Spring Sonata

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.

As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas, however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).

A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms). Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but certainly not subtle (as in Bach).

The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.



Tchaikovsky Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for today is the Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky, performed by three of the greatest Russian musicians of all time: Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), and Natalia Gutman (cello). This performance was shortly after Kagan was diagnosed with cancer that would lead to his untimely death at only 44 years of age in 1990. I am one of the many who believe that he would have become “the next Oistrakh” or “the next Heifetz” had he lived a full life. 

Tchaikovsky wrote this trio as one long transition from A Major to A Minor. His hope was that the listener would be able to grasp the long (90 pages!) journey from one world to another.

The first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a soulful melody in the cello that is passed around the trio throughout the rest of the movement. Listen for the many different permutations of this theme that Tchaikovsky creates.

The second movement is a set of ten variations on a theme that is introduced by the piano in the opening bars. First, the violin takes the theme. Second, the cello tries its hand at the melody. Third, the strings play pizzicato while the piano accelerates into a Scherzo variation. Fourth, the three combine again for a rich, soulful variation. Fifth, the piano seems to imitate bells with its ringing version of the main theme. Sixth, the cello leads the trio in a waltz. Seventh, the piano brings us back to a nearly identical version of the original theme. Eighth, the three instruments power their way through a busy Fugue. Ninth, the cello carries the trio through a slow and pensive meditation. Finally, the three instruments race to the finish in a light-hearted Mazurka.

The final movement is actually another variation on the theme that begins the second movement, but this time it is more developed. Listen for the way that Tchaikovsky finishes the trio with a combination of the second movement’s main theme and the theme from the opening of the first movement.





Richter #4


Our music for this week is a performance of 2 preludes by Shostakovich with Sviatoslav Richter at the keyboard. The first is the A Major Prelude and the second is the A Minor Prelude. This recording was made in 1956.

I wanted to leave this for our last email on Richter because Shostakovich was Richter’s personal favorite. He performed one of Shostakovich’s preludes at almost everyone of his recitals.

There are 24 preludes, one for each of the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale (a scale that ascends by half-steps, not whole-steps). Every one of them has two parts – a prelude and a fugue. Each fugue has between two and five voices interweaving with each other. They proceed in relative major/minor pairs; for instance, C major and A minor go together, G major and E minor go together, etc. It is widely believed that the inspiration for these preludes comes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, which also revolves around the circle of fifths. Shostakovich appears to reference Bach at multiple points through the preludes. For instance, he opens several of the preludes with the exact same notes that Bach uses in his preludes. You will hear in the A Minor fugue (the second piece) that the fugue has an almost identical opening theme to Bach’s A minor fugue. The A minor prelude is also written so that the pianist never leaves the hand position he starts in – this is also something Bach commonly did.

The inspiration for these preludes is worth mentioning. Shostakovich was a devoted member of the ruling Soviet Party, so – unlike Richter – he was treated with respect and admiration by the government. Shostakovich was sent abroad for ambassdor-type missions while Richter wasn’t allowed to leave Moscow. On one of these trips, he judged a Bach competition in Leipzig and listened, over the course of the few days of performances, to many renditions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This inspired him to write his 24 preludes.

The first piece (A major) is a three-voice fugue. Listen for a bass, a tenor, and a soprano voice. All three of them get their moment to shine, but listen for an abrupt shift to the bass voice right after the climax of the movement – this is his way of highlighted the oft-ignored pedal tone.

The second piece (A minor) is so similar to Bach’s style that it is hard to believe it was written by a 20th-century Russian. It is completely melodic – in other words, there are no dissonances whatsoever.



Richter #3

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by Sviatoslav Richter.

Unlike many other musicians (we won’t mention any names…such as Joshua Bell or Sarah Chang), Richter did not rest on his laurels. Instead, he worked constantly to expand his repertoire and learn new music. Almost every one of his performances included a recent composition by one of his fellow Russians – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and others. Over time, these contemporary Russian works became his signature.

One of the most incredible stories of Richter stems from his voracious appetite for new music and concerns the seventh piano sonata by Prokofiev. Prokofiev dedicated the sonata to Richter and asked him to premiere it. Richter agreed, and Prokofiev very reasonably assumed that the concert would be in several months. However, Richter confidently stated that he would play the entire thing from memory at his next recital in three days’ time. Not only did he successfully premier the work, but Prokofiev was heard to have wondered at how Richter’s interpretation of his music was better than his own!

This sonata was Prokofiev’s first experiment in what would become his very distinctive compositional style. Many of Prokofiev’s earlier compositions contain noticeable Romantic-era structures, but in his second Piano Sonata, Prokofiev began to leave those conventions behind and focus on the very unique harmonic sense that he is now known for. The brief first movement contains two themes. The first one should be easy to pick out, since it occurs at the very start of the piece and descends to a crashing halt. The second theme mimics the descending nature of the first theme but is more ethereal and less imposing. The third movement is the highlight of the piece. Dark, sombre, pulsating lines in the left hand coincide with a wandering line in the right hand as we hear the harmonic genius of Prokofiev come to life. Richter does a masterful job of creating long lines and phrases despite the disjointed nature of the notes. The phrasing feels so natural that we accept it immediately, but we must be careful not to take this for granted. The skill and emotional intelligence that it takes to create such natural phrasing amidst such difficult music is something that select few people have ever been able to do, and Richter is undeniably one of those few.



Richter #2

Hello all,

Our music for this week is a performance by Sviatoslav Richter of the Nocturne in F Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

This Nocturne comes from a set of two larger books of songs that Tchaikovsky wrote while on vacation in Nice, France in the summer of 1872. This particular song is paired with a Humoresque that Tchaikovsky dashed off after hearing an amusing French dance in the marketplace near his lodgings. We do not, however, know much about the Nocturne other than that it is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s good friend, Vladimir Shilovsky. Shilovsky was an amateur singer, songwriter, poet, composer, and artist who came to study at the Moscow Conservatory under Tchaikovsky’s guidance.

As we saw last week, Richter was particularly well known for his command of a vast repertoire and his incredible ability to create colors and emotions on the keyboard. In addition to these things, however, he was also renowned for his interpretations of specific composers’ music. For instance, his recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas is widely regarded as the best recording ever made of those works. (We’ll hear some of these sonatas in the weeks to come). Along with Beethoven, he was a specialist in the music of his fellow Russians – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and others. This recording is therefore an excellent example of Richter’s on-stage interpretive capabilities at their fullest expression.

It is amazing that such a simple Nocturne can become such a captivating and powerful story in Richter’s hands. I think we underestimate how hard that is to do. As with anything in life, it is easy to go on “auto-pilot” when the task at hand is relatively easy. Musicians certainly do this, relaxing when playing easier Mozart tunes and pouring all their energy into the complicated romantic-era works. However, Richter’s ability to draw the listener in with even a simple melody is evidence of his incredible power of concentration and devotion to every single note. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that he puts emphases on certain notes that he wants the listener to remember, and more often than not, those notes are the key harmonic guideposts for the piece as a whole.



Richter #1

Hello all,

Our music this week is the Sonata in B Minor for solo piano by Franz Lizst. This week is also the beginning of a new series, but, rather than focus on a particular composer, we’re going to focus in on a specific musician, Sviatoslav Richter. This obscure sonata is delightful piece to listen to, but this first email will be devoted to giving you all a bit of background on Richter.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Richter is in the conversation for “greatest pianist of all time.” His astounding musical genius was apparent the age of twelve, when, even though he had never taken a piano lesson, he became the conductor and pianist for a local opera company. Although his lack of formal training initially held him back (he was not admitted to the Moscow Conservatory at the age of thirteen because he was not technically proficient enough), a few years of studying with Heinrich Neuhaus brought him onto the world competition stage. Neuhaus was heard to have said that he had waited all his life for the chance to each a musical genius like that of Richter’s. A stroke of good luck came his way when Richter met Sergei Prokofiev and was given the opportunity to premier Prokofiev’s sixth piano sonata. This performance rocketed him into international fame, and word spread far and wide of his prowess at the keyboard. He soon afterwards won the prestigious Stalin Prize, which led to concert tours across Europe.

Richter was restricted from traveling to America for many years because he refused to align himself with the U.S.S.R.’s ideology. As a result, Americans only knew of Richter through recordings of his concerts. He became known as “The Enigma” because of the air of mystery that surrounded his name, as well as his astonishing technical abilities and the powerful range of emotional qualities that he could create on the keyboard. When he was finally allowed to travel to the United States, Carnegie Hall immediately booked his first five concerts and, within three hours, was sold out. He was an immediate sensation.

In many ways, Sviatoslav Richter truly was an enigma. He was reclusive, he hated crowds, he was socially awkward, and he preferred to practice in almost complete darkness. He despised recordings, and it is widely agreed that the only good recordings of Richter are the ones that were made when he was not aware of it (i.e., recordings made during live performances, such as this one). He was almost completely silent at all times, but when talking with close friends he was rumored to be hysterically funny. He had freakishly large hands, capable of stretching over a twelfth on the keyboard (for reference, an average human is lucky to span an octave, or eight notes), that he never knew what to do with and was always trying to hide in his coat pockets. He drank heavily but never seemed to suffer any ill effects. His best friend for most of his life was a soprano named Nina Dorliak, but they never married and had a strained friendship at times. Throughout all of this, he remained a strong and quiet voice of political resistance against the U.S.S.R. When he died in 1997, he was found at the keyboard, with the music open to the sonata that he was practicing for his next recital and his hands still on the keys.

More to come from the great Richter next week!