By Matt Goodrich
For the November 5, 2017 concert
From age twenty-one Frédéric Chopin made his permanent home in Paris, the city’s stylish social and cultural life an irresistible draw to the fully mature composer. However, his heart was always attuned to his native Poland. Chopin’s mazurkas evoke the rhythms and sounds of Polish popular music and dance, fashioned in his original and personal pianistic voice. In them we hear a characteristic twirling movement, a triple-meter rhythm with second or third beats often emphasized, and short melodic sections that alternate and return. These miniatures are some of the most deeply intimate and expressive music ever composed. The three mazurkas of Op. 63 make a lovely opening to the 2017-18 COPI season. Some of Chopin’s last compositions, the brief pieces, dedicated to Countess Laura Czosnowska, were composed in 1846—a time when his relationship with longtime-amiable-consort writer George Sand was unraveling. The mazurka in B major opens with vigorous, jaunty rhythms. The mazurka in F minor is wistful, searching, and ephemeral. The eloquent concluding mazurka in C-sharp minor is considered one of the very best, celebrated for its delicately waltzlike melody that becomes a canon toward the end of the piece.
Like Chopin’s ballades, the scherzos are large-scale, standalone works rich with personality, showcasing the composer’s sweeping pianism and musical designs. They follow the traditional scherzo-contrasting trio-scherzo form, but in their gravitas and passion, Chopin’s scherzos move far beyond the form’s titular “joking,” humorous sonata/symphony movement origins. The joyful Scherzo in E major, however, harkens back to these origins. The first four notes appear throughout its outer sections, interwoven with a kaleidoscope of figuration. The middle section is liltingly mysterious in its poetic lyricism; the conclusion is jubilant. Chopin composed this sunny, underperformed scherzo in the summer of 1842 at Nohant, George Sand’s manor house, in the company of painter Eugène Delacroix.
Last year, Inon Barnatan crowned the first concert of the COPI Steinway series with Johannes Brahms’s majestic Variations on a Theme by Handel. For us to have the opportunity to experience the composer’s formidable Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Books 1 and 2) in the parallel concert of the new season is a splendid synchronicity. For today’s set, Brahms composed two books of 28 variations based on the popular Caprice No. 24 in A minor of Paganini. As in the Handel Variations, Brahms uses a simple, two- part theme as a point of departure, largely maintaining the harmonic and phrase structure of the original. No discussion of the Paganini Variations, however, can sidestep the fearsome technical challenges to the performer. (They were too difficult even for Clara Schumann to play.) The piece dazzles with its double thirds and sixths, octaves, rapid hand-crossing, skips, trills, and cross rhythms—a seeming virtuosic tour-de-force around every bend. Whereas the Handel Variations represent a seamless melding of baroque keyboard idioms and romantic piano resources, the Paganini Variations, subtitled “Studies for the Piano,” explore the limits of virtuosity, inspired by Brahms’s exchanges with the acclaimed pianist Carl Tausig in Vienna in 1862-63. Beyond their technical emphasis, the variations are extremely effective in performance for their direct, wide-ranging musical expression.
Although a civil servant by profession, largely self-taught in composition, and increasingly haunted by alcoholism, Modest Mussorgsky was one of the most innovative composers of the late 19th century. His unique piano masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition, composed in 1874, portrays ten paintings in a curated memorial exhibition for the composer’s artist friend Victor Hartmann. The “pictures”—vivid, descriptive character pieces—are connected by a “Promenade” melody that represents the viewer- listener’s movement between the paintings and the changing moods they evoke. Among its depictions, the set illustrates rascally children in Parisian gardens, an oxcart with massive wheels, French women arguing at the marketplace, and a clock fashioned as the home of the infamous witch Baba Yaga—all leading to the great chorale finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” with its marvelous bells and massive chords. Pictures is often heard in Maurice Ravel’s colorful version for orchestra. However, Eva Badura-Skoda insists that the orchestral sensibilities of this piece are realized far more effectively on piano than even in the most masterful orchestration: “Perhaps the piano evokes or suggests a ‘heavenly orchestra’ that can exist only in the listener’s imagination.”