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PROGRAM NOTES: Daniil Trifonov, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 (arr. Franz Liszt, S.463)


Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach

Died July 30, 1750, Leipzig

We have fallen victim to the stereotype of Liszt as the master showman who made a career of playing his own works before swooning audiences caught up in the frenzied excitement of watching one of the first touring virtuosos. But there were other, more important sides to Liszt. Despite his reputation as a self-conscious stage presence and self-promoter, Liszt was generous in his service to contemporary composers: he played music of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Weber, and many other living composers. And Liszt was equally generous in his service to composers of the past, in particular Bach, who was being “rediscovered” at the time Liszt was launching his career as a touring virtuoso: Liszt performed The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations at a time when this music was utterly unknown to audiences. Liszt–who also played the organ–was particularly drawn to Bach’s works for organ, and he arranged a number of these for piano and performed them on his recitals.

Liszt made his arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor about 1863. Bach had written this music about a century and a half earlier, probably first during his tenure as an organist in Weimar, and then revised it over the next decade. In 1720 Bach, then music director at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, became interested in the post of organist at the Jakobikirche in Hamburg, and he traveled there to audition for that post. Evidence suggests that the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor may have been one of the pieces Bach played in his (unsuccessful) audition for that post. Certainly this music would make a staggering impression on such an occasion. The Fantasy–quite free in matters of harmony–is an imposing piece on its own, full of imitative writing and daring chromatic tension. Bach follows this with a grand fugue whose subject is thought to be derived from a Netherlands folk-tune. Leopold Stokowski made an orchestral arrangement of the fugue, and this is music that can benefit from the sonic resources of a full symphony orchestra.

Liszt’s transcription for piano is generally faithful to Bach’s original, though he makes some small adjustments as he re-casts it for piano. Liszt tries to make the piano generate an organ-like sound and so falls back on such pianistic resources as passages in octaves, but in general his version remains faithful to Bach’s original–Liszt respected this music enough that he wanted it presented to audiences in a version as close to the original as he could make it.

Piano Sonata in C Minor, Opus 111


Born December 16, 1770, Bonn

Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

The years 1813-1821 were exceptionally trying for Beethoven. Not only was he having financial difficulties, but this was also the period of his bitter legal struggle for custody of his nephew Karl. Under these stresses, and with the added burden of ill health, Beethoven virtually ceased composing in these years. Where the previous two decades had seen a great outpouring of music, now his creative powers flickered and were nearly extinguished; in 1817, for example, he composed almost nothing. To be sure, there was an occasional major work–the Hammerklavier Sonata occupied him throughout all of 1818–but it was not until 1820 that he put his troubles, both personal and creative, behind him and was able to marshal new energy as a composer.

When this energy returned, Beethoven took on several massive new projects, beginning work on the Missa Solemnis and making early sketches for the Ninth Symphony. And by the end of May 1820 he had committed himself to write three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger. Although Beethoven claimed that he wrote these three sonatas–his final piano sonatas–“in one breath,” their composition was actually spread out over a longer period than he expected when he agreed to write them. He finished the Sonata in E Major immediately, but ill health postponed the other two. Notes in the manuscript indicate that Beethoven completed Opus 110 in December 1821 and Opus 111 in January 1822, but he was still revising them the next spring prior to their publication.

Beethoven’s final sonata is in only two movements: a powerful opening movement in two parts and a concluding movement in theme-and-variation form. Ernest Hutcheson notes that Beethoven’s performance markings for these three sections offer not just indications of speed but also the clearest possible suggestions about interpretation. The markings translate: “Majestic,” “with energy and passion,” and “very simple and singing.”

The brief opening section–only sixteen bars long–is largely static and serves to gather energy and prepare for the Allegro con brio e appassionato, which leaps suddenly out of a quiet murmur of thirty-second notes. The Allegro’s opening three-note figure sounds as if it must be the beginning of a fugue theme, but while there are fugal elements in its development, Beethoven never treats the theme as a strict fugue. This movement, built upon the continual recurrence of the opening three-note figure, seethes with an energy almost brutal and slashing.

By complete contrast, the final movement is all serenity. Beethoven marks it Arietta (“little aria”), and the lyric theme that will serve as the basis for variation is of the utmost simplicity and directness. The theme is followed by five variations, and these variations are not so much decorations of the theme as they are the organic development of it. Each variation seems slightly faster than the one before it (though the underlying tempo of the movement remains unchanged), and the final variation–long, shimmering, and serene–serves as an extended coda to the entire movement. This final variation employs trills that go on for pages. Can it be that Beethoven–who had been deaf for years when he wrote these works–made such heavy use of trills so that he could at least feel the music beneath his hands even if he could not hear it?

When Beethoven’s copyist sent this sonata to the publishers, they wrote back to ask if there was a movement missing–they could not believe that Beethoven would end a sonata like this. But this is exactly the form Beethoven wanted, and his final piano sonata ends not in triumph but in a mood of exalted peace.

Transcendental Études, S.139


Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary

Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth

Liszt’s phenomenally difficult Transcendental Études have a complex history. He began work in 1824 (at age 13!) on what was planned as a cycle of 48 études in all the major and minor keys, but when the set was published in 1826 it consisted of only twelve. Liszt came back to this music a dozen years later–at the height of his career as one of the greatest piano virtuosos ever–and completely revised these pieces, in the process transforming them into some of the most difficult music ever written for the piano. In his review of the 1838 version, Robert Schumann called the études “studies in storm and dread for, at the most, ten or twelve players in the world.” Liszt then returned to this music one more time–he revised the études again, making them a little less difficult, and published this version in 1852 under the title Études d’exécution transcendante. This edition–the one almost always performed today–thus represents Liszt’s final thoughts on music he had been working on all of his life. Liszt gave ten of the études descriptive titles, but in some cases these were added after the music was complete rather than serving as starting points. The études are usually performed individually, and some of them–including Mazeppa, Ricordanza, and Hamonies du Soir–have become famous on their own, but this recital offers the extremely rare opportunity to hear all twelve.

Only one minute long, the Preludio has been described as an “opening flourish.” Full of resounding chords and runs that rip across the keyboard, it brings matters nicely to attention and–in its powerful way–establishes an air of expectancy.

Liszt did not give No. 2 in A Minor a nickname, but the great pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who prepared an edition of the Transcendental Études, did: he called it Fusées, feeling that the great rushes to the extreme ends of the keyboard were reminiscent of rockets. Quite brief, this is a real virtuoso piece. Liszt marks it Molto vivace and also specifies that it should be à capriccio. This étude might be considered a study in hand-crossings and exchanges, for often the hands–when they are not flying to the ends of the keyboard–are playing directly on top of each other.

Paysage (“Landscape”) is an exceptionally gentle piece, and throughout Liszt reminds the pianist to play dolce and dolcissimo and–importantly–to play sempre legato e placido: this is clearly a portrait of a calm landscape. The music flows quietly along its 6/8 meter, presses ahead slightly in the chordal center section, and trails off to its close deep in the piano’s lowest register.

Mazeppa was a late addition to the set of études. Liszt made his first sketches for a piano piece inspired by the story of Mazeppa in 1829, when he was only 18. Ivan Mazeppa was a real historical figure, though his life reads like something out of a fantastic tale. Born in 1644, the young man became a page in the Polish court, but a dalliance with a courtier’s wife brought him disaster. He was tied naked to a horse, and the horse was whipped so severely that it ran for three days, deep into the Ukraine. At that point, the bleeding horse collapsed and died, and Mazeppa–also bleeding–collapsed alongside it. He was rescued by a band of Cossacks, who recognized his superior qualities and named him their leader. Mazeppa eventually became the prince of the Ukraine under Peter the Great.

Liszt was not satisfied with his early sketches for music inspired by the story of Mazeppa, and he returned to this music eight years later, revised the piece and included it in his set of twelve Grandes Études in 1837. Still dissatisfied, he revised the piece again in 1840 and published it as the fourth of his Transcendental Études in 1852. The sharp opening chord must surely be the whipcrack that sends Mazeppa on his wild ride, and soon we hear the “Mazeppa theme,” a broadly-swinging tune hammered out in octaves. But the principal effect of this music is pianistic brilliance, for it consists of extended passages written in octaves, great washes of keyboard sound, and blistering runs in thirds; the music concludes with an overpowering final page that Liszt marks Trionfante. At the end of the piano version, Liszt appends a quotation from Victor Hugo that points toward Mazeppa’s future: “Il tombe enfin! . . . et se relève roi”: “Finally he falls . . . and arises as king.” Liszt’s orchestral version of Mazeppa would go on to describe his rescue by the Cossacks and his ascension to the throne, but the piano version comes to its close at the end of Mazeppa’s horrifying ride into the wilderness.

Feux Follets–usually translated as Will-o-the-Wisps or Jack-o-Lanterns–is a study in texture, built on runs, swirls, and dancing staccatos. Atmosphere is everything in this music, and the pianist must maintain a flitting, floating, evanescent sound throughout. The dynamic remains subdued, rarely rising even to forte, as the music races without hesitation to its delicate concluding chord.

In Vision Liszt seems intent on producing as vast a sound as he can from the piano. The marking here is Lento, but the pace does not seem slow, primarily because Liszt crowds so much activity into these broad measures. Much of this étude is based on great arpeggios that crest and flicker across the keyboard, and beneath them Liszt’s main theme pounds powerfully forward. He marks one particularly violent passage con strepito (“clangorous, deafening”), and the piece concludes with a great downward cascade of octaves.

The title Eroica is a reflection of a general mood rather than the tale of a particular act of heroism. The introduction proceeds along massive chords and descending runs before the main theme, marked Tempo di Marcia, moves ahead. The music grows increasingly brilliant–there are long passages in octaves for both hands–and suddenly cuts off for a moment of silence. The étude resumes and finally marches to a powerful close marked largamente.

Some have claimed to hear the sound of a nocturnal hunt in Wilde Jagd (“The Wild Hunt”), though Liszt appended this nickname long after he composed the music. This piece does preserve the 6/8 meter of hunting horns, but it is far better to take this music as a display of dazzling virtuosity than to search for a portrait of racing horses and horn-calls. The difficulties are apparent from the first instant. Liszt marks the opening Presto furioso, and the music erupts with a triple forte. The technical difficulties here lie in the chordal writing, rhythmic complexities, and the huge sonorities. These alternate with more flowing and melodic material, but the principal impression this music makes is of speed and power, and finally it hurtles to a dramatic conclusion.

The Étude No. 9 in A-flat Major–subtitled “Ricordanza” (“Remembrance”)–is frankly nostalgic music. Busoni described this étude as giving “the impression of a bundle of faded love letters from a somewhat old-fashioned world of sentiment.” Liszt offers a long introduction in the manner of an improvisation before the lyric main idea–marked dolce, con grazia–is heard. The extension of this gentle idea turns quite brilliant before the music comes to a quiet close.

The Étude No. 10 in F Minor has no subtitle, though Busoni felt that it deserved the nickname Appassionato. Liszt marks the étude Allegro agitato molto, but his instructions within the music make its dramatic nature even clearer: accentato ed appassionato assai, tempestoso, disperato, and precipitato. This is turbulent, dramatic music, full of rippling triplets, chordal writing that stretches to the extreme ends of the keyboard, and extended passages in octaves. Through all this fury runs a haunting melody that brings some peace amidst the pianistic fireworks.

Harmonies du soir (Evening Harmonies), one of Liszt’s most famous compositions, is a meditation on evening calm. The quiet opening section in D-flat major soon grows impassioned, but this in turn gives way to a lyric E-major interlude that Liszt asks to have played “with intimate sentiment”; he marks the left-hand accompaniment here quasi Arpa: “like a harp.” This too grows to a powerful climax (marked “triumphant”) before the music returns to the calm mood of the opening and concludes on a quiet chordal melody.

Chasse-Neige provides a fitting conclusion to the set of twelve Transcendental Études, for this is music of extraordinary difficulty. That title translates literally as “snow-plow” but is sometimes rendered as “Blizzard” or “Snow-Whirls.” Much of the difficulty of this music rises from its constant murmuring tremolos, often built on rapidly-alternating chords, a sound that mimics the soft sensation of falling snow. The music builds in intensity, and Liszt drives to the climax on a long sequence of octave runs that he marks Quasi cadenza before the music vanishes on a series of rising chords.