By Matt Goodrich
November 9, 2014
Bach, Toccata in F-sharp Minor, BWV 910
The virtuosic yet rhapsodic keyboard toccatas of J. S. Bach make outstanding recital openers. Fantasias in several connected sections, employing diverse structures, rhythms, textures, and moods, they enable pianists to reveal their personality from the first notes. The Toccata in F-sharp minor opens with a bravura flourish, then unfolds an expressive adagio marked by a descending chromatic figure. A fugue in rapid, detached toccata style follows, leading via improvisatory “deconstruction” to a 6/8 fugue finale capped by a closing flourish.
Carter, Two Thoughts About the Piano
Approaching his 100th birthday, Elliott Carter said, “I finally have done all my adventures and great big noisy pieces. Now I write simple ones.” Two Thoughts about the Piano, Intermittences and Caténaires, were premiered by Peter Serkin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard in 2006. Of Intermittences, whose title comes from Proust, Carter writes, “The many meanings silences can express in musical discourse challenged me to use some of them in Intermittences … a short work that also uses many different piano sounds to convey its expressive meanings.” In Caténaires, he “became obsessed with the idea of a fast one-line piece with no chords. It became a continuous chain of notes using different spacings, accents, and colorings, to produce a wide variety of expression.”
Beethoven, Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
In the late piano sonatas, Beethoven embodies and transmits the essence of an epic spiritual journey. Opus 109, among Beethoven’s most personal and inspired sonatas, is a work of distinctly original construction, with compressed organization in its first two movements balanced by an expansive finale. The sonata offers an exquisitely nuanced variety of moods, from “introspective amiability” in the opening movement, to assertive energy in the prestissimo, to ever-varying soulfulness in the concluding set of six variations, imaginatively spun from an otherworldly theme.
Takemitsu, Les yeux clos II
According to Toru Takemitsu, “My music is influenced by the Japanese tradition, especially the Japanese garden, in color, spacing, and form. At the same time, it is influenced by Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg.” Takemitsu’s meditations on texture, timbre, and silence marry the language of contemporary Western music with an aesthetic rooted in Japanese tradition. The title Les yeux clos (“Closed Eyes”) comes from a series of works by French symbolist painter Odilon Redon that draw us into a mysterious, ethereal reality. Similarly, in Les yeux clos II, composed for Peter Serkin, Takemitsu invites us into the silence that surrounds his “musical garden,” where sensuous, shimmering bell sounds are offset by symbolic figures and rapid motives of crystalline dissonance, as well as echoes that invoke emotional vibration and gradations of light and shadow.
Chopin, Barcarolle, Op. 60
In the nineteenth century, a musical genre emerged evoking the barcarole of Venetian gondoliers, depicting the lapping of waves through a long-short 6/8 rhythm. Chopin’s Barcarolle, called by German musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt “a work of bewildering beauty,” is inventive, melodious, and intoxicating in every measure, full of inspired harmonic progressions and textural effects. The piece comprises an almost-continuous lilting rhythm; rich, shimmering, shifting harmonies; and two extended melodies that evolve from glowing simplicity to sublime radiance. The climax and coda together represent one of the most extraordinary moments in the repertory.
Chopin, Ballade No. 3, Op. 47
Frédéric Chopin wrote virtually solely for the piano, and these two pieces represent the composer at peak creativity. Although implying literary or historic connotations, Ballade is an original creation of Chopin’s, a canvas of expression rather than compositional form. The Ballades vivify inventive, refined elements, ultimately creating an extraordinary sense of completeness. The cohesive structure of the third Ballade evolves from a serene, amiable exposition through a world of thematic transformation leading to a passionate climactic close. The piece affords performers a vehicle for musical narrative, expressive refinement, and freedom.
Stravinsky, Trois mouvements de Petrouchka
Three Movements from Petrouchka are virtuosic paraphrases of three scenes from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka. First produced by Russian impresario Diaghilev in 1911, the ballet presents stories of the puppet Petrouchka, who comes to life and acquires human emotions. The triumph of the ballet, including its signature prominent piano writing, made its score ripe for transcription. Creating the work for Arthur Rubinstein in 1921, Stravinsky produced one of the piano masterpieces of the 20th century. Stravinsky’s recreation of the ballet’s vivid tableaux while capturing its essential orchestral brilliance is a singular achievement that transcends transcription. The movements are a dazzling showcase for performers, demanding character, color, endurance, and bravura.