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Pour le piano – yes indeed, for the piano! Debussy’s title not only describes his composition, but this entire recital program as well. This is music written by pianists for pianists. Music that explores the instrument’s chameleon power to mimic the intimacy of the singing human voice, and, moments later, to roar with the grandeur of a symphony orchestra. Music that tests the piano’s seemingly infinite range of expression, from a limpid frieze-like stasis, to throbbing demonic ecstasy. No instrument places in the hands of a single musician this vastness of possibility.
And remarkably, given the stylistic variety we will encounter, most of the music performed this evening was written in just the two decades leading up to the First World War; a period of tumultuous experimental fecundity, as 19th-century Romanticism had to find its way in the modern 20th-century world.
When musicologists and reference books are obliged to draw a line between the old and the new, between the musical legacy of the Romantic era and the onset of modern music, they draw it with the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). It is not a surprise that, as a harbinger of innovation, Debussy was routinely deprecated by his contemporaries. In 1911, the powerful New York critic James Huneker wrote: “It is impossible to conceive a finer vehicle of expression than that invented by Debussy through the simple yet original process of abolishing rhythm, melody, and tonality from music and thus leaving nothing but atmosphere.”
An opinion not shared by succeeding generations. To the venerated pianist Claudio Arrau, Debussy was “one of the great geniuses. His music is absolutely unique. It’s like the music of another planet.”
Pour le piano was published in 1901, though the second of its three sections dates, in an earlier incarnation, back to 1894. The titles of these sections are redolent of a musical era two centuries before: prelude, sarabande, and toccata are terms we associate with Bach and the Baroque dance suite, not the dawn of the 20th century. They provide Debussy with a source of inspiration rather than imitation, and the opening Prélude is appropriately energetic and virtuosic, but sounds nothing like its historical antecedents. The athletic glissandos of the Prélude lead to the calm center of the Sarabande. Debussy’s descriptive indication: Avec une élégance grave et lente – with a grave and slow elegance. The closing Toccata is a brilliant exclamation, uncompromising in its technical demands.
There is an uncanniness about the music of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), a strangeness which has not been diluted by the century that has passed since this music was written. No study of the musician existed in English until 1967 when Faubion Bowers published his enormous two-volume biography, and with the exception of a few champions, pianists in the West didn’t venture into this alien terrain. He has been labeled a mystic, a megalomaniac, and a visionary. The eerie trills and atonal disjunctions of his later works, the outwardly improvisatory, though minutely calculated, structures of his mature piano sonatas, have all contributed to his reputation.
Given the widely diverging paths followed by these two Russian giants (as we will hear later in the program), is it surprising to know that Scriabin was a classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Conservatory, receiving rigorous training in composition and piano until graduating with him in 1892, taking second prize to Rachmaninoff’s first?
Scriabin’s Sonata No. 6, Op. 62, was written in 1911, but cleaves to no historical category other than its own. Lasting just over ten minutes in a single movement, its technical demands are demonic as are its lingering reverberations. It had been the habit of the composer in his previous sonatas to append a written program, sometimes in the form of poems, to habituate the listener to the music’s intentions, but no such program was provided here.
To quote Bowers: “The Sixth Sonata is a netherstar. Its dark and evil aspect embraces horror, terror, and the omnipresent Unknown. ‘Only my music expresses the inexpressible,’ Scriabin boasted, and called the Sixth’s sweet and harsh harmonies, “nightmarish… fuliginous… murky… dark and hidden… unclean… mischievous.’ When he played excerpts for friends, he would stare off in the distance away from the piano, as if watching effluvium rise from the floor and walls around him. He seemed frightened and sometimes shuddered.”
In the final pages of the score Scriabin writes, “the terror arises and joins the delirious dance” as trills and flashes in the extreme high register of the piano, more terror-laden for not being loud, require notes physically beyond the highest reach of the keyboard!
If one were open to suggestions of the occult, one might see in Scriabin’s Sonata a warning of the darkness that was about to overwhelm Europe. The Great War (1914-1918) would bring about the death of millions in hellish trenches, the best and the brightest of an entire generation, “Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,” in Ezra Pound’s phrase. Europe would never regain the optimism that the new century had promised.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), with La Valse, straddles that great abyss of WWI, conjuring the elegance of a bygone Imperial age, and then obliterating it with postwar disillusion and hysteria. La Valse, originally written for full orchestra, was composed at the behest of the great ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev in 1919. Though Diaghilev would reject the work as merely “a portrait of a ballet,” Ravel went on to make arrangements of La Valse for solo piano and piano duet. Printed in the score of all versions is Ravel’s introduction:
“Drifting clouds part and allow hazy glimpses of waltzing couples. They gradually dissipate, and we can distinguish an immense ballroom filled with a whirling crowd.
“The scene continues to clear. The glow of the chandeliers shines to a full splendor.
“An Imperial Court ball, circa 1855.”
In poll after poll, when professional pianists are asked to rank the greatest pianists of the recorded age, the name of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) stands at the summit, and usually by a wide margin. His recordings (enough to fill ten generous CDs) are as revered by his peers as his compositions are embraced by the public. Fitting, then, that a recital so literally devoted to the piano, should conclude with a selection of his works.
The Élégie, Op. 3, No. 1, is, amazingly, the work of a teenager. Rachmaninoff was 19 and basking in the aftermath of his concert debut when he completed work on a set of five pieces which would constitute his Morceaux de Fantaisie, published in 1893. Present in this song-without-words are the same elements that would define his mature compositional style: an intensely vocal handling of melody, and a pervading, peculiarly Russian brand of melancholy.
With the arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61, we move to near the end of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano writing, 40 years later in 1933. Accessible to only the most gifted virtuosos, the transcription is a knuckle-busting recreation of the incidental music intended by Mendelssohn as the intermezzo between Act I and Act II of Shakespeare’s play: the transition from Athens to the fairy kingdom of the magical forest. Rachmaninoff’s own recording, made in 1935, has acquired legendary status.
The Moment musical in E minor is the fourth in a set of six pieces that comprise Rachmaninoff’s Op. 16. Composed in 1896, it is a torrential virtuoso vehicle: the 22-year-old musician flexing his pianistic muscles and building his performing repertoire.
By 1913, Rachmaninoff was famed as a pianist and conductor in Russia. A tour of the United States and the composition and premiere of the Third Piano Concerto were three years behind him when he took some time away from his busy performing schedule to seclude himself in Rome, where he began work on his great choral masterpiece, The Bells, and his next pianistic showcase, the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36.
A translation of Poe’s poem The Bells – and its evocation of the disparate themes of love and marriage and alarm and death – inspired his work for chorus and orchestra, but we hear too, in the outer movements of his Piano Sonata, the reverberations of the immense sound of Russian church bells, a fascination for the composer since childhood. Even the plaintive and melancholy intermezzo-like middle movement is interrupted by a ringing explosion.
Intended as a summation of his abilities as a pianist and a composer, in its day the Sonata never seemed to catch on with audiences – nor, for that matter, with other pianists, who were intimidated by its technical demands.
In an act born of his experience of years on the concert trail, Rachmaninoff began to revise his Sonata, saying in 1931, “I look at my early works and see how much superfluous material is there. Even in this Sonata [the original version of the Second Sonata] too many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is too long. Chopin’s sonata lasts 19 minutes and all is said.”
The original version was never withdrawn, and the revised version, played tonight, was published in 1931. In a sense, both are authorized works of the composer who, in fact, never stopped considering further changes until the time of his death. The revision strives to clarify textures and repetitions in favor of melodic content: a more performable, though still daunting, statement of musical intent. As intended, Rachmaninoff’s own revision, trimming nearly a fifth of the playing time, runs for approximately 19 impassioned minutes.
Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a frequent contributor to the Philharmonic program book.