By Matt Goodrich
In the first decade of the 20th century, after his second piano concerto signified a return of confidence following a compositional lull, Sergei Rachmaninoff assembled a collection of 24 preludes in all major and minor keys. This homage to Chopin’s famous set consists of the early blockbuster in C-sharp minor, 10 preludes of Op. 23, and 13 preludes of Op. 32. Largely composed during summers in the Russian countryside, the substantial preludes explore specific musical elements to portray a particular mood or atmosphere. The exquisite Prelude in G major unfolds in a sort of theme and variations. Ethereal lyricism in the piano’s higher register over delicate quintuplet waves gives the impression of a celestial voyage. The G minor “alla marcia” is one of the most performed of the preludes, its muscular, chordal march surrounding a lyrical, poignant center. Parker’s group concludes with the thundering B-flat major, a brilliant thriller that evokes Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude.
Although Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata was posthumously nicknamed by a publisher, the title is apt, capturing the work’s highly dramatic temperament. One of Beethoven’s most significant piano sonatas (recognized as such by the composer), springing from his hugely creative middle period, the almost-symphonic work demands from the performer incisive articulation and passionate drive. The remarkable opening movement is characterized by a brooding theme, Beethoven’s “fate” motive, cataclysmic fortissimo chords, one of the composer’s most memorable melodies, and a relentless surge of extreme dynamic contrasts. The andante variations offer a calm before plunging into the torrential, perpetual-motion finale.
Alexina Louie is one of Canada’s most-regarded composers. Her writing fuses Asian sounds and Western avant-garde influences into a highly personal style. This is exemplified in Scenes from a Jade Terrace, composed in 1987 for Jon Kimura Parker (whose Juilliard DMA dissertation examines Louie’s piano music). The suite’s sounds and textures create vivid musical scenes. The first movement, “Warrior,” is an aggressive tour-de-force that covers the entire span of the piano. For the middle movement, “Memories in an Ancient Garden,” Louie instructs the performer to “play as if intoxicated by the scent of a thousand blossoms.” The finale, “Southern Sky,” largely played in the upper half of the piano, paints the heavens with starlight.
When the great Catalan-Parisian pianist Ricardo Viñes premiered Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau (“Water Games”) in 1902, a growing cadre of artistic friends and colleagues known as Les Apaches (centered on Ravel and Viñes) immediately recognized the significance of the strikingly original piece. Evolving from years of sonic and textural experimentation at the piano by the two childhood friends, this work can be credited with originating the novel keyboard style for which Ravel and Debussy are immortalized. With its fluid, arcing themes and watery textures, the piece showcases the composer’s trademark craftsmanship. Ravel published it with an epigraph by Henri de Régnier: “The River God laughs at the water, which tickles him.”
In his two fantasies featured on today’s program, William Hirtz has woven together familiar songs and themes, elaborated through the free play of creative imagination, complete with memorable melodies and all manner of pianistic pyrotechnics. With the Bernard Herrmann Fantasy, Hirtz intended “to introduce the music of one of the great composers of the twentieth century; not just a great film composer but a great composer, period.” Herrmann, acclaimed for his influential avant-garde techniques, novel orchestration, and insightful character portrayal, also wrote for radio, television, the stage, and the concert hall. Hirtz’s fantastical homage opens with a prelude taken from the science fiction adventure film Mysterious Island, followed by excerpts from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Strains from the science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still lead to music from the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance.” After a transition from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the work sprints to the finish, with an electrifying finale based on motives from Psycho, Herrmann’s most iconic score.
The songs written by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg for the film The Wizard of Oz are among the most beloved and recognizable of all time, while Herbert Stothart’s score accompanies nearly the entire film with recurring themes, material from the Arlen/Harburg songs, and classical works. In the Wizard of Oz Fantasy, Hirtz fashions these tunes into a spellbinding showpiece, an exultant parade of melodies we know and love. Originally written as a piano duet, the piece is, according to Jon Kimura Parker, “joyous, technically raucous, and seemingly features dozens of notes all at once.” At Parker’s suggestion, Hirtz recreated the fantasy for solo piano, prompting the pianist to quip, “Didn’t you know that when you rearrange a four-hand work for two hands, you’re supposed to leave out some of the notes?!”