Gilles Vonsattel Concert

November 8, 2015
By Matthew Goodrich

The Bagatelles Op. 126 of Ludwig van Beethoven make an inspired opener for this season’s Steinway Piano Series. Despite their apparent relative simplicity, these brief sketches are imbued with the profoundly felt, otherworldly quality found in Beethoven’s other late piano works such as the last five sonatas and the Diabelli Variations. Intended to be performed together as we are hearing them today, the Bagatelles show the full range of the composer’s creativity and emotional states, marked by novel gestures and vivid changes of mood.

Franz Liszt dedicated the ten Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses to his great love Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. Conveying a deep personal spirituality, the collection is prefaced with a quote from Lamartine: “There are hearts broken by grief, trampled by the world, which take refuge in the world of their thoughts, in the solitude of their soul, to weep, to wait, or to worship.” Funérailles, with its inexorable introduction, somber bass theme, beautiful lagrimoso melody, and roaring octaves and trumpet calls charging to a fierce climax, is a magnificent elegy in memory of Hungarian revolutionaries. The earlier Pensée des morts (“Thoughts of the Dead”), full of mystery, melancholy, and grandeur, unfolds as a lamentation that culminates in the chant “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord,” then concludes with a Consolation-like adagio.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček also composed the stirring Sonata 1.X.1905 (From the Street) as a memorial tribute, inspired by a tragic event in his largely German- speaking home city of Brno. On October 1, 1905, a rally of Germans organized to protest the establishment of a Czech university. The Czechs counterdemonstrated, and in the ensuing clashes, a young Czech carpenter was bayoneted and died. Janáček captured his anger and grief in this work, whose movements are titled “Forboding” and “Death.” Pianist Ludmila Tučková premiered the work in Brno in January 1906. Janáček had written a third movement funeral march, but seized and burned it during the final rehearsal. Following the premiere, he flung the rest of the manuscript into the River Vltava. The composition remained lost until 1924, when Tučková announced that unbeknownst to the composer, she had copied the two remaining movements. Janáček later inscribed onto the work, “The white marble of the steps of the Besední dum in Brno. The ordinary laborer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers.”

Claude Debussy published two attractively designed albums of Preludes, giving their descriptive titles at the ends of the pieces. The 24 miniatures are a wonder of finely etched character, atmospheric mist, and structural integrity. La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) evokes a young girl’s world in a warm song with a touch of antique flavor. La cathédrale engloutie (“The Sunken Cathedral”) depicts the majestic, mystic rise of the legendary cathedral of Ys of Breton myth, deeply engulfed by the waters of a translucent sea but occasionally emerging from the waves at sunrise. Feux d’artifice (“Fireworks”), the grand finale of all the Preludes, portrays a brilliant display of pianistic and musical fireworks: soaring rockets, exploding colors and patterns, scintillating sparks and pinwheels. A trumpet-like reference to “La Marseillaise” brings the festivities to conclusion.

Maurice Ravel’s “choreographic poem” La Valse, with its Viennese waltzes careening into annihilation, is one of the most famous orchestral scores of the 20th century. To his pupil Roland Manuel, the composer dictated, “I conceived of this work as a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.” La Valse carries forward the homage of Valses nobles et sentimentales (heard here last season), but propels its dances beyond the breaking point. The work consists of a series of waltzes organized into two large sections: the main waltz theme, followed by other elegant, exuberant waltzes; and the waltzes all returning in modified form, then whipped into a frenzy. The catastrophic breakdown of Europe in World War I and Ravel’s personal grief following the death of his mother are depicted in this “fantastic, fatal whirling.” The composer himself set La Valse into the highly effective, virtuoso setting for solo piano we are hearing today.