Trifonov and Babayan in Recital

Trifonov and Babayan in Recital 

Schumann: Andante and Variations in B-flat major for Two Pianos, Opus 46
Arvo Pärt: Pari intervallo
Mozart: Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K.448
Rachmaninoff: Suite No. 1 (Fantaisie-tableaux) for Two Pianos, Opus 5
Rachmaninoff: Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Opus 17
 

Schumann: Andante and Variations in B-flat major for Two Pianos, Opus 46

Composers, even great ones, have been known to have second thoughts about their creations. Dissatisfied with his Andante and Variations, Opus 46 for two pianos, two cellos, and horn, Robert Schumann (1810–56) withdrew the work from his catalogue. That might have been the end of it, but fortunately for posterity Felix Mendelssohn persuaded him to publish a somewhat shortened version for two pianos alone. After Schumann’s death, Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann rescued the original chamber setting via a public premiere in 1868, followed by publication in 1893. Nowadays that’s the most commonly heard incarnation, but Schumann’s two-piano revision has a great deal to recommend it as well.

Muted and relatively non-virtuosic, the Andante and Variations reflects the home-oriented intimacy of nineteenth-century chamber music as opposed to the big-hall, big-public dazzle of symphonies, concertos, and oratorios. But modesty does not imply simplicity. Schumann faced a challenge common to all writers of variations: how to avoid the tedium resulting from the same phrase structure and underlying harmonies recurring with each variation. Via shifts in tempo, mode, rhythm, and emotional affect, Schumann adroitly keeps the bugbear of predictability at bay, all the while retaining a clear connection to his original melody. 

Back to top 

Arvo Pärt: Pari intervallo

Stillness, serenity, simplicity: the music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) offers a place of refuge in today’s sprint-speed, hyperactive world. The Estonian composer’s large following among today’s listeners would seem to reflect that desire for sanctuary. His work avoids unnecessary drama in favor of a technique he has dubbed “tintinnabuli,” referring to the bell-like ringing of simple sounds that create an acoustic aura around typically simple (but not simplistic) melodies that possess the quiet gravitas of chant.

Pari intervallo, from 1976 and revised in 1980, began its journey as an organ composition. It has fissioned into multiple incarnations for alternate forces, including recorder quartet, saxophone quartet, string orchestra with clarinet and trombone, and piano duo. Its origins on the organ provide the clue to its overall demeanor: It’s something of a modern take on a Lutheran chorale—those lovely liturgical melodies, some by Martin Luther himself—that composers such as Bach would have set in four-voice harmony. In Pari intervallo, two parts are set in precise parallel motion with each other, so the interval between them is always the same—hence the “equal interval” of the title. 

Back to top 

Mozart: Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K.448

In 1780 Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father) commissioned Johann Nepomuk della Croce to create an oil painting of himself with his family. It shows a cozy domestic scene, as Leopold’s two children (Nannerl and Wolfgang) play piano four-hand while Leopold poses with his violin. Although Wolfgang’s mother Anna Maria had died four years earlier, her image gazes down from an oval painting on the wall. As befits a formal portrait, Nannerl is dressed in the latest Parisian fashion, including an elaborate starched coiffure, while both Wolfgang and Leopold are wearing their Sunday best.

The portrait demonstrates the role four-hand piano playing had in the Mozart household. Wolfgang and Nannerl are known to have played four-hand sonatas during their long tour in the early 1760s; one such sonata by Wolfgang (1756-91), catalogued K.195a but of dubious authorship, may have been composed in London in 1765. More four-hand sonatas date from Mozart’s maturity, but the most striking is the sole Sonata in D major for Two Pianos (as opposed to two players at one instrument) from 1781, K.448.

Wolfgang did not write it for sister Nannerl, however; he intended it for a performance with Josepha Auernhammer, about whom there is considerably more to be said. Two years younger than Mozart, she was his piano student beginning in 1781 and quickly fell in love with him. Her passion went unreciprocated, alas. Mozart tells us in an August letter that “she is not content if I spend a couple of hours with her every day. She wants me to sit there the whole day long—and, what is more, she is sérieusement in love with me! I thought at first it was a joke, but now I know it to be a fact. When I noticed it. . . I was obliged, not to make a fool of the girl, to tell her the truth very politely.” He must have handled the challenge with sufficient (and uncharacteristic) tact, since the two of them performed together subsequently and Josepha supervised the engraving of some of his keyboard works. She was considered a fine pianist, but Wolfgang had his reservations: “in cantabile playing she has not got the real delicate singing style.” Josepha got over her infatuation; she married Johann Bessenig in 1786, had four children, played numerous private concerts, and composed piano music of considerable skill. She died in 1820.

The Sonata’s first movement is cast in the era’s signature sonata-allegro form. The exposition (first of three main sections) opens with an etched theme that gives way to a smoother yet still energetic passage. The secondary theme, as might be expected, is a more introverted affair but is not without its little quirks, such as a so-called “Scotch snap” (an accented short note that drops down a step to an unaccented note) that rounds off the phrases. The developmental section is typical of Mozart in that it tends more towards free invention rather than actual “development” of earlier material, while the recapitulation provides a fine demonstration of sonata-form rhetoric as it restates the materials from the exposition in the tonic key and ties up any remaining loose ends.

The second movement, marked Andante, gives us a prime example of Mozart’s love for operatic arias: give it words and it could take its place on the stage. Unlike your basic opera aria, however, this movement is also in sonata-allegro form. The wistful primary theme makes its way to a secondary theme that becomes a true dialogue between the two pianos, thus transforming aria into duet. The development, just as in the first movement, runs more towards the exploration of new material than reworking the exposition; the recapitulation conforms to expectations but then flows out into a beautifully expansive coda filled with gentle cascades shared by both pianos.

The concluding Allegro molto offers up a superb example of “sonata-rondo” form, an inspired idea that had just recently began appearing in the 1780s. As the name suggests, it is a fusion of rondo—iterations of a reprise interleaved with contrasting episodes—with the dramatic rhetoric of sonata form. Mozart handles this expansive and potentially unwieldy structure with breezy aplomb, even supplying a few concerto-like opportunities for cadenzas and tossing in quasi-hunting horn flourishes for the conclusion.

Back to top 

Rachmaninoff: Suite No. 1 (Fantaisie-tableaux) for Two Pianos, Opus 5
Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Opus 17

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was all of twenty years old when he wrote his Suite No. 1, Opus 5 for two pianos, and yet this expansive four-movement work displays many of the characteristics of his later works—scintillating pianistic virtuosity, lyricism tinged with melancholy, and (perhaps most dramatically) a preoccupation with the pealing of Russian church bells.

In the fall of 1893 Rachmaninoff had returned to Moscow from a summer country sojourn with a handful of fine pieces, including his massive orchestral fantasy The Rock, Opus 7, as well as the First Suite. That he was quite the up-and-coming golden boy of Russian music is evidenced by the respect and admiration he received from no less than Tchaikovsky, who was impressed by the amount of music his young colleague had produced over just one summer. “And I, miserable wretch, have only written one Symphony!” he lamented. (Then again, that “one Symphony” was the Pathétique, hardly a trivial accomplishment.) Rachmaninoff told Tchaikovsky about his new suite for two pianos—at the time titled Fantaisie-tableaux and dedicated to the older master—although he declined to play it at their meeting, probably fearing that it would be unacceptably compromised by performance on only one piano. Sadly, the two artists were never to meet again; Tchaikovsky died from cholera several weeks later.

Unlike the bulk of Rachmaninoff’s keyboard music, the First Suite has strong programmatic underpinnings. Each of its four movements is headed by a passage of verse, each by a different poet. The first movement takes as its topic the Barcarolle from Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov that describes a lost love as the passing of a Venetian gondola. Gently rocking rhythms, underlaying a Tchaikovskian melody, retain an introverted mood even amid a steady accretion of keyboard pyrotechnics.

The Night … The Love takes its inspiration from the opening lines of Byron’s Parisina: “It is the hour when from the boughs / The nightingale’s high note is heard.” A tiny fragment of a motive in the second piano repeats itself almost hynoptically against increasingly lavish punctuations in the first; the mood intensifies into a mid-place Agitato (that retains that modest motive as a recurring element) until fading back to the hush of the opening.

Fyodor Tyutchev’s Tears provides the impetus for a heartfelt Largo di molto characterized by a four-note figure that, one way or another, makes itself felt throughout, even during a faster middle section. In last place comes Easter and an all-stops-out evocation of those iconic Russian bells that inform so much Russian music—think Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, or any number of Rachmaninoff’s works. Jubilant, extroverted, even perhaps a bit obsessive, the movement closes out the Suite in a blaze of burnished sonority.

Between the First and Second Suites lies a chasm. The First Suite is the work of a young composer filled with fire and energy, exploring his powers and striding confidently ahead. The Second Suite dates from Rachmaninoff’s recovery from a catastrophic depression caused by the sickening failure of his 1897 First Symphony, described by waspish composer-critic César Cui as “a program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt.” Devastated by the experience, Rachmaninoff withdrew from writing for three years, only regaining his confidence with the aid of hypnotherapy. The ultra-popular Second Piano Concerto (dedicated to his therapist), the Preludes for Piano, Opus 23 and the Second Suite for Two Pianos, Opus 17 were among the products of Rachmaninoff’s renewed industry.

Rachmaninoff took the Second Suite on its maiden voyage in November 1901 with his cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti on the second piano. From the start the Suite was recognized as a superb addition to the two-piano literature and has remained steadily popular. The first-place Introduction is a sturdy march, in the equally sturdy key of C major, its piano writing reminiscent of Brahms at his most brawny. A central section contrasts lightly punctuated rhythms in the first piano against a soulful theme in the second, but given the resolutely democratic nature of the keyboard writing (neither part is allowed to dominate—at least not for long), soon enough both pianos are playing the theme in partnership, while the snappy rhythmic underpinning continues unabated in both pianists’ left hands. A fine climactic outburst leads to a return of the main reprise; the whole eventually fades out to a subdued close.

The second movement, marked Presto, is a whirligig of a waltz, flying and soaring about in fusillades of notes; piquant cross-rhythms add spice. A central Trio (meno mosso) offers up one of those glorious Rachmaninoff melodies by way of a half-speed waltz in one piano played against the full-speed waltz in the other. The Romance that follows belongs on anybody’s short list of Best Rachmaninoff Slow Movements; in fact, one wonders how it escaped becoming a pop ballad along the lines of “Full Moon and Empty Arms” from the contemporaneous Second Piano Concerto. For the finale Rachmaninoff whips up a dazzling steeplechase of a Tarantella that recalls Franz Liszt at his most unfettered, with perhaps just a touch of Domenico Scarlatti thrown in for good measure.

Scott Foglesong

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

Back to top