Brian Ganz | Piano recital, October 2019 | Program notes
One of the best ways to develop attention to music is through miniature forms, and arguably the most skilled composer of miniatures is Frédéric Chopin. One of the most polished performers of Chopin is our guest Brian Ganz. This weekend we will be presented with a selection which includes almost all of the miniature forms developed by Chopin, as well as pieces by his followers in the tradition, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
The Mazurkas of Opus 33, published in 1838, each present distinct traits and characteristics. The first, Lento, features a lyrical, expressive melody over a waltz pattern in the bass. The mood shifts inconspicuously between mournful and hopeful, with tender intimacy. The second Mazurka, a true Oberek, or lively dance, is impetuous and fast, with strong, irregular accents. Playful, comic tremolo figures create an insouciant exuberance. In the third, Semplice, a simple, melodic line is supported by subtly accented second beats, which reinforce the spirit of dance. The final Mazurka—a rondo in which grace notes and trills bring a rustic, native feel provides a final rhythmic interest to the set.
The Opus 27 Nocturnes, published in 1835, share the features of bel canto singing, some figurations echoing the style of ornamental cadenzas. The Nocturne in C# minor is imbued with what might be termed expectant, elegiac pondering. In the ostensible calm of this melody and in the unusual sound of the far-flung accompaniment resides a mood of deep night and mystery, which erupts into explosive swells of passion before the elegiac musing returns – now rendered even more unforgettable, tense and dramatic.
The Nocturne in E minor, published six years after Chopin’s death, maybe among the earliest of his compositions, perhaps dating from 1827. Others believe it to date from the last years of his life, a haunting farewell.
Because he was able to draw on several traditions of this dance, Chopin’s waltzes contain a variety of types. In his youth, Chopin became acquainted with “functional waltzes,” both in Poland (where “walcerki” were often danced) and in Vienna. He was later influenced by waltzes by Schubert and Weber. Some of his waltzes he treated as compositional “gifts,” inscribing them in albums as keepsakes and not intended for publication. The degree of artistic refinement reaches its peak in the Opus 34 group, which glitter with panache, each featuring a distinctive introduction and virtuosic coda.
The ballade form created by Chopin is a distinct variant of the sonata form with defining deviations, such as the mirror reprise (presenting the two themes in reverse order during the recapitulation).
The First Ballade, in G minor, opens in a strong poetic-narrative atmosphere. The opening bars occupy an ambiguous key and soon reach an enigmatic dissonance. There follow an epic lyrical theme and tender the second theme. After the passionate development section, a fiery coda (presto con fuoco) brings the fully combusted work to a close.
Chopin’s Etudes are some of his most challenging works for performers, and among the most evocative pieces for audiences. Because of this, some of the Etudes are known by their popular titles —“Tristesse” (Sadness), “Farewell” (“L’Adieu”), and the “Revolutionary Étude” (Opus 10, No. 12).
The first études of the Opus 10 set were written when Chopin was still in his teens, examples of youthful innovation that bear the hallmarks of preternatural genius. Through Chopin, the etude, which began as a purely utilitarian exercise, became a form for great artistic masterpieces.
Chopin began writing polonaises in his childhood and continued writing them until three years before his death. Their importance and complexity evolved gradually, from conventional court miniatures to rhapsodic dance poems.
Besides typical rhythmic formulas, the basic features of an authentic polonaise are: 3/4 time, a moderate tempo, and a noble character. The two polonaises on this program date from the period when Chopin’s form had been distilled through the lens of wistful memory, following his departure from Poland.
Debussy Reflets dans l’eau
This work, composed in 1905, is typical of Debussy’s later work. Its non-directed harmonies oscillate and expand, exchanging propulsive movement for a more outward circling, like a stone dropped in calm water. Debussy here is imitating not just water sounds, but reflections on the water—pictures that float, noiselessly, but are suggested by sounds. The sad joy of a winter sun lies in the three-note initial theme, surrounded by its echoing chords comprised of those three theme notes. Every note of the piece reflects every other note, the way a Bach fugue radiates from its theme.
Maurice Ravel Jeux d’Eau
It was Liszt’s piano piece, “Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este,” that inspired Ravel to compose this homage in 1901. Laid out in sonata form, its sound is governed by myriad motions of water and sustained by innovative, highly virtuosic piano textures. Here again, water is depicted by a freely migrating and richly colored harmonic backdrop that drifts between tonality and atonality, but Ravel’s sonorities differ from those of Debussy’s as sunlight from moonlight.