András Schiff in Recital, April 15

András Schiff in Recital 

Mendelssohn: Fantasy in F-sharp minor for Piano, Opus 28, Sonate écossaise
Beethoven: Sonata in F-sharp major for Piano, Opus 78
Brahms: Eight Piano Pieces, Opus 76
Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Opus 116
J.S. Bach: English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811
 

Mendelssohn: Fantasy in F-sharp minor for Piano, Opus 28, Sonate écossaise

The landscapes, literature, and music of Scotland provided inspiration to a bevy of Romantic composers, including Schubert, Brahms, Bruch, and particularly Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), who absorbed the country’s many beauties and mysteries during an 1829 walking tour. The Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony are the best known of his Scottish-themed works, but the Fantasy in F-sharp minor, Opus 28 of 1834 also attests to Mendelssohn’s zest for all things Hibernian, as its original title Sonate écossaise nicely illustrates. (“Sonate” also gives a clue as to the work’s unique form, straddling the more formal sonata and looser fantasy forms.)

In three movements—one moderate tempo, one fast, and one very fast—Mendelssohn explores Scottish folk tunes as well as the evolving capabilities of the nineteenth-century piano. (Consider the atmospheric Scottish fog that closes the first movement, via holding down the damper pedal throughout the final six measures.)

The first movement (Con moto agitato—Andante) could easily pass as a Song without Words, alternating as it does wind-whipped arpeggios with a heartfelt melody made up of gently falling figures. The second-place Allegro con moto contrasts a sturdy but smooth march with a melodic passage in octaves over shimmering left-hand figurations. The Presto finale is one of those delectable Mendelssohnian whirligigs that spins merrily and culminates in a spectacular spray of pianistic fireworks.

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Beethoven: Sonata in F-sharp major for Piano, Opus 78

Even a cursory look over the list of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas will reveal that they, like city buses, tend to arrive in groups. One particular cluster originates from the years immediately following the Symphony No. 6, Pastoral and Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor, i.e., 1808–09. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) had been composing at white heat since the turn of the century and his energy showed no signs of flagging, although for the moment he was without symphonic projects. (He would be back in the symphonic saddle by 1811.)

The sonata-group in question includes Opus 78 in F-sharp major and Opus 79 in G major, both from 1809, and Opus 81a in E-flat major, Les Adieux, written a year later. All three reflect a marked departure from the symphonic ambitions of the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas of four years earlier.

The Opus 78 Piano Sonata is dedicated to Therese Brunsvik, Beethoven’s student and sister of the Josephine Brunsvik who is an odds-on favorite for Beethoven’s mysterious “Immortal Beloved.” This lyrical and structurally modest two-movement sonata may very well reflect Therese’s technical skill (good but not virtuoso) and particularly her strong musicianship, given that F-sharp major would have been a daunting key for an amateur pianist to navigate. The Sonata also provides us with a tantalizing glimpse into Beethoven’s late style, beginning as it does with a serene Adagio cantabile melody and continuing with an Allegro ma non troppo that complements all that equanimity with burnished piano sonorities. The downright gemütlich second movement alternates a brief but jovial tune with a series of scintillating piano figurations, the whole traversing a goodly variety of keys and harmonic permutations before flying off into a delectably mixed major-minor conclusion.

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Brahms: Eight Piano Pieces, Opus 76
Seven Fantasies, Opus 116

During the mid-1870s Johannes Brahms (1833-97) found himself in considerable demand as a pianist, primarily as an interpreter of his own music. That emphasis on concertizing seems to have rekindled his interest in writing solo piano music, dormant since the Opus 39 Waltzes of 1865.

The piano music that emerged beginning with Opus 76 is a far cry from the massive sonatas of Brahms’s early period, or the bravura sets of variations of his middle years. The eight piano pieces of Opus 76 are an unmatched set, each a world into itself, each world created with a striking economy of means. Arnold Schoenberg was to coin the phrase “developing variation” to describe Brahms’s preferred technique in which “variation of the features of a basic unit [i.e. musical idea] produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and every needed differentiation, on the other hand—thus elaborating the idea of the piece.”

Brahms was never one for descriptive titles à la Liszt; instead he restricted himself to “Intermezzo” for reflective or relatively slow pieces and “Capriccio” for faster and/or more virtuosic affairs. Extra-musical content is disavowed, and the musical form is all; as musicologist Michael Musgrave reminds us, “for Brahms form was never a matter of abstract patterning, but the palpable articulation of the ebb and flow of feeling.”

No. 1, Capriccio in F-sharp minor opens in a breathless sotto voce, marked Un poco agitato. The hushed atmosphere gives way quickly to a grand fortissimo statement, followed by a passage of suave lyricism. Ominous, to be sure, but also consoling in its major-key ending.

No. 2, Capriccio in B minor is one of those bouncy “gypsy” affairs that Brahms could spin out with such élan. All that charm masks the skillful transformations of the thematic materials that permeate the ever-changing, ever-growing nature of this deceptively lighthearted piece.

No. 3, Intermezzo in A-flat major packs considerable emotion into its brief duration, marked by an uncomplicated structure of two ideas that are played in succession, then repeated with modest variation. More often than not the barline is hidden behind a syncopated melody and gently persistent left-hand arpeggiations.

No. 4, Intermezzo in B-flat major reminds us that Brahms was a towering master of the art song. Lyrical and bittersweet, it opens in an unsettled harmonic state, resolved only with the valedictory cadential figures that close the first and third sections.

No. 5, Capriccio in C-sharp minor, serves as the collection’s heart center. Those wishing to explore that “developing variation” technique outlined by Schoenberg could do no better than to spend abundant time with this complex composition that dwells in constant ebb and flow, propulsive and darkly dramatic.

No. 6, Intermezzo in A major returns us to the lyrical world of No. 4, while indulging to the fullest in Brahms’s favored rhythmic devices such as three-versus-two and a syncopated bass line.

No. 7, Intermezzo in A minor takes a seemingly unpromising shard of music—just a few descending scale steps—and finds in it almost endless development and variety.

No. 8, Capriccio in A minor might look fearsome on the page—it’s almost Scriabin-esque in its ceaseless torrent of notes—but it reveals itself as overall good-humored and optimistic, bringing the set to a close with a scintillating fountain of C major harmony.  

Beginning in 1892 Brahms returned to piano character pieces in a series of twenty short keyboard works that were published as Opuses 116 through 119. While they bear some similarities to the earlier Opus 76 set—being made up largely of pieces called Capriccio and Intermezzo that display his signature “developing variation” technique—they properly belong to the introverted and nostalgic soundscape of Brahms’s final years.

If these precious and rarefied masterpieces can be said to have a presiding spirit, it would be Clara Schumann (1819-96), Robert’s widow and Brahms’s lifelong friend. By 1890 Clara’s health was failing, as was her ability to play the piano. Given that she was one of the few people who saw any of the late pieces prior to publication, it isn’t at all far-fetched to suppose that Brahms wrote them with her in mind—and/or perhaps as a peace offering after a nasty spat that had preoccupied both of them throughout most of 1891. Clara told her journal that the pieces were “full of poetry, passion, sentiment, emotion, and with the most wonderful effects of tone. . . In these pieces I at last feel musical life stir again in my soul.”

Seven Fantasies, Opus 116 would appear to be a somewhat more matched set than any of the others. It is bookended by paired Capriccios, both in D minor, both of a turbulent and dramatic nature, and both seething with cross-rhythms. A mid-point Capriccio, No. 3 in G minor and marked Allegro passionato, is a scherzo movement that could have been transplanted from a chamber work; in ABA form, its tempestuous outer sections flank a songful yet passionate Trio, marked Un poco meno allegro.

The set’s four Intermezzos, on the other hand, stand among Brahms’s most lyrical and beguiling compositions. No. 2 in A minor subjects a deceptively simple three-note figure to a chain of expansions and developments, including a shift to major mode before subsiding back to minor at the end. No. 4 in A major (Adagio) takes Brahmsian introspection to unprecedented lengths via the frequent juxtaposition of a rising triplet against a descending sigh in the soprano, with a middle section that is downright Debussian in its shimmering delicacy. No. 5 in E minor, strikingly enigmatic even by late Brahms standards, bears a most detailed directive to the performer: Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentiment (Andante, with grace and the most intimate sentiment). No. 6 in E major may be relatively uncomplicated, but it evokes the melancholic lyricism of the Clarinet Trio in A minor, Opus 114, written just the previous year.

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J.S. Bach: English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811

Before he settled for good in Leipzig, starting in 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) changed addresses a fair number of times as he sought career advancement throughout Thuringia and Saxony. Following positions in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar, he found near-ideal employment in 1717 as Capellmeister to the music-loving young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, with whose enthusiastic support Bach turned out a steady stream of secular masterpieces. (Concerted church music was not favored in Calvinist Cöthen.)

The Cöthen years saw the genesis of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos, solo concertos, and a bevy of suites for various instrumentations: solo violin, solo cello, lute, orchestra, and above all, keyboard. Suites, or partitas, were among the more popular genres of the Baroque era. By Bach’s day a standardized framework had been established, based on four mandatory dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. To those might be added an introductory prelude and/or a virtuosic finale. A sprinkling of galanterien, such as gavottes, bourrées, minuets, lourés, and even a polonaise here or there, rounded out the whole.

Bach’s keyboard suites fall into three collections of six each, accompanied by a few unincorporated stragglers. Each collection has acquired a title that, while meaningless, provides a handy reference: French suites, English suites, and Partitas.

Dating somewhat earlier than the French suites, the six English suites are substantial affairs with opening preludes and an overall enhanced scale. Nobody really knows why they are called “English”; Bach himself seems to have referred to them as “Preludes with their suites.” Among the more educated of the guesses we find early Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s notion that the suites were written specifically for an English nobleman; others have connected them to London-based composer Charles (François) Dieupart, whose suites may have influenced Bach. Whatever their provenance, the English suites had taken their final shape by about 1725, although Bach continued tweaking them for years to come.

As the capstone of the set, English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811 surely stands as one of Bach’s most adventuresome and innovative explorations of the suite genre. After a graceful introduction that could be a prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, we are catapulted into a whirring concertante movement that demands both finely-honed technique and unbroken concentration. Nor does the tension lessen for the densely chromatic and rhythmically complex Allemande. The Courante keeps the technical bar high with a perpetuum mobile left-hand part, followed by the dazzling harmonies of the Sarabande, which Bach supplies with a written-out embellished “double.” Paired gavottes offer a welcome modal contrast—Gavotte II is the suite’s only dance in major mode—then comes the Gigue, a finger-snapping display piece that wraps not only this suite, but the English suites as a whole, in glittering virtuoso pyrotechnics. In the manuscript Bach reveals a hitherto unsuspected mastery of droll understatement. One word appears under the final measure. Fine, it says: “The end.”

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(April 2018)

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