Saturday, 19 November 2011

Programme Notes

Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 2, No.3 — Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

i.   Allegro con brio, ii. Adagio, iii. Scherzo, allegro, iv. Allegro assai. 

This sonata, published in 1796, is the 3rd of Beethoven's published sonatas and bears a dedication to Franz Joseph Haydn. In July 1792 Haydn persuaded Elector Maximilian of Bonn to give Beethoven 2 years' leave so that he could study composition with Haydn in Vienna. In 1794 Haydn returned to London for his second visit leaving Beethoven in Vienna, no longer supported by the Elector but earning his own living, by playing, teaching and composing. (His Op. 1 trios, published in 1795, earned Beethoven enough money to support him for the best part of a year.)  Our Op. 2 sonata, 3rd in the set and the most virtuosic, is strongly Haydnesque (humorous, extrovert, classical, and rhythmically vigorous), yet it is clearly Beethovian also, thematically inventive, experimental in key changes and departures from sonata-form; and in expressing more emotion than Haydn. (You may hear an interesting discussion of the sonata by Andras Schiff at


7 Fantasien, Op. 116   ———   Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

In 1890, after writing his 2nd string quintet, the 57-year-old Brahms decided to give up composing. However, he soon resumed, writing (in his remaining 6 years) 4 works for clarinet, 4 sets of short piano pieces (Opp. 116 – 119), and some vocal music. He died in April 1897 (11 months after Clara Schumann). These later sets, like his earlier forays in the genre, may represent in some respects a backward glance at the integrated cycles of short piano pieces that were among Schumann's most characteristic works. Brahms' style is a lyrical, but carefully structured, romanticism; he avoids the 'flying trapeeze' virtuosity of Liszt, and the 'story-telling' romanticism of the Liszt/Wagner school. Though not himself polemical, Brahms was often put forward as the antithesis of Liszt/Wagner romanticism. Opus 116 (composed 1892) comes 13 years after his immediately preceding piano work – the 2 rhapsodies of Op.79. The Op.116 set is not so rich in tunes as either the earlier or the later sets; there is a slight tendency to wooden chords, and a quaint reliance on instructions to play with the "uttermost intimateness of feeling", or "sweetness". The  piano writing lies well under the hands – if you have very big hands. (The pieces end as often as not with a 10-note chord; literally 2 hands full.) Compared with Op. 79 there is much rhythmic innovation and complexity (notes across-the-barlines, 3-beats-against-2, etc.). It might be said that, with Op. 116, Brahms was exploring and developing a form he perfected in Opp. 117, and 118. It contains 7 pieces; the capriccios are fast and energetic, the intermezzi slower and more relaxed.

1. Capriccio — Presto energico (D minor);  2. Intermezzo — Andante (A minor); 3. Capriccio — Allegro passionato (G minor); 4. Intermezzo — Adagio (E major); 5. Intermezzo — Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento (E minor); 6. Intermezzo — Andantino teneramente (E major); 7. Capriccio — Allegro agitato (D minor)


Piano sonata No. 1 in B minor  —————  Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

The B minor sonata is considered by many to be Liszt's greatest work for solo piano, and is remarkable in his oeuvre in being 'pure music' (i.e. not programmatic, not depicting fountains, or runaway horses.) It was written in Weimar in 1852-3 where Liszt had retired from his peripatetic life as a virtuoso to concentrate on composition (at the urging of Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein with whom he spent the last 40 years of his life). It is dedicated to Robert Schumann, who had 16 years earlier dedicated his Op. 17 Fantasie to Liszt.  Though there are tempo markings and key changes indicating distinct sections, the 30 minute work is played as a single continuous whole. It is held together by its themes, of which there are 5 that recur in different forms — now heroic, now lyrical. Given the lifelong artistic antagonism between Brahms and Liszt, it is amusing to note that in May 1853 the 20 year old Brahms, touring with the violinist RemŽnyi  and fatigued from travelling, fell asleep while Liszt played through the barely completed and still unpublished B minor sonata. (The following year Liszt seems* unaccountably to have lost the manuscript of an early Brahms sonata for violin & piano which Brahms had left with him!) The dedication to Robert Schumann seems nowhere more relevant than in the final 20 bars, where the Lento assai sinks gradually into silence, for that calls to mind the similar ending of Schumann's Kinderszenen. This was not Liszt's original ending, as can be seen in the facsimile score (see: International Music Score Library Project) where a FF ending is crossed out in red ink and the PPP ending substituted; maybe when the Schumann dedication was decided upon. (In support of this suggestion, let me quote Liszt's letter* to Schumann, 5th June 1839 "As for the Scenes of Childhood, I owe to them one of the keenest joys of my life.....") (*La Mara's Letters)

(Programme notes complied from various sources by Ian West.)


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