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Piano Sonata in E flat minor, Op 21

'Paderewski: Piano Sonata & Variations' (CDA67562)
Paderewski: Piano Sonata & Variations
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Movement 1: Allegro con fuoco
Movement 2: Andante ma non troppo
Movement 3: Allegro vivace

Piano Sonata in E flat minor, Op 21
It is fair to assume that with the Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op 21 (1887–1903) Paderewski was laying claim to belong to the line of pianists who also composed in large-scale musical forms. By this stage in his career his pianistic reputation was colossal, but he was exhausted by touring and needed to set himself new goals. 1903 was the year not only of the Piano Sonata, but also of the Variations and Fugue Op 23 and of the initial sketches of the ‘Polonia’ Symphony. As he commented in his memoirs: ‘In 1903 I remained almost the entire year at Morges [in Switzerland, where Paderewski owned a palatial home], and began to compose. First of all I wrote my Piano Sonata, which is one of my most important and best works. But it is extremely difficult and for that reason will never be very popular.’

The Piano Sonata opens powerfully, with two important motivic ideas: a rising scale answered by a dipping idea, both of which emphasize a chromatic A natural, not part of the movement’s home key of E flat minor. This initial contradiction symbolizes the turbulent character of what follows. While the movement follows the general outlines of sonata structure, it does so by almost completely avoiding any confirmation of the tonic key. Within a few seconds of the opening flourishes, Paderewski launches into a restless sequence of statements of a short melodic idea, none of them in E flat minor. Already, Paderewski’s world embraces not only Chopin and Liszt but also Grieg. After a molto agitato section, the second subject (in B flat minor) is introduced, another rising scale which though marked con passione is gentle in tone. It is a wonderful example of Paderewski’s melodic style; the texture is simple but affecting. It quickly gives rise to more flamboyant gestures before the exposition ends in the conventional relative major (G flat) with repetitions of an unusual chordal idea. The comparatively short development explores all the principal ideas of the movement through both canonic imitation and modulations, even seeming to make a passing reference to the opening of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The recapitulation follows a familiar path until it unexpectedly dissolves into trills and semiquavers. This is the prelude to the return of the second subject, an occasion which marks the first—and magical—confirmation of the tonic key. True to form, Paderewski soon moves on and the coda, which involves further canonic imitation of the opening two motifs, concludes with an unconventional cadence in E flat minor.

The second movement has the air of a song without words. The opening harmonies—a linking of an augmented triad with a chord some distance from the movement’s home key of G flat major—recall the advanced harmonic thinking of Wagner or Wolf. Paderewski, however, soon returns to more traditional harmonic and tonal patterns with the main theme, marked teneramente, recalling the idiom of his exact contemporary Edward MacDowell (links with Rachmaninov may also be heard). This movement, too, ends with a sidelong cadence. This is deliberate, because the finale follows immediately by repeating the penultimate chord from the Andante before launching into a brilliant toccata.

The finale bears out the composer’s assertion of technical difficulty as it demands the highest level of clarity and dexterity in the persistent semiquaver figurations. The main theme’s intimate relation to the opening of the first movement underlines Paderewski’s embrace of cyclic thematicism. As the finale unfurls, his kinship with Rachmaninov is further enforced. Towards the end of the exposition the main motif is given in sixths, and this presages the theme of the substantial fugal section which acts as the development. Paderewski’s fugal writing again follows precedent, with Brahms perhaps the closest model. The return of this theme in sixths at the end of the recapitulation heralds the Presto coda where the home key of E flat minor is finally allowed to assert itself (with a last-second allusion to the Sonata’s main theme), bringing to an end a powerful work in which the journey has always been more important than the arrival.

from notes by Adrian Thomas © 2007

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