Piano Showcase

Monday, December 31, 2018 at 3:00PM

UNR Nightingale Concert Hall


Program Notes by Chris Morrison

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a youth when he wrote, for himself and his sister Nannerl, the first three of his sonatas for piano four-hands. There is a well-known painting from around 1780 of Mozart and Nannerl sitting at the keyboard together, their father Leopold leaning against the instrument with violin in hand, and a painting of their recently-deceased mother hanging on the wall behind them. In August 1786, Mozart wrote his next four-hands work, the Sonata in F major, K. 497. Unlike those early works, which emphasize high spirits and entertainment, this F major Sonata is substantial and often dramatic. The first movement begins with an extended, delicate slow introduction. When the faster main body of the movement arrives, the music is powerful, often residing in a minor key. Calm descends with the Andante, and the third movement, a rondo, is playful, with an easy swing and just a few passing storm clouds.

Frédéric Chopin‘s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op.23 – described by James Huneker as “the odyssey of Chopin’s soul” – was written in 1831, shortly after Chopin moved from Poland to Vienna. Robert Schumann relates that, on telling Chopin that this Ballade was his favorite, he replied, “I am happy to hear this, since I too like it most and hold it dearest.” After a short, mysterious introduction, two main themes are presented – the first starts simply but grows agitated, and the second is lyrical. Both are elaborated on, with poetic and virtuoso passages, before a big chord introduces the fiery final measures.

After a brief, haunting introduction, the first main theme of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 appears and is developed with counterpoint and elaborate decorations. Another theme emerges, increasing the drama as it and the opening theme interact. Toward the end, a series of powerful chords, and five further quiet chords, lead to a fast and stormy coda. For pianist John Ogdon, the Ballade No. 4 is “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”

Written a decade after his first hit, the “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Solace,” subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” is one of Scott Joplin‘s 44 pieces in ragtime style. Its left-hand rhythm is perhaps reminiscent less of Mexican music than it is the Cuban habañera or Argentinian tango. This lovely piece calls to mind the Joplin quotation used as the epigraph to E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast.”

Dubbed the “Maharaja of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington, Montreal-born Oscar Peterson is one of jazz’s great pianists, with over 200 recordings spanning his six-decade career. “Blues Etude” is the title track from his 1966 album made with bassists Ray Brown and Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. This exciting tune became a regular part of Peterson’s live performances.

Camille Saint-Saëns, one of the finest pianists of his era, dedicated each of his Three Mazurkas to female members of the aristocracy. No. 1 in G minor, Op. 21 (1862) was dedicated to Princess Pauline de Metternich-Winneburg, No. 2 in G minor, Op. 24 (1871) to Comtesse de Nesselrode, and No. 3 in B minor, Op. 66 (1882) to Madame la Comtesse Emmanuela Potocka. Saint-Saëns’s mazurkas don’t particularly resemble Chopin’s, but are closer to the spirit of French salon music of the time.

Gaspard de la nuit is a suite by Maurice Ravel, each of its three movements based on a poem from Aloysius Bertrand’s 1836 collection of writings and drawings depicting all manner of imps, trolls, and nightmares. “Ondine,” the first movement, tells of the water nymph who seduces unsuspecting victims with her song to visit her kingdom at the bottom of a lake. One can practically hear the ebb and flow of the water in Ravel’s elaborate piano writing.

In his Réminiscences de Don Juan, Franz Liszt employs themes from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The piece opens dramatically by combining the Commendatore’s threats to Don Giovanni in the Act II graveyard scene, and the opera’s final scene in which the “stone guest” takes Don Giovanni to hell. Then comes perhaps the opera’s most famous tune, Don Giovanni’s and Zerlina’s love duet “Là ci darem la mano,” providing a charming contrast. The pianistic fireworks conclude with the addition of Don Giovanni’s Act I aria “Fin ch’han del vino.” Legendary pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni wrote that the Réminiscences have “an almost symbolic significance as the highest point of pianism.”

Darius Milhaud derived Scaramouche from incidental music he wrote in the mid 1930s for two theatrical productions. The first movement, with its bustling, jazzy feeling and nursery song-like tunes, comes from music for a children’s version of Moliérè’s Le medécin volant (The Flying Doctor) presented by the Théâtre Scaramouche company. The lullaby-like second movement derives from the overture to a play on Simón Bolívar. Milhaud returns to the Théâtre Scaramouche music in the third movement, with its playful rumba-like rhythm.