This week’s music is the Sonata in C Minor for violin and piano by Edvard Grieg, performed by violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is probably most famous for his Peer Gynt Suite, but he didn’t see it that way. In his view, his three violin sonatas were his best works because they represented the three stages he went through in his development as a composer. “They represent periods in my development,” he wrote, “the first naïve, rich in ideas; the second national; and the third with a wider horizon.” Of the three sonatas, the third sonata remains the most widely performed.
As a Romantic-era composer, Grieg wrote music that practically bursts with lyricism and drama. The third sonata is no exception. The first movement, for instance, opens with a dark C-minor theme but eventually gives way to two motifs that seem to outdo each other in their tranquility, tenderness, and beauty. Another lyrical theme opens the second movement (although be sure to listen for the dance section Grieg inserts as a surprise). Again, the third movement features a sweet, songful melody that is juxtaposed with a muscular recapitulation of the first movement’s theme. The finale features many of the Norwegian folk tunes Grieg was known to adore.
This week’s music is a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor by the superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin. Soon after his graduation from conservatory in 1892, Rachmaninoff wrote a series of preludes titled Morceaux de fantaisie. Of these preludes, the C-sharp minor prelude has become the most famous.
The prelude is famous primarily because of the ominous three-chord motif – A, G sharp, and C sharp – that opens the piece. This motif repeats throughout, though Rachmaninoff presents in in several different forms and variations as the piece progresses. Listen for the drop-off from forte to pianissimo near the beginning as Rachmaninoff introduces the main theme. After the theme is introduced, you’ll hear the music increase in speed and energy through a series of chromatic (moving by half-steps) triplets. Rachmaninoff builds this chromatic sequence into a recapitulation of the original motif that dies out to finish the piece.
I had the pleasure of giving a small recital a few weeks before Christmas with some friends of mine. Unfortunately, the audio quality of the recording is not good enough to share with all of you, but I wanted to share the music regardless.
The first piece on the program was the Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major by Johannes Brahms. Brahms wrote this work while spending the summer of 1886 in Thun, Switzerland. Nestled between two lakes with the Alps towering on either side, Thun was the ideal location for an inspiring summer of composition. The second sonata is the shortest of the three Brahms wrote for these two instruments, but it is considered the most difficult because of its challenging blend of delicacy and virtuosity. It is light-hearted and radiant throughout, with moments of intensity that resolve into rhapsodic back-and-forth exchanges between the two instruments.
There are three movements. In the first movement, relish the soft touch of the piano line. Brahms, a pianist himself, gives the piano much of the melodic material in the first movement. The second movement darts between fast and slow, energetic and dreamy. Listen for the way the two instruments imitate each other and trade melodic lines back and forth. In the third movement, Brahms gives the violin a deep, rich melody line that ends with triumphant flourish. Listen for that classic Brahmsian “dark chocolate” sound.
This week’s music is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. (Fun fact: I played Brahms’ piano quintet with the first violinist in this ensemble at the Apple Hill Chamber Music Festival in 2009).
Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).
Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.
Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!
This week’s music is Impromptu by the Russian composer Shostakovich, performed by violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Wu Han.
Shostakovich lived and composed during the mid-1900s. Some of his most famous works include his violin concerto, his pieces for solo piano, and his later symphonies. His music is a mainstay on the programs of orchestras around the world. But no one knew about Impromptu until a few years ago, when it was discovered in a back room of the Moscow State Archives.
The opening page of Shostakovich’s manuscript contains the date 1931 and a dedication to Alexander Mikhailovich, the former violist of the world-famous Glazunov Quartet. It is the second of only two works Shostakovich wrote for viola. Historians who have examined the score believe that it was written in one sitting.
It is interesting to compare this dainty, short piece to the dozens of short pieces that Shostakovich wrote for solo piano. During the few months I devoted to learning the piano in the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to come across several of these short pieces. Like Impromptu, they combine the melodic simplicity of a nursery rhyme with the unique tonal framework that is characteristic of Shostakovich’s work.
Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata #8 by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by the superstar Russian pianist Daniel Trifonov. We will be listening to the second movement of this sonata.
Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most famous twentieth-century composers. He is most widely known for his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his second violin concerto, but he was incredibly versatile. Among the number of piano works he composed are what we’ve come to know as the “Three War Sonatas.” These three works – his sixth, seventh, and eighth sonatas for piano – were written during World War II and reflect Prokofiev’s despair, fear, and – sometimes – hope.
The thematic material for this second movement comes from one of Prokofiev’s abandoned movie scores. You’ll notice that he creates a dreamlike quality with the dichotomy between the running right hand and the plodding, entranced left hand. Listen closely at the 3:28 mark; you’ll hear a delightfully Prokofiev-esque melody emerge from the dreamy texture in all of its polyphonic glory. Listen as well for the jolting atonal chords he inserts near the end before resolving the movement in perfect tonality. Pure genius.
Our music for this week is the Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48 #1.
This Nocturne is considered one of Chopin’s most emotionally powerful compositions. The full depth and breadth of the piano’s expressive range is explored in less than six minutes of music. The composer somehow blends a melancholy, almost despairing melody with a graceful sense of reverence.
How should one listen to this piece? By understanding its layout. There are three sections to this Nocturne. First, the piano opens with the mezza voce section. Mezza voce means “half voice,” which perfectly captures the hushed, sombre atmosphere of the opening line. The second section switches from C Minor to C major at 2:06. This section, with its more uplifting harmonic texture, is labeled sotto voce, which means “somewhat hushed.” But the music quickly becomes the opposite of hushed when it builds to a massive, tumbling climax around the 3:35 mark. You can hear forecasts of this explosion at 3:23. In a masterful bit of compositional genius, Chopin brings the initial melody from Part 1 back, this time with thunderous and heart-breaking passion. The third section returns to C Minor, resigned and exhausted, at 5:00.
This is the emotional power of music at its finest.
We are continuing our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano with the second Opus 27 Nocturne, performed by Evgeny Kissin.
Chopin grouped his Nocturnes in two or three-piece sets. These sets are categorized by Opus number. The Opus 27 Nocturnes, composed in 1835, are perhaps the most famous and well-loved of all the Nocturnes. They have been featured in multiple movies and television series.
The second of the Opus 27 Nocturnes is a perfect example of something we discussed a few weeks ago – Chopin’s obsession with the Italian bel canto style. As we know, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera. The flowery bel canto style captivated him, and he incorporated it into many of his Nocturnes. The songlike melodies of the Opus 27 #2 Nocturne showcase this bel canto style perfectly through passionate harmonic climaxes and an atmosphere of glittering delicacy that gives the piece an almost royal aura.
This Nocturne, aside from being one of Chopin’s most famous compositions, also played a role in shaping the future of music. In September 1835, Chopin visited Leipzig, Germany to play the Nocturnes for his friend Robert Schumann (another great Romantic-era composer). A young pianist, an acquaintance of Schumann’s, happened to be in attendance. He later told his sister that Chopin’s Opus 27 #2 Nocturne was a central inspiration for his career as a composer. In fact, he had even tried to incorporate its melodies into some of his own compositions.
This week’s music is the second installment in our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. We will be hearing pianist Valentina Lisitsa play the Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2.
This is one of the most famous Nocturnes. It is beguiling yet simple, usually relying on a single melodic line and avoiding escalation until the very end. For this reason, it is particularly popular among young pianists who are beginning their journey into the music of Chopin.
Listen for the flowing melodic line. As we learned last week, Chopin was “enamored of flowing song” and drew much of his inspiration from opera music. His fellow pianist Wladyslaw Zelenski said that “Italian song was always his ideal.” You can hear the right hand of the pianist drawing out what could almost be a soprano aria line.
Chopin may have made the Nocturne famous, but he didn’t invent it. That honor goes to the Irish composer John Field, who wrote dozens of them for piano and other instruments. The Nocturne you will hear today is quite similar to many of those written by John Field, so it is likely that Chopin studied Field’s work as he developed his own compositions. However, Chopin’s works have, as Polish piano virtuoso Jan Kleczynski has noted, that “certain tinge of earnest sadness” that makes them so uniquely beautiful.
We start a new series today with the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. He wrote 21 of them, but we will be focusing on a select few that I think convey an accurate sense of the Nocturnes as a whole.
We are very fortunate to have Chopin’s notes on these pieces. He wrote that each Nocturne “bears our thoughts . . . toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of the day, is lost in self-contemplation.” Chopin is very clear: these works are meant to escort us into worlds of deep personal reflection.
The first Nocturne, which you will hear today, is the perfect example of this. It emerges from silence and leaves us in silence. Rolling gracefully along with the listener’s reflections, it surges to an appassionata middle section before retreating to its pensive starting point. Many commentators have described its ability to put the listener in a trance.
There’s a very surprisingly operatic aspect to this music that I would encourage you to listen for. Chopin studied in Warsaw, Poland, where Italian bel canto opera was wildly popular. It is almost certain that he listened to many operas during his time there, and several of the upper lines in his Nocturnes resemble bel canto soprano lines.