PROKOFIEV Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 28
CHOPIN Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Opus 58
Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48, No. 1
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Opus 47
NIKOLAI KAPUSTIN   Variations for Piano, Opus 41
STRAVINSKY Three Movements from Petrushka


Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 28

Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow

The year 1917 brought profound changes to Russia, and it was also the most productive of Prokofiev’s life.  That year, he wrote his Classical Symphony, First Violin Concerto, and Visions fugitives, and–in the midst of all this new music–he also looked back.  As a young music student in St. Petersburg, Prokofiev had sketched a number of piano sonatas, but then–realizing how quickly he was developing as a composer–left these early works in manuscript.  Now, at age 26, he returned to these youthful sketches and discovered that he still found much of the music attractive.  Very quickly he composed two new piano sonatas–his Third and Fourth–and based them on themes he had written as a teenager.  To make clear their origin, he published each of the sonatas with the subtitle “From Old Notebooks.”

The Sonata No. 3 in A Minor has become one of Prokofiev’s most popular keyboard works, despite its unusual brevity: it is in one movement that gets past in only seven minutes.  They are a pretty dazzling seven minutes.  Prokofiev notates the meter as 4/4(12/8), and that rush of triplets will energize the opening statement, which Prokofiev marks Allegro tempestoso.  A two-measure vamp rockets us straight into the main idea of this sonata-form movement, which is stamped out fortissimo, and this has already begun to evolve by the time Prokofiev arrives at his second subject.  The contrast could not be more complete. After that white-hot opening, Prokofiev goes out of his way to emphasize how different this second theme should sound: it is marked Moderato, tranquillo, pianissimo, legato, and semplice e dolce.  This second idea does sing beautifully, but the opening furies return at the development, and the sonata drives to a huge climax (marked both fortissimo and con elevazione).  The long coda begins with murmuring energy and gradually builds to a thunderous cadence.

Much of Prokofiev’s early music met with scorn and misunderstanding.  Not this sonata, however.  Prokofiev gave the première in St. Petersburg on April 15, 1918, during a week-long festival of his music sponsored by the Conservatory.  But the acclaim that greeted these works did little to reconcile the young composer to the changing political climate in Russia: three weeks later he left for the United States, and he would not return for fifteen years.

Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Opus 58

Born February 22, 1810, Żelazowa Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris

Chopin wrote the Piano Sonata in B Minor, his last large-scale composition for piano, during the summer of 1844, when he was 34.  He composed the sonata at Nohant, the summer estate in central France he shared with the novelist George Sand.  That summer represented a last moment of stasis in the composer’s life–over the next several years his relationship with Sand would deteriorate, and his health, long ravaged by tuberculosis, would begin to fail irretrievably.  Dedicated to Madame la Comtesse Emilie de Perthuis, a friend and pupil, the Sonata in B Minor was published in 1845.  Chopin himself never performed it in public.

Chopin’s sonatas have come in for a hard time from some critics, and this criticism intensifies to the degree that they depart from the formal pattern of the classical piano sonata.  But it is far better to take these sonatas on their own terms and recognize that Chopin–like Beethoven before him–was willing to adapt classical forms for his own expressive purposes.  The Sonata in B Minor is a big work–its four movements stretch out to nearly half an hour. The opening Allegro maestoso does indeed have a majestic beginning with the first theme plunging downward out of the silence, followed moments later by the gorgeous second subject in D major, marked sostenuto.  The movement treats both these ideas but dispenses with a complete recapitulation and closes with a restatement of the second theme.  The brief Molto vivace is a scherzo, yet here that form is without the violence it sometimes takes on in Beethoven.  This scherzo has a distinctly light touch, with the music flickering and flashing across the keyboard (the right-hand part is particularly demanding).  A quiet legato middle section offers a moment of repose before the returning of the opening rush.

Chopin launches the lengthy Largo with sharply-dotted rhythms, over which the main theme–itself dotted and marked cantabile–rises quietly and gracefully.  This movement is also in ternary form, with a flowing middle section in E major.  The finale–Presto, non tanto–leaps to life with a powerful eight-bar introduction built of octaves before the main theme, correctly marked Agitato, launches this rondo in B minor.  Of unsurpassed difficulty, this final movement–one of the greatest in the Chopin sonatas–brings the work to a brilliant close.

Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48, No. 1


Chopin wrote the dramatic Nocturne in C Minor in 1841, when he was 31 years old and living in Paris.  The title “nocturne,” with its suggestion of a restrained and subdued atmosphere, might seem inappropriate for the Nocturne in C Minor, which moves from a quiet beginning to an almost frenzied climax.  The understated beginning (Chopin marks it mezza voce: “middle voice”) soon introduces widely-spaced chords in the left-hand accompaniment, and these in turn give way to rolled chords and then to thunderous octave runs.  These runs–four octaves deep–require the utmost power from a performer, and the chordal theme emerges almost in passing.  Chopin drives the music to a huge climax full of rhythmic complexity–the closing section consistently sets three against four–until suddenly the fury subsides and the music concludes on three quiet C-minor chords.

Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Opus 47


Chopin himself was the first to use the term “ballade” to refer to a piano composition, appropriating the name from the literary ballad: he appears to have been most taken with the lyric and dramatic possibilities of the term, for his four ballades fuse melodic writing with intensely dramatic–almost explosive–gestures.  After Chopin’s death, Liszt, Grieg, Fauré, and Brahms would compose works for solo piano that they too called ballades.

Formally, Chopin’s ballades most closely resemble the sonata-form movement (an opening idea contrasted with a second theme-group, and the two ideas developed and recapitulated), but the ballades are not strictly in sonata-form, nor was Chopin trying to write sonata-form movements.  His ballades are quite free in form, and their thematic development and harmonic progression are sometimes wildly original.  All four ballades employ a six-beat meter (either 6/4 or 6/8), and the flowing quality of such a meter is particularly well-suited to the sweeping drama of this music.  All four demand a pianist of the greatest skill.

Because of the literary association and the dramatic character of the music, many have been quick to search for extra-musical inspiration for the ballades, believing that such music must represent the attempt to capture actual events in sound.  Some have heard the Polish struggle for independence in this music, others the depiction of medieval heroism.  Chopin himself discouraged this kind of speculation and asked the listener to take the music on its own terms rather than as a representation of something else.

Chopin wrote the Ballade in A-flat Major in 1840-41 and performed the work in public in 1842.  The least overtly dramatic of the four ballades, this one nevertheless contains music of extraordinary beauty.  The opening theme–a quiet, rising figure–also contains the falling half-step that gives shape to the lilting second subject.

Variations for Piano, Opus 41

Born November 22, 1937, Gorlovka, Ukraine

Born in the Ukraine, Nikolai Kapustin learned to play the piano there as a boy and then went on to the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with the Alexander Goldenweiser, the legendary teacher of many Russian pianists, including Dmitri Kabalevsky, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Lazar Berman.  But along his path to a career as a virtuoso pianist, an unexpected thing happened: Kapustin fell in love with American jazz.  This was during the 1950s, that icy era when jazz was considered ideologically deficient in the Soviet Union, but Kapustin made a successful career as a jazz performer, both as a solo pianist and as a member of a jazz quintet.

Kapustin has composed prolifically (his list of works now runs to well over 150 opus numbers), and these include twenty sonatas, six concertos and other works for piano and orchestra, and many more.  All of his music is touched in some ways by his love for jazz, but Kapustin has said repeatedly that he does not consider himself a jazz composer.  At the center of jazz is improvisation, and Kapustin has been quite specific that he does not improvise–he writes out his pieces and then goes back and revises them repeatedly until he gets them in the form he wants.  And so his pieces should be the same whenever they are performed, and Kapustin feels that that violates the improvisational essence of jazz.  This has not, however, prevented his music from becoming quite popular, and in recent years it has been performed and recorded by such artists as Marc-Andre Hamelin and Steven Osborne.  While Kapustin continues to make his home in Russia, his son is on the faculty of Cal Tech in Los Angeles, where he is a professor of theoretical physics.

Kapustin’s Variations date from 1984.  That title might seem misleading–all jazz is a matter of variations on a theme, after all–but Kapustin’s compact work takes a basic musical idea through a series of evolutions at different tempos and in varying moods.  The opening section, marked Medium swing, introduces and briefly extends his main idea.  The music leaps ahead at the Doppio movimento, where Kapustin goes into 3/4, then returns to common time for the wistful Larghetto, an expressive and beautiful interlude that Kapustin marks “Swinging just a bit.”  A brief, blazing Presto in cut-time rockets the Variations to a fiery (and fun) close.

Three Movements from Petrushka

Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971, New York City

In the early 1920s, Igor Stravinsky–one of the greatest orchestrators in history and creator of some of the finest music ever written for orchestra–began to write for solo piano. There were several reasons for this. In the aftermath of World War I, Stravinsky discovered that orchestras that could play huge and complex scores were rare (and expensive). And in any case Stravinsky did not wish to go on repeating himself by writing opulent ballets. But the real factor that attracted Stravinsky to the piano was that he was a pianist and so could supplement his uncertain income as a composer by appearing before the public as both creator and performer; this was especially important during the uncertain economic situation following the war.

While not a virtuoso pianist, Stravinsky was a capable one, and over the next few years came a series of works for piano that Stravinsky introduced and then played on tour. The impetus for all this piano music may well have come from Artur Rubinstein, who asked the composer to prepare a version of the ballet Petrushka for solo piano, which Stravinsky did during the summer of 1921. Rubinstein paid Stravinsky what the composer called “the generous sum of 5,000 francs” for this music, but Stravinsky made clear that his aim was not to cash in on the popularity of the ballet: “My intention was to give virtuoso pianists a piece of a certain breadth that would permit them to enhance their modern repertory and demonstrate a brilliant technique.” Stravinsky stressed that this was not a transcription for piano, nor was he trying to make the piano sound like an orchestra; rather, he was re-writing orchestral music specifically as piano music.

The ballet Petrushka, with its haunting story of a pathetic puppet brought to life during a Russian fair, has become so popular that it easy to forget that this music had its beginning as a sort of piano concerto. Stravinsky said: “I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi.” That puppet became Petrushka, “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries,” as the story of the ballet took shape, but the piano itself receded into the background of the ballet; perhaps it was only natural that Stravinsky should remember the ballet’s origins when Rubinstein made his request for a piano version.

Stravinsky drew the piano score from three of the ballet’s four tableaux. The opening movement, Russian Dance, comes from the end of the first tableau: the aged magician has just touched his three puppets–Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor–with his wand, and now the three leap to life and dance joyfully. Much of this music was given to the piano in the original ballet score, and here this dance makes a brilliant opening movement. The second movement, In Petrushka’s Cell, is the ballet’s second tableau, which introduces the hapless Petrushka trapped in his room and railing against fate and shows the entrance of the ballerina. The third movement, The Shrove-Tide Fair, incorporates most of the music from the ballet’s final tableau, with its genre pictures of a St. Petersburg square at carnival time: various dances, the entrance of a peasant and his bear, gypsies, and so on. Here, however, Stravinsky excises the end of the ballet (where Petrushka is murdered and the tale ends enigmatically) and replaces it with the more abrupt ending that he wrote for concert performances of the ballet suite.