By Matt Goodrich
In the first concert of the 2016-2017 COPI Steinway Piano Series, Inon Barnatan offers a fascinating program that evokes venerable musical forms. His selections link and resonate with one another across composers and eras.
J. S. Bach’s mighty Chaconne, the final movement of the Partita No. 2 in D minor, is an extraordinary composition for solo violin: Joshua Bell deems it “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.” Of the massive work, Johannes Brahms marveled, “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” A chaconne is based on an ever-repeating, short harmonic progression or bass line (in this case, a familiar, four-bar descending phrase) over which melodic figuration unfurls in continuous variation. Bach’s chaconne is often heard on piano in Ferruccio Busoni’s monumental transcription, which exploits the capabilities of the modern instrument. In his faithful setting solely for the left hand, Brahms honors the original’s remarkable concentration of forces.
György Ligeti wrote the eleven pieces of his Musica Ricercata from 1951 to 1953, while teaching at the Academy of Music in Budapest. This was a repressive time in Hungary, and these innovative musical explorations, looking ahead to a new kind of music the composer yearned to create, could not be published until after he fled to the West. The cycle is cumulative—each piece acquires one more note than the previous one. Ligeti sets out using only two pitches, adding one by one until the last piece contains all twelve tones in the octave. While exploring the sounds and textures of the increasingly complex combinations, the works spin a wide variety of rhythms, colors, and moods into a captivating, almost balletic whole. The disquieting second piece is featured in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The fourth creates a lopsided miniature waltz out of its note set, while the seventh nonchalantly sings a folk-like tune over—but independent from—a motorized bass. The eleventh and last piece features the titular ricercata (often marked by a broad theme imitated in counterpoint), finally offering all twelve pitches in a kind of chromatic stroll that fragments into the single note that began the cycle.
The music of George Frideric Handel is noted for a unique, cosmopolitan musical synthesis: reassuring groundedness in harmony, lively invention in melody, elegance in form, and directness of expression. His solo keyboard music, although lesser known than his operas, oratorios, and concerti grossi, is full of inspired touches and brilliant flourishes. Composed early in Handel’s career, likely overlapping his Italy and England periods, the Chaconne in G Major was published considerably later, in 1733, when the composer released a number of his keyboard pieces in order to head off “bootleg” editions of his work. Handel crafts his delightful, compact chaconne with 21 imaginative, seamless variations over another repeating descending bass pattern.
The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel represents a peak in the larger-scale piano compositions of Brahms’s youth. The work unfolds with imagination and grandeur equal to Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli variation masterpieces. From an elegant, unpretentious theme—the Air of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 1 (1733)—Brahms fashions twenty-five diverse variations, deploying traditional as well as novel techniques to create a feeling of constant organic growth that progresses in a series of waves. The capstone, magisterial fugue builds a cathedral of sound out of material derived from the theme. Brahms composed the Variations in a single creative burst in September 1861, presenting it to Clara Schumann on her birthday that same month. Three months later, she premiered the work to great acclaim in Brahms’s native Hamburg. Subsequently, the composer selected it for his December 1862 Vienna debut as pianist and composer.