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PROGRAM NOTES: Murray Perahia, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Andante and Variations in F Minor, Hob.VII:6

Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna

This extraordinary music is one of Haydn’s final compositions for piano. He wrote it in Vienna in 1793 between his two visits to London, and evidence suggests that Haydn himself was unsure just what form this music would take. The manuscript is headed “Sonata,” and it is possible Haydn intended it as the first movement of a sonata, giving up that plan when it became clear to the composer that this music should stand alone. He revised the score carefully, and its final form is unusual: it is a set of double variations–the first theme in F minor, the second in F major–which is then completed by a powerful coda 83 measures long.

The somber opening theme, marked Andante, is heard immediately and passes between both hands, extending through two strains. Haydn then switches to F major for the second theme, but this florid melody, full of swirls and arabesques, shows subtle harmonic relations to the subdued opening subject, so that there is already a unifying bond between these two themes before the variations begin. Haydn then offers two variations on these two themes. The variations on the F minor theme remain restrained, chromatic, and expressive, while the variations on the F major theme are more florid, full of trills and flowing triplets. Haydn begins the coda with a literal reprise of the opening theme, and suddenly this music takes off: over rising harmonic tension, the coda grows more powerful, more expressive, and more dynamic as it drives to a fortissimo climax. And then–in an equally original stroke–Haydn has the music fall back, shatter, and fade into silence on bits of the original theme.

Haydn dedicated the Andante and Variations to Babette (or Barbara) von Ployer, who had been one of Mozart’s students. Scholars, though, have been nearly unanimous in sensing another woman as the real inspiration behind this music. In 1789, Haydn had become good friends with Marianne von Genzinger, the wife of a Viennese physician, and their friendship took the form of a lengthy series of letters in which the older composer was able to pour out–after his own long and unhappy marriage–a depth of feeling and observation; these letters in fact remain one of the clearest records of Haydn’s character and thinking in these years. In January 1793, Marianne von Genzinger died suddenly at age 38, and many music historians regard the Andante and Variations, written shortly after her death, as Haydn’s response to that devastating event. Until more evidence is available, such a connection must remain conjectural, but this somber and expressive music–composed and very carefully revised in the months after Marianne’s death–has seemed to many to be Haydn’s homage to a friend he held very dear.

Piano Sonata in A Minor, K.310
Allegro maestoso, common time
Andante cantabile con espressione

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

In September 1777, the 21-year-old Mozart set out on a trip that would turn into a disaster. Accompanied by his mother, he was to seek a position worthy of his talents in two of the musical capitals of Europe, Mannheim and Paris, while father Leopold remained behind in Salzburg. Suspicions of Mozart’s immaturity were instantly confirmed. From Mannheim, he proposed abandoning the trip to take a 16-year-old soprano on a tour of Italy (Leopold’s response was nearly apoplectic), and everywhere he went Mozart was considered too young for the role of kapellmeister. The disaster came in Paris–Mozart’s mother died suddenly during the summer of 1778. When Mozart returned to Salzburg in January 1779, both he and his father knew that the trip had been in every way a failure.

The Piano Sonata in A Minor, composed in Paris, shows a depth, tension, and expressivity new in the young composer’s music. Alfred Einstein has called it “a tragic sonata,” and it has been easy for some to conclude that Mozart wrote the sonata in response to his mother’s death. The evidence seems clear, however, that it had been completed before Maria Anna Mozart died on July 3, 1778.

We feel a level of tension from the first instant of this sonata, where the A-minor tonality is violated by a D-sharp grace note, but this dissonance only serves to establish the mood of what will follow. Mozart’s marking Allegro maestoso for this movement is curious, for there is nothing heroic or regal here. Instead, there is something darker, something powerful and insistent, and the music keeps pressing ahead–even the quietly-rippling second subject maintains this mood.

Mozart seldom marked a movement cantabile (he felt that all music should sing), but he goes even farther here, specifying that the second movement should be Andante cantabile con espressione. It is in ternary form, with calm outer sections framing an agitated central episode. In his biography of Mozart, Maynard Solomon argues that in this movement Mozart invents what would become an archetype of the romantic imagination: the music begins in Edenic innocence, but the middle section plunges that primal world into a darkness that threatens to overpower it; Mozart recovers as he returns to the opening section, but now this has been changed by the experience. Solomon argues that in this movement Mozart creates the pattern of “the Romantic mood-piece” that Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, and many others would employ over the following century.

The concluding Presto returns to the tonality–and manner–of the opening movement. Though quiet, the music partakes of that same restless spirit, much of it energized around the rhythm of a dotted eighth. A brief A-major episode at the center of the movement brings a brush of sunlight across the dusky landscape of this music, but Mozart quickly returns to A minor and drives the music implacably to its close.

Late Piano Music

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

As he approached his sixtieth birthday, Brahms returned to the instrument of his youth, the piano. The young Brahms–the “heaven-storming Johannes,” as one of his friends described him–had established his early reputation as the composer of dramatic piano works: of his first five published works, three were big-boned piano sonatas, and he next produced a series of extraordinarily difficult sets of virtuoso variations. And then suddenly, at age 32, Brahms walked away from solo piano music, and–except for some brief pieces in the late 1870s–that separation would last nearly three decades.

When the aging Brahms returned to the instrument of his youth, he was a very different man and a very different composer from the “heaven-storming Johannes” of years before. During the summers of 1892-93, Brahms wrote twenty brief piano pieces and published them in four sets as his Opp. 116-119. The twenty pieces that make up these four final sets are all very brief (they may accurately be described as miniatures) and are in ABA form: a first theme, a countermelody–usually in a contrasting tempo and key, and a return of the opening material, now slightly varied. While perhaps technically not as demanding as his early piano works, these twenty pieces nevertheless distill a lifetime of experience and technical refinement into very brief spans, and in their focused, inward, and sometimes bleak way they offer some of Brahms’ most personal and moving music. Someone once astutely noted that a cold wind blows through these late piano pieces; Brahms himself described them as “lullabies of my pain.”

This recital offers five of those twenty pieces. The thunderous beginning of the Ballade in G Minor seems to bring back the world of “the young, heaven-storming Johannes.” Now, at age 60, Brahms fuses that powerful earlier manner with a greatly refined technique. The Allegro energico opening moves easily into the gorgeous middle section in B major; Brahms constantly reminds the pianist here to play dolce and espressivo. The return of the opening plunges briefly into a “wrong” key, but matters quickly recover, and the music pounds ahead with all its original strength.

The Intermezzo in C Major, marked Grazioso e giocoso (“Graceful and happy”), dances easily on its 6/8 meter. This piece has no true contrasting theme in its center–Brahms simply slows down his opening idea and uses that as the central episode before the return of the theme at its original tempo. In the Intermezzo in E Minor, which Brahms marks Andantino un poco agitato, the pianist’s two hands seem to be chasing each other through the murmuring, rhythmically-fluid opening section. The central episode dances gently (Brahms’ marking is teneramente: “tenderly”); the music gradually makes its way back to the opening material, now varied, and Brahms concludes with a faint whiff of the waltz-melody. The Intermezzo in A Major is like a lullaby (Brahms’ marking is Andante teneramente), and that gentle mood prevails throughout, though the center section is elaborate and varied before the subtle reintroduction of the opening material. The Capriccio in D Minor, marked Presto energico, flies restlessly along its 3/8 meter; much of the writing is sharply syncopated, with the accent falling on the final beat.

Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Opus 106 “Hammerklavier” (1817/1818)
Scherzo: Assai vivace
Adagio sostenuto
Largo; Allegro; Allegro risoluto

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

Beethoven spent the summer of 1817 in the small village of Mödling, about twelve miles south of Vienna. These were miserable times for the composer (he himself referred to this as a period of “oppressive circumstances”): he was in poor health, locked in a bitter legal struggle for custody of his nephew Karl, and sinking deeper into deafness. Worse, he found himself at a creative standstill. Since the dissolution of the Heroic Style five years earlier, he had fallen into a long silence as–from the depths of his illness and deafness–he searched for a new musical language. Yet Beethoven took pleasure in the village in the lovely valley of Brühl, where he would go for long walks. He was joined on one of these by the pianist Carl Czerny, who reported that Beethoven told him “I am writing a new sonata that will become my greatest.” But progress was slow. Beethoven began the sonata in the fall of 1817 and had only the first two movements complete by the following April. He returned to Mödling for the summer of 1818 and had the sonata done by the end of that summer. It had taken a year of work.

Many would agree with Beethoven that this sonata is his greatest, and–at 45 minutes–it is certainly his longest. When it was published in September 1819, it acquired the nickname “Hammerklavier,” a nickname that originated–obliquely–with the composer himself. Beethoven in these years had become convinced that the piano was a German invention, and he did not want to use the Italian title pianoforte for the instrument (during this period he was also coming to prefer German performance markings to Italian). When this sonata and the Sonata in A-flat Major, Opus 101 were published, Beethoven specified that they were “für das Hammerklavier,” which was simply the German word for piano (a piano with the strings struck by hammers). The title Hammerklavier has stuck only to the second of those sonatas, but that nickname–with its latent subtextual implication of vast power–is inextricably linked to our sense of this music. We never think of it as the Sonata in B-flat Major. We think of it only with one powerful word: Hammerklavier.

Coming as it does between the collapse of the Heroic Style and the arrival of the Late Style, the Hammerklavier is inevitably a transitional work, though that hardly need imply an inferior one. It is traditional in the sense that it retains the four-movement structure of the sonata: a sonata-form first movement, a scherzo, a lyric slow movement, and a powerful fast finale, yet in every other sense this music looks ahead, and Maynard Solomon is quite right when he describes the Hammerklavier “the crystallization of the late style.” Those old forms may be present, but Beethoven is transforming them beyond recognition even as he holds onto them.

The Allegro opens with a powerful, almost defiant chordal gesture, yet Beethoven quickly follows this with a flowing, lyric idea and then brings the music to a brief pause--in those opening eight bars, he has provided enough material to fuel virtually the entire movement. There is a second theme, a quiet chorale set high in the pianist’s right hand while the left accompanies this with swirling sextuplets; Beethoven marks this cantabile dolce ed espressivo, but it is really the sonata’s opening that will dominate this movement–the chorale theme does not re-appear until almost the end of the exposition, and Beethoven treats it thereafter more as refrain than as an active thematic participant. The drama comes from that sharply-contrasted opening idea, and Beethoven builds much of his development on a fugal treatment of the opening gesture before the movement drives to a powerful close on a coda derived from that opening.

After that mighty first movement, which lasts a full dozen minutes, the Scherzo whips pasts in barely two. It is in standard ternary form, but Beethoven experiments with the whole notion of theme here: the outer section is built virtually on one rhythmic pattern, the dotted figure heard at the very beginning. The brief central episode, in D-flat major and written in octaves, leads to a dazzling return to the opening: a Prestissimo run across the range of the keyboard and great flourish set up the beautifully-understated reappearance of the opening. The ending is just as brilliant: Beethoven writes a very brief Presto that begins in colossal power and–almost before we know it–has vanished like smoke.

The Adagio sostenuto is not just the longest movement in this sonata but one of the longest slow movements Beethoven ever wrote. He specifies that it should be Appassionata e con molto sentimento, and the simple, moving chordal melody at the beginning gradually expands across the long span of this movement, taking us through a range of experience, intense and heartfelt. The final movement opens with a long introduction marked Largo; some of this is unbarred and gives the impression of existing outside time, yet in the middle of this slow introduction the music suddenly rushes ahead on a five-measure Allegro that sounds as if it had come directly from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The Largo resumes, gathers power on a series of trills, and suddenly the main section–Allegro risoluto–bursts to life. This massive finale is one long fugue in three voices, which Beethoven then develops with great power, originality, and complexity; perhaps he saw in the fugue, with its combination of intellectual and emotional power, an ideal conclusion to so powerful a sonata. This finale makes fiendish demands on the pianist (it is scarcely easier for the listener), and it has produced some stunned reactions: Barry Cooper notes that “There is in this finale . . . an element of excessiveness . . . An instinct to push every component part of the music . . . not just to its logical conclusion but beyond.” And in fact the sonata is so overwhelming–technically, musically, emotionally–that it has left all who write about it gasping for language that might measure its stride. Paul Bekker calls the slow movement “the apotheosis of pain, of the deep sorrow for which there is no remedy . . . the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” The pianist and pedagogue Ernest Hutcheson virtually concedes defeat: “The immensity of this composition cannot fail to strike us with awe. We gaze at its vast dome like pygmies from below, never feeling on an intellectual or moral level with it.”

Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to Beethoven himself, who mailed this music off to his publisher with a wry observation: “Now there you have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy fifty years hence.”