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PROGRAM NOTES: Genius from Finland; Olli Mustonen

Program notes by Eric Bromberger, unless otherwise noted

Nonetto II

Born June 7, 1967 in Vantaa, Finland
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

The Nonetto II follows on from its predecessor. The first movement (Inquieto) opens with piercing discords and stunted rhythms, which nevertheless create a Balkanese pulse. The brief and concise movement is anguished.

The second movement (Allegro impetuoso) is Romantically opulent and passionate. These themes are joined by a noble hymn-like theme (in the manner of Schumann or Brahms) which also supposes the Beethovenian galloping rhythms. In the development, the music proceeds in a Sibelian direction, towards the mysterious pastoral movement of the Sixth Symphony. The movement eventually ends on a tranquil note, although the ostinato rhythm never relents.

The slow movement (Adagio) is inscrutably smiling, more sparsely populated than the previous one. The main theme is again brief; in being repeated, it becomes somewhat desperate, taking on board brief virtuoso flutters. Despite occasional moments in a minor key, the movement maintains a radiant aura, perhaps slightly unreal. The finale (Vivacissimo) is full of white light and tremolo, as Karelian kanteles and bells ringing proclaim a Russian feast. Virtuoso passages overtake one another and get snagged by the block-like pounding rhythms, but towards the end they explode in an instrumental ecstasy. Mustonen dedicated his Nonetto II to his parents. – Olli Mustonen

Piano Sonata in F Minor, Opus 57 “Appassionata”

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 24 minutes

Between May and November 1803, Beethoven sketched the Eroica, a symphony on a scale never before imagined. Nearly half an hour longer than his Second Symphony, Beethoven’s Third thrust the whole conception of the symphony–and sonata form–into a new world, in which music became heroic struggle and sonata form the stage for this drama rather than an end in itself. It was a world of new dimensions, new sonorities, new possibilities of expression, and with the Eroica behind him, Beethoven began to plan two piano sonatas. These sonatas, later nicknamed the Waldstein and the Appassionata, would be governed by the same impulse that shaped the Eroica.

While Beethoven completed the Waldstein Sonata quickly, the other sonata, delayed by his work on his opera, then titled Leonore, was not finished until early in 1806. The subtitle “Appassionata” appears to have originated with a publisher rather than with the composer, but few works so deserve their nickname as this sonata. At moments in this music one feels that Beethoven is striving for a texture and intensity of sound unavailable to the piano, reaching for what Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon calls “quasi-orchestral sonorities.” Despite the volcanic explosions of sounds in this sonata, however, it remains piano music–the Appassionata may strain the resources of the instrument, but this music is clearly conceived in terms of a pianistic rather than an orchestral sonority.

The ominous opening of the Allegro assai is marked pianissimo, but it is alive with energy and the potential for development. As this long first theme slowly unfolds, deep in the left hand is heard the four-note motto that will later open the Fifth Symphony, and out of this motto suddenly bursts a great eruption of sound. The movement’s extraordinary unity becomes clear with the arrival of the second theme, which is effectively an inversion of the opening theme. And there is even a third subject, which boils out of a furious torrent of sixteenth-notes. The movement develops in sonata form, though Beethoven does without an exposition repeat, choosing instead to press directly into the turbulent development. The rhythm of the opening rhythm is stamped out in the coda, and– after so much energy, the movement concludes as the first theme descends to near-inaudibility. When this sonata was published in 1806, a reviewer–aware of the new directions Beethoven was taking music–tried to offer some measure of this movement: “Everyone knows Beethoven’s way when writing a large-scale sonata . . . In the first movement of this Sonata (15 pages in 12/8 time) he has once again let loose many evil spirits . . .”

The second movement, a theme and four variations marked Andante con moto, brings a measure of relief. The theme, a calm chordal melody in two eight-bar phrases, is heard immediately, and the tempo remains constant throughout, though the variations become increasingly complex, increasingly ornate. Beethoven insists that the gentle mood remain constant–in the score he keeps reminding the pianist to play dolce, and even the swirls of 32nd-notes near the end remain serene. The sonata-form finale, marked Allegro ma non troppo, bursts upon the conclusion of the second movement with a fanfare of dotted notes, and the main theme, an almost moto perpetuo shower of sixteenth-notes, launches the movement. The searing energy of the first movement returns here, but now Beethoven offers a repeat of the development rather than of the exposition. The fiery coda, marked Presto, introduces an entirely new theme.

Beethoven offered no program for this sonata, nor will listeners do well to try to guess some external drama being played out in the Appassionata. Sir Donald Francis Tovey, trying to take some measure of this sonata’s extraordinary power and its unrelenting conclusion, has noted: “All his other pathetic finales show either an epilogue in some legendary or later world far away from the tragic scene . . . or a temper, fighting, humorous, or resigned, that does not carry with it a sense of tragic doom. [But in the Appassionata] there is not a moment’s doubt that the tragic passion is rushing deathwards.” That may be going too far, but it is true that–in sharp contrast to the shining, exultant conclusions of the Eroica, Fidelio, and the Fifth Symphony–this sonata ends with an abrupt plunge into darkness.

Piano Sonata in A Major, Opus 2, No. 2

Approximate Duration: 24 minutes

Beethoven’s Opus 1–his first official publication in Vienna–was a set of three piano trios on which he had worked for several years: he had them performed and refined them carefully before he allowed them to be published in 1795. Perhaps not surprisingly, he turned to his own instrument, the piano, for his Opus 2, and again their appearance followed a long period of private performance and careful revision. When the sonatas were published in March 1796, they bore a dedication to Haydn, but Beethoven would not identify himself as a “Pupil of Haydn” on the title page, as the older composer wished him to do: Beethoven may have respected his former teacher, but he remained ambivalent as to how much he had learned from Haydn and refused to acknowledge the connection in the published score (much later, when Beethoven had firmly established his own reputation, he could speak of Haydn with the reverence which he truly felt).

The three sonatas of Opus 2 represent Beethoven’s first official effort to master classical piano sonata form (he had written several piano sonatas as student works), but even as he published his first examples, Beethoven was willing to experiment. These sonatas are in four movements rather than three, and the “extra” movement–the third–is in the second two sonatas a scherzo rather than the minuet of classical form.

The second sonata of this set, in A major, was a great favorite of the young composer. Its opening movement is marked Allegro vivace, but it leaves the impression not so much of speed as of a sort of delicacy: both its principal themes are presented quietly–the flowing second, marked espressivo, arrives in the completely unexpected key of E minor–and only occasionally does Beethoven break this mood with louder outbursts. The development is active, and along the way Beethoven demands some tricky canonic writing before the movement fades into silence. The second movement has an unusual marking, Largo appassionato, and Beethoven creates an orchestra-like sonority with the pianist’s left-hand staccato accompaniment, much like a pizzicato bass line in an orchestra. Over this, Beethoven offers a chorale-like main melody, which returns in various forms as the movement proceeds. The Scherzo features flourishes of high sixteenth-notes; this precise but gentle scherzo surrounds a flowing trio in A minor. The last movement also has an unusual marking–Rondo: Grazioso. It is a moderately-paced rondo (rather than the expected fast one), and Beethoven builds the rondo tune on a great upward flash: the right hand streaks upward, then falls back to the amiable concluding part of the phrase. This upward gesture returns in many forms, and several times Beethoven breaks its flow with turbulent episodes that drive boldly forward along triplet rhythms. Always, though, the gentle spirit of the rondo tune returns, and finally–like the first movement–the finale fades into silence.

Beethoven liked this sonata enough that he took it on tour with him to other cities, and he did something with this music he rarely did: he performed individual movements from it. The Bohemian composer-pianist Václav Tomášek heard Beethoven play in Prague late in 1798, two years after publishing his Opus 2 sonatas, and his account makes clear not only the brilliance of Beethoven’s playing but also the composer’s particular favorites among the movements of this sonata: on that occasion Beethoven played the Largo and the Rondo by themselves.

Piano Quintet

Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

My Piano Quintet consists of three movements. The first movement is filled with drama and passion. Its atmosphere can be seen to be related to my Second Symphony “Johannes Angelos” – a work that has been inspired by a historical novel taking place in the middle of the turbulent times during the last months of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. The second movement is a set of polyphonical variations in a form reminiscent of a passacaglia. The music seems to be hypnotized by a theme consisting of a chromatic cluster of ten notes. Finally the passacaglia winds down to a long, single low G-sharp played by the first violin. In the beginning of the last movement, material from the previous movements starts to reappear, but this time in a mysterious, almost non-coherent way. It seems as if the music is searching a way forward, but in vain. Finally only bell-like chords in the piano part remain. The strings, one at a time, find new kind of music, that resembles fragments of a hymn – at first hesitantly, but soon gaining in strength and confidence. Fast-moving triplets start to appear and the music reaches a joyful and ecstatic conclusion. – Olli Mustonen