Joe's Piano Potpourri for 2012

Joe Potpourri CD Cover

Vivaldi-Bach: Concerto in D Major, BWV 972

To some, the musical usage of the word “transcription” may conjure images of Liszt thundering out octaves for a mesmerized salon audience in performing his pianistic transformation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. Yet over a century earlier, J. S. Bach was unassumingly adding transcriptions of various string and wind concertos to his prolific keyboard output. Of the sixteen extant concertos Bach adapted for the keyboard, six were based on violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons have, in the popular imagination, become emblematic of the Italian Baroque. This concerto in D major, based on Vivaldi’s violin concerto, Op. 3, No. 9, from L’Estro Armonico, is characteristic Vivaldi fare—tuneful and taut, with frequent use of sequences. The two allegro outer movements are brisk, rhythmically driven, and refreshingly direct; the larghetto, by contrast, is a serene cantilena sustained by softly vibrating pedal tones.

Vivaldi-Bach: Concerto in D Major, BWV 972, I: Allegro

Vivaldi-Bach: Concerto in D Major, BWV 972, II: Larghetto


Vivaldi-Bach: Concerto in D Major, BWV 972, III: Allegro

Chopin, Four Preludes From Op. 28; Scriabin, Four Preludes From Op. 11

As a whole, Chopin’s 24 preludes might be the Polish master’s single greatest composition. In their terseness and spontaneity, they are like the finest lyric poetry, evoking a mercurial range of moods and open to a variety of interpretations. Scriabin’s Op. 11 preludes may be less polished than Chopin’s, but they are miniature gems in their own right and doubtless fresher to the ears, displaying an adventurous harmonic language and unique improvisatory flair. This disc features a quartet of pieces from each opus.

The Chopin selections begin with the tempestuous F-sharp minor prelude (No. 8), perhaps the greatest of the set. With its dramatic thumb-played melody and wind-like, hissing accompaniments in the right hand, it is the ultimate test of pianistic balance and orchestration. Next are the mellifluous B major (No. 11) and F-sharp major (No. 13) preludes. Clocking in at just over a half minute, the B major is an evanescent album leaf; it calls to mind the coquettish laughter of a fleeting wood nymph. By contrast, the F-sharp major, the second longest of the set (after the “Raindrop,” No. 15) carries an undertone of deep sadness and reflection in its continuous, almost Rachmaninovian lines. As Alfred Cortot notes regarding the tragedy in this prelude, “One of the secrets of Chopin’s genius was that accent of tender melancholy with which he seems, almost involuntarily, to have imbued the major mode.” The G minor prelude (No. 22) concludes the Chopin group of four and, ironically, is probably the most Scriabinic of Chopin’s preludes, its triplet octaves capturing the Russian’s extroversion and madness. The dotted-rhythm motif that opens this prelude, in fact, would often be employed by Scriabin—for example, in his B minor fantasy, Op. 28.

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28No. 8 in F-Sharp Minor, Molto Agitato

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28No. 11 in B Major, Vivace

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28No. 13 in F-Sharp Major, Lento

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28No. 22 in G Minor, Molto Agitato

The mood changes abruptly at the start of the Scriabin selections, with the fleet G major prelude (No. 3). In character, it is similar to its counterpart from Chopin’s opus (the tempo marking, vivo, resembles Chopin’s vivace), although it is less serene and exhibits the Russian master’s characteristic nervosity. In the undulating contrapuntal bass of the next prelude, No. 5 in D major, one can see the influences of both J.S. Bach and Chopin. Nevertheless, the 4/2 key signature, polyrhythms, rolled chords, rubato, and syncopations are distinctly Scriabinic. In No. 6 in B minor, Scriabin uses a texture of interlocking, leaping octaves and chords to evoke brimstone and fury. Toward the end, the treacherous left-hand octave leaps of more than a tenth are particularly hellish. The final Scriabin Op. 11 prelude on this disc is the andantino in E major (No. 9), which has an especially improvisatory feel to it. Up until the concluding rolled chord, the listener is unsure about whether the piece is in the major or minor mode.


Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11—No. 3 in G Major, Vivo

Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11—No. 5 in D Major, Andante Cantabile

Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11—No. 6 in B Minor, Allegro

Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11—No. 9 in E Major, Andantino

Beethoven, Sonata in D Major, Op. 28 (“Pastorale”)

Rebellion and revolution are two of the first words the name of Beethoven calls to mind; his music often evokes the titans of mythology, testing the gods’ ire and playing with fire at the threshold of the heavens. Yet there was also the introspective Beethoven whose ears were attuned to the sounds of nature on his pensive walks in the country. This is the Beethoven of the “pastorale” sonata.

The relative placidity of this work compared with Beethoven’s other masterpieces in the sonata form is highlighted by its position between the two sonatas of Op. 27 (the somewhat neglected E-flat major sonata, No. 1, and the hackneyed “Moonlight” sonata, No. 2) and the self-consciously stormy “Tempest” sonata, Op. 31, No. 2. It has often been suggested that unlike the composer’s pastoral symphony (No. 6 in F major), the pastorale sonata’s sobriquet may stem more from its overall lightheartedness than from its form. There is indeed some truth to this. Only the first and last movements are written in the meter of a traditional pastorale (simple 3/4 in the first movement and compound 6/8 in the last movement). Nevertheless, Beethoven seems to have also intended the second-movement andante and third-movement scherzo as depictions of scenes from nature.

The allegro tempo indication in the first movement seems more an indication of cheerful optimism than of speed. At the outset, the drone ostinato bass on the repeating Ds establishes a tone of bucolic simplicity and becomes a recurring motif throughout the movement. The densely layered melodic and accompanimental textures, punctuated by sforzati, exude Beethovenien earnestness and culminate in exultant chords and rippling scale passagework in the right hand. In the development, Beethoven progresses through a series of modulations based on a fragment of the opening theme. This anxiety-laden episode is more illustrative of the Sturm und Drang that typifies Beethoven’s style; however, the repetitive figures that emerge in the shift from F-sharp minor to its parallel major return the movement to its prevailing mood of serenity as the tempo slows and the dynamic level fades to a whisper in anticipation of the recapitulation. The brief coda of the movement is one of the sonata’s most tranquil moments. A portion of the primary theme is restated in thirds to announce the D major triad in its second inversion. The smorzando effect that culminates in the sparsely textured perfect cadence to end the movement is a notable example of Beethovenien largesse and repose.

With its march-like bass and somberly pensive right-hand melody, the second movement in D minor is the least pastoral of the four. In the genial middle section, however, Beethoven reverts to D major and employs staccato triplets and skipping dotted rhythms to convey a courtly graciousness that is suggestive of tunes played at a country cotillion. The coda is sadly wistful, and the final ornament, a turn, exemplifies the movement’s misterioso aspect.

In the third movement, Beethoven chuckles at the seriousness of the second movement. The outer sections essentially consist of two four-bar motifs that mischievously banter back and forth—a simple legato melody on four octave-spaced F-sharps and a sequence of skipping portato crotchets. The B minor trio section juxtaposes broken octaves and chords in the left hand against an angst-filled melody that repeats in each eight-bar half.

The fourth-movement rondo is doubtless the most pastoral movement. The bagpipe-like theme intoned in the bass, coupled with the gigue-like (6/8) rhythm and lilting skips in the right-hand melody, could be a dance for animal folk, maybe lambs. Also notable are the syncopated harp-like arpeggiations, an unusual technique for classical-period sonatas, and the thrice-appearing passages in broken octaves, an extroverted romp that precedes the return to the more subdued principal theme. The coda is one of the few technically treacherous passages in the sonata; the main theme recurs in the form of leaping bass octaves and nimble right-hand passagework that conclude the work in a gesture of raucous revelry.

Beethoven: Sonata in D Major, Op. 28, I: Allegro

Beethoven: Sonata in D Major, Op. 28, II: Andante

Beethoven: Sonata in D Major, Op. 28, III: Scherzo—Allegro Vivace

Beethoven: Sonata in D Major, Op. 28, IV: Rondo—Allegro Moderato

Mozart, Variations in F Major, KV 54

On the whole, Mozart wrote more convincing sets of variations for solo piano than the other constituents of the Classical triumvirate, Beethoven and Haydn. While Beethoven contributed the monumental Eroica and Diabelli variations to the form, his other sets are potboilers by comparison. Similarly, Haydn has only one significant set to his name: the doleful F minor andante with variations. Although, among Mozart’s sets, only the Ah vous dirai-je maman (same theme as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) variations are well known, many of his other sets (such as those based on themes from Baudron, Dezède, and Paisiello) are greater works and remain seriously underrated. On the whole, Mozart’s variations are tightly structured and theatrical, displaying a fascination with technical experimentation and subtle rhythmical delineation.

Though this F major set appears quite early in the Köchel cataloguing of Mozart’s works, it was actually written in his later years (the official date and location being 1788 in Vienna) and was compiled as part of the Mozart Anhang. It is also one of only two based on original themes (the other being the B-flat major set, K. 500). The theme is both sweet and caustically witty. The composer’s maturity is evident in the seamless fluidity of the lines and polyphonic complexity. As in many of Mozart’s variation sets, the highlight is the tenderly lamenting minore, which grants a fleeting glimpse into life beyond the grave.

Mozart: Six Variations on an Original Theme in F Major, KV 54


Liszt, Gondoliera and Cloches de Genève: Nocturne From Années de Pèlerinage

Many present-day musicologists would, without much reservation, place the B minor sonata at the apex of Liszt’s solo piano oeuvre. To be sure, it is a mammoth structural achievement, inaugurating the Neudeutsche Musik conception of the sonata as a continuous form with cyclically recurrent themes. I would argue, however, that the three volumes of (and the supplements to) the Années de pèlerinage, in which Liszt exploits the piano’s vast resources in highly effective simulations of the sounds of nature, is the composer’s single greatest work when considered as a whole. This diverse set of character pieces not only reflects Liszt’s use of sound to create dramatic tableaux but also represents one of the pinnacles of romanticism in music through its transcendentalist evocation of the sensory experiences of a wanderer journeying through foreign lands.

The two selections on this disc are especially suggestive in their exploitation of sound. The “Gondoliera, the first piece in the Venezia e Napoli addendum to the Italie (deuxième année,) is redolent of Venetian waterways at dusk, a canvas with impressionistic tones; it is to music what Monet’s Venice is to painting. Unlike Chopin’s Barcarolle, in which the boat song serves more as a backdrop to a tale of an amorous encounter, the Liszt Gondoliera focuses the listener’s imagination on the visual surroundings. The boat rocks with gentle unevenness in the bass while the lush right-hand melody capriciously wanders. As the water laps against the boat’s shell, it faintly glistens in the remnants of sunlight, as reflected in the delicate fiorature and trills that emerge when the rocking momentarily subsides. The ending of this piece is truly one of the most gorgeous of the entire Années de pèlerinage cycle. Chime-like chords in the upper reaches of the treble sound above a low bass pedal tone on the tonic F-sharp. This effect lasts for over a minute, as the sound gradually diminishes to a pianississimo, suggesting the arrival of moonlight over the city.

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Venezia e Napoli: I, Gondoliera

The Cloches de Genève: Nocturne from La Suisse (the première année) is no less a delight for the senses. Overall, the piece is shaped by its gradual crescendo. The bell-like effect is accentuated near the outset in the accented tops of the arpeggiandi that repeat on each crotchet. The rumblings in the bass connote the tolling from a distant chapel belfry. Interestingly, the introduction ends on a half cadence (F-sharp major) emphasizing its misty and ethereal quality and leading peacefully into the second section, which is up there with the third Consolation and the Liebesträume as one of the most sensuous and expansive melodies Liszt penned. It is also dreamy and wistful, highlighted by the chromatic recitativo interludes. As is often the case with Liszt, however, the languidness is not long-lasting, for he reprises the theme with brilliant octaves and downward-rolling, glissando-like arpeggiandi, marked quasi arpa to indicate that they are to be performed in a manner similar to harplike strummings. The recitativo passages now consist of piercing octaves, the most dramatic and extended of which is at the end of the modulatory stretto section that leads back to the echo of the original theme. Similarly to the Gondoliera, the Cloches de Genève concludes with a pedal point sustained under repeated variations on the soft triplet figurations with which the piece began—an ending worthy of its “Nocturne” subtitle.


Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année (Suisse): IX, Cloches de Genève: Nocturne

Bach, Two Preludes and Fugues From Well-Tempered Clavier I

Often aptly described as the “musician’s bible,” the two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) constitute perhaps the most essential tome in the history of Western music. As Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is to painting, so is Bach’s weighty masterwork to the musical art—a colossal monument to the creative process. Practically all later composers, from Mozart and Beethoven to Wagner and Rachmaninoff, were profoundly influenced by it. For pianists, the WTC serves not only as important physical preparation for the difficulties of romantic music, such as the Chopin preludes and etudes, but also as invaluable instruction in the complexities of polyphonic playing, namely the ability to balance competing textures and lines.

Each of the 24 preludes and fugues in the WTC is in a different key numerically organized in ascending chromatic order, a notion that would serve as the inspiration for sets of preludes by Chopin (Op. 28), Rachmaninoff (Op. 23 and 32), and Scriabin (Op. 11). The preludes and fugues on this disc are two of the better-known ones from the first book of the WTC. It would be almost impossible for any classical music aficionado to be unfamiliar with the first prelude and fugue (BWV 846) from this book, especially the tranquil prelude. The simple broken-chord harmonic scheme of this prelude has been borrowed for use in many later works, perhaps most famously Chopin’s etude, Op. 10, No. 1, and Gounod’s Ave Maria, which employs Bach’s prelude as the accompaniment to a voluptuous descant melody. The four-voice fugue is a craggy and magisterial work that deserves just as much, if not more, recognition than the prelude. By contrast, both the C-sharp major prelude and its fugue (BWV 848) are vivacious throughout and exhibit an unusually tongue-and-cheek style of humor for Bach, particularly evident in the accented melodic downbeats in the bass of the prelude and the leaps of a sixth in the primary theme of the fugue. The brisk fugue is perhaps one of the more technically demanding fugues in the WTC.

Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, I: Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846


Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, I: Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Major, BWV 848

Bach-Busoni: Chorale Prelude, “Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ”

Though Feruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was both a titanic pianist and a prolific composer of original works, he is probably best remembered now for his transcriptions, particularly of Bach’s organ works. Busoni’s transcriptions of the organ toccatas and fugues have been favorite repertory choices of virtuoso pianists for decades.

Not all of Busoni’s transcriptions are technical dazzlers, though; he also transcribed a number of shorter organ chorale preludes, the most famous of which is the “Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ.” The Lenten chorale is reflected in a plaintive, haunting prayer for protection from spiritual desolation. With the exception of octave doublings and chordal enrichments, Busoni’s transcription is quite faithful to the original. One ingenious addition of Busoni’s, however, is his refrain of the final melodic motif in the bass, which intensifies the aura of profundity.


Bach-Busoni: Chorale Prelude, "Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ



Chopin, Waltz in D-Flat Major, Op. 70, No. 3

Like his mazurkas, most of Chopin’s waltzes probably are more influenced by his Polish national heritage than by his position in Parisian high society. They are quirky and often irregular in their rhythm and would generally not be suitable dancing music (save, perhaps, the first waltz in E-flat major, Op. 18).

This particular waltz, published as part of the posthumous Op. 70, is a prime example of the capriciousness with which Chopin imbued the waltz form. The opening polyphonic statement, which contains two independent lines in the same hand, displays a hint of intoxication. In the double-note passages, the melodic intention is so strong that Chopin is able to convince us that each of the two voices represents the man or woman in a dancing couple.

Chopin: Waltz in D-Flat Major, Op. 70, No. 3

Rachmaninoff, Preludes Op. 3, No. 2, and Op. 32, No. 12

Rachmaninoff, like Chopin, wrote 24 preludes, each in a different key. (Rachmaninoff did write two additional preludes during his student days, but these were published later without opus numbers.) To some, this may come as a surprise, since the majority of Rachmaninoff’s preludes are spread over two opuses, Op. 23 (10 preludes) and Op. 32 (13 preludes), the 24th prelude being the celebrated prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2, which was originally published in 1892 as part of a suite of five pieces, the Cinq Morceaux de Fantasie. Rachmaninoff’s preludes differ from those of Chopin’s in other important respects as well. First, they are in no particular key order, following neither a circle-of-fifths nor a chromatic progression. Second, they are significantly more substantial works; whereas many of Chopin’s preludes last under a minute, the shortest of Rachmaninoff’s are just over a minute, with many between three and five minutes in duration.

Known as the “Bells of Russia,” Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp minor prelude became so famous that audiences in whatever city the Russian master would tour would request that he play “it” as an encore. Indeed, Rachmaninoff grew to hate it intensely. Too bad, for despite its having been mauled by students and amateur pianists of limited ability, it abounds in pianistic colors and is the apotheosis of the plangent melodic style for which Rachmaninoff is remembered.

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2

The G-sharp minor prelude, op. 32, no. 12, has also enjoyed a surge in popularity among concert artists in recent times, though not nearly to the extent of the C-sharp minor. Sparser in texture than many of Rachmaninoff’s other piano pieces, the G-sharp prelude famously begins with a broken G-sharp minor chord without the third to emphasize the bright sound of the open fifth. The sparkling effects in this piece sound a little like Debussy.

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12

      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016