Daniil Trifonov, piano
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19
Scriabin was a virtuoso pianist, finishing second only to Rachmaninoff when both left the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. Over the following several years, Scriabin made a series of ambitious concert tours through Western Europe, and though he had failed composition at the Conservatory, now he composed prolifically. The music from these early years is quite different from his late music, which is fired by mystic and theosophical ideas. The early piano pieces were heavily influenced by Chopin, as their titles suggest: Scriabin wrote preludes, waltzes, mazurkas, impromptus, and etudes, just as Chopin had earlier in the century.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 dates from the years immediately following Scriabin’s graduation. He wrote the first movement in 1892, but waited five years to add the second, and final, movement in 1897. Very brief (11 minutes long), this sonata has become a favorite of pianists–despite its extremely unusual key of G-sharp minor–and of audiences. The significance of the nickname “Sonata-Fantasy” is unclear, for these two movements conform to sonata form.
The Andante opens quietly with the main idea. The importance of triple rhythm in this sonata cannot be overstated: triplets seem to be sounding throughout. The second subject, a flowing idea in B major, leads to a development remarkable for its sudden eruptions: huge waves of sound seem to leap out of the piano’s deep register before the movement comes to its quiet close. Of this movement, Scriabin said: “The Second Sonata reflects the influence of the sea . . . the first movement represents the warm quiet of night on a seashore. The development section is the dark agitation of the deep, deep ocean. The E-major middle section shows caressing moonlight on water coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement represents the vast expanse of the ocean when it is stormy and agitated.”
The triplet rhythm that had been in the background through much of the Andante bursts to the fore in the Presto, with that rhythm hammering insistently through the opening. The heroic second theme, in E-flat minor, itself moves broadly over flowing triplets. The development is dramatic, though after the opening theme returns Scriabin prepares the surprise of the ending very carefully: the music grows quiet, with the triplets now only murmuring, and it is here that he wrenches the music to its sudden end with two sharp chords.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Sonata in B minor, S.178
Liszt wrote his Sonata in B minor in 1852-3 and dedicated it to Robert Schumann. The first public performance took place four years later in Berlin in 1857, when it was played by Liszt’s son-in-law Hans von Bülow. The Sonata in B minor is in all senses of the word a revolutionary work, for Liszt sets aside previous notions of sonata form and looks ahead to a new vision of what such a form might be. Schumann himself, then in serious mental decline, reportedly never heard the piece but could not have been especially comfortable with the dedication of a piece of music that flew so directly in the face of his own sense of what a sonata should be. Another figure in 19th-century music, however, reacted rapturously: Wagner wrote to Liszt to say, “The Sonata is beautiful beyond any conception, great, pleasing, profound and noble–it is sublime, just as you are yourself.”
The most immediately distinctive feature of the sonata is that it is in one movement instead of the traditional three. Beyond this, it is built not on long and distinct melodic themes but on short phrases. These phrases undergo a gradual but extensive development–a process Liszt called “the transformation of themes”–and are often made to perform quite varied functions as they undergo these transformations. Despite the one-movement structure, Liszt achieves something of the effect of the traditional three-movement form by giving the sonata a general fast-slow-fast shape. The entire sonata is built on just four brief theme-phrases: the slowly-descending scale heard at the very beginning; the leaping theme in octaves at the Allegro; a powerful theme over repeated eighth-notes marked Grandioso; and a lyric fourth phrase marked cantando expressivo, itself an expanded version of the martial repeated notes of the opening.
The Sonata in B minor is extremely dramatic music, so dramatic that many guessed that it must have a program, as so much of Liszt’s music does. But Liszt insisted that this is not descriptive or programmatic music. He wanted his sonata accepted as a piece of “pure music,” to be heard and understood for itself.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Preludes, Op. 28
As a small boy in Poland, Chopin fell in love with the keyboard music of Bach. Like Beethoven before him (and Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich after him), Chopin was particularly drawn to The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. Haunted by Bach’s achievement, Chopin wished to try something similar, and in 1836, shortly after completing his Etudes, Opus 25, he began to compose a series of short preludes, but it would take him three years to complete the entire set of 24. In the fall of 1838, Chopin sailed with George Sand to Mallorca, taking with him a number of Bach scores. On the island, living in an abandoned monastery high in a mountain village that was alternately bathed in Mediterranean sunlight and torn by freezing rainstorms, he completed the Preludes in January 1839; they were published in Paris later that year.
While certain scholars have heard echoes of Bach in the Preludes, this is very much the music of Chopin. And while these preludes do proceed through all the major and minor keys, Chopin does not write accompanying fugues, as Bach did: these are not preludes to anything larger, but are complete works in themselves. The entire set of 24 preludes lasts about 45 minutes, so these are concise essays in all the keys, and they encompass an enormous variety of technique, ranging from very easy preludes (played by every amateur pianist on the planet) to numbingly difficult ones, playable by only the most gifted performers. They cover an unusual expressive range as well, from the cheerful sunlight of some to the uneasy darkness of others.
Each prelude exists as an independent work and may be played separately, or the entire cycle may be played at once, revealing a full world of sharply contrasted moods and music. Rather than describing all 24 preludes in detail, it may be best to let listeners discover each for themselves. Some of the best-known are of course those accessible to non-professionals. These include No. 20 in C minor, inevitably nicknamed “Funeral March” (Chopin despised all such subjective titles and the effort to attach programs to pieces he wished to have considered solely as music). Also in this category are the graceful No. 7 in A Major (only 16 measures long) and No. 4 in E minor, which–however over-familiar it has become–remains some of the most expressive music ever written. At the other extreme are such preludes as No. 8 in F-sharp minor, with its nervous, driven quality, and No. 24 in D minor, full of bravura brilliance. Many have noted Chopin’s unusual use of repeated chords or notes throughout the set: the tolling sound of these chords is used for quite different expressive purposes in No. 15 in D-flat Major (nicknamed the “Raindrop” by George Sand, to Chopin’s exasperation), in No. 17 in A-flat Major, and in many others.
One of the particular pleasures of a performance of the complete Preludes is not just to hear each individual prelude, some of which pass by in a matter of seconds, but to experience the totality of the world Chopin creates in this set. It is a world of the most dazzling variety, by turns cheerful, dark, lyric, dramatic, friendly, and terrifying, all superbly disciplined within the tight compass of the 24 keys. Bach would have found much of this music strange, but he would instantly have understood Chopin’s achievement in it.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)