Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mark Markham and Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata

Mark Markham
Who: Mark Markham, pianist
What: Four works each by Scriabin, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff on the first half; and Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor on the second
When: Wednesday (March 21st, 2018), at 8pm THURSDAY 3-22
Where: Whitaker Center, 222 Market Street in downtown Harrisburg (parking available in the connecting Walnut Street Garage, between 3rd and 2nd Streets)
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.

Franz Liszt's sole piano sonata has a daunting reputation as one of the most challenging works in the entire solo piano repertoire - which is not necessarily the same thing as the most difficult to play. Yes, it's about a half-hour of continuous music making demands on a performer's stamina and concentration, music that is at times demanding and virtuosic, and even in its lyrical, contemplative contrasts, a challenge to keep under control. But it can also be a challenge just to figure out, to make sense of it all - and this post will do a little delving into what's behind one of the great works of the 19th Century.

(You can read the previous post about the works on the first half of the program here.)

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It's always fascinating to find out how a musician you're going to listen to got started in music – listening to Elvis Presley on a 45rpm then “banging away on an electric keyboard” at 4 until, at 8, he announced he wanted a piano and wanted to take lessons. It's possible he could've grown up in Pensacola, FL, like any number of children taking piano lessons from mediocre teachers if there hadn't been someone who “saved” him until he became good enough to be heard by Ann Schein when he was 16 and who, when he started studying with her later, in “ a very intense decade [during which] she taught him style, real style, and continuity with tradition,” he would begin a 20-year collaboration with the great soprano Jessye Norman.

He does not believe in “specializing” – being an “accompanist” is often a niche one has difficulty breaking out of – and he shows that in five days in Central PA as a concerto soloist with the Harrisburg Symphony this past weekend, playing Ravel's jazzy G Major Concerto, as a teacher offering two master classes at Messiah College – Monday's for vocalists (as a collaborative pianist working with singers, he has also taught as a vocal coach at Peabody) at 5pm, and Tuesday's for pianists beginning at 4pm; and finally as a recitalist playing solo repertoire of the Great Romantic Tradition – Rachmaninoff and Scriabin and Debussy, and one of the cornerstones of the 19th Century piano repertoire, Franz Liszt.

Speaking of “tradition,” the Baltimore Sun said his performance of Liszt's Sonata was a “profoundly musical return to the grand manner in which Liszt’s b minor Sonata used to be played.”

(You can read an in-depth article about Mark Markham, here.)

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Franz Liszt in 1858
If you're not familiar with “The Liszt Sonata” and its monolithic overtones – I've already referred to it as a cornerstone, a giant, a monster of the repertoire and described it as “epic” among other choice adjectives – what's the deal? And what about the “traditions” that come with it, like so much baggage every performer has to contend with?

There are longer pieces – Liszt's lone sonata may take about 30-35 minutes to play, but some crank it up to 25 minutes and, on the other hand, there's Ivo Pogorelich, still something of an enfant terrible, who churns out performances that clock in at 47 minutes, drawing out and dwelling on details, turning practically every measure of the “slow movement” into its own meditation.

There are more “virtuosic” works – flashier showcases for a pianist to exhibit ones technique, especially considering this is Franz Liszt, considered one of the greatest show-offs in an age of virtuosos.

But there are few that have the kind of depth of emotion and drama this sonata possesses (“possessed” is something that might apply to a lot of Liszt's music, perhaps) yet its virtuosity – because it's still hard as hell to play – is always subservient to the music. Curiously, for a work that seems to lack “structure” (many find its constant shifts “chaotic”), willfully going against the composer's tempo indications and playing up ones ability to play fast notes faster than other pianists or banging away as loud as possible just to rattle the dust off the rafters so it sounds “exciting,” all tend to weaken the tightness with which its put together.

In most cases, I'm never one to think of Franz Liszt as an intellectual composer – not on the scale of Beethoven or Brahms or more contemporary composers – but in this particular work, there is a side of him that stands far above the mere brilliance of a lot of his virtuosic music.

Whether this Sonata is “intellectual” or “emotional” is not the point, nor is it important to the average listener. There are times when the music is thrilling, mysterious, dark, demonic as it is heavenly (if not downright angelic), beautiful (if not merely lovely), or glitteringly brilliant (the virtuosic bits) – all, by the way, hallmarks of the 19th Century Romantic-with-a-Capital-R style – because in reality music is a combination of both heart and mind, and it is that combination which allows for so many possible interpretations (or misinterpretations) and why some people like it one way and others, another.

As a way of introduction, I want to offer one example of Liszt in his Virtuoso Mode - and perhaps suggest the difference between something that is "flashy" versus something that requires a high level of technical ability in the service of the greater musical experience.

Here's one of Liszt's favorite “encores” when he was a touring concert artist. It is, in most respects today, regarded as a novelty, perhaps even a bit silly – it is, certainly, over-the-top – meant to bring down the house. It may be “vulgar” to some, “immense fun” to others, but no pianist should attempt it if they can't risk driving it off the cliff. I give you Liszt's “Chromatic Gallop” with the magic fingers of Györgi Cziffra, recorded in 1963.

The trick – aside from hitting all the right notes at the right time – is to keep it from sounding like the Grand Chromatic Stampede...

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Okay, now that we've gotten that out of our system, however you listen to or talk about the Sonata, by comparison, it is not a typical sonata, generally regarded as the pinnacle of “serious” classical music in the first half of the 19th Century – at least as it was understood in Liszt's days in the mid-19th Century. Sonatas, by the way, had become kind of old-fashioned by then, anyway, a throw-back to the Classical Era and the Age of Beethoven: Beethoven, with most of his 32 piano sonatas (just as he did with his 9 symphonies), created a challenge for his successors: how do you write sonatas (or symphonies or string quartets) after Beethoven? Most composers either went on their merry way ignoring the issue, trying to compose as if Beethoven never happened; others grappled with the issues and didn't always succeed in coming to terms with Beethoven's legacy. After all, once Schumann crowned a young Johannes Brahms as “Beethoven's Heir,” you may understand why Brahms took over 20 years to complete his first symphony and why, alas, he never wrote another piano sonata himself.

Liszt's only piano sonata is also not a typical work for him: it tells no story, it does not exist as a dazzling showcase for this “Paganini of the Piano,” it exists simply for itself (one assumes). Unlike the traditional sonata, it is not in the usual 3 or 4 movements where both performers and listeners can at least catch their collective breath between movements. It seems to be a “one movement work” or at least in one unbroken span but yet there's a distinct “slow movement” in the middle, so... But then the finale is not “new material” for a third movement, more of an expansion of themes (or motives) we've heard before. In fact, Liszt makes it more difficult to figure out where certain structural segments begin because he so rarely restates something the same way: it's always developing, evolving, re-examining itself.

So... maybe it's just a single sonata-form movement (which is a different thing, terminology aside) with an exposition and development interrupted by that gorgeous middle bit in a contrasting tempo – Romantic music is all about contrast – and then there's a kind of recapitulation with a coda that goes against what you'd expect.

In the traditional sonata, there is a statement of themes – a development of themes, taken apart and juxtaposed – and then a recap of those themes, reassembled and all their dramatic conflicts worked out for a satisfying conclusion. In the sense of traditional tonality, given this sonata is billed as being in B Minor, the Exposition would begin in B Minor (the “home” tonic) and, by the time a second theme is introduced, digress to some related key; the Development then goes through God-knows what keys before the tension resolves itself to – ta-daah! – the return of the “home” tonic (in this case, B Minor) with a restatement of the thematic material, staying in, say, B Minor (more or less) to the end.

But rather than use two or three themes, Liszt introduces us to three ideas in the first few measures, not over the first few minutes – and everything you hear from here on out is more or less based on those “motives,” some permutation or expansion of those notes and intervals, sometimes even with a completely different mood or tempo but still the same motive.

While the work as a whole may seem mind-bogglingly complex, if you keep these three motives at the opening in mind, you might be able to hang on well enough to understand a bit what Liszt was doing, here:

Motive #1
The opening descending scalar line – not a traditional major or minor scale – is one that, with the change of a note or two, can take on an entirely different (and often sinister) character with each subtle change.

A few measures later: what sounds like the first theme is a series of leaps with a descending whip of an arpeggio:
Motive #2
The third motive really sounds like the second half of this second, leaping arpeggiated "theme" but it quickly takes on a life out its own, with its upward rush of a few notes to repeated staccato notes in the bass that twists around without really going anywhere:
Motive #3

Later on, there sounds like a new theme – grandly, gloriously ascending and accompanied by resounding blocked chords, hymnlike, in the left hand – but it's really a transformation of the opening “scale,” except here sounding more “normal” and ascending to more heavenly heights, completely different in tone and sonority.

One of Liszt's favorite tricks is to turn that dramatic and fragmentary 3rd motive into a long, spinning and thoroughly swoon-filled tune which becomes a necessary dramatic contrast – and yet it's the same material.

If variety is the root of contrast, it's more of an intellectual feat to have so much variety squeezed out of the same few notes, a unifying factor which, psychologically, gives the work a more cohesive sound whether you're aware of it or not.

Without getting into the other technical aspects that have fed theory and musicology PhD mills for generations, just listen to the music.

Here are three you can choose from – one with the score just so you can see what it looks like (whether you read music or not); another that is a favorite recording of mine (with no video, alas); and a more recent live performance for those of you who enjoy watching a pianist grapple with the technical demands (believe me, there's a lot of “sweat equity” in learning and performing a piece like this!).

No. 1 – Krystian Zimerman

No. 2 – Marta Argerich (1966)

No. 3 – Yundi Li (2004)

It's interesting to note that – as any virtuoso would have offered a grand bang-up finale with mighty flourishes and pounding chords to bring an audience to its feet – Liszt ends his sonata with a completely unexpected ending. Suddenly it turns meditative and then resolves quietly to a B Major chord when that scale returns and unsettles everything, leaving the bell-like overtones of a non-traditional cadence hovering over the final low octave. Resolution? Absolutely – a benediction, of sorts, if not the victorious triumph first-time listeners would anticipate.

Franz Liszt's MS with the revised ending

It's interesting to realize, if you look at the composer's manuscript, Liszt crossed out his original ending which was exactly that triumphant, bombastic ending, and then rewrote it, replacing it with one final meditation. Yet if you examine the ink and the pen-scratchings on the paper, you realize that it was probably an instantaneous decision: aside from the red ink which Liszt habitually used for corrections and crossings-out, it's the same black ink, even the same pen in fact, as if Liszt thought, “no, no, that's really too much” and changed it immediately – not a month or a year later as he'd sometimes do with his revisions.

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Robert Schumann wrote three piano sonatas (one of which he referred to as a “Concerto without Orchestra”), but decided his Fantasy in C was his answer to the Beethoven Sonata Challenge when he composed it in the mid-to-late-1830s (it was composed as a fund-raiser for the Beethoven Memorial in Bonn). And, when it was published in 1839, it was dedicated to Franz Liszt – who, along with Schumann's future wife, Clara Wieck, was one of the greatest pianists of the day.

Though Liszt wrote tons of piano pieces during his career as a touring virtuoso, he was also conscious of Beethoven's legacy. His B Minor Sonata is his only “sonata” though one of his earlier works, “After a Reading of Dante,” is generally called the “Dante Sonata,” and he also composed something called a “Grand Concerto Solo for Piano” – that is, a "concerto without orchestra" later revised for two pianos and usually called Concerto pathétique – which was a direct forerunner of the B Minor Sonata and is, essentially, a continuous three-movement work that could be called a “sonata” in the sense it is a multi-movement work. Just as Liszt's two symphonies are not really traditional “symphonies” in the Beethoven Sense – if anything, they take Beethoven's Pastoral as their starting point, more about dramatic story-telling-in-music than the symphonic architecture of the Classical Symphony inherited from Hadyn and Mozart.

For Liszt, these issues became more conscious once he decided to give up regular concertizing and settled in Weimar as a court conductor and composer – a permanent home and a permanent job that allowed him time not only to compose but to deal with the issues that, as a composer, he hadn't had time to think much about, before – things like “The Sonata Question.”

And his response was to complete his Sonata in B Minor on February 2nd, 1853. While most sources say it was written “1852-1853,” he apparently began work on it almost as soon as he finished that “Grand Concerto Solo,” whetting his appetite for another, perhaps better solution to “how to write a Sonata after Beethoven.” And somewhere, Schumann's Fantasy in C reminded him he owed Schumann a favor: and so, when his sonata was finally printed, Liszt dedicated it to Schumann and mailed him a copy.

Unfortunately, Schumann, in deteriorating health around the time he was introduced to a young man named Johannes Brahms in the fall of 1853, had just been confined to an asylum following his attempted suicide on February 27th, 1854, and so never knew of Liszt's dedication or of the music he'd sent him. One wonders what he might have thought of it: Clara Schumann could make no sense out of it, called it “a blind noise” and having written to Brahms that it “is nothing but sheer racket – not a single healthy idea, everything confused, no longer a clear harmonic sequence to be detected there! And now I still have to thank him – it’s really awful.”

Much is made that Clara never played the piece, some saying that she couldn't play it but it's probably more likely she couldn't figure out how to play it, to make “sense” out of it, and since it was antithetical to her aesthetic preferences, why bother? There's also the likely possibility that its untimely arrival was too painful a reminder of the last time she saw her husband as he was taken away from her: he died over two years later in the asylum and she had never been allowed to visit him during that whole time.

And so, what have others made of Liszt's Sonata?

There is a famous story that Brahms fell asleep listening to it. Brahms, in his early-20s, was traveling and though he had not yet met the Schumanns or yet been crowned “Beethoven's heir,” he was already being courted by the composers of the German avant-garde, mainly Liszt and Wagner. They soon discovered, however, that Brahms' future would lie in a more conservative direction, and the animosity between the two camps, more with their followers than the composers themselves, would continue to the end of the century and beyond.

As the story goes, Brahms and the violinist Remenyi whom he was accompanying on this tour, stopped in Weimar and were invited to “the palace” where Liszt and his acolytes lived. The opulence of the setting, no doubt, annoyed the plain and simple Brahms, born of a humble family in the poorer neighborhoods of Hamburg. Liszt played through Brahms' E-flat Minor Scherzo (which he liked) and started in on the big C Major Sonata (which he liked less: it would enrapture Schumann a few months later) when one of these acolytes urged Liszt to play through his own, newly completed Sonata – which he then proceeded to do. The date of this gathering was, by the way, June 23rd, 1853, four months after he'd completed the piece.

Now, regardless how familiar Brahms (at 21) was with Liszt's music, the fact they'd just gotten into town (whether one can use whatever one called “jet-lag” in those days as an excuse), it's possible between being tired from the journey and bored with this endlessly modulating, never-relaxing tension that was nothing like a sonata as far as Brahms (or Beethoven) was concerned, one could understand Brahms' dozing off (he was not the last person to nod off during a performance of the piece...).

When Liszt finished playing his sonata, he noticed the young man asleep in his chair. He got up without a word and left the room. Later, when Brahms and Remenyi left Weimar, Liszt gave Brahms a cigar box with his name engraved on it – spelled “Brams.” You can take what you want from that.

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For some reason, Liszt himself never publicly performed the sonata – which seems odd, after all. Now in his 40s, he may have given up being the touring virtuoso of his youth, but he still performed publicly as well as privately, and he did play the work for “private audiences.”

The world premiere was given in 1857 by Hans von Bülow, eventually more famous as a conductor and a champion of both Wagner and Brahms (seven months later, he became Liszt's son-in-law, marrying Cosima, one of three children Liszt fathered out of wedlock with the Countess, Marie d'Agoult; in the 1850s, Liszt was living openly with the Princess Carolyn Sayne-Wittgenstein who was still married; Cosima, while married to Bülow, would later live openly with Wagner and bear him three children out of wedlock before her divorce from Bülow was final, a liason that cooled relationships, perhaps somewhat hypocritically, between Wagner and Liszt, but I digress...).

Cosima (l.),  some Hungarian Count, Liszt, & Hans von Bülow (r.) in 1865 (Cosima had been Wagner's mistress since 1863 and around the time this photograph was taken was pregnant with Wagner's first child...)

Let's see, where was I...? Oh, yes...

While it took a while for the sonata to catch on – the ruling anti-Wagner/pro-Brahms critic in Vienna, Eduard Hanslick, thought anyone who liked the piece was “beyond help” – it eventually came to be recognized as the “most significant piano sonata” since Beethoven even if it was more talked about than heard. It still can ignite controversy but not in the way “new music” so often does, more in the sense of what the music “means,” whatever that means. Of course, anything that gradually gains more and more hearings becomes increasingly “familiar” and loses its formidableness, something the age of recordings has helped significantly.

One of the pianists who “owned” the sonata was one of Liszt's students, Arthur Friedheim, whose performance was much admired by Liszt. Curiously, Friedheim recorded the entire sonata on a piano roll in 1905. While it may be arguable to consider it the “definitive” performance, it is, obviously, a performance by someone the composer not only heard but approved.

Friedheim, a Russian-born pianist, was in his mid-40s at the time of this recording and would later have a student named Rilda Bee O'Bryan who would later have a son and student of her own, Van Cliburn.

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In a YouTube video, pianist (and Liszt specialist) Leslie Howard talks about how difficult it is to arrive at what Liszt might have intended when so many performers today base their interpretations on recordings and performances they've heard rather than examining the score – especially the original manuscript which is clearly preserved and available in a printed reproduction. Regarding tempos, articulations and dynamics, for instance, he describes these as “barnacles” that remind me of Toscanini's definition of musical “tradition” as “the last bad performance.”

He also points out that Liszt does not mark a single pedaling in the piece until he reaches m.105 – not that he thought you shouldn't use the pedal until then: like most pianists, he would be aware pedaling was not only a personal interpretation, but also depended on the instrument and the performance venue. These days, students are used to using editions where every pedal indication is taken as gospel and nothing (or very little) is left to the interpretive imagination.

Also, an articulation concerning the third motive to be heard – after the leaping figure with its descending arpeggio, it's that bass-register figure with its repeated notes with its own up-beat figure – that up-beat figure, rather than resolving on-on-the-beat as it's most easy to play, should be kept separate from the up-beat. For one thing, it's what Liszt wrote. In reality, it helps keep the beat steady. I've heard too many performances of this where things just start rushing and you begin to lose sight of the pulse. By following the composer's notation, you can actually keep things clearer. Imagine that!

Here is the complete video which I highly recommend for pianists, piano students, and anyone interested in how an artist turns those notes written on a page into sounds you can hear and enjoy.

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The Forensic Musicologist in me wishes to point out just a few “things” that may have consciously influenced Liszt (or not) or where Liszt may have paid tribute (consciously or not) to the past (usually Beethoven). For instance, at one point, he breaks into a free passage marked “recitative” which is an operatic convention in which a singer, in a speech-like phrase not quite melodic, sets up something dramatic to come. In terms of piano music, Beethoven used this in his “Tempest” Sonata though he was very vague about why this suddenly appears (in response, Beethoven told his friend, “read The Tempest” which of course led to its being known as the “Tempest” Sonata).

Speaking of Beethoven...

Liszt's big Fugue theme, an expansion of the Sonata's 2nd and 3rd Motives, is similar in more than just shape to Beethoven's Grosse Fuge introduction with its wide intervals, even to the use of its dotted rhythms that occur a little later.

Curiously - and I think such a coincidence is highly curious - Beethoven's fugue is for a quartet expected to end in B-flat Major, yet the fugue subject is first introduced in G (whether that's G Major or minor or some other key is, also curiously, vague). Liszt's Sonata, advertised as B Minor, also begins with octaves and a vague scale on G before the 2nd Motive begins with its upward octave leaps - on G! Hmmm...

Liszt, despite his abilities as an organist, was not known for writing fugues (though he did – in fact, all composers had to when they were students, for better or worse) so the sudden appearance of this one is startling enough. The academic tribute to Beethoven could've been nothing more than “See, I can do that, too!” Or not.

Wotan's "Spear" Motive, The Ring of the Nibelung
The scalar passage at the opening of the Sonata reminds people of Wotan's “Spear” Motive from Wagner's Ring except in early-1853, when Liszt finished the Sonata, Wagner had not yet begun composing the Ring's music (Liszt finished the sonata in Feb 1853; Wagner didn't begin composing the music of Rheingold until Nov 1853, though it's possible he might have sketched thematic (motivic) ideas earlier – and most likely Liszt had started work on his Sonata (this is the opening material, after all) already in 1849... keep in mind also, Liszt was writing in Weimar, Wagner was living in exile in Switzerland following the 1849 uprisings in Saxony and was under “pain of arrest and execution for treason” should he be caught entering the German states!

Would Liszt have sent him a copy of the Sonata? Perhaps, but the printed edition wasn't available until 1854. So it's just one of those “there are only so many notes to go around” kind of coincidences, perhaps... Did Liszt write a letter to Wagner and say “hey, dig this idea I'm using to open my sonata”? Did Wagner think “wow, that'd make a cool 'Law of the Gods' motive for my new opera...”?

Vernacular aside, one can't really be sure. Somewhere I have a volume of “The Letters of Wagner & Liszt” which seems not to have been unpacked followed the last move, but since this is not meant to be a scholarly article with a specific thesis to prove, let this pass for the moment (on the other hand, I've never heard reference to any such correspondence regarding Liszt's Sonata which is not to say it might not exist). [You can check it here, if you're so inclined: at the moment, time, as usual, eludes me.]

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As other writers have found in Liszt's sonata, the music fairly screams for a screen-play: what does all this dramatic music mean?

Given that 1849 was the Centennial of the Birth of Goethe and everybody – including Hector Berlioz and Schumann – was writing Faust pieces after Goethe's greatest work, it's not difficult to see the standard battle between Good and Evil in Liszt's abstract piano sonata. There are passages that could certainly be labeled “Mephistopheles” and “Gretchen” (she becomes Marguerite in Gounod's French adaptation), and if Faust himself isn't represented by a tune, his conflict is certainly behind the music as he's torn between the Devil and the Woman he loves.

And, the year after he'd finished the sonata, yes, Liszt too began work on a “Faust piece,” his vast three-movement symphony he called “A Faust Symphony” with a movement for each main character (speaking of revisions, Liszt added the choral ending three years later).

Other writers have heard in its music John Milton's Paradise Lost or the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, or simply some autobiographical incident (oh, my...). The problem with such interpretations – I remember reading Melville's Moby-Dick was actually an allegory about the Railroad Industry vs the Great Plains... – is that the creative artist may never have expressly said “This is about...” or “that theme represents...” much less had the opportunity to refute such hypotheses.

Given Liszt's often programmatic mind – he had written the first six of his symphonic poems (stories-told-in-music) in the previous three years – it's quite possible one scenario or another might have presented itself to him during the process of composing the Sonata, but just as one could argue that Beethoven's 5th is about his deafness (since he did specifically mention the “Fate-knocks-at-the-door” motive), isn't it more important to leave it to the listener to decide how to listen to the music?

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mark Markham: 4x3 with Scriabin, Debussy & Rachmaninoff

Who: Mark Markham, pianist
What: Four works each by Scriabin, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff on the first half; and Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor on the second
When: Wednesday (March 21st, 2018), at 8pm SNOW UPDATE: RESCHEDULED for THURSDAY (March 22nd) at 8pm at Whitaker
Where: Whitaker Center, 222 Market Street in downtown Harrisburg (parking available in the connecting Walnut Street Garage, between 3rd and 2nd Streets)
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.

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NOTE: It's one of those Central Pennsylvania Things-That-Happen -- you program Debussy's prelude "Footsteps in the Snow" on the first full day of Spring and you get your 4th Nor'Easter in 3 weeks, but this one's enough to cause us to RESCHEDULE THE CONCERT FOR THURSDAY (3-22-18) at 8pm at Whitaker...

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It's one of those Central Pennsylvania Residencies when Market Square Concerts joins with the Harrisburg Symphony to present one artist to appear on both their series – and to present a master class at Messiah College. This season, it's pianist Mark Markham who, in addition to being a piano soloist, has been a collaborative pianist (a better term than “accompanist”) with many vocalists like Jessye Norman and who has taught at Peabody School of Music as a vocal coach. So he'll play Ravel's G Major Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony at the Forum this weekend – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm – and offer two master classes: Monday's for vocalists at 5:00, and Tuesday's for pianists at 4:00, both in Messiah College's High Foundation Recital Hall. Then, the Market Square Concerts recital will be Wednesday at 8:00 at Whitaker Center. (I'm not sure why they call these “residencies” because usually the schedules are so jam-packed there's hardly any time to sit still...!)

The program for Wednesday's recital – the focus for these two posts – might look a bit lop-sided. On the first half, there are three composers with four works each (actually two pairs of works each) by Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Rachmaninoff – so, a total of 12 relatively short works but arranged in such an order to present a lot of dramatic and emotional contrast.

Then, on the second half, there's only one piece... however, it's one of the giants, if not “monsters,” of the 19th Century, the Piano Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt, one of the towering pianists of the century who was also a trail-blazing composer both revered and reviled by his contemporaries. (You can read it in this subsequent post.)

You can hear some audio clips of Mark Markham's performances on his website, here. And there's an in-depth article about Mark and how he became a pianist, one who's worked for 20 years with soprano Jessye Norman, and studied with Ann Schein, here.

Have you ever wondered why an artist selects the music on the program? In something of a rarity, the program notes includes a commentary by the artist, which concludes with this telling observation:

“Today's program on paper looks very structured for obvious reasons,” Markham writes, “the titles of the works: preludes, etudes and a sonata. Of course, I tried to select pieces with contrasting moods, but the longer I worked on this combination of music, I realized that there was a common element that I had never consciously thought about, which was holding the program together. From the very first measure of the first Scriabin prelude to the very last note of the Liszt Sonata, it is there. Listen for them: Ringing. Tolling. Celebrating. Chiming. Exalting. Delicately. Proudly. Joyfully. Ominously. Mystically. Inviting us. Guiding us. Warning us. Uniting us. Penetrating our souls. They are everywhere, in all shapes, colors and sizes, just like us. Vibrating and resonating in harmony. Showing us the way.”

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Rather than post a video for each of the twelve pieces – a nice round number considering composers often wrote etudes and preludes in sets of 12 – I'm just going to give you a sample pair from each of Markham's three sets.

Scriabin in 1892
First up is a pair of preludes, then a pair of etudes by Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin, all composed between 1887 and 1895 when he was between the ages of 15 and 23! Initially inspired by the music of Chopin, his later music would strain against the traditional boundaries of tonality until eventually he was composing with chords that had no resemblance to what his audience was familiar with. These pieces, however, are full of an intense romanticism that became the bedrock of a Russian school of piano-playing and -writing that reached a more popular climax in the world of Rachmaninoff (coming up...).

Scriabin's Etude Op. 2/1 in C# minor – hard to imagine this is by a teenager – is played here by Vladimir Horowitz during his historic return to Moscow in 1986, telecast live when he was 82.

The emotion of the performance is striking enough, here – perhaps the emotion behind this performance, the pianist's first trip back to his homeland since leaving it when he was 22 – but sometimes it is just as telling to watch an audience listening to the music.

A more recent Russian pianist, Denis Matsuev, performed Scriabin's Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8/12 in 2015 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Even at 22, you can already hear many of Scriabin's musical fingerprints including the sprawling left-hand arpeggios stretching across wide intervals.

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Claude Debussy wrote two books of Preludes, each one inspired by a particular image or story and usually described as “impressionistic.” A few years later, his music became less “picturesque” and more abstract, and he composed two books of Etudes, each given a title about the technical difficulty each work presented for the performer.

The 24 Preludes, issued in two "books," were completed by 1910 when he was 47; the 24 Etudes, also published in two books, were completed in Paris in 1915, a year into the horrors of what we know as World War I. He was also already ill with cancer and would die before the end of the war in 1918. Next Sunday, in fact, March 25th, will mark the 100th Anniversary of his death.

The 7th Prelude from Book 1 is entitled “Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest” (or “What the west wind saw”) and was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Garden of Paradise,” a rather grim story which ends with Death approaching a young prince and warning him to atone for his sins since one day he will come for him and "clap him in the black coffin".

In this performance, the pianist is Eloïse Bella Kohn.

While you may be familiar with some of the more gentle preludes like “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” or “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the snow') which opens the Debussy set on this program (just to remind us that snow is still possible even after the first day of Spring...), this prelude is dramatic and technically challenging – and perhaps unsettling, if you're thinking “oh, fairy tale, how cute is this going to be?” Debussy very carefully placed this prelude between the two easiest of this set of preludes – easier in the sense of technical demands as well as listening – no doubt for a greater emotional impact.

Debussy c.1912
Debussy is one of the most “visually-oriented” composers I know, practically everything intending to tell a tale or depict a scene whether it's a painting or some image, or a visually evocative description that can be as vague as “Sails” wafting in the winds. In that sense, his music can be called “impressionistic” whether it is a musical equivalent to the painters' style of the time or not.

But the Etudes are less well-known. Perhaps the reality of the war, so close to his home in Paris, changed his perspective, but in this last phase of his life, perhaps better described as a “mid-life style change” – he was only 55 when he died, by the way – he was becoming more interested in “classical forms,” writing sonatas and these “abstract” etudes focusing on technical demands rather than imagistic sonorities. About the Etudes, he wrote they were "a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands."

Markham plays two of them – the one “for the octaves,” prefaced by this one, “pour les sonorités opposées (for opposing sonorities).” It may sound very much like one of the Preludes, full of those layers of lush “sonorities” which define so much of his earlier, more “impressionistic” works and which require skills of touch to balance the different layers. I've posted a recording of Walter Gieseking's with a score so you can see how the layers are written out sometimes on three rather than the traditional two staves for the piano. Or, at 0:52, how a staccato (separated) line in the middle has to be played against the legato (sustained) lines in the upper part of the same hand. Notice also how, initially, the left hand is playing above the right hand.

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Rachmaninoff in 1910
Along with Scriabin, Rachmaninoff is part of a great Romantic school of Russian Piano-Playing – both as performers as well as composers. World War I and, here more importantly the ensuing Bolshevik Revolution, had an impact, no doubt influencing Scriabin's more adventuresome (if not “experimental”) late style – who knows where his music might have ventured if he hadn't died in 1915? In Rachmaninoff's case, the Revolution prompted him, a son of the wealthy aristocratic class, to leave his homeland behind, a move that forever affected his ability to compose – well, that, and the need to become a full-time performer to earn money.

Still, the four works Markham closes the first half of the program with were all composed within a period of six years, around the same time Debussy was writing his four works on the program: the Preludes of Op.32 in 1910 and the Etudes-tableux in two sets between 1911 and 1916. At the time, Rachmaninoff was between his late-30s and early-40s. It is hard to imagine a composer of such great concertos – the famous Third was composed in 1909 – essentially giving up composing when he was in his mid-40s. The last work in this set – the impassioned Etude-tableaux Op. 39/9 in D Major of 1916 – was essentially the last work he completed before fleeing his homeland a year later.

Here is Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B Minor, Op. 32/10 recorded by David Fung in Brussels in 2013:

And here is Rachmaninoff's Etude-tableaux in D Major, Op. 39/9 with a young pianist I've not heard of before, but this performance impresses the hell out of me: Szymon Nehring, performing at a festival called “Chopin and his Europe” in Warsaw in 2016. Notice how both of these pieces are full of bell-like sounds. The Russians - not just Rachmaninoff - love their bells!

(With Liszt on the second half, I just have to include this link to Nehring's encore to that recital, one of Franz Liszt's more virtuosic bits, the 5th of the Transcendental Etudes, “Feux follets (Will o'the Wisps).”

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To keep this from becoming one of those book-length posts, I'll save Liszt's epic Sonata for the next installment which you can read here.

- Dick Strawser