Works by Bach, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Liszt

Bach, French Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major, BWV 815


Written from 1722 to 1725, the French Suites are the second of Bach’s primary collections of keyboard dance music, composed between the English Suites (ca. 1715–1720) and the Partitas (1726–1730). Like the other suites, the French suites are structured in binary form and contain four principal dances—the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue—supplemented by additional dance movements (e.g., bourée, air, polonaise) at Bach’s discretion. However, in addition to being shorter, displaying less contrapuntal complexity, and requiring somewhat less digital dexterity than the English Suites and Partitas, the French Suites place greater stress on melodic expressiveness. Because of this latter quality, they may justly deserve the sobriquet “French,” possibly indicating their emulation of the French style (though this name was assigned to them after Bach’s death, and some have argued that their style is more Italian than French).

From the opening bars of the introductory allemande (literally “German dance”) of French Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, Bach’s emphasis on melodic design, rather than pure counterpoint, is apparent. The right hand insinuates a luxuriant cantilena duet, its two distinct lines functioning as soprano and alto voices in dialogue; the held tones serve to accentuate the progression of the harmonies. Meanwhile, the left hand is an accompaniment whose melodic direction mirrors the rises and falls in dynamics. The subtly arched phrases and moderate, stately tempo of this piece encapsulate the essence of the allemande as a relaxed yet serious dance.

In the courante (literally “running”), the tempo is brisker and the mood livelier. This particular courante is notable for its insistent triplets; copious ornaments; and the notation of its left-hand rhythm, which, though indicated as a dotted rhythm (dotted eighth followed by sixteenth), should be played as a triplet to align with the triplets in the right hand. Regarding this latter characteristic, two explanations have often been proposed: first, that in Bach’s day, notation had not adequately evolved to represent a quarter note plus eighth as part of a triplet, and second, that the length of the dot was open to interpretation during this period. Whatever the reason for the notation, it is important to convey the resolute nature of this courante by firmly accenting the first bass note in the triplet phrase.

The sarabande is a languid and reflective piece and seems a particularly salient example of the influence of the Italian bel canto on Bach’s style. The piece is structured rather like a nocturne, with a right-hand melody that sings over a relatively static bassline rhythm. Perhaps the sarabande’s most interesting feature is the rolled chords, which call to mind the strumming of a lyre. Subtle use of rubato is requisite to impart a sense of dreaminess and to capture the piece’s improvisatory character.

For his optional suite pieces, Bach chooses a gavotte, a minuet, and an air, all of which are a bit more lighthearted than the compulsory pieces. As the fourth piece in the set, the folksy gavotte provides a bit of comic relief after the contemplative sarabande. In tempo, it is roughly an allegretto; its offbeat rhythm, with slurred phrases that begin halfway through each measure, makes it a droll, almost tipsy, dance. The minuet, which does not appear in Bach’s autograph copy of the suite, is a slight piece, lasting under a minute. Nevertheless, it assertively states its case with majestic extended trills and craggy accents. To some, the title of the air, which is the French equivalent of the Italian term “aria,” might seem a misnomer as applied to the Bach suites. This particular air is in a moderately quick tempo, which initially may not seem to suit the modern conception of a melodic line sung by a soloist. The title makes good sense, however, when considered in the context of the tight coherence of the melodic phrases and the expressive use of sequences, both of which devices depend on a performer’s dynamic inflection and can be more easily elicited on the piano than on the harpsichord.

The spiky gigue is the highlight of the suite. Like most gigues, it is in ternary rhythm (the compound 6/8 meter in this instance); has a driving pulse, which should be emphasized in the accents on the first beat of each triplet grouping (and on the downbeat in the bass); and begins its second half by inverting the theme. The second half is also notable for its more fugal style. The extended trills in the right hand near the end of each half, which are devilishly difficult to synchronize with the sixteenths in the left hand, seem a foreshadowing of the extended trills that abounded in the classical-period sonatas of Mozart and Haydn.


Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, I: Allemande


Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, II: Courante

Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, III: Sarabande

Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, IV: Gavotte

Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, V: Minuet

Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, VI: Aria

Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815, VII: Gigue

Schubert, Sonata in D Major, D. 850 (“Gasteiner”)

Compared with the cycle of three sonatas that Schubert composed in his final weeks of life (the C minor, A major, and B-flat major sonatas, D. 958–960), which, along with the impromptus, are generally hailed as the pinnacle of Schubert’s solo keyboard works, the D major sonata, D. 850, is a relatively unheralded work. Strange, for it is a monumental achievement that seems an apt Schubertian response to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106. Composed in 1825 during Schubert’s stay at the mountain-valley town of Bad Gastein in Austria, the “Gasteiner” sonata brims with the strength, energy, and hopefulness of youth, despite having been written only three years before the composer’s final otherworldly works and untimely demise at the age of 31.

One of the Gasteiner’s most distinctive characteristics is its overall tempo. Both the first and third movements are marked allegro vivace, the final rondo is allegro moderato (and probably brisker than most movements designated as such), and even the second movement’s indication is con moto, a rare tempo direction compared with the more usual andante con moto—Schubert clearly wants to stress the piece’s greater forward momentum relative to most sonata “slow” movements. The faster tempos are one sign indicating Schubert’s intention that the work be interpreted more with devil-may-care abandonment than with the dulcet lyricism he so often employs. This is not to downplay the many exquisitely sculpted melodies that appear throughout, particularly in the con moto and the trio of the scherzo. However, Schubert’s overall musical vision with the Gasteiner is vaster and more aggressive than in most of his other works for the piano (perhaps only the Wanderer-Fantasie is a match for it in virtuosity and scope). In its heroism and grandiosity, it anticipates Liszt’s Mazeppa transcendental etude (though the Gasteiner’s musical content is, it goes without saying, far greater), evoking a full symphonic sound on the piano and drawing listeners into an epic adventure.

From the opening bars of the first movement, the most remarkable of the four, Schubert asserts his claim to greatness. The taut repeated chords bristle with tension in expectation of the triplets, which provide the piece’s fiery impetus. Particularly notable are the squalling crescendos in the double triplet passages that simulate an orchestra’s string section. With the secondary theme, Schubert mercurially shifts to a lilting dancelike tune, one of the few serene moments in the first movement. It sets the stage for the seven-bar interlude marked un poco più lento, one of the strangest passages in Schubert’s sonatas or, indeed, in any sonata from the classical or early romantic period. The sound of the perfect-fifth and widely spaced intervals, it has often been suggested, simulates a mountaineer’s yodel call (this would make sense given Schubert’s alpine surroundings at Bad Gastein). When the movement returns a tempo, the preceding dance theme is reintroduced in the left hand and is balanced against an undulating disjunct texture in the right hand. The triplets are incessant until the start of the development. An especial challenge for the performer is the unisono arpeggiations in both hands. Though the lunging, headlong effect of these arpeggiations is wonderfully original, pianistically it is one of many clumsily scored passages providing evidence that Schubert was not a virtuoso. The development of this movement, which unfolds in a particularly heroic fashion, combines elements of the arresting repeated chords and torrential triplets from the exposition. The ensuing modulations are highly experimental, even for Schubert. Starting in B-flat major, they proceed through a good many keys: B-flat major, F major, then A-flat major and B major, which leads to the parallel minor of B minor (and relative minor to the tonic key of D major) and C-sharp major before returning to D major and the recapitulation. The minor-key portion of the development is by far the most challenging passage in the sonata; in its massive sound and frenzied passagework in rising scale fragments and double-passage chromaticism, it is reminiscent of the Wanderer-Fantasie. In the coda, Schubert initially reprises the same clarion-like theme with which the development begins but marks it un poco più mosso to indicate that it is to be played faster and in a more agitated manner. The movement ends with a series of terse variations on prior subjects, the most arresting of which is the repeated duplet octaves: Schubert alters the duplet figuration slightly, using a quarter and dotted quarter plus three eighths as opposed to a half and four eighths. Because he repeats the figuration three times, the effect is one of great tension and anticipation. The rising scale fragments and a variation on the latter half of the development serve as a thrilling conclusion to one of Schubert’s most extroverted and martial sonata movements.

The second movement, a spacious and visionary work, contrasts Schubert’s usual intimate lyricism with a herculean vastness that has rarely been equaled by any composer before or since. Its sheer scope calls to mind a Wagnerian operatic overture. In structure, the movement is a simple ABAB with coda. The melodious A theme is accompanied by deep harmonies, the dotted rhythms and tight spacing resembling the andante movement from Schubert’s four-hand masterpiece, the sonata in C (the “Grand Duo”). In marked contrast, the B theme begins with aggressive prepossession, the density and depth of the chordal texture seeming to augur Rachmaninoff’s B-flat major prelude from op. 23. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the entire sonata is the B section’s ethereal pianissimo double notes that tranquilly float like a mist outside the gates of heaven while the bass quietly rocks in a pacific, wave-like motion. After a series of eerily dissonant chordal modulations, theme A reappears in a pixieish variation, transferring the melody to the left hand and exploiting the piano’s upper register while the right hand capriciously skips. The frequent syncopations and thirty-seconds contribute to an illusion of a higher speed, creating a sense of urgency that prevails until the sonorous chords that introduce the coda. In the coda, Schubert brilliantly meshes the A-theme melody with an accompaniment drawn from the aforementioned chords; the huge spacings elicit a feeling of valedictory triumph. The very last bars, to be played in a smorzando, are a tranquil permutation of the primary theme, a wistful, trailing conclusion that is characteristically Schubertian.

For those who believe that Schubert was little more than an effete composer of pleasant tunes, the third movement should bring them back to reality. More than any other of the four movements, this movement, the longest of Schubert’s sonata scherzos, reveals Schubert’s consummate understanding of the masculine-feminine dichotomy in music. The impetuous dotted rhythms, which dominate the outer sections, are juxtaposed against fey and flighty triplets. In the second half of the scherzo portion, Schubert retains the dotted rhythms but completely alters the mood, using a Viennese waltz-like motif. After the headlong downward plunge of dotted-rhythm thirds that is Beethovenien in its aggression, the emergence of this charming dance motif represents an antipodal contrast whose transition is as natural and graceful as it is arresting. The rhythm of the noble G major trio section, in sharp contrast to the scherzo, is fairly simple, almost hymnlike. Like a Bach chorale, it evokes a mood of pious reverence and speaks with great nobility of spirit, especially the lofty crescendos in the modulatory contrary-motion chords. As is typical of a scherzo, the second half repeats the original thematic material da capo. However, for the coda, Schubert reprises the Viennese waltz theme in the tonic key of D major rather than the F major version that had appeared earlier. Whispering chords conclude the movement.

Compared with the previous movements, the concluding rondo at first seems slightly out of place, yet its playful, elegant sound is a welcome relief after the dramatics of the first three movements. In form, it is a fairly standard ABACA rondo. The A theme is a carefree, gregarious dance tinged with mischief; the dotted rhythms in the right-hand melody should, in this pianist’s opinion, be played with spritely caprice. In the B theme, the metrical pulse seems to significantly quicken, as the rhythm switches from a bouncing quarter-note beat to a steady stream of sixteenths. The teasing scale passages give this section a wayward air. The melody in the G major section, marked un poco più lento, is generally sanguine in outlook but contains a hint of lament. A few tempestuous squalls break out as well. The end of this movement stands in marked contrast to the heaven-storming quality of the previous movements. After an extended variation on theme A that flits with elfin grace, the closing statement of the entire sonata is like a puff of smoke vanishing into the wind. We don’t hear the chordal bang or virtuosic fireworks that we might expect from a sonata that declared itself so assertively at the outset. It is a captivating conclusion to a titanic work that captures so many of the joys and tribulations associated with the human condition.

Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D. 850, I: Allegro Vivace


Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D. 850, II: Con Moto


Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D. 850, III: ScherzoAllegro Vivace

Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D. 850, IV: RondoAllegro Moderato

Mendelssohn, Three Songs Without Words, Op. 19

As the most remarkable child prodigy since Mozart, Mendelssohn was likewise equally facile as both a pianist and composer, though he lacked the transcendent artistry of his even more precocious forerunner. Nevertheless, while Mendelssohn’s keyboard style sometimes indulges in a bit of schmaltz, the charming elegance of his glittering filigree and long-lined, aria-like melodies makes for a pleasing listening experience. Like Liszt, Mendelssohn also wrote wonderfully klaviermässig music, so it is excellent study for exploiting the piano’s unique resources. Although Mendelssohn wrote a number of preludes and fugues and etudes for the piano as well as several sonatas, many incidental pieces, and the frequently performed Variations Sérieuses, he is probably best remembered for his 48 Songs Without Words, written in eight volumes of six pieces each. The three pieces on this disc, all from the early op. 19 set, rank among his most satisfying compositions for solo piano.

No. 1 in the set in E major is a sweetly nostalgic melody balanced over a slowly undulating accompaniment split between both hands. With respect to this technical feature, as well as its earnest reflection on the innocence of childhood, it resembles Schumann’s Of Strange Lands and Peoples, the first piece in the Kinderszenen. To the more jaded listener, some of the phrases and climaxes of this Mendelssohnian bauble might seem a bit purple at times, but it is rare to find melodies of more immediate appeal.

The aptly nicknamed “Hunting Song” (op. 19, no. 3) is one of Mendelssohn’s most compelling pianistic effects. With its quick pulse, taut dotted rhythms, and pointed staccati, it vividly portrays the impetuous excitement of the hunt. Harmonically, the open sound of the fifths functions as a horn-call that heralds the chase.

The last piece is one of many “Venetian Boat Songs” that Mendelssohn scattered throughout the Songs Without Words. This particular one, in G minor, is one of the composer’s most pensive and poignant melodies, almost lugubrious in tone. In addition to the richly textured melody, with many thirds and sixths in the right hand, the piece displays a subtle dialogic counterpoint between the treble and bass. Perhaps the most notable part of the piece is the ending, in which the opening melodic theme is reprised as an echo, like a gondola that becomes enveloped in night’s cover after moonlight is obstructed by the clouds.


Mendelssohn: Six Songs Without Words, Op. 19, I: Andante con Moto in E Major

Mendelssohn: Six Songs Without Words, Op. 19, III: Molto Allegro e Vivace in A Major

Mendelssohn: Six Songs Without Words, Op. 19, VI: Andante Sostenuto in G Minor

Liszt, Three Pieces From the First Year of Années de Pèlerinage

As a whole, Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage is arguably his greatest single work and remains one of the very greatest collections of character pieces for solo piano, perhaps only rivaled by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann’s Carnaval and Kreisleriana. While the formal structure and uniqueness of Liszt’s pianistic chef d’oeuvre may not be on quite a par with these others, in no other work have the capabilities of the piano been so expertly exploited. Indeed, Liszt’s experimentations with pianistic sonority would pave the way for the Impressionists, notably the French school of Ravel and Debussy, as well as for such iconic nationalists as Scriabin, Bartok, and Granados.

Of the three years, the première année of the Années de pèlerinage is doubtless the most important and cohesive set, detailing specific destinations on a wayfarer’s travels throughout Switzerland. Featured in the première année are scenes as diverse as pastoral landscapes, flowing water, grand architecture, a violent thunderstorm, and the sound of distant bells. The three selections on this disc are a sampling from this array of images.

The first, the Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, has all the hallmarks of Lisztian grandiloquence, loudly proclaiming from its very first bars the magnificence of the structure it is depicting. The weighty introductory section, marked lento, establishes a tone of awe at the sight of the chapel’s majesty. In the middle section, the dissonances, the agitation of the tremolos, the whole-tone interval in the octave leaps, and the dotted rhythms of the piercing clarion-call melody are Liszt’s way of heightening the feeling of angst that confrontation with the sublime can engender in the onlooker. Reverting back to the C major tonic at the end, there is a confident swagger, reflected in the stately rolled chords. The work concludes in a theatrical gesture of triumph, with openly spaced fortissimo chords in dotted rhythm.

One of the best-known pieces in the entire Années de pèlerinage is the beautifully limpid Au bord d’une source (No. 4), an evocation of flowing water near a river source. Despite its transparent sound and tranquil subject, it is also one of the most challenging pieces in the cycle and, unlike much of Liszt’s piano music, is more difficult than it sounds. Its tricky passagework includes crossovers, numerous treacherous leaps, and virtuoso filigree containing double-note patterns. Difficulty aside, it is one of Liszt’s most distinctive compositions, a work that nearly perfectly exemplifies what he did best as a composer—painting an image for the mind through the immediacy of sound.

The Églogue, the seventh piece in the première année, is doubtless based on a reading of the Roman poet Virgil’s pastoral poems. It is a more introverted and intimate piece than is typical with Liszt, perhaps intended to depict a shepherd in reverie. The melody has a flutelike sound that calls to mind the Pied Piper enchanting the animals.

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, I: Chapelle de Guillaume Tell

 Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, IV: Au Bord d'Une Source


 Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, VII: Églogue      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016