Friday, February 4, 2011
Heaven and Hell: A Year of Liszt
Daniel Wnukowski, piano
Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38
The ballades are among the most dramatic and finest works of Chopin. The nineteenth century critics were notorious for propagating the idea that all music from this period must have somehow been derived from literary or programmatic associations. Most notably, Robert Schumann proclaimed that the ballades may have been directly inspired by the Lithuanian ballads of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. These literary connections are certainly very interesting but can lose touch with the core essence of Chopin’s genius; that the ballads are in fact worlds of their own combining traditional forms with poetic expressions and heightened musical nuances.
The second ballade begins with a serene and peaceful chorale and is starkly contrasted with an alternating theme marked “Presto con fuoco”. Rubinstein interpreted this piece as “Flower-Storm-Flower”, with the Flower broken at the end.
Trois grandes valses brillantes, Op. 34
Frédéric Chopin’s waltzes are pieces of moderate length adhering to the traditional 3/4 waltz time, but are remarkably different from the earlier Viennese waltzes in that they were not designed for dancing but for concert performance. The first waltz in A flat major is a lively-spirited and individualized recreation of the Viennese waltz. The waltz remains highly energetic and witty throughout and begins with a short introduction composed of rising chromatic chords.
The second waltz is strikingly different as it portrays a sense of nostalgic languor. The mood remains quiet, soft and melancholic throughout the entire piece, except for a short episode in the A major key which is immediately echoed in the minor key representing bittersweet tears and a sense of banished hope.
The third waltz is the shortest in duration but also the most lively and virtuosic of the three. The middle section is particulary humorous, featuring dissonant harmonies immediately resolved by a series of grace notes sweeping themselves up and down the keyboard.
Masks, Op. 34
We have all put on masks at various times in our lives, whether it was to protect ourselves, to impress others or simply for the thrill and adventure of acting out one’s favorite hero or heroine. In fact, Mozart was said to have worn the mask of Don Juan throughout his life, as was evident in his flirtations with members of the opposite sex and even more so in his groundbreaking opera “Don Giovanni”.
Written in 1915-1916, these highly contrasted and dramatic works explore the unique elements of Orientalism and Spanish culture. Szymanowski conceived these works as a ‘triptych’, which stem from the altar paintings of the middle ages in which three carved panels were hinged and folded together while the ‘masked’ characters themselves were described by the composer as “supposedly a parody” in a letter he wrote to his friend Stefan Speiss. The complex nature of the various ‘masked’ characters and their agitated confrontation with the outside world are the binding thread within these works.
Our first character, Scheherazade, is loosely based on the tale of One Thousand and One Nights and begins with some of the most sensual harmonies ever composed for the piano.
The second character, Tantris the Clown, comes from the romantic tale of Tristan und Isolde. Tantris is a wounded stranger who poses as Tristan. Isolde attempts to kill him upon finding out the truth of his identity but something peculiar about the look in his eyes prevents her from doing so. Perhaps Szymanowski was also influenced by the masked characters of Commedia dell’Arte, the supposed ancestors of our modern clown? The piece consistently vacillates between the grotesque sarcasm and irony of Tantris and the feminine ideals of beauty found in Isolde.
The final piece, Serenade de Don Juan, is a melodramatic portrayal of history’s most legendary womanizer and libertine. After a substantial introduction which displays an exciting array of Spanish colors and flavor, Don Juan’s playful theme marked “Vivace” is played as a series of triplets with a series of broken chords in the background representing a strummed guitar.
Petrarcan Sonnet No. 2 in E major
The entire second half of tonight’s recital is dedicated to the works of Franz Liszt as we celebrate the composer’s 200th birthday. An attempt will be made to unveil a few of the masks he wore throughout his life ranging from a heavenly poet such as Petrarca to the demonic Mephistopheles.
This piece is based on Petrarca’s Sonnet No. 104, which is a poem about love, although this is not immediately apparent from its title, “Pace non trovo, e non da far guerra” (Peace I Cannot Find, Yet War I Cannot Wage). The theme is based upon a restrained, even hesitant melody, in which Liszt’s music surges forth passionately, taking its cues from such lines as “Death and life are equally hard to bear; This is what you, my mistress, have done to me!”
In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi and Sancta Dorothea
These two short pieces were written towards the end of Liszt’s life as he became more and more religious in complete contradiction to the indulgent personal life he had led in the past. He began to instill a greater economy of notes into his works and filled them with a sense of spiritual devotion and humble piety.
In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi begins with a recurring motive of three dark octaves in the bass register of the piano. A series of fluid arpeggios then lift the body of the work up into the high registers of the keyboard, symbolizing the ressurection of a soul into heaven.
Sancta Dorothea is in the same spirit as the former work, but uses a series of flowing triplets to evoke virginal simplicity and a mood of calm serenity. The harmonies become richer and more complex as the piece progresses, only to settle into a heavenly chorale.
Après une lecture de Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata)
The theme of “heaven and hell” is most evident in the final work of tonight’s program – a single movement fantasy in sonata form written during Liszt’s adventurous travels throughout Italy. This work was inspired by a reading of Dante Alighieri’s most famous epic poem, The Divine Comedy. It is highly programmatic music, where the first few notes of the piece already create a strong dissonance depicting anguished souls descending into hell.
The Dante Sonata is composed of two contrasting themes. The highly chromatic first theme in D minor symbolizes the weeping of the dead in hell. The second is in the heavenly key of F sharp major symbolizing heavenly beatitude.
Program notes by Daniel Wnukowski