András Schiff in Recital, April 17

András Schiff in Recital 

Schumann: Theme and Variations in E-flat major, WoO 24, Ghost Variations
Brahms: Three Intermezzos, Opus 117
Brahms: Six Piano Pieces, Opus 118
Brahms: Four Piano Pieces, Opus 119
Mozart: Rondo in A minor for Piano, K.511
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 869, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1
Beethoven: Sonata in E-flat major, Opus 81a, Les Adieux
 

Schumann: Theme and Variations in E-flat major, WoO 24, Ghost Variations

It was a melody “dictated by the angels” according to a composer who was by 1854 poised on a knife’s edge between sanity and madness. For perhaps a week in mid-February Robert Schumann (1810-56) was lucid enough not only to write down the “angel” melody but begin some variations. His stability was brief, however. On February 27 he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, was rescued and returned home, and began the journey that would lead to the asylum in Endenich from which he would never return.

Earlier on that fateful day Schumann had finished what his wife Clara would call a “fair copy” of the variations, although her description wasn’t altogether accurate. Given the tragic circumstances, Clara refused to release the manuscript for publication, although she did arrange for an edited copy that eventually provided the basis for the 1939 first edition.

The Ghost Variations are easily Schumann’s least-performed work for solo piano. The theme itself is a two-part affair that ends with a nod to its opening phrase. The five variations that follow are, in order, gently rocking, imitative, skittish, melancholy, and flamboyant at the last. Whatever the work’s overall quality (one reviewer has dubbed it a “wee masterpiece”) it is nonetheless highly significant, the product of a magnificent mind on the precipice of its tragic dissolution.

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Brahms: Three Intermezzos, Opus 117
Six Piano Pieces, Opus 118
Four Piano Pieces, Opus 119

In an 1892 letter to Clara Schumann on her seventy-third birthday, Johannes Brahms (1833-97) wrote with resignation about a year-long dispute that had nearly ended their friendship:

After forty years of faithful service (or whatever you care to call my relationship with you) it is very hard to be merely “another unhappy experience” . . . But let me repeat to you today that you and your husband constitute the most beautiful experience of my life, and represent all that is richest and most noble in it.

Fortunately, a reconciliation was effected, and it would appear that the rarefied piano works of Brahms’s last years played a role in the restoration of their bond. As of 1892 Clara’s health was failing as was her piano technique, but she cherished playing these pieces as Brahms showed them to her prior to publication. Surely these intensely personal compositions were as much ruminations or meditations as they were public concert material. Which is not to say that they are unsuitable for concert use; on the contrary, they require exceptional and attentive care from performer and listener alike.

Three Intermezzos, Opus 117

Opus 117 consists of three intermezzos, each of a markedly gentle and intimate character. The first, in E-flat major, quotes a Scottish folk song “Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and happily!” Brahms places the consoling melody in an inner voice and surrounds it with a discant sustained tone in the soprano and chordal support in the bass. The mid-place Più Adagio, in the minor mode, alternates syncopated melodic figures with references to the lullaby melody; the third section recapitulates the first, with modest variation.

No. 2, in the decidedly dark-hued key of B-flat minor, more hints than states its melody amid a soft flurry of right-hand arpeggios. A hymn-like contrasting passage in the major mode leads to a recap of the original material; a valedictory revisit of the hymn-like passage provides the conclusion.

If it weren’t for the Andante con moto tempo, No. 3 in C-sharp minor might stand among the most melancholy pieces in Brahms’s entire catalog. However, both tempo and the directive sotto voce sempre indicate more introversion than depression. A shift to A major marks the middle section, in which a disjointed, offbeat main melody lightly but firmly resists being shoehorned into metric regularity. The original material returns abridged, and the piece closes with a nobly resigned statement of its primary theme.

Six Piano Pieces, Opus 118

The six pieces making up Opus 118 date from 1893 and represent a modest departure from the Intermezzo-Capriccio duality of Opuses 78 and 116, in that the set contains a Ballade and a Romanze in addition to four Intermezzos; there are no Capriccios, neither here nor in Opus 119.

That said, No. 1 in A minor, an Intermezzo marked Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato (Not too fast, but very passionate) seems a Capriccio in everything but name. A wisp of a theme—just three descending steps—appears and reappears without unnecessary elaboration but in a wide variety of harmonic and sonic garbs. A measure of equanimity characterizes the A major ending, which prepares the listener for:

No. 2 in A major, Andante teneramente, is one of the crown jewels of Brahms’s late piano works. Intensely songful, it has an aria-like quality that has rendered it unusually receptive to orchestral transcriptions—normally not a good idea given the profoundly pianistic nature of the Brahms intermezzos.

The Ballade in G minor in the No. 3 position reminds us of an earlier Brahms in its burly chordal sonorities, its hewn-from-rock piano figurations, and even its Allegro energico tempo marking. But there’s something playful about it as well, something slightly tongue-in-cheek, noted by biographer William Murdoch in his 1933 description of it as “this battle-horse of aspiring school-girls.”

Brahms, consummate master of ambiguity that he was, outdoes himself in the F minor Intermezzo, No. 4. The “A” section is made up of offbeat triplet figures outlining chords and/or octaves, while the distinctly unsettled “B” section builds a chain of interlocking harmonies, one link at a time. A decidedly intensified recapitulation of section A leads to a clear-cut F major sonority for the ending which, like the second Intermezzo of the set, leads the listener directly to:

No. 5 in F major, a Romanze that resembles one of Brahms’s folk song settings. It opens with an uncomplicated descending melody that is stated four times, each with slight variance. A shift to D major introduces a miniature chaconne, i.e., evolving variations over a static bass. A return to the original key and melody—stated then repeated once with slight variation—brings the piece to an unruffled close.

The concluding Intermezzo, No. 6 is in the unusual key of E-flat minor. Could the opening have begun in Brahms’s mind as a clarinet sonata, given its similarity to the Clarinet Quintet, Opus 115? Whatever its provenance, the bittersweet nature of its first section gives way to a G-flat major section suggestive of a younger Brahms, all octaves and brusquely heroic sonorities, before returning to the original key and material, which Brahms progressively distills to a pure E-flat minor arpeggio, thereby bringing Opus 118 to a desolate, haunting close.

Four Piano Pieces, Opus 119

Clara Schumann aptly described the Intermezzo in B minor that opens Opus 119 as “a gray pearl. Do you know them? They look as if they were veiled, and are very precious.” Theoretically the piece is in B minor, but Brahms scrupulously withholds that information from the listener until the last few bars.

A second Intermezzo, in E minor, provides a superb lesson in the expressive potential of Brahms’s favored technique of “developing variation,” in which a small idea is continually modified and enhanced in preference to adding new material. The “A” section is characterized by jittery rhythms within incessant variation of its basic three-note idea, giving way to a radiant E major middle section that evokes the Austrian Ländler, almost aching with nostalgia despite being made up of precisely that same three-note seed idea; it puts in a brief, almost furtive appearance right at the end.

A third Intermezzo explores the uncomplicated luminosity of C major with an inner-voice melody that slowly but surely edges itself away from harmonic simplicity before returning to the elemental pleasure of its original tonality.

Opus 119—and Brahms’s output for solo piano—concludes with the Rhapsody in E-flat major, an extended affair very much in the heroic vein of Brahms’s earlier Two Rhapsodies, Opus 79 but in a considerably more compressed and concentrated manner. Its forward-charging energy comes almost as a shock after the introversion of the previous three Intermezzos, but a middle section in A-flat major provides relief via salon-like graciousness and ornamentation. But the Rhapsody’s essential roughness can be held at bay for only so long, and after the resumption of the thundering chords of the first section the piece ends in a fusillade of E-flat minor.

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Mozart: Rondo in A minor for Piano, K.511

In early 1787 Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-91) was sailing the heights of heady success and renown. He had just returned from Prague where The Marriage of Figaro had been a smash hit, and he was just about to start work on Don Giovanni in addition to several string quintets and the serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It has been suggested that perhaps Mozart originally improvised the A minor Rondo, but whatever the provenance it was published in 1787. In classic Rondo form (A-B-A-C-A) it contrasts a decidedly melancholic reprise with episodes—one in F major and the other in A major—that are of a brighter, and even slightly dancelike, character. Pianists and scholars alike tend to have strong opinions about the work’s overall character, but whether deemed despairing, tragic, or pensive, it definitely warrants Hermann Abert’s evaluation as “one of the most important keyboard rondos ever composed.”

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J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 869, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Surely the bedrock foundation of keyboard literature, The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) demonstrated that not only did advances in tuning facilitate the playing of keyboard instruments in all available major and minor keys, but it also illuminated the differing affects, or emotional temperatures, of those varying keys.

B minor, the key of Prelude and Fugue, BWV 869, stands for matters elevated and spiritual (consider Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232). Its Prelude suspends a gradually unfolding two-voice texture over a steady walking bass, the whole straying only occasionally from minor tonality. The Fugue has long fascinated theoreticians due to its incorporation of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale in its subject, not to mention harmony of such chromatic complexity as to challenge listener and performer alike to remain tonally grounded.

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Beethoven: Sonata in E-flat major, Opus 81a, Les Adieux

Composed in 1810, the E-flat Sonata, Opus 81a (nicknamed Les Adieux) of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is the third of a triptych that includes Opus 78 in F-sharp major and Opus 79 in G major, both from 1809. All three sonatas reflect a marked departure from the symphonic ambitions of the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas of four years earlier.

Opus 81a strays even farther from the norm by being Beethoven’s sole gesture towards program music among the piano sonatas. It concerns his long friendship with the Archduke Rudolf, no mean musician himself and the dedicatee of numerous important Beethoven works. “It is with the emotions of parting, absence, and reunion of such friends, and with no external circumstances, that this sonata deals,” writes ace commentator Sir Donald Francis Tovey. “Nothing in it would lead us to guess that while Beethoven’s friend was absent (with the rest of the royal family) Vienna was being attacked by Napoleon’s forces. . . All that he chose to tell of these terrible days in his music was that he had said farewell to a dear friend and that he was longing for the friend’s return.”

A falling “Lebewohl” (Farewell—Les Adieux in French) figure opens the sonata and provides the seed ideas for both primary and secondary themes. The second-movement Abwesenheit (Absence), consisting of variations on a pensive and melancholic theme, “admirably solves the problem of expressing the sorrow of absence without inflicting its tedium on the listener.” (Tovey again, always good for a wry quip.) Then comes the arms-outflung joy of Das Wiedersehen (Return), its primary theme outlining sturdy major triads while the secondary theme provides contrast without any dampening of enthusiasm. A brief coda offers a moment of pensiveness (Poco andante), but soon enough joyousness returns, capped off by an ecstatic starburst of octaves. 

Scott Foglesong

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

(April 2018)

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