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PROGRAM NOTES: Daniil Trifonov, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 (1720)
(arr. for piano by Ferruccio Busoni)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

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

The magnificent Chaconne that concludes the Partita No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin is among the most intense music Bach ever wrote, and it has worked its spell on musicians everywhere over the last two and a half centuries. The violin is a linear instrument, and the full harmonic textures implied in the original seem to cry out for performances that can project these more satisfactorily than can the violin. The Chaconne has been transcribed for many other instruments and combinations of instruments, including several versions for keyboard: first by Joachim Raff and in 1877 by Brahms, who arranged it for left hand only. Brahms was almost beside himself with admiration for this music; to Clara Schumann he wrote: “If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.”

Ferruccio Busoni, who felt a similar excitement about the Chaconne, made his transcription some years after Brahms’ and first performed it at a concert in Boston in 1893. This was a period when Busoni was making piano transcriptions of Bach’s organ music, and at least one scholar has suggested that Busoni conceived of the Chaconne as organ music (rather than violin music) and then–with that sonority in mind–proceeded to make a transcription for piano that would project an organ-like richness of sound. Busoni’s transcription is a fairly exact reproduction of Bach’s music: he makes only minor changes in the original, including the repetition of one brief phrase not repeated by Bach.

A chaconne is one of the most disciplined forms in music: it is built on a ground bass in triple meter over which a melodic line is repeated and varied. Here the four-bar ground bass repeats 64 times during the quarter-hour span of the Chaconne, and over it Bach spins out gloriously varied music, all the while keeping these variations firmly anchored on the ground bass. At the center section Bach moves into D major, and here the music relaxes a little, content to sing happily for a while; after the calm nobility of this interlude, the quiet return of D minor sounds almost disconsolate. Bach drives the Chaconne to a great climax and a restatement of the ground melody at the close.

Piano Sonata in G Major, D.894 (1826)
Molto moderato e cantabile
Andante
Menuetto: Allegro moderato
Allegretto

FRANZ SCHUBERT

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

Schubert composed this music in October 1826, and it was published six months later in Vienna by Tobias Haslinger as Schubert’s Opus 78. But when he brought out this score, Haslinger gave it a title that has caused a great deal of confusion: he published the work not as a unified whole but under the names of its four movements, and so it first appeared in April 1827 as Fantaisie, Andante, Menuetto, and Allegretto. This awkward name was in turn abbreviated to Fantasy in G Major, and the music was known for some time under that title, even though Schubert’s manuscript clearly calls the work a sonata on its title page. Haslinger’s substitution of so unwieldy a title of his own has been explained by at least one observer as an effort to attract the developing market of amateur pianists in Vienna with a title that might not seem so forbidding to casual players as a sonata.

Actually, Haslinger’s motives were more complex–and understandable–than such an explanation seems to make them. There were good reasons why he might not want to call this music a sonata, and those reasons center primarily on its first movement. That movement is of extraordinary length (if the indicated repeat is taken, it can stretch out to nearly twenty-five minutes), it is at a moderate tempo, and it has none of the dramatic character one associates with a sonata-form first movement. The other movements are of comparably generous proportions, so much so, in fact, that the entire work can approach fifty minutes in some performances, making it significantly longer than Beethoven’s mighty “Hammerklavier” Sonata. It is no surprise that Haslinger, faced with such unusual music, might choose to identify it to potential buyers as a collection of individual pieces rather than a unified sonata.

But Schubert knew what he was about, and this clearly is a Piano Sonata in G Major, as we have come to know it today. Schubert’s conception of the piano sonata was different from Beethoven’s, and those differences are most evident in that first movement. Schubert’s marking Molto moderato e cantabile suggests that he wants a broad, relaxed, and singing performance, and that is certainly consistent with the music itself, which rocks gently along its 12/8 meter and moves from a pianissimo dynamic in the opening measure to triple piano in the tenth. If this is going to be non-dramatic music, it is also nicely unified: most of the thematic material seems to spin out of that quiet opening subject, and the music by turn dances, surges, and flows across the long span of the movement. The development seems to begin more powerfully in firm G minor, but those tensions relax almost immediately, and the music resumes the character it established in its opening moments. In the closing measures, the rhythmic pattern of the very beginning seems to break down and dissolve as the music marches to a barely-audible close.

The second movement is a slow rondo (the marking is Andante) in 3/8 meter. The opening melody–simplicity itself–will be the basis for the rondo, and it grows more ornate as it reappears across the broad span of this movement. Schubert separates these episodes with violent interruptions, great hammered chords that intrude upon the sweet atmosphere of the beginning and then melt away as the rondo theme reasserts itself. By far the shortest of the movements, the Menuetto dances with a sort of rustic simplicity, once again built on insistent chords; in sharp contrast, Schubert specifies that he wants the delicate trio section molto legato after the staccato chords of the minuet.

The last movement is another rondo, but this one too is at an unexpected tempo: rather than opting for a brilliant finale, Schubert writes a comfortable one. The marking here is Allegretto, and the agreeable central theme makes clear that–like the first movement–this music will be essentially non-dramatic. Schubert takes that rondo theme through a series of varied permutations: sometimes it dances in the piano’s ringing high register, sometimes it appears deep in the pianist’s left hand, and it undergoes some nice thematic evolution as it proceeds. A gorgeous C-minor episode marked espressivo passes by so quickly that it is over almost before the ear has begun to adjust; Schubert then brings it back in sunny C major, and just as quickly this vanishes too. So this movement goes: it is long, but it offers a constantly-evolving musical landscape, and finally this music dances its way to an ending all the more wonderful for being so understated.

Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 35, Book I (1863)

JOANNES BRAHMS

Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

Niccolò Paganini–rumored by some to be in league with the devil–published his Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin in 1820, and the theme of the final caprice, full of angular leaps and coiled energy, has haunted composers ever since. Among those who have written extended works based on this sprightly theme are Paganini himself (twelve variations), Liszt (Transcendental Études), Schumann (Paganini Variations), Rachmaninoff (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), and–more recently–Witold Lutosławski and Boris Blacher (both of whom have composed a set of Variations on a Theme of Paganini) and George Rochberg (Fifty Caprice Variations). Further sets of variations may still come, for the possibilities of this theme appear inexhaustible.

Brahms composed his Variations on a Theme of Paganini in 1863, shortly after moving from Hamburg to Vienna, and published them as two books of fourteen variations each. These variations are extremely compact: each set–consisting of the theme, fourteen variations, and a blazing finale–lasts only about eleven minutes. Brahms himself described them as exercises (“Studies for Pianoforte”) and gave the two sets the slightly dry and academic title of “Books,” but listeners should not be put off by the composer’s usual self-deprecation: this is ingenious and exciting music, pleasing for the verve of the writing for piano and for the sheer exhilaration of hearing Paganini’s theme put through so many transformations.

It is also fiendishly difficult for the performer, and Brahms’ Paganini Variations are regarded as one of the supreme tests for pianists. Brahms’ close friend Clara Schumann, one of the finest pianists of the nineteenth century, found them so difficult that she called them Hexenvariationen (“Witches’ Variations”), implying that it would take supernatural powers to solve all the technical problems they present. Brahms himself gave the first performance of the two Books in Vienna on March 17, 1867.

The Paganini Variations may succeed brilliantly as concert music, but there is at least an element of truth in Brahms’ description of them as exercises. Each variation presents the pianist with a particular technical problem: some are written in thirds, some in sixths, some in octaves; some present several rhythms simultaneously, while others require difficult trills or staccato or legato passages; still others require awkward hand-crossings. The music itself is quite varied, ranging from gentle passages that Brahms marks molto dolce to an explosive variation marked Feroce, energico.

On this recital Mr. Trifonov performs Book I. A generalization sometimes made is that Book I is distinguished by the difficulty of its technical hurtles, while Book II is more satisfying from a purely musical point of view, though such a distinction may not matter much: it should be noted that a century ago pianists sometimes assembled their own sets of Paganini Variations by drawing variations from the two Books. Brahms’ music at its best fuses technically complex writing with engaging musical ideas, and the Paganini Variations can be enjoyed on many levels: for the virtuosity of the playing, the ingenuity of the variations, and the beauty of the music, as Paganini’s theme is made to sing in ways its creator never dreamed of.

Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 28 (1907)
Allegro moderato; Allegro
Lento
Allegro molto

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF

Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills

In February 1906 Rachmaninoff resigned his position as conductor at the Bolshoi and moved his family to Dresden. He had won critical praise as a conductor, but the demands of that position prevented him from composing, which was what he really wanted to do. He loved the quiet house he rented in Dresden–it was surrounded by a garden–and he set to work immediately. The next few years were some of his most productive, for they included the composition of his Second Symphony, Isle of the Dead, and Third Piano Concerto. Also from these years came a work that has proven much less familiar, the First Piano Sonata. Rachmaninoff sketched the sonata in January and February 1907 and had it complete on May 14 of that year.

But he was by no means comfortable with his latest creation. To a friend he described his problems with it: “The sonata is certainly wild and interminable. I think it takes about 45 minutes. I was lured into this length by its guiding idea. This is–three contrasting types from a literary work. Of course no program will be indicated, though I begin to think that the sonata would be clearer if the program were revealed. Nobody will ever play this composition, it’s too difficult and long . . . At one time I wanted to make a symphony of this sonata, but this seemed impossible because of the purely pianistic style in which it is written.” The première, given in Moscow on October 17, 1908, by Konstantin Igumnov, got a respectful but mystified reaction, and the composer had scarcely any more success when he played the sonata on his recitals during the next several seasons.

Perhaps it may help audiences to know that the “literary work” that inspired this sonata was Goethe’s Faust and that its three movements were apparently inspired in turn by Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. Small wonder that the work struck Rachmaninoff as symphonic in character: these are the titles and sequence of the three movements of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, composed in 1857. Rachmaninoff chose not to reveal the inspiration, and this sonata is in no sense programmatic: its three movements should be understood more as character pieces than as pieces that depict specific events.

This is an extremely difficult sonata for the performer, and it generates textures so full and dramatic that Rachmaninoff was right to wonder if it might really be symphonic music. The Allegro moderato alternates tentative figures with fierce outbursts before rushing ahead at the Allegro; its second subject, marked Moderato, is built on repeated notes that emerge from murmuring figurations. This movement, long and technically demanding, drives to a sonorous climax that rides along great waves of sound before the music subsides to recall the second subject and to close quietly, even peacefully. The main idea of the Lento is introduced above rocking triplet accompaniment, and that rhythm will eventually drive this movement to an agitated climax; a striking sequence of descending trills brings the movement to its restrained close. The finale has seemed to some who know of the sonata’s original inspiration to have been inspired by the Flight to Brocken in Goethe’s Faust. It opens with hammered octaves that are marked both fortissimo and marcato and then races ahead; the second subject is a quiet, march-like idea that Rachmaninoff marks “very resolute.” These two ideas alternate throughout the movement, which also features some lyric and haunting melodies. The music accelerates to the close, where Rachmaninoff rounds matters off with a great chordal climax full of the sound of pealing bells and a suitably furious cadence.

meridia