Tonight I’ll be premiering my Piano Sonata at Jordan Hall in between two established masterpieces:
Alessio Bax and Evren Ozel will play the Fantasy in F Minor for Piano Four-Hands, D. 940 by Franz Schubert.
Alessio Bax, Ayano Ninomiya, Lucy Chapman, Kim Kashkashian, and Peter Stumpf will play the Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34 by Johannes Brahms.
It’s always a good idea to acquaint oneself with the repertoire before attending a serious concert of European Classical Music. (My wife, Sarah Deming, calls it “practicing” when cueing up the relevant tracks before going to the opera or the symphony.) In this case I know these two pieces; I’ve even read through them. But in a sense, one can never hear works of this caliber too often. Last night I listened to famous records of both.
The four-hand piano piece is intimate and even domestic. The technical demands are usually not too taxing, for at the time of composition it would have been meant to be played by whoever was a skilled-enough sight-reader after a dinner party. Schubert might be surprised to know a work like this is programmed today for large audiences listening with undivided attention.
Schubert was one of the most melodic of composers, seemingly taking dictation from the heavens. However, Schubert was also fiercely, even obsessively, repetitive and rhythmic, arguably a true proto-minimalist. In the Fantasy, the piano’s percussive and monochromatic qualities are just as important as the glorious themes.
The five sections form an arch. The Fantasy is quite a rare bird structurally, with the inner movements in F-sharp minor operating as a wildly dissonant upper neighbor note to the home key of F minor.
Allegro molto moderato (F minor). Quintessential Schubert motion, with much light and shade between minor and major tonalities. Perfect music, except for an elusive air of disquiet. The transitions between keys are quite jarring, none more than the abrupt shift into
Largo (F sharp minor). Dotted rhythms in the French Overture style (not a genre usually associated with Schubert). The trills are perfectly executed by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu. This CBS 1985 recording is famous, and might be the best-selling LP of two-piano music.
Allegro vivace. The same key gets a further work out in a minuet with rustic overtones. It’s all quite a minor-key feeling, which makes the last bars of F-sharp major all the more heartbreaking.
Con delicatezza (D major). The trio of the minuet has a bit of waltz feel and wanders all over the map harmonically. We hear the original minuet again, and of course the heartbreaking F-sharp major bars destroy us further by modulating back to
Final (Tempo primo) (F minor). The first few stanzas are presented exactly like the original, before breaking unexpectedly into a fugal texture. (Again, not a form associated with Schubert.) A march-like theme from before is the counter-subject; to their credit, Perahia and Lupu still keep the sonority graceful and light, at least long as they can, before the texture thickens to near-Busoni levels of intensity. At the very end Schubert writes not one but two proto-Stravinskyian progressions that are starkly dissonant and brutal by the standard of the day.
One of Schubert’s greatest pianistic inventions.
Artur Rubinstein was nearing the end of his career. There wasn’t much of his solo repertoire or concerto repertoire that he hadn’t already recorded twice or thrice, so the legend gracefully agreed to track several pieces with the young Guarneri Quartet (Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violins, Michael Tree, viola and and David Soyer, cello.) The original RCA issue of the Brahms quintet must be one of the best-selling LPs of chamber music.
Much of Brahms for smaller forces is justifiably called “symphonic.” Perhaps there’s nothing more obviously “symphonic” in the whole of chamber music repertoire than the first movement of op. 34. Just awesome. A mighty statement. A reason to be.
Allegro non troppo (F minor). Unlike Schubert, melodies were not so easy for Brahms. His model was Beethoven: both “B’s” frequently start in an abstract place and work out their motivic tunes as they go. A vast sonata form like the opening allegro of op. 34 hardly gives up its secrets the first time through. (Compare with Schumann’s famous Piano Quintet, the work that birthed the whole genre: Schumann’s structure is clear as day.) On this 1966 performance the “walking tempo” rhythm of the pianist and the strings seem perfect, they all simply speak the language clearly. A charismatic recording.
Andante, un poco adagio (A-flat major). Brahms investigated triple meter in ways European composers hadn’t bothered with since the days of Monteverdi. The opening flexible yet granitic tune of the Andante could be from Beethoven — except Beethoven wouldn’t have known how to phrase in a big six. The movement slowly twists and turns; this kind of spacious expanse may prefigure Bruckner and Mahler. While the piano is certainly the commander of the vessel, each string player also a gets a lyrical say.
Scherzo: Allegro – Trio. The main C minor theme is quite syncopated and even moves between threes and twos, fairly bold conceits considering the time and place of composition. The movement is also a shade exotic in harmonic flavor, a hint of “Hungarian Gypsy” perhaps. A dark and stormy night. The cello digs in on the lowest note, C, in both arco and pizzicato.
Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo (F minor). The introduction is famous, a set of wandering and nearly discordant pitches. When the tempo begins, a hunt and peck tune floats over pulsating repeating notes that suggest the beating hooves of a horse. A strong start — but then the themes chase each other around a bit. It’s all enjoyable, but a flashy finale was seldom Brahms’s strong suit. Until you know the piece well, the movement seems like it has two or three endings. Like Schubert above, Brahms doubles down on counterpoint and a kind of quasi-fugal texture to bring things to a head. It works well enough, and the last bars offer a genuine syncopated surprise.