I just received the recording from my last solo recital in January. Presented here for your enjoyment / amusement... :P
The theme of the program was the piano "fantasy," a form of composition that had improvisation at the heart of its compositional process. I picked a selection of works that I felt would nicely demonstrate the development of the form through cIassical music history.
So here's the program:
1 - Johann Sebastian Bach, Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor - Named for either the wild (for the time) chromatic key changes or for the theme of the fugue which begins with a chromatic figure, this work is a perfect example of how fantasies were used by Baroque composers. In this case, the fantasy serves as an introductory piece and is intended to contrast formally and musically with the fugue that follows. It has two primary sections, the first being virtuosic and the second more introspective and lyrical, composed much like recitative from Baroque opera.
The harmony really is astoundingly chromatic considering the time period in which it was written (early 1720s), especially knowing that Bach was writing for an instrument that would have been tuned to the well-tempered system, which makes modulations much more obvious and jarring. The fugue is somewhat freer than Bach's usual standard, but considering that this work was improvised, that's hardly surprising. What IS surprising is that Bach could improvise such a work. It probably isn't EXACTLY as he improvised it in its current form, but correspondence from the time from people who were present at its creation have confirmed that it is awfully close. If you don't know what a fugue is, you may wish to read up on it, as this will provide you an even greater appreciation for Bach's accomplishment.
The piece is one of Bach's most popular keyboard works, probably because it does such a wonderful job of showcasing three key aspects of his musical genius - as a performer (he wrote the work for himself), as an improviser (anyone who can improvise a fugue is without question a musical genius), and as a composer / contrapuntalist (multiple simultaneous lines is Bach's specialty).
2 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397 - A charming and intriguing "little" work that is far more difficult than it sounds, mostly because it simply wanders from one idea to the next, necessitating a carefully constructed and executed interpretation. Mozart wrote most of what we have today in 1782. It was left uncompleted at the time of his death, but an appropriate Mozartian ending was tacked on by one of his admirers. The work is binary with two obviously distinct sections, but the internal structure of the first section in particular is really quite formless. As it progresses, several recognizable themes will emerge, and by the end of the section, the initial confusion created by the sporadic introduction of new themes is resolved and it all makes sense.... hopefully. The second half is more typical of Mozart - sunny, light, and decidedly CIassical in conception and styIe.
3 - Franz Schubert, Fantasy in C Major "Wanderer", D. 760 - The monster piece on the program. This one's a real bear, widely recognized as one of the most challenging keyboard works in the CIassical styIe, and indeed one of the more challenging works in the ENTIRE piano literature. Schubert wrote it in 1822 for Emanuel Karl, a nobleman, with the hope of earning some money from the dedication. Sadly, this didn't really work out for him, but the generations of today can still appreciate the product of this venture.
The "Wanderer" label refers to the fact that the work's slow movement is derived from a lied (art song) that Schubert wrote earlier. If you're interested, you can check the lied (Der Wanderer) out on Youtube, when you hear it, the theme of the slow movement is unmistakably present. This is, of course, quite a tragic and unhappy theme, and the slow movement retains that character. However, the remainder of the work is unabashedly joyful, and frankly quite out of character for Schubert. He was not a showman, and although most of his music is challenging, it is usually not overtly so. This work is an exception - a fiery, virtuosic showpiece that is clearly influenced by Beethoven, who Schubert deeply admired.
The work is laid out like a sonata, and although it flows continuously from one idea to the next, movements are easily recognized by sudden, obvious changes in the musical material. Tying the whole work together is a repeating rhythmic pattern which you hear right at the outset. Each of the movements takes that motive and employs it in a new way.
I, 0:00 - The first movement presents the motive in heroic fashion with thickly voiced chords. This movement is roughly in the form of a sonata-allegro, with a couple of contrasting ideas and even a bit of thematic development, but in the fantasy spirit, it takes liberties with the structure. Most notably, there is no recapitulation, and the second theme is presented after the development.
II, 5:55 - The second movement presents the motive as it appeared in the lied. It is slow and hardly recognizable if you didn't know to listen for it. This is a theme and variations. Like most CIassical era variations, the variations simply consist of progressively thickening the accompaniment by making it faster, although the last variation prior to the angry, explosive (and lengthy) coda is rather more interesting, with the theme replaced by scale figures. Only the harmony from the original statement remains. This foreshadows the direction that the variation form would take in the Romantic era (incidentally, variations are what I'll be doing for my next recital).
III - 13:03 - The third movement is a scherzo. The recurring motive is obvious once again at the start, but it is more playful in nature, mostly because it has been accomodated for 3/4 metre, giving it a galloping quality. This movement parallels the first movement in form, presenting a variation on the second theme from that movement at around 15:15, and ending like the first movement with a lengthy and highly virtuosic coda that flows without pause into the next movement. The first two movements are difficult, but this one is worse. The coda is really quite frightening to play in public, featuring a number of extremely challenging piano techniques, such as leaping chords simultaneously in both hands, or large lightning-quick leaps that must be immediately followed with a descending arpeggio one after another. But it's still no comparison for...
IV - 17:48 - ... the finale, which is no doubt responsible for the widely-held belief in the 19th century that the work was unplayable. The primary theme is presented initially in a quasi-fugal setting, but this soon gives way to fiery arpeggios, and the work becomes nothing more than a collection of examples of ferociously difficult technical patterns, glued together by the appearance of the primary theme from time to time. Not my cleanest performance, but with a work this demanding, I'm inclined to cut myself some slack.
4 - Franz Schubert, Fantasia in F Minor, D. 940 - This one presents a stark contrast to the Wanderer. It is far more in line with what you would expect from Schubert - introspective and understated. It is also quite dark in character, evoking a sadness that was pervasive throughout much of Schubert's short life. The work is a duet, and was written in 1828 - the last year of the composer's life - as a gift for one of his piano students to whom Schubert was evidently attracted. There is no evidence that the feeling was mutual, though. Too bad we weren't around in those days... surely the Off-topic forum would have had some choice advice for him.
Anyways, there aren't many gals who have the honour of having a work of this calibre dedicated to them. It's one of my favourite works by this composer, with hauntingly beautiful themes and brilliantly effective counterpoint. Like most of Schubert's late music, there are unique harmonic shifts that take the listener through a wide variety of keys over the course of the work. Formally, it is laid out in identical fashion to the Wanderer - i.e. quasi-sonata form, but looser in structure and without breaks between the movements. The movement times are as follows:
I - 0:00 - The first movement introduces a few contrasting themes, most of which will re-appear in the fourth movement in a redesigned manner. The last part of this movement is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful things Schubert ever wrote. I adore the counterpoint.
II - 5:10 - This movement is grim and stark at the beginning, presenting heavy chords and extended trills with anguished harmony. The mood then lightens considerably with the presentation of a second, quintessentially Schubertian melody, after which the initial theme returns, but in muted fashion. Nonetheless, the heavy chords cannot be dispelled for long, and they return to close out the movement, leading directly into the third.
III - 8:15 - A scherzo, but one which is obviously less overtly joyful than the one presented in the Wanderer Fantasy. Like the rest of the work, the mood of the work shifts frequently between rather heavy, intense writing and lighter, cheerful writing. The movement ends with an abrupt shift from F-sharp minor back to F minor.
IV - 13:30 - After a short pause, the finale begins with the first movement theme reiterated, though in condensed form. When the time comes to present the second major theme, it appears in a quasi-fugal styIe, and comes to dominate the remainder of the movement. After working through the process initiated by the introduction of that fugal imitation, the work draws to a close with one last presentation of a fragment of the opening theme which is abruptly interrupted by heavy chords in much the same way that the second movement interrupted the calm at the end of the first.
I played the higher part in this case, and the lower part was performed by a recent graduate from the music department at the college I teach at. She did a great job with this challenging work!
5 - Frederic Chopin, Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Opus 61 - One of Chopin's later works (1845-46), this has one of the most unusual opening statements in his output. It is an extended Romantic-era fantasy with elements of the courtly Polish dance form (polonaise) infused into it. The rhythm at the start and at around 2:00 are good examples of this. The piece opens in a hesitant manner and wanderers around a couple of ideas rather aimlessly until the introduction of that bright Polonaise rhythm, at which point one of the many themes that will be introduced in the work appears. Over the course of the next 11 minutes or so, you will be exposed to a wide variety of unique themes. You will hear some recurring ideas and repeating themes, whereas other ideas will be explored briefly only to be abandoned.
Chopin was very well-known for his remarkable grasp of harmony, and this work is a perfect showcase of the tangled webs he is able to weave with his harmonies. It also showcases his innovation, and makes one wonder what he may have accomplished if he had lived longer. Metal fans in particular will want to pay attention to the material around 5:35, which is to my knowledge the earliest example of an octatonic scale in use (although Chopin doesn't present it as a straight scale here). Modulations are frequent, but disguised so well that most listeners won't even be aware that the tonal centre has shifted. And of course, Chopin developed a real taste for counterpoint late in his life, and the evidence of this fascination, while not so clear as in his third piano sonata (presented in my 2007 recital), can be found throughout the work.
It's a big, sprawling work, but it feels more like a collection of short character pieces, strung together with a few common ideas and Polonaise rhythm. An interesting work to be sure, and one which I believe deserves to be performed much more frequently than it is.
6 - Johannes Brahms, Intermezzo in E Major, Opus 116 no. 4 - This was my encore. It's a character piece from one of four magnificent collections of such works that Brahms wrote near the end of his life. We're very lucky to have these works and can thank a clarinetist named Richard Muhlfeld for their existence. Brahms had, in 1890, decided that his life work was completed, but after hearing Muhlfeld, he was so moved that he decided to write a couple of works for him to perform.
This resulted in several chamber music masterpieces (including the magnificent clarinet quintet)... but more importantly from a pianist's point of view, it led Brahms to write Opus 116-119, which may well be the finest German character pieces ever written. Brahms didn't write a great deal of solo piano music, and what he did write was mostly from his youthful days as a composer and focused on large forms and virtuosity. They're not bad works, but with only a few exceptions, such as the Variations on a Theme of Handel, they simply can't stack up emotionally or compositionally to these late collections of miniatures, which are so beautifully crafted and so stunningly creative especially with respect to harmony and rhythm. If you like what you hear, you may wish to check out my earlier recital recordings. I have all of Opus 118 and Opus 117 no. 1 posted here in the 2007 and 2009 recitals respectively.
This intermezzo, written in 1892, was initially entitled "Notturno," or "nocturne." Nocturnes were "night pieces" popularized by Chopin more than half a century earlier. Essentially, the pieces are written to evoke the calm and quiet of night. There's a treasure trove of gems to be discovered in the music if you're interested in studying scores as I am, but for the listener, the experience is simply one of calm and tranquility, occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of discord or passion. But in the end it is the calm that wins out, and the work drifts off into the distance, leaving you in its peaceful wake... until the audience starts clapping. :P