Composer: Claude Debussy (b. 1862 - d. 1918)
Performance date: 27/06/2022
Venue: Bantry House
Composition Year: 1905
Recording Engineer: Eduardo Prado, Ergodos
Nathalia Milstein -
This programme features works from four master composers, who were also extraordinary pianists. And while the styles in structure, harmony and underlying expressions are totally different, they share some interesting characteristics. In the first place, all of them are very difficult to play well. In Schubert’s case, the technical demands on the pianist were something of a departure from his usual piano compositions. There is also, in all these works, some sense of change musically from what has gone before. In form and key, the Wanderer was inventive and original, the product of experimentation by Schubert, linking the entire work through a set of similar rhythms and creating a unity to the work that hadn’t been seen before, but which was to greatly influence later composers, especially Liszt.
Debussy, who constantly seemed to leap from one personal dramatic crisis to another, broke through into new conventions in musical tonalities, modes and harmonic textures with his Suite Bergamesque. Scriabin saw himself as entering a new phase of understanding and being on the brink of new developments in expressing his mysticism and philosophy into musical form – he was desperate to live long enough to explore this, but instead died in agony of blood poisoning in 1915. The Tenth Sonata was one of his final works and he was pushing towards the boundaries of atonality with its intense chromaticism and dissonance. 1926 is designated Bartók’s ‘Piano Year’ by musicologists and the year when his career really took off at an international level. There was a creative shift from Beethovian intensity to Bachian craftsmanship. Each of the three movements is in classical form and the Sonata as a whole is a paradigm of the new classicism Bartók was working towards, drawing on the old Baroque keyboard masters, like Scarlatti.
Composed only two years before his early death, Scriabin was at the height of his mysticism and connection with nature. My Tenth Sonata is a sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun… they are the sun’s. This description and the trills that are such a distinctive feature of the work led to it being nicknamed the Insect Sonata. The progression from the light opening to the fierce climax speak of a passion that is powerful and moving without any of the softening features of the Romantic Period. Scriabin saw insects as manifestations of human emotion, all the plants and little animals are expressions of our psyches. Their appearance corresponds to the movement of our souls. In this sonata the listener enters a wood and is slowly aware of the sounds around them, realising that they aren’t alone in the wood, but instead surrounded by nature and the ebb and flow of nature’s music that builds up into a cacophony, though this being Scriabin, the cacophony is a masterwork of harmonic dissonance, chromaticism, texture and balance. The final flourish of the piece is the sun coming out, blazing and vibrant.
Bartók’s Piano Sonata begins with one of the most stylish openings in the programme. The entire first movement is rhythmically exciting and the interaction of the different hands is a masterpiece of harmony and melodic genius. It’s exciting and modern and creates a sense of anticipation that is rewarded with an increase in tempo as the movement moves towards the close. The second movement, by contrast is subdued with a denser texture and chord clusters that emphasises harmonic dissonances in way that is edgier and more disruptive than the previous movement’s rapid melodies. The third movement has a jazzy syncopation that keeps the listener on edge. The left hand is very percussive and pushes the movement forward to a sudden finish, while throughout, the right hand melody contains elements of Bartók’s characteristic folk-music influences. The rich contrapuntal sections in the Sonata show the influences of the early masters of that instrument. Bartók himself was a pianist of extraordinary talent and the compositional devices used in his piano works from 1926 show how far he was testing the possibilities of what the piano can do. And so in the Sonata we hear not only the rapid melodies for the dextrous fingers, but also the grounding percussive qualities and rhythmic potentials.
From Scriabin to Debussy, we move from the blazing sunlight to the exquisite moonlight. Suite Bergamesque contains the famous Claire de Lune ‘Moonlight’ movement, and in Debussy’s sublime harmonies and delicate broken chords that complement the melody, the listener truly is walking in moonlight. Like Bartók, Debussy looked to Baroque structures in the form, but the characteristic impressionism of the music is a masterpiece of devotion to aesthetic purity. The suite took fifteen years to be completed and published, and the title inspired from Paul Verlaine’s poem Claire de Lune, which mentions ‘bergamesks,’ a clumsy dance performed by the inhabitants of Bergamo in the Italian Alps. But there is nothing clumsy in the composition – even in the lively comic dance of the second movement, the typical elegance of Debussy’s harmonic structures and light melodies, are refined and supremely beautiful.
Schubert’s Fantasy is based on a song he wrote in 1816, Der Wanderer, a setting to a poem by Georg Lubeck. Each of the four movements of the Fantasy is constructed using elements from the song. The movements move seamlessly into each other, creating an epic, grand quality to the work. The archetype of the Wanderer was a figure familiar in European culture – a person who is free, often lonely, always a stranger and seeking but never attaining happiness. These traits are woven throughout the Fantasy – nostalgia, loneliness, longing and triumph. Schubert’s revisiting of the Wanderer themes in 1822 is surely linked to the personal trauma he was going through, the severe symptoms of his last illness were manifesting, and along with financial problems and bouts of his recurring depression, 1822 was one of his most difficult years. Throughout his life Schubert faced societal and financial constraints, and towards the end, the constraints of failing health, and it is hardly surprising that the character of the Wanderer, free if lonely and unfulfilled, should inspire him for his most extraordinary piano work.
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