Lukas Vondracek, piano
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI: 50
Haydn’s approximately 60 keyboard sonatas are almost unknown to general audiences, who are daunted by their sheer number and more readily drawn to the famous 19th-century piano sonatas that followed. Yet there is some very fine music here indeed. The Sonata in C Major is one of a set of three he composed in London in 1794 and dedicated to pianist Therese Jansen, presumably with her talents in mind. Everyone notes the full sonority of these sonatas, but this has been explained in different ways. Some believe that these sonatas consciously echo the sound of the series of grand symphonies Haydn was then writing for London orchestras. Others have felt that the brilliance of these sonatas is the best evidence of Therese Jansen’s abilities, while still others explain it as a sign that the English fortepianos were much more powerful than the instruments Haydn was used to in Vienna.
Whatever the reason, Haydn’s Sonata in C Major rings with a splendid sound. The opening Allegro is full of forthright energy. The initial pattern of three notes repeats throughout: it is sounded tentatively at first, then quickly repeated in full chords. Haydn plays this pattern out with great energy and brilliance across the span of a fairly lengthy movement (more than half the length of the entire sonata).
The central movement is an expressive Adagio in abbreviated sonata form whose main subject is built around the rolled chords heard at the very beginning. The concluding Allegro molto, barely two minutes long, is full of high comedy. It feels like a very fast waltz that starts and stops and modulates throughout, as if the composer cannot quite make up his mind how he wants it to go. Haydn of course knows exactly how he wants it to go, and this lurching, stumbling dance should leave us all laughing.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Just as Brahms’ "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" are not really based on a theme by Haydn, so Rachmaninoff’s "Variations on a Theme of Corelli" are not really based on a theme by Corelli. The haunting melody made famous by Corelli was already several hundred years old when he used it in his violin sonata, Opus 5, No. 12, subtitled "La Folia," of 1700. That tune appears to have originated in 15th-century Portugal. It was originally a fast dance in triple time and was danced so strenuously that the dancers seemed to have gone mad–the title 'folia' meant “mad” or “empty-headed” (it survives in our usage as “folly”). Over time, this dance slowed down and became the famous stately theme we know today, and as a basis for variations it has attracted many composers, Vivaldi, Marais, Bach, Lully, Geminiani, and Liszt among them.
Rachmaninoff composed his set of "Variations on a Theme of Corelli," his final work for solo piano, in Switzerland during the summer of 1931. Variation form seems to have been on Rachmaninoff’s mind during this period: his next work, composed three years later, was the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," a set of 24 variations for piano and orchestra on another quite famous theme. The "Corelli Variations" are extremely focused–Rachmaninoff offers twenty variations in the space of only 16 minutes. He opens with a straightforward statement of the theme in D minor (the key in which Corelli set his variations), and the variations proceed at different tempos and in different moods; something of the range of their variety can made out from Rachmaninoff’s markings: misterioso, scherzando, agitato, cantabile. An unusual feature of this set is that three of the variations (Nos. 11, 12, and 19) are marked as optional, and Rachmaninoff himself sometimes omitted various others during performances, depending on his mood. Following Variation 13, Rachmaninoff offers an unnumbered variation that he calls Intermezzo and which functions somewhat like a cadenza in a concerto. Full of mordents, arpeggiated chords, and unmeasured runs, it effectively blurs a sense of tonality, so that Variation 14–a return to the original tune, now in the key of D-flat Major–sounds chaste and pure. This and the following variation, marked dolcissimo, form a nocturne-like interlude before the vigorous final five variations. The ending is particularly effective. Rachmaninoff concludes not with a bravura display but with one further variation, which he marks simply Coda. This quiet Andante finally fades into silence on pianissimo D-minor chords.
Rachmaninoff dedicated the "Variations on a Theme of Corelli" to his good friend (and frequent recital partner), the violinist Fritz Kreisler.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Prokofiev liked to plan works far in advance, and in 1939–when he was 48–he projected a series of three piano sonatas, which would be his Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth. He completed the first of these in 1940, but then came catastrophe–Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, and Prokofiev’s plans were delayed and altered. Along with many other artists, he was evacuated, first to Nalchik in the Caucasus, then in the fall of 1941 to Tbilisi, near the border with Turkey. Here Prokofiev plunged into his project to compose an opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: the heroic Russian resistance to Napoleon became a parallel for the struggle against Nazi Germany. And at the same time he worked on the opera, Prokofiev found time to compose his Piano Sonata No. 7, completing the score in Tbilisi in April 1942. Young Sviatoslav Richter gave the first performance, in Moscow, on January 18, 1943.
Since the moment of that premiere, the Seventh has been acclaimed one of Prokofiev’s finest works. Almost inevitably, observers have claimed to hear the sound of war and national catastrophe in this music, but the composer himself made no direct connection, leaving such issues to his listeners. The first movement has the unusual marking Allegro inquieto, and unquiet this music certainly is. The opening section is quite percussive, and something of the music’s character can be understood from Prokofiev’s performance markings: tumultuoso, veloce, con brio, marcato, secco; at one point, he even requests that the performer make the piano sound quasi timpani. The pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy has compared this opening section to the sound of “drums beating and iron screeching,” which makes the second section all the more impressive. This is a singing and flowing Andantino, which Prokofiev marks espressivo e dolente (“grieving”); these two quite different kinds of music alternate before the movement comes to a quiet close.
The second movement also has an unusual marking, Andante caloroso (“warm”), and some have found the opening almost sentimental in its relaxed songfulness. This is soon disrupted by an agitated middle section; the violence fades away, but the gentle opening makes only the briefest and most tentative return before the close. The famous last movement is a blistering toccata, marked simply Precipitato (“precipitous”). This is extremely fast, set in the unusual meter 7/8, and unremittingly chordal in its textures. It is also extraordinarily difficult music (Vladimir Horowitz sometimes used this movement as an encore piece), and it forms an exciting conclusion to the sonata. Along the way, material from the opening movement makes a brief reappearance, but the chordal violence of this movement overpowers it and drives the sonata to its hammering close.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Six pieces for piano, Op. 118
Brahms had a curious relation with the piano. As a young man, he made his reputation as a virtuoso pianist and in those early years composed huge works in classical forms: of his first five published works, three are massive piano sonatas, all written before he was 21, and there are sets of variations from this period that rank among the most difficult piano music ever written. The composer–described in these years by a friend as “the young, heaven-storming Johannes”–seemed on the verge of creating a vast and heroic literature for solo piano. But then an unexpected thing happened: at age 32 Brahms simply stopped writing music for solo piano. Over the final three decades of his life, he returned to the genre only twice: in 1878-79, when he composed ten brief pieces, and at the very end of his life, when he wrote the twenty pieces that make up his Opp. 116, 117, 118, and 119.
The 20 pieces of these four final sets are all very brief (they may accurately be described as miniatures, for all last only a few minutes), and Brahms gave them a range of titles: capriccio, intermezzo, ballade, romance, and rhapsody. But these are general titles, and their use can seem arbitrary–Brahms himself did not distinguish carefully between them. Almost all are in ABA form: an opening theme, a countermelody usually in a contrasting tempo and mood, and a return to the opening material, which is always varied on its reappearance. This is intensely personal music, as if Brahms were distilling a lifetime of experience and musical refinement into these pieces as he returned one last time to his own instrument.
Brahms composed the six pieces of his Opus 118 in the years 1892-3 and published them under the utterly neutral title "Klavierstücke" (“piano pieces”) that makes clear that this is a gathering of six different pieces rather than a unified set. The sequence begins with two pieces he calls intermezzos. Brahms specifies that the Intermezzo in A minor should be molto appassionato, and passionate it certainly is, with the right-hand melody soaring over rolling accompaniment. The structure of this particular piece is unusual: rather than setting it in ternary form, Brahms repeats two separate sections, then allows the music to trail off to a quiet close. The Intermezzo in A Major is like a lullaby (Brahms’ marking is Andante teneramente: “tenderly”), and that gentle mood prevails throughout, though the center section is elaborate and varied before the subtle reintroduction of the opening material.
The thunderous beginning of the Ballade in G minor seems to bring back the world of “the young, heaven-storming Johannes,” who in fact had written a collection of four Ballades for piano at the age of 21. Now, at age 60, Brahms fuses that powerful earlier manner with a greatly refined technique. The Allegro energico opening moves easily into the gorgeous middle section in B Major; Brahms constantly reminds the pianist here to play dolce and espressivo. The return of the opening plunges briefly into a “wrong” key, but matters quickly recover, and the music pounds ahead with all its original strength.
Brahms gives the Intermezzo in F minor the marking Allegretto un poco agitato, and much of this music’s atmosphere of disquiet and agitation comes from Brahms’ blurring of meter. He sets this piece in 2/4 but then writes so continuously in triplets that the actual meter feels like 6/8; at points, the duple and triple pulses pull against each other as the music moves insistently forward. The Romance in F Major is built on a dignified chordal melody that makes its way with a disarming simplicity, but the real surprise comes in the center section, which Brahms marks Allegretto grazioso. He moves to D major here, and the music rocks along cheerfully.
The concluding Intermezzo in E-flat minor offers some of the bleakest–and most beautiful–music Brahms ever wrote. His marking is largo e mesto (“slow and sad”), and the pianist’s hands seem to inhabit different worlds at the beginning: the right hand has the spare melodic line while the left accompanies with quiet flurries of 32nd-note runs. The central section–staccato, muttering, dark–suddenly flares to power and incorporates the somber melody from the very beginning. Gradually Brahms returns to his opening material and draws the music to its stark conclusion on a slowly-arpeggiated E-flat minor chord.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)