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PROGRAM NOTES: Inon Barnatan, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

The title toccata comes from the Italian word meaning “touched”–the cognate terms are sonata (“sounded”) and cantata (“sung”)–and it was originally a piece designed to show off a keyboard player’s touch and skill. The toccata was often built on a brilliant, rapid flow of sixteenth-notes, and that form has had an enduring appeal–composers as different as Schumann and Prokofiev have written toccatas for the piano. More recently, the original meaning of the term has been diluted: some modern composers have written toccatas for orchestra, and the title has evolved to the point where it simply means brilliant music.

Bach, however, had a different understanding of the term altogether. For him, the toccata was a multi-movement suite, often very free in form. Each of his toccatas contains at least one slow movement and one fugue, and some of the movements are fantasia-like in structure: though Bach often omits tempo markings, individual movements appear to fall into sections at quite different tempos, and it is up to the performer to determine the correct speeds and relation of these different parts. Bach’s toccatas are the work of a very young composer: they date from around the years 1708 to 1710, just as Bach was leaving Muhlhausen to take up the post of organist at Weimar, and all were completed before his 25th birthday. Some have felt that they are very much the work of a young composer, pointing out that the fugues in these toccatas–despite an attractive energy–can be repetitive and lack the conciseness of the mature fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Toccata in E Minor has a particularly original structure. Bach begins with a stately introductory passage in 3/2, and this proceeds directly into the main body of the movement, marked Un poco Allegro and set in common time. The unusual thing about this movement is how contrapuntal the music is, and while it is not a fugue, Bach specifies that it is “in four voices.” Bach marks the next movement Adagio, but that is only a general indication of tempo, for this movement is so free–in matters of texture, speed, and rhythmic patterns–that it seems to proceed at many different tempos. The final movement is the expected fugue, in this case in three voices and built on a steady rush of sixteenth-notes and harmonically quite free. That steady pulse of sixteenths continues all the way to the end, where Bach rounds off this toccata with a great, fantasia-like flourish.

Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue

Born December 10, 1822, Liège, France
Died November 8, 1890, Paris

In 1884 César Franck set out to compose a piano work inspired by Bach. Specifically, Franck chose Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as his model and planned at first to compose a Prelude and Fugue. But as he worked, Franck came to feel that the music needed a transition between these two parts, and eventually this “transition” turned into a movement of its own, the Chorale. Franck was one of the great organists of the nineteenth century, yet he resisted the temptation to try to make the piano sound like an organ here. Instead, the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue remains piano music throughout, conceived specifically for that sound and never reaching for a sonority beyond its capability. Franck’s former pupil Camille Saint-Saëns gave the first performance at a concert of the Société Nationale in Paris on January 24, 1885.

As completed, the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue falls into the three-part form that Franck favored in these years (other three-section works from this period include the Piano Quintet, Symphony in D Minor, and the Prelude, Aria, and Finale). It is based on a thematic technique Franck had learned from Liszt, who in turn had adapted it from Schubert: the work is in a cyclic form in which certain germinal themes will reappear in modified form throughout. Here the method is particularly ingenious because the themes of the Prelude and Chorale begin to evolve as soon as they are stated, and–at the climax of the Fugue–Franck recalls and weaves together all his themes in some impressive contrapuntal writing.

The Prelude has an improvisatory air: the arpeggiated opening measures give way to a falling figure Franck marks a capriccio, and he will alternate and extend both these elements across the span of this opening section. The pace slows slightly at the Chorale, where Franck does not present his principal theme immediately: a rather free introduction (marked molto cantabile, non troppo dolce) leads to the chorale melody, presented in richly-arpeggiated chords that roll upward across four octaves. The structure is once again episodic, as Franck alternates the free beginning with the solemn chorale tune. As the movement proceeds, we begin to hear a foreshadowing of the fugue subject, and suddenly the music rushes into the Fugue. This is the longest section, and Franck puts his fugue subject through complex treatment. When Saint-Saëns, who was no admirer of Franck’s music, complained that this was not really a fugue, he was referring to the fact that some of the interludes here are not contrapuntal at all–they consist of a main line and its accompaniment. But in fact Franck’s fugue, sectional as it may be, is quite complex, treating the subject in inversion and in various rhythmic displacements. Near the end comes the high point of all this contrapuntal complexity: Franck recalls elements of the Prelude and then–through shimmering textures–combines the Chorale and Fugue themes and presents them simultaneously. The music drives to a sonorous climax, and Franck rounds matters off with a surprisingly “virtuosic” coda based on the Chorale theme.

Piano Sonata, Opus 26

Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, PA
Died January 23, 1981, New York City

Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, composed between 1947 and 1949, is inextricably linked with one of the greatest pianists of last century, Vladimir Horowitz. Though Barber said that he did not write the sonata specifically for the Russian pianist, Horowitz nevertheless proved an overwhelming influence on this music: he consulted with Barber during its composition, performed sections for the composer as he wrote them, and suggested important changes. Horowitz gave the world première, in Havana on December 9, 1949, and then became the sonata’s champion, performing it over twenty times that season alone. He also made the first recording, on one of the earliest LPs ever issued.

The popular conception of Barber is that he was an extremely conservative composer who clung to nineteenth-century forms even as the twentieth century evolved furiously around him. At first glance his Piano Sonata seems to bear this out, for its four movements fall into a familiar pattern: a sonata-form first movement, a scherzo, a lyric slow movement, and a fugal finale. Yet beneath this seemingly conservative exterior, the Piano Sonata is one of Barber’s most striking and audacious scores: its harmonic language is based on a dizzying chromaticism, it features one of Barber’s rare uses of twelve-tone sequences, and the thorny writing for piano requires a virtuoso of the first order. More than half a century after its composition, Barber’s Piano Sonata remains one of the finest works for piano ever composed by an American–Horowitz himself called it “the first truly great native work in the form.”

For all its fierce energy, the Allegro energico is wonderfully expressive music. The jagged dotted rhythms of the opening, in the unusual key of E-flat minor, give way to a varied range of secondary material: a haunting second subject marked espressivo and repetitive patterns of notes used more as rhythmic figures than as themes. The home key of this movement may be E-flat minor, but Barber blurs that tonality with so many accidentals that the sense of a clear harmonic foundation is often lost; as early as the ninth measure, he introduces a twelve-tone sequence though he uses it here to obscure the harmonic frame rather than as thematic material. Longest of the movements, the Allegro energico drives to a fierce climax that recalls all its themes before the abrupt close.

In complete contrast, the Allegro vivace e leggero is a quicksilvery scherzo. Much of the writing is in the piano’s high registers (the left hand is often written in treble clef), and the ringing sound of these high notes, coupled with the graceful and dancing themes, give this brief movement a music-box fragility.

The third movement, Adagio mesto (“mesto” means sad) takes us once again into an entirely different world–one of the strengths of this sonata is the violent contrast between its movements. The left-hand accompaniment is based on twelve-tone sequences, and over this chromatic background the right hand spins out the long, lyric main idea. This simple music grows to a complex climax (so complex, in fact, that Barber writes some of it in three staves) before the movement concludes almost inaudibly.

Barber had originally intended to complete the sonata with a slow-movement finale, but Horowitz convinced him that it needed a brilliant conclusion. The Russian pianist may have been surprised by how completely Barber followed his advice, for the Allegro con spirito is a spiky four-voice fugue of almost incandescent difficulty–so famous has this finale become that it is sometimes performed by itself as a dazzling virtuoso piece. In its original context, however, it makes a stunning conclusion to the Piano Sonata. Here one more time is a complete contrast, as the music leaps from the close of the dark slow movement into the fiery vitality of the last. Along the way, Barber treats the original fugue theme ingeniously, sometimes presenting it slowly behind the dizzying pianistic foreground. At the coda, Barber switches from the original 4/4 to 3/8, and the fugue subject assumes yet another form as it rushes to the breathtaking close of what one critic called “one of the most musically exciting and technically brilliant pieces of writing yet turned out by an American.”

Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960

Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

Schubert’s final year was dreadful. Ill for years, he went into steady decline in 1828 and died in November at 31. Yet from those last months came a steady stream of masterpieces, and few of the achievements of that miraculous, agonizing year seem more remarkable than the composition of three large-scale piano sonatas in the month of September, barely eight weeks before his death. In the years following Schubert’s death, many of the works from this final year were recognized as the masterpieces they are, but the three piano sonatas made their way much more slowly. When they appeared in 1838, a decade after Schubert’s death, the publisher dedicated them to Schumann, one of Schubert’s greatest admirers, but even Schumann confessed mystification, noting with a kind of dismayed condescension that “Always musical and rich in songlike themes, these pieces ripple on, page after page . . . .” Even as late as 1949, Schubert’s adoring biographer Robert Haven Schauffler could rate them “considerably below the level of the last symphonies and quartets, the String Quintet, and the best songs.” It took Artur Schnabel’s championing these sonatas to rescue them from obscurity, and today the last of them, the Sonata in B-flat Major, has become one of the best-loved of all piano sonatas: the current catalog lists over forty recordings.

It is dangerous to assume that a composer’s final works must be haunted–as were Mahler’s and Shostakovich’s–by premonitions of death. And in fact, Schubert’s final works do not agonize in the way the Mahler Tenth or Shostakovich Fourteenth Symphonies do. But it remains true that as Schubert’s condition worsened across the span of that final year, his music took on a depth and poignance rare in his works. And it is hard not to hear in the beginning of the Sonata in B-flat Major a direct premonition of mortality. The Molto moderato begins simply with a flowing chordal melody of unusual expressiveness. But in the eighth measure comes a discordant trill deep in the left hand, and the music glides to a complete stop. The silence that follows–Schubert marks it with a fermata to be sure that it is prolonged–is one of the few genuinely terrifying moments in music. It is as if a moment of freezing terror has crept into this flow of gentle song. Out of the silence the theme resumes. Again the deep trill intrudes, but this time the music rides over it and continues. Claudio Arrau has spoken of this movement as one written “in the proximity of death,” and while this music is never tortured, it is some of the most expressive Schubert ever wrote. This is a long movement, full of the harmonic freedom that marks Schubert’s best music; it ends quietly in B-flat major with a chorale-like restatement of the main theme.

The Andante sostenuto is as moving as the first movement. The somber opening melody, in the unexpected key of C-sharp minor, proceeds darkly in the right hand, while the left hand offers an unusual accompaniment that skips–almost dances–through a four-octave range, reaching up above the right hand’s melody. The middle section is of a nobility that might almost be called Brahmsian, were that not absurd; perhaps it suggests why, a half-century later, Brahms admired Schubert’s music so much. By contrast, the quicksilvery Scherzo flashes across the keyboard with a main theme that moves easily between the pianist’s hands; at times the rhythms and easy flow make this seem more like a waltz than a scherzo. Schubert specifies that it should be played con delicatezza, and certainly its smooth modulations between A major and B-flat major are accomplished most delicately; the brief trio is enlivened by off-the-beat accents. The finale–Allegro, ma non troppo–dances along its two main ideas. The writing is brilliant and once again full of harmonic surprises, but in the midst of all this sparkle one hears a wistfulness, an expressive depth that stays to haunt the mind long after the music has ended.