Thursday, January 26, 2012

Program Notes

Dear Readers,

I will play a recital in Cleveland, on January 29th, and here are my program notes:

Carl Czerny (1791-1857)
Variations on a theme by Rode, Op.33 "La Ricordanza" (1822)

Carl Czerny is mostly remembered today for his Études and exercises. However, his catalogue of compositions lists 861 Opus numbers, many of which are brilliant concert pieces. It appears that Czerny chose the theme by violinist Pierre Rode after hearing the great soprano Angelica Catalani perform her own variations on the same theme. The title "La Ricordanza" The Reminiscence, seems to indicate that Czerny composed this delightful set while reminiscing about that fabulous performance. Elegant, charming, extremely virtuosic in some of its passagework, this set makes for a wonderful concert piece.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Sonata No. 5, Op.81 in F# minor (1819)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel is the greatest composer of that period of transition between the Classical and the Romantic eras. He studied with Mozart for two years, living under the same roof with the great Wolfgang Amadeus during the last two years of the great Master's life. Subsequently, Hummel studied with, or came under the influence of great composers such as Clementi, Dussek, Salieri, and Haydn, who became his mentor, and whom he addressed as "my beloved Papa". While studying with Haydn, Hummel became friends with Beethoven, whose respect he earned and maintained. Following Beethoven's wishes, Hummel improvised at Beethoven's memorial concert. At this event, he met and became friends with Franz Schubert, who dedicated his last three sonatas to Hummel (unfortunately, by the time of their publication, both Schubert and Hummel were dead, so the publisher changed the dedication to Robert Schumann instead). While Kapellmeister at Weimar, Hummel formed a close friendship with Goethe and Schiller, who both worked for the Weimar Theater. Hummel turned Weimar into a European musical capital, attracting the best musicians of his day to perform or be in residence there. As a teacher, Hummel represents one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. He taught Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismond Thalberg, Adolf Von Henselt, and Felix Mendelssohn. Franz Liszt's father refused to pay the high tuition fee Hummel charged, so Franz ended up studying with Czerny (Liszt eventually became himself Kapellmeister at Weimar). The Sonata Op.81 (1819) is a great example of the incredible virtuosic piano writing, prodigious sense of form and proportions, melodic and harmonic inventiveness of Hummel. The second movement of this Sonata, much like the Hummel Concerti in A minor and B minor, makes it abundantly clear that Frederic Chopin knew and admired Hummel's works, and was greatly influenced by them. The two became friends, and Hummel was a great mentor to the young Chopin.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op.42 (1931)

In 1931, while visiting Switzerland, Rachmaninoff bought a piece of land to build a new Ivanovka, as his summer residence in Russia was called. The villa, on Lake Lucerne, would be called "Senar" (SErgei and NAtalia Rachmaninoff).
While waiting for its completion, Rachmaninoff composed the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42. It took him only three weeks to finish it. This would turn out to be his only original solo piano piece composed after leaving Russia.
Rachmaninoff seems to have been unaware that the theme was not by Arcangelo Corelli, but rather a Portuguese popular melody called "La Folia", the existence of which is first documented in treatises and compositions dating from the 16th Century. Lully, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt all used this theme to compose their own variations. The Spanish Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, based on the same theme, had been part of Rachmaninoff's repertoire since 1919, and that is probably how Rachmaninoff came in contact with it.
The op. 42 is dedicated to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, Rachmaninoff's friend and colleague. This encourages the thought that Kreisler might have even enticed Rachmaninoff to compose the Variations. It does not seem like a big stretch to think that "Les Folies d'Espagne", Arcangelo Corelli's violin sonata based on "La Folia", might have been the object of a conversation, or even a private reading by the two great musicians.
Rachmaninoff's style at this stage had evolved considerably, allowing the composer to express the full range of his emotions with an economy of means already manifested in the revision of the Second Sonata, as well as the Fourth Concerto, and without his earlier redundancy. One can't help but notice a similarity and a contrast with the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43, composed in 1934. The "slow movement" in Op. 42, constituted by Variations 14 and 15, is in D Flat Major, just like the famous Variation 18 in Op. 43. However, in the Op.42, the two Variations do not turn into a vehicle for the Composer's lyrical vein. They have a rather introspective, dreamy character, not very impassioned and almost diametrically opposite to Variation 18 of the Rhapsody.
The Coda of this work is an absolute gem, finally resorting to chromaticism to intensify the emotional outpouring, just before releasing the built-up tension through a final, wistful statement of the theme.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
From "Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, Suisse" (1855)
Vallée d'Obermann
Au bord d'une source
The first volume of "Années de Pèlerinage", Years of Pilgrimage, is subtitled "Suisse", Switzerland. It was published in 1855, but eight out of the nine movements had already appeared about twenty years earlier, under the title "Album d'un Voyageur", having been composed while Liszt was in Switzerland with countess Marie d'Agoult, with whom he had eloped. Liszt re-worked all the movements, and added one, "Orage". 
"Vallée d'Obermann" is inspired by Étienne de Senancour's novel, "Obermann". Liszt musically describes the philosophical meditations, the existential doubts, the torment of unanswerable questions that Obermann goes through while living in a solitary refuge in the Swiss Alps. The Valley of Obermann is as much a spiritual as a physical place. Through his struggle, Obermann longs for spiritual peace, love, harmony, hope, and eternity. Liszt masterfully renders this longing by a transfiguration of the initial, desolate theme, and by a crescendo that reaches an ecstatic climax.
"Au bord dune source", Beside a Spring, is a splendid example of "water music". It flows quietly and calmly, with occasional big splashes, but its apparent calmness disguises enormous technical challenges to the performer.
"Orage"  is a musical description of a violent storm in the Swiss Alps, thus creating a violent contrast with the peaceful water music that precedes it.