-so-literary sociopath and an all-too-real love for a nineteen year old girl, frustrated at every turn by her father. The meshing of these elements as revealed in Kreisleriana is the matter of much debate, way beyond this note!

    For us, it is useful to remember Schumann’s own simple splitting of his temperament – a combination of ‘Eusebius’, reflective and contemplative, and ‘Florestan’, fiery and impetuous. These divisions are very evident in the eight pieces of Kreisleriana, and are the wellspring of its magic, and why it really is about his passion for Clara; you may almost feel you are looking at her.

And now for the separate pieces:

Ausserst bewegt / Extreme motion. An impulsive ‘Florestan’ launch in D minor, although G minor is generally his key. But the shift in the central section is to B flat, the key of Eusebius. This contrasting/unifying ground-plan is important; these pieces must always be played together.

Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch / Very inwardly and not too quickly. At about nine minutes, this piece is twice as long as any other ‘fantasy’ in the work. It begins with a beautifully tender 3/4 theme in B flat: Eusebius incarnate, we might say. This deeply ardent music is interrupted twice by the darker passions of two Intermezzi, both in the G minor key of Florestan. The music slowly hauls itself back to the main theme as the piece nears its end, but it is now suffused with a sense of melancholy and loss.

Sehr aufgeregt / Very agitated. G minor – B flat major – G minor again, with uneasy chromatics in the ‘Eusebius’ music, and a notable rise in emotional temperature as Florestan hurtles to the close.

Sehr langsam / Very slowly. I think we can safely say that Kreisleriana contains some of the most intimately personal music in the entire repertoire. The keys of Florestan and Eusebius here blend. It is the first of two deeply contemplative pieces in which we seem to enter Schumann’s mind.

Sehr lebhaft / Very lively. In huge contrast, we now seem to move away from Clara (or Robert) to the domain of Kapellmeister Kreisler. This is a fleeting scherzo with two trios, and in all senses whimsical.

Sehr langsam / Very slow. The second of the achingly beautiful contemplative pieces. This is the slow unwinding of a folk-like tune in B flat, with a short C minor trio of subdued passion. It is extraordinary.

Sehr rasch / Very fast. As if he had remembered the title of his collection, Schumann gives us more Kreisler than Clara in the last two pieces. They share both eccentric quirkiness and the spirit of Florestan, not to mention the kind of ‘demonic’ virtuosity which Liszt relished; piano technique on a dangerous edge. We are in C minor, the music very excited, even more so in the flash-fugue trio. What at first seems like a second trio – a gentle but anachronistic chorale – closes the piece.

Schnell und spielend / Fast and playful. Playful indeed. Listen carefully and you’ll hear that nothing in this piece is quite as it should be, like an ill-fitting suit of clothes. The music finally slinks away, having given up. However, those who know their Hoffmann – and he is a very great writer – will somehow be on terra firma! It’s almost a musical photograph of his greatest creation (that is, along with the world’s supreme literary cat!).  


Fryderyk CHOPIN  1810-1849

Piano Sonata no 2 in B flat minor, opus 35

  • Grave - Doppio movimento  2. Scherzo  3. Marche funebre: Lento  4.Finale: Presto

    There are two extreme views regarding this Chopin work. One was best expressed by Schumann, although many others followed him: The idea of calling it a sonata is a caprice, if not a jest, for he has simply bound together four of his most reckless children, thus under his name smuggling them into a place into which they could not else have penetrated. That this tells much about Schumann and his uneasy relationship with classical forms does not invalidate his criticism. The contrary view is that this is a tragic work, unified both in its confrontation of different aspects of death and its powerful symphonic language. What we know of the work’s composition, not to mention the evidence of our ears, push us in the latter direction. The Funeral March was composed in 1837 (I can find no extra-musical reason for its existence), and the remaining three movements were added, composed round it, in 1839. Thus it is all but contemporaneous with Kreisleriana.

    The first movement opens with much-contemplated four Grave bars, portentous, even sepulchral. The first subject, with its galloping accompaniment, is highly agitated – if this is a ride, it is a tormented one. The second subject (sostenuto) brings some serenity, and builds to a release of quick triplet chords – leading in turn to the harried first theme as the exposition is given a conventional (but here mandatory) repeat. The triplet chords are now transformed into stuttering fragments of the main theme in left hand octaves, interrupted by a transformation of the Grave in the right – one of the most remarkable passages in Chopin. Remarkable too are the powerful modulations which culminate in the B flat major statement and development of the second subject. Indeed, development and recapitulation are telescoped, the ensuing triplet chords changing into an unforgettable stretto (‘brought together’) passage where the outline of the main subject is heard in the left hand. Powerful chords dispatch the movement.

    The second movement is a Scherzo. Some have taken a deeply philosophical view of this sonata, seeing in the first movement the struggles of the life force, and in the second the opposites of evil (in the main section) and good (in the più lento). We have no idea of what the composer had in mind, but there are musical links throughout. For instance, the second theme of the first movement and the central sections of the second and third movements are strongly related in shape and mood. The Scherzo itself is certainly an elemental, and very Romantic, creation, and the long central section (which returns to close the movement) brings the desired repose, with its gently rocking rhythm. The Marche funebre is the true heart of the whole. It is good to hear it in context, and as it is meant to be played. The march is dark and inexorable, the long central section serene and consolatory. If there are questions around this work, the largest by far comes with the finale – not least because there is hardly anything there: less than two minutes of unison octaves, fast and furtive. Winds of night sweeping over churchyard graves, was an early comment, by Anton Rubinstein, and as good as any. This fearsome swirling of notes has been called the ultimate in musical anti-matter and hopelessness. Two chords put an end to it.  

(c) David Mulraney