Allegro con brio [18'41]
Romanza: Larghetto [10'25]
Danza festiva: Presto [5'16]
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The performances on this CD were recorded during Virtuoso Romantics, a series of concerts celebrating the Golden Age of piano playing, devised by Ates Orga and given by Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall, London, in June 1994, under the auspices of the Canadian High Commission and the Délégation Générale du Québec, London.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Chopin completed the E minor between April and 21 August 1830, dedicating it to Friedrich Kalkbrenner, the German pianist/composer. Lyricism embodied, its Larghetto—a movement of cantabile pianism wherein we find Chopin translating the ordinary words of others (Hummel, the B minor Concerto) into a language poetically supple, at once delicately his own—is haunted by the image of a young soprano, Konstancja Gladkowska, whom Chopin had first met at the Warsaw Conservatoire in 1826: ‘It is not meant to be loud—it’s more of a romance, quiet, melancholic; it should give the impression of gazing tenderly at a place which brings to mind a thousand dear memories. It’s a sort of meditation in beautiful spring weather but by moonlight’ (letter to his friend Titus Woyciechowski, 15 May 1830).
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)
A Jovian manifesto of keyboard technique, resource and invention, the Trois Grandes Études, in spite of their late opus number, are an early creation. Contemporary with the first version of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini, they date from around 1838–40, well before either the compendious Grande Sonate or the exacting twenty-four Studies in major (Op 35) and minor (Op 39) keys. Ronald Smith claims that they ‘alone establish Alkan as the rival, if not indeed the peer, of Liszt as the joint architect of transcendental piano technique’. And in Vol II of his Alkan study (Kahn & Averill, 1987) he rightly draws attention to their extraordinary ‘single-handed challenge’ creating ‘a sense of strife; of grappling with odds. The writing of Bach, Paganini and Ysaÿe for unaccompanied strings’, he says, ‘provides the closest parallel. It also imposes momentary rubati and concentrates the right foot in a highly specialised way by training the ear to judge the precise tolerance of pedal-held sound compatible with clarity of texture’. From Liszt and Thalberg to Busoni and Sorabji, there is nothing like them in the repertory.
A magical world of sounds, cadences and dreams is the domain of the first Étude—structurally comprised of a prologue, a linking speeded-up variant, and a variation finale of ‘prancing counterpoints [that] are in themselves self-developing’ (Smith). Busoni played it in Berlin in 1908. Ravel, too, knew it.
Classically disciplined, romantically incandescent, and long (despite the present performance being around seven minutes shorter than Smith’s June 1987 Abbey Road recording), the massive second Étude takes the right hand to stratospheric summits of experience. No puissance course of more testing endurance can be imagined. Its sonic illusion, all-embracing register and dynamic scale, its awesome physical demand involving not just hand but body and feet, is not for the faint-hearted.
From jump steeplechase to flat sprint, from separate to united hands, is the quantum leap of the third Étude, a presto of terrifying muscular and psychological adjustment. If the date of 1838 in Ronald Smith’s text is correct one wonders if Chopin may have had its hurtling monodic piano and hairpinned vision in mind when he came to compose the finale of his ‘Funeral March’ Sonata a year later? Alkan was a close friend (in the 1840s becoming a next door neighbour in the Square d’Orléans) to whom Chopin subsequently passed on his pupils. And the Pole had been one of the undaunted piano players in Alkan’s eight-hand arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony played at a concert in Paris on 3 March 1838. Such unsettling associations (consider how Liszt seems to have based the characterization and incident of his B minor Sonata on the ‘Quasi Faust’ movement of the Grande Sonate) riddle the Alkan enigma.
Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)
Thought of as early as 1917 and first played publicly by the composer in Wigmore Hall on 22 June 1920, the last of Busoni’s six Sonatinas—dedicated to Leonhard Tauber, old family friend and wealthy Parisian hotelier—was completed in March 1920. Busoni loved Paris, if not all its residents: ‘It is like a homecoming for me … to find life on the grand scale again … Here one is not asssessed according to one’s age or how much one spends, whether one is seen in the company of a lady or climbing into an automobile’ … ‘The golden light of these spring days has had an irresistible magic. The South vibrates in the air. And yet the indifferent faces of everybody one meets contrast unpleasantly with these palmy days. Truly: one could scarcely find less agreeable people anywhere’ (from letters to his pupil Philipp Jarnach, 10 & 22 March 1920).
Opening brightly in A major but closing darkly (and quietly) in the minor, the sixth Sonatina pays homage to Liszt—Busoni’s omega of the piano (to Bach’s alpha). Thematically, it is derived from (a) the opening chorus of Act III, Part ii, Allegro deciso; (b) Don José’s ‘Flower Song’, Act II, Andante con amore; (c) the Act I Habanera in its minor and major forms (here reversed), Allegretto tranquillo; and (d) the bustling ‘Arena’ Prelude to Act I Allegro ritenuto quasi Tromba (preceded by a related transition, Tempestoso). The last page, Andante visionario, plummeting a tonal world from F sharp (major/minor) to A minor, elegiacally combines the augmented-second exoticism of the gipsy Carmen’s ‘Fate’ motive with the chromatic descent of the Habanera.
Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951)
Ates Orga © 1994