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Chopin’s Nocturnes often come in contrasting pairs, and Evgeny Kissin, “the world’s most acclaimed pianist” (The Economist), counters gentle grace with heartbreak in Opuses 55 and 62. The “rare and miraculous piano legend” (The Telegraph) also brings a work not heard at Davies Symphony Hall in two decades—Schumann’s impassioned Piano Sonata No. 3—followed by Rachmaninoff’s luxurious Preludes.
At A Glance
Chopin: Nocturne in F minor, Opus 55, no.1
Nocturne in E major, Opus 62, no.2
We still sometimes hear Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) called a “salon composer,” with the implication that his music was made for polite society and casual listeners. But at the salons where Chopin played, the music-making was at a high level, so high a level you might even want to call it exalted. Good manners andpropriety may have prevailed at those salons, but this had little to do with the music.
Composers before Chopin had created nocturnes, most notably John Field, who wrote nineteen of them that served Chopin as models. Later composers wrote nocturnes, too, but Chopin’s are the ones we remember, and it is with his name that the genre is identified. The “genre” is based more on character and mood than on structure. The nights that these atmospheric pieces evoke come to us from afar (the Opus 55 Nocturnes are from 1843, the Opus 62, from 1846) and speak to our nostalgia for a time we may imagine as simpler and more civil. Chopin’s nocturnes often come in contrasting pairs, as in both Opuses 55 and 62. Opus 55, no.1 is a little jewel box built on a rising bass line. An impassioned middle section breaks before a lovely coda tidily wraps things up. Opus 62, no.2 is one of those perfectly realized pieces, full of gentle grace, that we associate with the salon, though this is a salon whose listeners do not mind having their hearts broken.—Larry Rothe and Steven Ziegler
Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
Schumann: Sonata No. 3 in F minor for Piano, Opus 14
The work we know as the Piano Sonata No. 3 by Robert Schumann (1810-56) is actually his second, having begun its career immediately after the completion of the Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Opus 11. Schumann composed this F minor Sonata between October 1835 and June 1836, the autograph, now in the British Library in London, being dated June 5, 1836. A substantial 1853 revision brought the piece into its final form.
When the twenty-five-year-old Schumann began this work, he had been living in Leipzig, off and on, for seven years, having originally gone there as a reluctant law student. In Leipzig he met Friedrich Wieck, a renowned piano pedagogue whose young daughter, Clara, showed more than ordinary promise as a pianist. Immediately there was mutual liking between the gifted girl and the moody, piano-playing law student. The relationship was turbulent, and it was only in 1840 that all the obstacles were overcome and Robert and Clara were able to marry.
Neither the young Clara Wieck nor, later, the celebrated and admired Clara Schumann ever played the Sonata No. 3, certainly not in public. Nonetheless, she is central to this extraordinary composition. The theme of the Quasi variazioni movement is identified in the score as an “Andantino de Clara Wieck,” and the stepwise descent through a fifth, from C to F, with which it begins is the binding motif of the entire work. The very first music we hear is a powerful statement in the bass, of this idea. What is puzzling is that this Andantino does not occur in any work by Clara Wieck we have. In her biography, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, Nancy B. Reich writes: “It strongly suggests, however, a motif outlining a descending fifth which is found in many of her works and which Schumann used more than once. . . . Almost always Schumann modified Clara Wieck’s motifs, but in using them he seems to be taking pleasure in revealing the special relationship between Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann.”
The “Clara fifth” sets in motion a dramatic flourish that crashes to a halt on a C major chord. The halt almost seems like the pianist’s last chance to draw breath before plunging into the impassioned music of this brilliant Allegro. The movement, unrelenting in its urgency and heat, is a sonata form laid out on the grandest scale.
This is succeeded by a Scherzo whose tempo is moderate but in which temperament is still vibrant. Fervor is fascinatingly combined with something old-fashioned in flavor, and this is music that would not be out of place in that cabinet of curiosities, the Davidsbündlertänze.
Next we come to the Quasi variazioni. There are four of these, the last of which devolves into an extended coda. The theme, as Schumann gives it to us, is solemn, thanks in part to the funeral march rhythm in the bass. And most curiously, it does not end. In this presentation, at least, the march gives way to a rising lyric melody, but this breaks off on an inconclusive half-cadence after just eight measures. The first variation also comes to a halt on a similar half-cadence, and only the Variation 2, with its flowing triplets, arrives at a full close. Variation 3, with jumping bass and syncopated right hand, is another character piece in the manner of Davidsbündler and Carnaval, while the final episode is an impassioned utterance that takes us back at least toward if not actually to the language and mood of the first movement.
The Finale is sixteen pages of excited and exciting music, full of cross-rhythms and metrical eccentricities, to be delivered passionato, beginning prestissimo possible, a tempo direction that is twice followed by an exhortation to go still faster. But that is Romantic music for you—one side of it, anyway—and it promises a thrilling and an unforgettable ride.—Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
Rachmaninoff: Selections from Preludes for Piano, Opus 23 and Opus 32
It’s one of the frustrations of history that we can never hear the playing of many of the greatest pianists. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Anton Rubinstein have all receded into the silence of the past, known only via the reminiscences of those who heard them play live, their memories understandably (if regrettably) clouded by time and distance, not to mention bias—pro or con, subconscious or otherwise.
But no such limitation exists for current and future generations regarding composer-pianist-conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), who bequeathed his patrician art to us via numerous recordings, mostly on Victor (later RCA Victor) from the 1920s onwards. Rachmaninoff didn’t particularly like recording, but he understood its necessity and enjoyed the profits reaped from his best-selling discs until the Depression put an end to all that largesse. A fussbudget in the recording studio, Rachmaninoff insisted on multiple takes until he got what he wanted, then demanded the destruction of those shellac matrices that hadn’t passed muster. (In those days all you needed to do was throw the brittle things against the wall, and that was that.)
Rachmaninoff’s extensive discography gives us a rare insight into his own works, even in his recordings of other composers’ works, such as Schumann’s Carnaval or Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. If there is one adjective that can be applied to his playing equally across the board, it must be that overused but descriptive word “elegant.” That might come as a surprise to those who associate Rachmaninoff with an imposing angular presence, a perpetual scowl, baseball-mitt hands, and forbiddingly difficult keyboard writing that seems to oblige pianists to channel their inner linebacker. But Rachmaninoff himself was not that kind of pianist: his textures were clear, his passagework was immaculate, his tone was invariably gorgeous, and his interpretations were intelligent and imaginative. To hear Rachmaninoff sing out the Chopin E-flat Nocturne with the ease and freedom of a master singer, always guided by the notation but never enslaved by it, is to hear piano playing of such expressive nobility as to transcend all criticism. And to hear him play his own piano works, such as those eight of his Preludes that he committed to disc, can be revelatory.
About those Preludes: there are twenty-four in all divided into two sets, both dating from the first decade of the twentieth century, covering all the major and minor keys à la Chopin. The ubiquitous C-sharp minor Prelude—which Rachmaninoff grew to despise—is the sole outlier, dating from 1892. While Chopin’s Preludes are variably sized, some substantial and some distilled down to a half page or less, Rachmaninoff’s are all full-length pieces, usually in the three-part form common to Romantic compositions such as Chopin’s nocturnes or Brahms’s intermezzos. Many require stratospheric keyboard technique to render successfully; all require penetrating musicianship.
from Ten Preludes, Opus 23
No. 1 in F-sharp minor
Russian melancholy pervades throughout, with a long-lined melody passed between the piano’s middle and upper ranges accompanied with undulating figurations in the left hand. After a gradual rise to a climax, the Prelude subsides then ends in seven somber statements of an F-sharp minor chord.
No. 2 in B-flat major
Not for the pianistic faint of heart. Glittering and propulsive left-hand arpeggios sweep the keyboard while the right-hand carves out scintillating cascades of octaves and chords, the whole culminating in a spectacular spray of octaves in both hands.
No. 3 in D minor
Tempo di minuetto, it says: but what a delectably sinister minuet it is, left-hand staccato figurations hinting at furtive skulduggery, short-lived lyrical passages soon giving way to intrigue and more than a whiff of danger. Not surprisingly, it ends in an elusive whisper.
No. 4 in D major
Rachmaninoff, spinner of incomparably beautiful melodies, conjures up keyboard bewitchery in the warm key of D major. Unlike many a lyrical piano piece before and after, this Prelude tucks the melody into the midst of the accompaniment, thereby creating a three-hand effect also employed successfully by Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Scriabin.
No. 5 in G minor
This might well be the most familiar of the Opus 23 Preludes, its rat-a-tat martial rhythms flanking a soaring middle section that floats two melodies over a surging accompaniment. Nota bene: Rachmaninoff left us two recordings of this Prelude; both are crisp, authoritative, and unsentimental, neither hinting at the slightest pianistic difficulty.
No. 6 in E-flat major
This exquisite Andante echoes certain of Chopin’s preludes with its wandering, quasi-melodic left-hand accompaniment underpinning an aria-like melody. Its structure is serenely classical, in which four-bar phrases ending in clearly-delineated cadences are balanced by longer and less tidy transitional passages, with melodic lines all derived from a simple rising three-note figure.
No. 7 in C minor
Impressionistic washes make up an interesting, if not often acknowledged, part of Rachmaninoff’s stylistic vocabulary. A nonstop whir of sixteenth notes is punctuated by melodic fragments, the whole darkly mesmerizing and surprisingly understated, despite all the passion surging just beneath the surface.
from Thirteen Preludes, Opus 32
No. 10 in B minor
Two of Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist paintings inspired Rachmaninoff compositions, the best known of which is the 1908 symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. Less familiar is Böcklin’s The Homecoming, a metaphorical depiction of approaching death that underlies the twilight shadows of the B minor Prelude.
Marked Lento, the prelude creates its somber imagery via an austere rhythmic figure and a minimum of melodic motion; an imposing middle section in major mode leads to a cadenza-like transition that returns to the rapt stillness of the opening.
No. 12 in G-sharp minor
Wintry and windswept, swirling figurations in the right hand set off a languidly falling melody in the left hand; flurries waft the piece to a conclusion with the indication perdendo (becoming lost). One of the most popular of Rachmaninoff’s preludes, it is surprisingly contrapuntal, often with multiple melodic lines sharing the overall texture.
No. 13 in D-flat major
With its symphonic scope and orchestral sonorities, the D-flat major Prelude provides an imposing conclusion to the set. A somber and dignified dotted-rhythm main theme grows over time, eventually seeming to burst the bonds of the piano itself, followed by a torrential coda that culminates in a roaring maelstrom of octaves and chords.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.