George Li in Recital

George Li in Recital 

Haydn: Sonata No. 47 in B minor for Piano, H.XVI:32
Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F minor for Piano, Opus 57, Appassionata
Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Opus 42
Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor
 

Haydn: Sonata No. 47 in B minor for Piano, H.XVI:32

During the summer of 1776, while the American colonies were busily disengaging themselves from British rule, a nasty fire broke out in the Austrian country town of Eisenstadt, southeast of Vienna, and destroyed well over 100 homes. One particular house, badly damaged but deemed salvageable, belonged to Prince Nicholas Esterházy’s distinguished Capellmeister, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). Esterházy generously funded the repairs, solicitous as always of his prized music director’s well-being.

Esterházy had good reason for such benevolence. His Capellmeister was among his most valuable commodities. By 1776 Joseph Haydn was celebrated throughout Europe and even in America, his works snapped up by publishers and audiences alike. Nicholas  Esterházy knew what a treasure he had in Haydn and acted accordingly. Haydn for his part never wavered in his loyalty to his prince, although he appears to have been relieved when Nicholas’s death in 1790 freed him from an obligation that had become tiresome.

The Piano Sonata No. 47 in B minor dates from the year of Haydn’s house fire and is dedicated Nicholas Esterházy, as were many of Haydn’s works at the time. Haydn tailored it to the Prince’s keyboard abilities, which might be described in modern terms as “intermediate.” But there is nothing intermediate about the sonata’s musical content, contrasting as it does the volatile athleticism of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) with the ingratiating amiability so characteristic of Haydn and the the mature Classical style. The two outer sonata-form movements offer up thunder and lightning, while charm is provided by the middle movement, a gracious Menuet in the aristocratic manner.

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Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F minor for Piano, Opus 57, Appassionata

It opens with a wily feint. A downright tuneless melody, really just a stop-and-go unrolling of a triad, pauses on a half cadence. Silence. Then it all happens again, but this time shifted upwards by a half-step, the shortest distance there is. Another silence. It drops back down and repeats the original phrase’s half cadence. It could be an aimless sketch, a doodle, a half-aware improvisation.

Except that it’s nothing of the sort. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) is neither doodling nor improvising. He is planting the seed of a great tree that will grow from that disarmingly inconsequential shift of a half-step. He confirms his intentions by stating the half-step motion, now flipped upside down and in the bass, three times.  

Much as in the Fifth Symphony with its immortal four-note opening gambit, Beethoven builds the Appassionata almost exclusively from materials mined from its opening idea. The first movement eschews easy-listening contrasting themes in order to focus on this one motive, spinning everything out of its implications, rethinking it, revisiting it, reviewing it. Just as an expression of technical skill alone it is flabbergasting; as a listening experience it is unforgettable in its unflagging drive, perfectly sustained drama, and soaring flights to the outermost boundaries of the piano’s capabilities.

Beethoven takes a gentler approach for his Andante con moto middle movement, a set of variations on—here it is again—a deliberately nondescript theme. In fact, the melodic contour is so limited that one wonders how Beethoven will extract any worthwhile variations from the thing. But of course he does.

The volcanic Allegro ma non troppo erupts suddenly, blasting past the usual decorous break between movements. Thrilling, virtuosic, and propulsive, the finale also provides a breathtaking and imaginative demonstration of rondo form. From the first geyser-like phrase of the rondo theme to the steeplechase of the concluding Presto, surely this stands among the most dazzling concluding movements in all keyboard literature.

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Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Opus 42

It wasn’t all that long ago that commentators routinely denigrated the compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) as musical junk food, lukewarm sugary gushes that gave momentary pleasure but offered little in the way of solid nutrition. Given that Rachmaninoff lived into the 1940s, he was sometimes measured against Prokofiev, Stravinsky, or Schoenberg, dismissed as a lumbering dinosaur amidst a new generation of fleet-footed modernist mammals. What naysayers failed to realize was that Rachmaninoff’s compositional career more or less ended in 1917, the year he and his family fled Russia in the wake of the Revolution. Rachmaninoff as a composer is best categorized as a late Romantic along the lines of Elgar or Mahler, rather than as an early twentieth-century modernist of the Stravinsky stripe. Considered from that point of view Rachmaninoff seems no more old-fashioned or modernistic than anyone else of his cohort.

Rachmaninoff based his post-1917 career on performance, not composition. An acknowledged titan of the piano, he pursued an extensive and lucrative concert schedule; he also left posterity a treasure trove of superb recordings. Fortunately, he did not cease from composition altogether. In the 1930s he wrote the immensely popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his third and final symphony. In 1931, while waiting on the completion of Senar, his new villa near Lake Lucerne, Rachmaninoff occupied his time composing the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Opus 42, his final original work for solo piano and the only one dating after 1917.

The name of the work isn’t quite right, alas. The “theme of Corelli” is in fact La folia, originally a bass line—not a melody—of Portuguese origin that provided instrumentalists from the fifteenth century onwards with a handy template for improvising dance music. By the end of the seventeenth century the bass line had acquired its familiar standardized tune, and that’s what Arcangelo Corelli adopted in 1700 for his famed La folia variations in his Violin Sonata in D minor, Opus 5, no.12. Other composers who embraced the melody range from Alessandro Scarlatti to Franz Liszt. Rachmaninoff almost certainly got to know the Corelli variations via his friend and colleague, violinist Fritz Kreisler—thus the misattribution. But no matter. Whether he knew it or not, Rachmaninoff in his Corelli Variations partook of a tradition that reaches deep into Western music’s distant past.

By the 1930s, Rachmaninoff’s earlier luxuriant pacing and lush textures had evolved into tautness and transparency. The twenty Corelli Variations unfold crisply and in a clearly delineated formal layout that imposes an overriding three-part structure on the whole. Each variation up through the thirteenth follows a carefully sustained dramatic arc. After an unnumbered quasi-cadenza “Intermezzo” comes a major-key statement of La folia, leading directly into an Andante of heartfelt lyricism for Variation 15. After that it’s a sprint to the finish line, as a chiseled Allegro vivace culminates in the thundering cannonade of Variation 20. However, that’s not quite the end: a superlatively imaginative coda begins with a richly chromaticized version of La folia that gradually dissolves into a simple and unadorned statement of the lovely ancient melody’s final phrase.

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Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major

The character piece is to Romantic piano literature what the art song is to vocal repertory: a whiff of bottled emotion, designed to be heard in a small gathering, or just as a private affair between performer and score. The rise of the piano during the nineteenth century as the domestic instrument par excellence fueled the proliferation of character pieces from composers everywhere, most of whom also promoted their creations via those newfangled public recitals that became all the rage starting in the 1820s.

Composers gave their character pieces a wide variety of titles, some fanciful and others rather dry statements of purpose. Franz Liszt (1811–86) was more inclined towards the extra-musical; his character pieces bear descriptive titles such as Sposalizio, Après une lecture de Dante, or Vallée d’Obermann. (He also produced plenty of works with poker-faced titles such as Album Leaves and Klavierstücke.) With his Consolations, a.k.a. Six Poetic Thoughts, Liszt journeyed to the domain of the Chopin Nocturnes. None of the six is more Chopinesque than the third in D-flat major—a key that pianists welcome as lying comfortably in the hand, much more so than “easy” keys such as C major.

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Consolation No. 3 is an homage indeed to Chopin, who had died in 1849, the year before the Consolations were published. Its opening paragraph is a dead ringer for a Chopin nocturne; in fact, it was probably inspired by Chopin’s Opus 27, no.1, in the same key and style, while it dispenses with the usual Lisztian pianistic fireworks. Decidedly non-Chopin-like is Liszt’s use of a Hungarian folk song as the primary theme, a melody that he would later revisit in his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1.

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Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor

A particularly intriguing phenomenon of the early Romantic era was the rise of the touring virtuoso. Probably inspired by superstar vocalists who took advantage of recent advances in road-building and transportation to become the era’s equivalent of jet-setters, instrumentalists—particularly pianists and violinists—took to the roads and began playing recitals in the concert halls that were springing up throughout Europe.

Franz Liszt shares the honors with Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini as a founding father of the touring virtuosi. A blindingly gifted pianist with a phenomenal technique and matinée-idol sex appeal, he barnstormed Europe and was showered with all the goodies that celebrity and money could provide. Such a life could have spoiled him as an artist, but he proved himself to be made of sterner stuff. Eventually he settled in Weimar as ducal Capellmeister, where he trained the next generation of major pianists, as he did later in Budapest at the Royal Academy of Music. A fundamentally generous and kind-hearted man, he insisted on teaching his pupils for free and even provided refuge when his difficult future son-in-law Richard Wagner was forced to flee Dresden during the 1848 uprisings. An innovative and daring composer, he wrote in a wide range of genres including sacred music, symphonic poems, and for the organ; his later works anticipate Debussy in their experimental and unorthodox harmonies.

Liszt’s nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies date from the 1840s and 1880s. Flamboyant virtuoso showpieces they may be, but they are anything but brainless finger-benders. (A particularly severe test of a virtuoso showpiece is to play it without its fancy frills and furbelows; frequently not much remains save a few simple tunes. That’s most definitely not the case with the Hungarian Rhapsodies.) It was once an article of faith that the Rhapsodies were not Hungarian at all, but were made up largely of Romani (Gypsy) melodies. Modern research, however, points to many of the melodies as being authentically Hungarian, albeit as interpreted by Romani musicians.

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is easily the best known of the set, and also offers a superb example of the two primary components of a Hungarian rhapsody: a darkly dramatic lassan followed by an exuberant dancelike friska. Hackneyed though the work may have become via Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, it remains enormously effective and easily able to surmount the many associations that it has acquired. The lassan, in C-sharp minor, allows for any amount of interpretative license with its spectacular cadenza-like sprays punctuating chiseled oratorical statements. Then comes the friska: major keys, bumptious rhythms, and pianistic fireworks galore. Something for everybody, in other words, in a surefire recital closer that deftly combines glittering spectacle with rock-solid musical integrity.

Scott Foglesong

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