Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach’s six keyboard Partitas differ from his English and French suites in three principal respects. First, they are technically more difficult and require a larger keyboard. Second, their dance movements tend to be larger and more ambitious in scale. Finally, the Partitas are among the few of Bach’s compositions to be published during his lifetime. He had a hand in their publication and may even have been personally responsible for their engraving. He began publishing them three and one-half years after his move to Leipzig.
The First Partita holds a special place in the Bach canon because it was the first composition whose publication he oversaw. He worked with Balthasar Schmid, a Leipzig engraver. The Partita appeared in 1726 with a dedication to the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. It is the best known of the Partitas and the most frequently recorded. Bach was at the top of his game in his melodic and rhythmic ingenuity, and there is a wonderful playfulness and tenderness to these movements.
Baroque suites were fairly standardized by Bach’s day: an opening movement followed by a Courante, Allemande, Sarabande and Gigue. Optional additional dances were customarily inserted between the Sarabande and Gigue. In the First Partita, Bach interpolated a pair of Minuets.
His texture is relatively light throughout, leaning toward a more galant approach to these dances. The style is less rigorously polyphonic approach than most of his other keyboard works. Each of his seven movements has its own charm. Bach casts his Praeludium as a three-part invention, expanding to four and five parts only for a decisive cadence in the last three bars. Only 21 measures long, this Praeludium is a thoroughly convincing and satisfying opening to the suite. Bach follows it with a dizzying and virtuosic Allemande that requires smooth transference of the sixteenth-note melody from one hand to the other.
The Corrente, though technically in standard binary form, is a precursor of sonata structure, with a shortened recapitulation. Elegant ornamentation and subtly varied rhythms make the Sarabande a model of elegance. Bach’s two Minuets have a startling simplicity, especially in comparison to the virtuoso movements that flank them. The second Minuet moves almost exclusively in quarter notes. Perhaps Bach sought to make at least some of the Partita accessible to less advanced players.
His Giga is singular in that the meter is common time [4/4] rather than the customary 6/8. Bach requires hand crossings in every measure. The texture is akin to a toccata – or an étude. This movement was widely known throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, even when most of Bach’s other music had fallen into oblivion.
Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, Op.7
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven’s life was richly populated with fascinating individuals, many of whom were his students and patrons – or both. One way he acknowledged their support was through the dedications of his compositions. The Sonata in E-flat, published by the Viennese house of Artaria in October 1797, appeared with a dedication to Countess Babette von Keglevics. She probably began studying with him that year, when she was about 17. Her family were from Pressburg [now Bratislava] but maintained a second home in Vienna. She must have been a gifted student, for Beethoven subsequently dedicated three other works to her, including the First Piano Concerto. Countess Keglevics married Prince Innocenz d’Erba-Odescalchi, an imperial chamberlain, in 1801. The couple maintained a musical salon in Vienna; we know that Beethoven’s Septet Op.20 was performed at one of their soirées.
At this early stage of his career, Beethoven favored a four movement structure in his sonatas and piano trios. The E-flat Sonata is one of his largest-scale sonatas and was downright enormous for its day. (Including customary repeats in the first and third movements, it takes more than half an hour in performance.) Beethoven clearly recognized this, for he insisted on its independent publication as a Grande Sonate, rather than as part of a set of three. Opus 7 is a prime early example of his expansion of conventional forms. He would continue to explore larger structures in his string and piano trios, string quartets, and symphonies. Indeed, this sonata is quasi-symphonic in scope, stretching the confines of the keyboard, particularly the fortepiano of the mid-1790s.
From the thrumming repeated left hand notes of the opening measures and the bold gestural chords above it, this music demands: “Sit up and notice me!” The quiet start hints that an explosive, dramatic restatement will occur in short order, and Beethoven delivers. With variety, energy, rhythmic changes, and forward momentum, he propels this Allegro molto e con brio with urgency. Brilliant sixteenth notes at the conclusion of the exposition return in the coda, adding virtuoso flourish. The repeated triplet eighth notes in the left hand accompany, driving home the inevitability of the final cadence.
The slow movement, a Largo, con gran espressione in C major, demonstrates how Beethoven achieved nobility and profondeur in the piano sonatas far sooner than in other instrumental genres. Reaching toward the sublime, he foretells the grandeur and expanse of more mature compositions. The chromatic descending bass octaves in the coda are absolutlely spine-tingling.
The minuet/trio, marked simply Allegro, shows Beethoven both well-mannered and witty, with clever touches of imitation punctuated by sudden dynamic changes. Some textural elements, such as repeated left hand notes and chordal gestures, link it subtly to the first movement. The trio is notable for its dark tonality (E-flat minor, the parallel minor), with the melody emerging through the blur of rapidly executed triplets.
The sonata concludes with a gracious rondo, more Schubertian than Beethovenian in its main theme. The contrasting episodes are vintage Beethoven, however, replete with sudden sforzati, liberal sharing of ideas between left and right hands, and plenty of figuration both delicate and flashy. The second episode erupts in C minor, with a thunderstorm of perpetual motion 32nd notes illuminated by chordal lightning flashes. Beethoven’s transition back to the elegance of his main rondo theme is as masterful as it is unexpected. Careful listeners will also discern the importance of the repeated note, referring once again to the rhetorical language of the first movement. The coda transforms the stormy texture of the C minor section, allowing the movement to close with the quiet grace of its opening.
Mozart had only been gone six years when Beethoven composed Opus 7. Haydn was still very much alive; his last – and greatest–piano trios date from the same year, 1797. Beethoven’s sonata is completely different from anything that Mozart or Haydn composed: a stunning declaration of his bold and original genius.
Waltz in A minor, Op.34, No.2
Waltz in F minor, Op.70 No.2
Waltz in D-flat Major, Op.64 No.1 “Minute”
Frédéric-François Chopin (1810-1849)
Aspiring young pianists usually obtain their first acquaintance with Chopin’s piano music through the waltzes. As a group, the waltzes are not destined for the ballroom, but are rather dances of the spirit. Most of them are intimate pieces, perhaps best appreciated in the privacy of one’s living room or for a small group of treasured friends. A few of the waltzes, however, are concert works requiring the same virtuosity and polish as Chopin’s larger compositions.
On this evening’s program, Mr. Lewis favors the smaller scale. He opens with the intimate A minor waltz. Its simplicity is deceptive, with the melancholy melody allocated to an inner voice played by left hand. Chopin’s uncluttered texture leaves the player perilously exposed. In the hands a sensitive pianist, this waltz becomes a study in nuance and tone color. An interlude in C major toward the end – again with left hand melody – provides an unexpected digression without compromising the waltz’s elegant proportions. According to the composer Stephen Heller, this was Chopin’s personal favorite among his waltzes.
Opus 70 No.2 in F minor is one of three waltzes published posthumously in 1852. Actually, only eight of Chopin’s waltzes were published during his lifetime; he retained many of them to present in manuscript as gifts to friends. Such is the case with this waltz, which survives in half a dozen versions, each with slight variants. Its companion pieces in Opus 70 are quite early, but the F minor waltz dates from 1842, and there is nothing youthful, amateurish, or unformed about this wistful movement. The accompaniment is fairly simple and consistent. It supports another lovely, deceptively simple melody redolent with the spirit of Poland.
With its spinning perpetual motion, Op. 64, No. 1 is among the most celebrated of Chopin’s waltzes. The sobriquet “Minute” was assigned by a publisher, and likely refers to the piece’s modest dimensions rather than speed of execution. An apocryphal back story is more charming. One evening in George Sand’s Parisian salon, observing her small dog chasing its tail, she asked Chopin to set the pup’s whirring motion to music. He obliged and voilà! - a miniature masterpiece resulted: La valse du petit chien. The piece (which takes closer to two minutes) derives its sparkle not so much from rapid performance, but rather from the reflected glitter of the salons for which such music was written. This is a waltz that provides sheer entertainment: fleet, pianistic, easy to love.
Piano Sonata No.2 in A-flat major, J1999 (Op.39)
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
If you have any music by Weber on your iPod or in your personal CD collection, it is likely to be either Invitation to the Dance, an opera, or a collection of opera overtures. Weber's Der Freischütz was a milestone in German romantic opera. His other major stage works: Preciosa, Abu Hassan, Oberon, and Euryanthe, all have glorious overtures that are concert favorites. The clarinetists and clarinet lovers in the audience will also know that Weber composed two concertos plus several other pieces for the instrument. Precious few chamber works by Weber exist: a Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1815), a Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1819), a handful of violin/piano pieces, and a Piano Quartet.
It may come as a surprise to learn that there is a substantial amount of piano music by Weber - and it hardly ever gets played, which makes Mr. Lewis’s performance of the Second Sonata this evening all the more special. Why do we not hear Weber’s keyboard works in recital? One reason is that his contemporaries - Beethoven, Schubert, and to some extent the young Mendelssohn – were titanic contributors to the keyboard literature. Their piano legacies have eclipsed Weber’s, and his music fell out of fashion. Another reason is that Weber had extremely large hands and was a formidable virtuoso. His music frequently calls for wide leaps and a broad hand span that is all but impossible for most pianists to execute. It takes an extraordinary technician and musician to deliver his music.
In addition to eight sets of variations (mostly on opera themes) and a raft of short salon pieces, Weber composed four large sonatas. They are considered his finest essays for piano. The great Bach biographer Philipp Spitta categorized the sonatas as fantasias in sonata form. In that respect, they are significant harbingers of romanticism.
Weber worked on the Second Sonata, in A-flat major, from 1814 to 1816. To place those dates in perspective: Beethoven had complete 26 of his 32 pianos sonatas by then; Op.90 was composed in 1814, and Op.101 – the first of the ‘late’ sonatas, in 1816. Schubert was still a teenager (he was born in 1797) and, while he’d composed a good bit of piano music, all the great works lay in the future. Weber’s famous contemporaries at the keyboard were Hummel and Dussek – important composers of the day who, like him, have been relegated to secondary status by posterity.
The Second Sonata is a major work, in four hefty movements that occupy a solid half hour in performance. The time will fly: this is music of enchantment and whimsy, pianistic fireworks and massive sonorities that frequently evoke orchestral majesty. Weber’s opening Allegro moderato con spirito features tremolos, arpeggiation, passage work in octaves, and quasi-orchestral sonorities. Melodic lines alternate between ascending and descending ideas, maintaining a consistent mood of nobility.
The slow movement shifts between C major and C minor. Weber adopts a structure that crosses simple ternary (A-B-A) with rondo, with a climactic moment in the middle section. Classical tradition would call for minuet as the third movement. This Menuetto capriccioso is more like a Beethovenian scherzo, lively and imaginative. The idea of fantasy - free and yes, capricious – is paramount. A melancholic Trio section provides contrast. A rondo in perpetual motion concludes the sonata.
Great pianists from Franz Liszt to Artur Schnabel retained Weber’s sonatas in their concert repertoire. We are fortunate to have a modern champion of this great music in Paul Lewis.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017