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PROGRAM NOTES: Charlie Albright, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

When Beethoven composed this piano sonata in 1801, he could not possibly have foreseen that it would become one of the most popular pieces ever written. But Beethoven, then 30 years old, was aware that he was trying to rethink sonata form. The keyboard sonata of the classical period had taken a fairly standard shape: sonata-form first movement, a slow movement, and a rondo-finale. While Haydn and Mozart had written some very good keyboard sonatas, no one would argue that their best work lies in such music, and in fact those two often composed keyboard sonatas for home performance by amateurs or for students.

So radical was Beethoven’s rethinking of the form that he felt it necessary to append a qualifying description to the two sonatas of his Opus 27: “quasi una fantasia”–more like a fantasy than a strict sonata. In the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, he does away with sonata-form altogether in the first movement, writing instead an opening movement that functions as an atmospheric prelude. This haunting music, full of a bittersweet melancholy, feels almost improvisatory, and one senses that Beethoven is trying to avoid beginning with a conflict-centered movement that will overpower all that follows. Here the gently-rippling triplet accompaniment provides a quiet background for some of the most expressive music Beethoven ever wrote.

The middle movement becomes not the traditional slow movement of the classical sonata, but a brief Allegretto that dances on gracefully-falling phrases. Formally, this movement resembles the classical minuet, though Beethoven eliminates the repeat of the first strain. Phrases are short, and Beethoven makes clear that he wants unusually strong attacks by specifying accent marks rather than a simple staccato indication.

Nothing in the sonata to this point prepares one for the finale, which rips to life with a searing energy far removed from the dreamy atmosphere of the opening movement. Here, finally, is the sonata-form movement: Beethoven has moved the dramatic movement to the end as a way of giving it special significance. His marking Presto agitato is crucial: this is agitated music, and the pounding pulse of sixteenth-notes is never absent for long. Beethoven asks for an exposition repeat, builds the development around the dotted second subject, and at the close offers a series of arabesque-like runs and a moment of repose before the volcanic rush to the close.

The nickname that has become an inescapable part of the way we think of this music did not originate with the composer, and Beethoven would be as surprised to learn that he had written a “Moonlight” Sonata as Mozart would be to learn that he had written a “Jupiter” Symphony. It was the poet-critic Ludwig Rellstab who coined the nickname in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, saying that the music reminded him of the flickering of moonlight on the waters of Lake Lucerne. One can only guess what Beethoven would have thought of such a nickname, particularly since it applies only to the first movement.

Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” Opus 2

Born February 22, 1810, Želazowska Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris

During the summer of 1827, a seventeen-year-old music student named Frédéric Chopin used his summer holiday to compose a set of variations for piano and orchestra on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano.” It was his most ambitious work to date, and it would find unusual success. Two years later, Chopin–then19–traveled to Vienna to meet with Tobias Haslinger, who had published the work of the recently-deceased Franz Schubert. Haslinger saw Chopin’s manuscript to the variations and suggested that he would consider publishing this music only after he heard it. A performance was arranged in Vienna on August 11, 1829, and Chopin’s music (and his playing) created such an impression that Haslinger instantly decided to publish these variations. The following summer Chopin performed the work with an orchestra in Warsaw, this time using Haslinger’s freshly-printed parts.

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was premièred in January 1787 in Prague, where it had a great success, and one of its most charming moments comes in Act I with “Là ci darem la mano.” This is sung as Don Giovanni attempts to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina. Their joint aria is very brief–Mozart called it a “Duettino”–but it has been an audience favorite from the moment of that première. “Là ci darem la mano” is sung as Don Giovanni leads Zerlina off to his house with the (patently false) promise of marriage. She goes along with this, putting up only token resistance, and all of this happens to some of the most beguiling and seductive music ever written.

Chopin scored his variations on Mozart’s theme for a small orchestra and transposed that theme, originally in A major, up half-a-step to B-flat major. Chopin’s use of the orchestra was minimalist in the extreme: it provides only brief links between the variations, which are for piano alone. Pianists can perform those brief passages themselves, transforming these variations into a work for solo piano. At this concert the music is heard in the version for solo piano.

Chopin’s variations begin with a slow introduction that is extended at some length (nearly five minutes) as it explores aspects of Mozart’s theme, and there follow five variations on that theme. These are melodic variations: the original theme is always audible as Chopin presents it at different speeds and decorated in different ways before the rousing final section, an extended conclusion that Chopin marks Alla polacca.

A very early work, the Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” are in no way typical of Chopin’s music as it evolved during his years in Paris. But to Chopin’s contemporaries, these variations sounded a distinctly original note. In his music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the young Robert Schumann wrote an enthusiastic review of this music by a composer he was hearing of for the first time. That review contains his famous early evaluation of Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!”

Pictures at an Exhibition

Born March 21, 1839, Karevo, Russia
Died March 28, 1881, St. Petersburg

In the summer of 1873, Modest Mussorgsky was stunned by the sudden death of his friend Victor Hartmann, an architect and artist who was then only 39. The following year, their mutual friend Vladimir Stassov arranged a showing of over 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors, sketches, drawings, and designs. Inspired by the exhibition and the memory of his friend, Mussorgsky set to work on a suite of piano pieces based on the pictures and wrote enthusiastically to Stassov: “Hartmann is bubbling over, just as Boris did. Ideas, melodies, come to me of their own accord, like the roast pigeons in the story–I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put it all down on paper fast enough.” He worked fast indeed: beginning on June 2, 1874, Mussorgsky had the score complete three weeks later, on June 22, just a few months after the première of Boris Godunov.

The finished work, which he called Pictures at an Exhibition, consists of ten musical portraits bound together by a promenade theme that recurs periodically–Mussorgsky said that this theme, meant to depict the gallery-goer strolling between paintings, was a portrait of himself. Curiously, Pictures spent its first half-century in obscurity. It was not performed publically during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, it was not published until 1886 (five years after its composer’s death), and did not really enter the standard piano repertory until several decades after that: the earliest recording of the piano version did not take place until 1942. Even early listeners were struck by the “orchestral” sonorities of this piano score, and in 1922 conductor Serge Koussevitzky asked Maurice Ravel to orchestrate it. Koussevitzky gave the first performance of Ravel’s version at the Paris Opera on October 19, 1922, and it quickly became one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertory. This recital offers the rare opportunity to hear this familiar music performed in its original version.

The opening Promenade alternates 5/4 and 6/4 meters; Mussorgsky marks it “in the Russian manner.” The Gnome is a portrait of a gnome staggering on twisted legs; the following Promenade is marked “with delicacy.” In Hartmann’s watercolor The Old Castle, a minstrel sings before a ruined castle, and his mournful song rocks along over an incessant G-sharp minor pedal. Tuileries is a watercolor of children playing and quarreling in the Paris park, while Bydlo returns to Eastern Europe, where a heavy ox-cart grinds through the mud. The wheels pound ominously along as the driver sings; the music rises to a strident climax as the cart draws near and passes, then diminishes as the cart moves on. Mussorgsky wanted the following Promenade to sound tranquillo, but gradually this Promenade takes on unexpected power. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks depicts Hartmann’s costume design for the ballet Trilby, in which these characters wore egg-shaped armor–Mussorgsky echoes the sound of the chicks with chirping gracenotes.

“I meant to get Hartmann’s Jews,” said Mussorgsky of Two Polish Jews, One Rich, One Poor, often called by Mussorgsky’s later title Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This portrait of two Polish Jews in animated conversation has the rich voice of Goldenberg alternating with Schmuyle’s rapid, high speech. Listeners who know Pictures only in the Ravel orchestration will be surprised to find this movement followed by another Promenade; Ravel cut this from his orchestral version, which is a pity, because this appearance of the Promenade brings a particularly noble incarnation of that theme. The Marketplace at Limoges shows Frenchwomen quarreling furiously in a market, while Catacombs is Hartmann’s portrait of himself surveying the Roman catacombs by lantern light. This section leads into Cum mortuis in lingua mortua: “With the dead in a dead language.” Mussorgsky noted of this section: “The spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls and invokes them: the skulls begin to glow faintly”; embedded in this spooky passage is a minor-key variation of the Promenade theme. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs shows the hut (perched on hen’s legs) of the vicious witch Baba Yaga, who would fly through the skies in a red-hot mortar–Mussorgsky has her fly scorchingly right into the final movement, The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann had designed a gate (never built) for the city of Kiev, and Mussorgsky’s brilliant finale transforms the genial Promenade theme into a heaven-storming conclusion.