October 17th, 2019 at 1:30 pm
MICHAEL BROWN, piano
Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Fantasia (Capriccio) in C Major, HOB. XVII:4
Michael Brown (b. 1987)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54
Michael Brown (b. 1987)
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Barcarolle, Op. 60
Bela Bartók (1881 – 1945)
Out of Doors, Sz 81, BB 89
– With Drums and Pipes
– The Night’s Music
– The Chase
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
Legend No. 2: St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves, S.175/2
Joseph Haydn: Fantasia (Capriccio) in C Major, HOB. XVII:4
In March of 1789, Haydn informed the publisher Artaria: “In a moment of great good humor I have completed a new Capriccio for fortepiano, whose taste, singularity and special construction cannot fail to receive approval from connoisseurs and amateurs alike. It is … rather long, but by no means too difficult.” The “great good humor,” a trait for which the composer was well known, was obvious in the work in question. The opening theme of Fantasia is based on the Austrian folk song The Farmer’s Wife has Lost her Cat. The question of difficulty, however, was considerably underestimated by the composer. He had recently ordered a copy of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s keyboard work titled “For Connoisseurs and Amateurs.” Haydn no doubt thought the same appellation would be a marketing boost for his own composition. British musicologist Richard Wigmore aptly describes the piece as a “madcap work of scintillating virtuosity” as well as “one of Haydn’s zaniest essays in comic deception, repeatedly leading us to expect one key and then leaping or slinking off in a quite different direction.”
Some of Haydn’s comic effects can present a challenge to 21st-century performers. The work was written for the fortepiano, which was rapidly displacing the harpsichord and clavichord. But the new instrument did not yet feature the improvements of the present-day grand piano, such as longer strings and greatly enhanced sustaining pedal. Twice in the Fantasia the composer instructs the performer: “Tenuto intanto, finché non si sente più il suono” (Hold [the note] until the sound is not heard any more). The Russian-born British pianist Yevgeny Sudbin charmingly describes the resulting dilemma: “Even on an early piano the resulting fermata [hold] is ridiculously long, but in modern times this joke completely backfires: by the time the modern string has stopped vibrating and the sound disappears, the listener has had plenty of time to get up for a cup of tea and—depending on the weather—a brief stroll in the park, and can still be back in his seat in time for the concluding passage.”
Sudbin continues: “Another awkwardness is [found in] the concluding cascades of octave glissandi, a technique [which] left far fewer blood stains on earlier pianos, with their shallow action. The Fantasia is a Presto and one of Haydn’s most virtuosic works; full of nauseating hand-crossings between extreme registers, and invigorating double-third passages, designed to keep most bodily extremities in shape.”
Felix Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses, Op. 54
In a letter to his friend Karl Klingemann on July 15, 1841, Mendelssohn wrote “Do you know what I am composing now? A set of variations for piano … and this gives me divine pleasure … it seems that I have to make up for the fact that I had not written any before.” In fact, the composer had till then completely avoided the variation form, disdaining the “brilliant” variations popular in the mid-19th century as trite and lacking substance. Hence the word “serious” in his title, to make clear the distinction between Op. 54 and certain earlier compositions.
A number of prominent pianist/composers, including Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Czerny and Moscheles, had been invited by the Viennese publisher Pietro Mechetti to compose a work for piano, to be included in a special “Beethoven Album.” The profits from Mechetti’s endeavor were be used toward building a monument in Bonn, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. It should be noted that the idea for this memorial had originated many years earlier, but had nearly foundered for lack of funds. It was rescued in part by Liszt, who donated generously both in cash and the proceeds from a pair of duo piano recitals with Chopin, in Paris.
Variations sérieuses is the only composition from Mechetti’s collection to achieve a lasting place in the solo piano repertoire. Based on an original theme, the music is indeed deeply serious, as well as intensely concentrated, lasting only about 11 minutes. Mendelssohn’s friend Moscheles commented: “I play the Variations sérieuses again and again, enjoying their beauties anew at every turn.” Both Schumanns were also admirers, with Clara performing the work frequently in recital for the rest of her life.
Béla Bartók: Out of Doors, Sz 81, BB 89
These five pieces were composed in 1926, Bartók’s “piano year,” which produced also his Sonata for piano, the Nine Little Piano Pieces, and his first Piano Concerto. After World War I his prolific folk music field research outside Hungary became impossible. The composer involved himself in other pursuits, though his devotion to ethnic music would persist. For some years he had studied early keyboard music, particularly that of François Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti, and in 1926-27 he was transcribing works by other 17th– and 18th-century composers as well. It is likely that these writers, Couperin especially, influenced Out of Doors.
Inspired by a concert in Budapest featuring Stravinsky performing his own works, Bartók began to explore writing percussively for the keyboard. In early 1927 he wrote: “It seems to me that the inherent nature [of the piano tone] becomes really expressive only by means of the present tendency to use the piano as a percussion instrument.” Bartók’s concept was roundly criticized. The British pianist/composer Constant Lambert complained of “the melody becoming definitely simpler, squarer, and more ‘folky’ while the harmonic treatment becomes more cerebral and outré. The gap between the two becomes such that in some passages … the composer gives up all attempt to bridge it, merely punctuating each pause in an innocent folksong with a resounding, brutal, and discordant crash.” Like much of Bartók’s music from this period as well as later, Out of Doors would not be fully appreciated until many years after the composer’s death.
The only piece in the set which can be traced to Bartók’s earlier preoccupation with folk music is the opener With Pipes and Drums. It is based on a Hungarian folk song: “Stork, stork, what made your leg bloody? A Turkish child cut it, a Hungarian child cured it, With a whistle, with a drum, and with a reed violin.” Musettes refer to a type of small bagpipe, notorious for its faulty tuning. Bartók biographer Halsey Stevens finds by far the most striking piece in Out of Doors is The Night’s Music, introducing the composer’s signature appreciation and reproduction of nocturnal sounds—wind, insects, birds, cicadas, “unka” frog (fire-bellied toad). This “night music” would infuse much of Bartók’s subsequent output.
Franz Liszt: Legend No. 2: St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves, S.175/2
In 1861 Liszt was in Rome with his mistress, the Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Their plan was to wed on his fiftieth birthday that year. She had obtained, with considerable difficulty, the necessary annulment of her current marriage, but at the last moment her husband had persuaded the Pope to withdraw permission for the couple to marry. Liszt, despite this setback, became seriously immersed in Catholicism, the Princess’ religion. This new devotion was perhaps driven by the recent sudden deaths of two of his three children, both in their twenties. The mother of all three was the composer’s previous mistress, the married Countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom Liszt had had a 12-year liason. (The composer never married. His only surviving child, Cosima, would later leave her husband, the conductor Hans von Bülow, for Richard Wagner, causing a lengthy estrangement between father and daughter.)
It was Princess Carolyne’s gift of a drawing by the German painter Eduard von Steinle that inspired Liszt’s Legend No. 2. St. Francis of Paola was a 15th-century southern Italian who established a contemplative religious order called the Minim Friars. Besides the usual poverty, chastity, and obedience, he added a fourth vow: complete abstinence from meat, fish, eggs, butter, cheese and milk. Like his earlier namesake St. Francis of Assisi, he felt a spiritual connection with animals, bestowing an individual name on each one he encountered.
Steinle’s portrayal features St. Francis of Paola arriving at the Strait of Messina, seeking to make the crossing to Sicily. A ship is waiting at the port. As legend has it, he presents himself and his two companions to the captain, requesting transit to the island. When asked to pay the price of passage, Francis confesses that he has no money. The captain replies that, in that case, he has no boat to transport them. Onlookers protest to the captain that Francis is a saint, for he is already regarded as such. The captain replies rudely, “If he is a saint, let him walk on the waters.” With that, he sails off. Francis prays for a bit, then announces, “We have a better ship.” He spreads his tattered cloak on the water, blesses it, and then, lifting up a part of the garment like a little sail, he and his friends set forth. The captain, seeing the miracle, pleads with Francis to come aboard his ship. But the saint declines, and the cloak arrives on the opposite shore before the ship. Liszt’s music tells this story magnificently, a grand depiction of a universal theme of trial and triumph. –