PROGRAM NOTES: Ingolf Wunder, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Nocturne in E-flat Major, Opus 55, No. 2
Born February 22, 1810, Želazowska Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris
The two nocturnes of Chopin’s Opus 55 come from 1843. A nocturne suggests music not just with a nocturnal atmosphere but of an intimate, personal nature, and that is certainly true of the Nocturne in E-flat Major, which is remarkable for the equal importance of the two hands. The left hand is here not relegated to the role of accompanist but given a musical line that co-exists with the pianist’s right hand. Counterpoint is not a characteristic one automatically associates with Chopin, but this nocturne is an exercise in the deft treatment of simultaneous musical lines.
Allegro de Concert in A Major, Opus 46
When he arrived in Paris in September 1831, the 21-year-old Chopin brought with him from Poland two piano concertos, which he performed in Paris, and in 1832 he began a third–there is some evidence that this may have been intended as a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. He sketched the first movement of this concerto, and then abandoned it.
Why? Probably for several reasons. Chopin was not really interested in a career as public virtuoso in the manner of Liszt and many others, and the piano concerto represented one of the most visible forms of that virtuosity. Further, he was not particularly interested in writing for the orchestra or in concerto form. He soon discovered that he was able to make a career in Paris by teaching and performing before private audiences, and it is not surprising that he should abandon a composition that was going to lead him in a direction he wished to avoid.
About a decade later, in 1841, Chopin returned to the abandoned sketches, transformed them into a piece for piano solo that he called Allegro de Concert, and published it that same year as his Opus 46. This did not involve a radical transformation (Chopin had earlier arranged both his completed piano concertos as works for solo piano), and it is quite possible in the Allegro de Concert to make out which are the “orchestral” passages and those that had been intended for the soloist. Marked Allegro maestoso, the piece opens with the long “orchestral” exposition, which sets the dotted rhythms of the opening against more lyric secondary material. The “piano” makes a deceptively quiet entrance, but from there on this is extraordinarily difficult music, full of passages in octaves, complex chordal writing, and consciously “virtuosic” writing before Chopin rounds the movement off with a resounding “orchestral” close. The Allegro de Concert is seldom heard today, and a performance offers the opportunity to hear not just unusual Chopin, but a rare instance of this composer setting out to write consciously virtuosic music.
Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Opus 22
The Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante had a curious genesis and exists today in a variety of forms. Chopin originally wrote just the Grande Polonaise as a virtuoso concert piece for piano and orchestra between September 1830 and July 1831, when he was in his early twenties. This was an emotionally wrenching time for the composer. He had left his native Poland at exactly the moment it was being subjugated by Russia, and–suddenly homeless–he had spent a disappointing eight months trying to make a career in Vienna before finally fleeing to Paris in 1831. Three years later, in 1834, Chopin returned to the Grande Polonaise and wrote an introduction for it, the Andante Spianato, scored for piano alone. This was the period when touring piano virtuosos were entertaining audiences with concertos, and Chopin had hoped to win a following in Paris with this sort of large-scale work. He gave the premiere of the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante in Paris on April 26, 1835, but this was to prove one of Chopin’s final public performances: he disliked performing before large crowds (modern concert conditions would have appalled him) and thereafter limited his performances to private audiences. In 1836, Chopin returned once again to this music and arranged it for piano quartet, and two years after that he arranged the entire piece for solo piano. At this concert it is heard in the version for solo piano.
The Andante Spianato is unusually calm (“spianato” has been variously translated as “level,” “even,” “smoothed out”). Over a rippling accompaniment, the gentle first idea of this nocturne-like introduction is heard; a brief trio section leads to the return of this opening material. Fanfares signal the beginning of the Polonaise, which is brilliant music, full of swirling triplets and hammered octaves. A polonaise is an old Polish dance in triple time, but to that stately old dance Chopin in this case brings unusual virtuosity. Like the Andante Spianato, the Polonaise is in ABA form: both the flowing main idea and the dark and noble center section (in C minor) feature some of Chopin’s most characteristic melodic material, and the conclusion is dazzling.
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Austria
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany
Princess Cristina Belgiojoso-Trivulzio was one of the most colorful (some would say flamboyant) figures in Parisian salon life during the 1830s. During the winter of 1837 she conceived of an extravagant–and very imaginative–idea for a concert to benefit the poor: she chose the march of the puritans from Bellini’s opera I puritani, which had been premiered in Paris only two years earlier, and invited six leading pianists of the day to contribute a variation on that theme and to play their variation at her concert. Paris was then home to the greatest pianists in the world, as her choices made clear: Frédéric Chopin, Johann Peter Pixis, Sigismond Thalberg, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, and Franz Liszt. Not all the variations were complete at the time of the Princess’ benefit concert, nor were all the pianists present to play “their” variation, and Liszt, then 26 years old, was eventually put in charge of assembling the composite work. He wrote an introduction, the statement of Bellini’s theme, transitional music between some of the variations, and a finale. Liszt liked the composite piece, which was named Hexaméron to recognize the participation of its six different composers: he referred to it as “the monster work” and performed it on recitals throughout Europe.
The Princess Belgiojoso was known for her revolutionary sympathies–she had been thrown out of Italy because of her political views–and she chose a theme close to her heart: Bellini’s chorus is a call to arms in the name of liberty. Liszt’s subtitle makes clear that this music was intended as a virtuoso work: “Morceau de Concert. Grande Variations Bravoure sur le Marche Des Puritains.” Hexaméron opens with Liszt’s portentous introduction, full of deep tremolandi, huge chords, and powerful octave writing. His introduction contains hints of Bellini’s theme, which is then given a grandiloquent presentation marked Allegro marziale. The six variations follow. Thalberg’s variation, marked Ben marcato, is full of powerful runs, while Liszt’s own Moderato variation sounds almost chaste after Thalberg’s animated writing. Pixis marks his variation Di bravura and con fuoco (“with fire”); it features much writing in octaves, and Liszt supplies a transition to Herz’s variation, marked legato e grazioso. This section is extremely fast, with sparkling runs set high in the pianist’s right hand. Czerny’s variation is similarly brilliant. Marked Vivo e brillante, it too is set high in the piano’s high register, and Liszt wrote a transitional passage to lead from this brilliant writing to Chopin’s more restrained variation, a slow movement. Listeners will recognize the essential Chopin style in this Largo, which builds from a quiet beginning to a fortissimo climax before falling back. Liszt then steps in to supply a knock-out bravura finale to all that has gone before. Liszt later made an arrangement of Hexaméron for solo piano and orchestra, and much of the writing in this finale sounds as if it had been conceived with an orchestra in mind.
Liszt may have championed Hexaméron on his concert tours, but performances today are rare, which is too bad. Hexaméron may be a very unusual piece of music, a strange stylistic hybrid, but it does give us a window into musical life in Paris in the 1830s and into the quite different styles of six of the leading pianists active in that city and that era.
Sonetto 104 from Années de pèlerinage (Deuxième année: Italie), S.161/5
Liszt and his mistress Marie d’Agoult made an extended visit to Italy in 1838-39, and they fell in love with the country, its people, its art. While in Italy, Liszt began to sketch a second collection of piano pieces in the manner of the first book of Années de pèlerinage. But where the first collection had been devoted to physical locations in Switzerland, now Liszt changed his focus, and a set of seven pieces inspired by varied works of Italian art began to take shape.
In Italy, Liszt and Marie d’Agoult read through the sonnets of Petrarch together, and Liszt was so struck by these poems that the following year he wrote three songs that set Petrarch’s sonnets 104, 47, and 123. These appear to have been the first songs composed by Liszt, who was 28 at the time. These dramatic songs have been described as operatic, for they were written for high tenor and go up to high C-sharp. Liszt immediately transcribed the three songs as piano pieces, and these transcriptions were published as a set–in a slightly different order–in 1846. Several years later, Liszt returned to these piano pieces and revised them for inclusion in the second book of Années de pèlerinage.
While the impulse behind these three pieces is lyric, Liszt turned the piano versions into virtuoso keyboard works: moments of melting lyricism will give way almost instantly to bravura writing that demands an absolutely first-class pianist simply to get the notes. The famous Sonetto 104 opens powerfully (Agitato assai), as befits the troubled topic of this sonnet, but this abrupt beginning quickly gives way to the melody of the song, which is then extended at length. The writing for piano is particularly impressive here, with difficult chordal passages, powerful writing in octaves, great cadenza-like flourishes, and chains of thirds. After all this energy, the peaceful main theme returns to draw the music to its close on quietly-arpeggiated chords.
Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S.110/2
In 1860, as he neared the end of his tenure as music director at the Weimar court, Franz Liszt wrote a pair of orchestral works that he titled Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust. Nicolas Lenau (1802-50) was a Hungarian-Austrian poet who wrote his own versions of the Faust legend (different from Goethe’s) and the Don Juan story (which would inspire Richard Strauss’ tone poem later in the century). Liszt’s pieces depict quite different episodes from Lenau’s dramatic poem. The first, Der nächtlige Zug (“The Ride by Night”), is a portrait of a religious procession passing by in the night, carrying torches as they go. It is seldom played, but the second has become one of Liszt’s most familiar orchestral works. Liszt titled it Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (“The Dance in the Village Tavern”), though it is most commonly known today under the title Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Liszt completed this music in January 1861 and led its first performance at Weimar on March 8, 1861, only months before his departure from that city (and only months before his fiftieth birthday).
In the score, Liszt printed a synopsis of the action that his music depicts. Faust and Mephistopheles wander into a village tavern, where Faust is smitten by a “black-eyed beauty.” But he is afraid to approach her, and Mephistopheles chides him for being willing to stand up to the creatures of hell but cowering at the prospect of approaching a woman. Bored with the tavern, its inhabitants, and the music, Mephistopheles challenges the local musicians to dig in and play with some life. He takes up a violin and begins to play, and his playing is so exciting that it whips those in the tavern into a frenzy of excitement. Under the spell of the music, Faust overcomes his fears and leads the “black-eyed beauty” out into the warm night, where they cross a meadow and enter a dark forest. Deep in that forest, they hear the music from the distant tavern as a nightingale sings overhead.
Liszt’s music does not set out to depict these events in the sort of realistic detail that Richard Strauss would have brought to the task. Instead, he offers a more generalized impression, and his piece is structured as a series of waltzes: some are fiery, some languorous, and some dance with an almost Mendelssohnian lightness. After all this excitement, the music turns quiet as Faust and his companion enter the dark woods.
The Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is heard on this recital in Liszt’s own arrangement for solo piano.