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Classical and Romantic Hamelin

28 July, 2021

Oeuvres

Artistes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantaisia No. 4 in C minor, K. 475
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457

Frédéric Chopin
Preludes, op. 28

WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART (1756-1791)

Fantasia in C minor, K.475

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457

I. Allegro

II. Adagio

III. Molto allegro

Mozart entered this Fantasy in his catalogue on May 20, 1785. It was published together with the Sonata in C minor, K. 457 of the previous year by the Viennese firm of Artaria in December. The two works are often played in tandem, and share much of their emotional tone and daring harmonic language. Both were dedicated to Mozart’s pupil Therese von Trattner, wife of the book publisher in whose home the composer was staying at the time. This is one of Mozart’s most extraordinary works for solo piano. Within its thirteen minutes, he takes us across a small cosmos of emotional states, ranging from gentle musing to fiercely dramatic outbursts that must have given Beethoven an idea or two. There are five connected, contrasting sections, of which the last is a varied repeat of the first.

Of Mozart’s nineteen piano sonatas, only two are in a minor key, the one in A minor, K. 310, and the one on this program. It is highly tempting to imagine that the emotional intensity and defiant spirit of this sonata’s outer movements are a direct influence of Beethoven, except that this sonata predates comparable music of Beethoven by about twenty years. Right from the opening subject  ̶  not really a theme, but rather a motif eminently fit for development, just as Beethoven might have done  ̶  we are plunged into a troubled world of heightened expressivity and dark powers. Even the movement’s lyrical moments retain that air of urgency and restlessness. It is in sonata-allegro form, though with a few twists. The Adagio is one of the most rhapsodic and highly ornamented movements Mozart ever wrote for keyboard. Though in simple ternary form (A-B-A), each time the main theme returns, it is ornamented differently, much as an opera singer might embellish repeats in an aria. The rondo finale returns to the troubled world of the first movement. Invoking Beethoven once again, we note the frequent use of expressive silence (a trait found especially in late Beethoven), each instance of which Charles Suttoni refers to as “a void, a deadly pause of frustration.”

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810-1849)

24 Preludes, Op. 28

 

Aside from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28 are surely the most famous group of pieces conceived as an orderly traversal of the 24 major and minor keys. The Bach connection is borne out in biographer James Huneker’s remark that Chopin was “one of the most daring harmonists since Bach.” Franz Liszt, always one to recognize the bold innovations of genius, praised the Preludes as “admirable in their diversity. … Everything is full of spontaneity, élan, bounce. They have the free and great features that characterize the works of genius.”

Liszt had another kind of involvement with the Preludes, for it was he who had introduced Chopin to the French novelist George Sand (pen name of Aurore Dudevant). During the summer of 1838, Chopin became romantically involved with her. Together they sought a warmer climate for reasons of health (Chopin already had the disease that would eventually kill him years later, tuberculosis), going from Paris south to the island of Majorca in October. Here Chopin finished his “holiday task,” the Preludes, which he had been working on throughout the year. Each of these 24 cameos, these “moods in miniature,” inhabits a private world of its own, from the feverish energy of the first through melancholy, joy, poignancy, gravity, austerity, beauty and much more, to the final piece full of noble pathos.

 

Prelude No. 1, like the first of Bach’s well-tempered preludes (and fugues), begins in C major. Though it is “not Bachian,” writes James Huneker, “it could have been written by no one but a devout Bach student. The pulsating, passionate, agitated, feverish, hasty qualities of the piece are modern; so is the changeful modulation.”

No. 2 has a doleful, even forlorn air to it, with an accompaniment more memorable than its melody.

No. 3 provides the perfect antidote for No. 2, all bubbling joy and rippling elegance.

No. 4 has the character of a sad poem. To Moritz Karasowski, it is a “real gem, and alone would immortalize the name of Chopin as a poet.”  Like No. 2, its harmony is more interesting than its melody.

No. 5 is an “iridescent web” (Huneker) of sound, all texture and harmony with Chopin in his sunniest mood.

No. 6 is one of the pieces every young student learns to play, often without realizing that the traditional roles of right and left hand are reversed, and that the accompaniment pattern might well have earned it the nickname “Raindrop” Prelude, had not No. 15 claimed that title first.

No. 7 is simplicity itself (another “easy” student number), a quasi-mazurka that makes its point in just two tiny sentences of four phrases each.

No. 8 is one of the longer preludes, but its texture remains constant from beginning to end. It is a three-layered affair, with the middle one most prominent (long-short), a non-stop flurry of even thirty-second notes in the uppermost level, and an equally unvarying series of three shorts and a long in the bass. A lesser composer might quickly have induced aural fatigue with such a formula; Chopin sustains interest with his sophisticated harmony and dynamic control.

No. 9 too has a three-layered texture, this time to organ-like sonorities in the grand manner.  It is the shortest of the Preludes in number of measures (twelve) though not in duration.

No. 10 conjures up a fantasy world of elfin agility and scintillating flashes. Despite the minor mode, it bespeaks joy and effervescent sensibility.

No. 11 has been described by Chopin’s contemporary Ignaz Moscheles as follows: “The ad libitum playing, which in the hands of other interpreters of his music degenerates into a constant uncertainty of rhythm, is with him an element of exquisite originality.”

No. 12 is also an etude, an exercise to develop the fluency of the fourth and fifth fingers, which play much of the urgent and restless upper line.

No. 13 is by contrast gentle and lovely, more like a nocturne and exuding the quality of pastoral mountain air. It is one of the few preludes with a middle section.

No. 14, in E-flat minor, might appear at a quick glance to be a page from the finale of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, a flurry of incessant legato triplets played at lightning speed with bulging dynamics ranging from piano to fortissimo.

No. 15 is the famous “Raindrop” Prelude, but the piece needs no program. It is by far the longest of the preludes and could easily qualify as a nocturne. The central episode turns dark and lugubrious, rising twice to a fortissimo climax; the second is followed by the return of the beatific opening.

No. 16 is not the only prelude to last but a minute (at least seven qualify, give or take a few seconds), but its furious dash and virtuosic flair, its “perilous acclivities and sudden treacherous descents” (Huneker) render it eminently suitable for a nickname of some sort.

No. 17 is one of the few preludes that can be called a truly substantial piece. It is also suave, tranquil, and concludes with eleven (not twelve!) well-spaced peals of a deep bell on the final page as the music dies away to inaudibility.

No. 18 is one of the strangest. To critic Irving Kolodin, it tries several times to become airborne but fails. It has an air of dramatic recitative about it, and near the end incorporates some of the most powerful sounds in all the Preludes.

No. 19 is to be played both vivace and legato. For Huneker, this represents Chopin “the necromancer, ever invoking phantoms, but with its whirring melody and furtive caprice this particular shape is an alluring one.”

No. 20 consists of all of thirteen measures, but the wide spacing of its five- and six-note chords give it an almost symphonic breadth of sound. Also unusual is its overall dynamic shape, which brings it in increments steadily from fortissimo down to pianissimo. If names were being passed out, this one might well qualify as the “Funeral March” Prelude.

No. 21 boasts an enchanting melody and an accompaniment figuration of inventive charm which by the end comes to dominate this nocturne-like prelude.

No. 22 is an etude in all but name for the left hand, which  plays continuous, thundering octaves. Nevertheless, these must sound fluid and lyrical despite the molto agitato direction at the beginning.

No. 23 is described by Kolodin as “a lyric flight,” an “airy web of sound” and having “the lightness of silk and the strength of spun steel.”

No. 24 brings the cycle to a memorable close with music of maniacal fury and towering strength. The six-octave plummet at the end to three, clangorous fortississimo Ds is the equivalent of a modern-day bungee jump.

 

Notes de programme by Robert Markow