André Watts, Recital at the Broadstage

April 1, 2016

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Rondo in A minor, K. 511 (1787)

André WattsMozart composed his beguiling Rondo in A minor, K. 511 in the spring of 1787, in Vienna, and it was published later that year. By this time, Mozart had composed the majority of his finest orchestral and chamber music, successfully premiered The Marriage of Figaro and would soon turn to Don Giovanni and his final pair of symphonies. Mozart was at the towering heights of his powers and what is more, would, at the time, probably have been considered the greatest pianist of his age. In a sense, he was the first: the piano was just emerging to eclipse the harpsichord and Mozart, with his stunning series of concerti, had given the instrument its first epic masterpieces. He composed numerous variation sets, rondos and sonatas eventually leading to some few late works of extraordinary craft, expression and high classical poise.

The essence of K. 511 is delicate, chaste, and haunting with its gracefully chromatic melancholy that recurs in a progressively decorated main theme that softly sways in a 6/8 meter. The intervening episodes bring bright relief, intensified drama and elegant but spare counterpoint, the gravity of A minor pulling the music ever back to a kind of quiet introspection. The emphasis is not technical virtuosity but expressive harmony, classical balance and a singing, coloratura line with elaboration and ornament growing into rich foliage over time: Mozart was the first to make the piano sing.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Drei Klavierstücke (3 Piano Pieces), D.946 (1828)
Fantasie in C Major, Op. 15 "Wanderer" (1822)

Like Mozart, Schubert was a supreme vocal composer and his miraculously lyrical style that vividly animates hundreds of expressive lieder can be found throughout his oeuvre, particularly his instrumental chamber music and works for solo piano. Like true songs without words, Schubert's piano music helped establish a new Romantic era with intense, single-movement character pieces bearing titles like "musical moment" or "impromptu." Schubert twice composed a set of four impromptus and began what he likely intended to be a third set during the last year of his life in 1828. At the time of his death, so much of Schubert's music lay in piles of unpublished and undiscovered manuscript including the "Three Pieces", D. 946. It was not until 1868, some forty years later, that Brahms prepared the them for publication, remaining an anonymous editor in tribute to Schubert.

In these three late works, one hears all of Schubert's finest characteristic traits: winning melody, captivating rhythmic character, evocative harmonic changes and almost dichotomous sectional contrasts of vivid mood and motion ranging from stormy to beatific. The formal vehicle again is the rondo, a signature theme interlacing episodic departures (e.g. trios), each segment expressing and fully developing an intimate musical narrative. The first is dominated by a signature galloping urgency, the second by a charming Austrian lullaby, the last by a lively Hungarian Gypsy dance sparkling with evocations of the hammered dulcimer and the true spontaneity that the word impromptu suggests. But once established, Schubert will confound each pervasive personality with dramatic contrast, elevating a short character miniature to something much deeper, on its return, ever more fully sounded.

The Fantasie, Op. 15 displays Schubert's handling of a multi-movement unity of much greater proportions. Like many of Schubert's instrumental compositions, it finds its inspiration and primary musical materials in one of Schubert's own lieder, one of his best-known songs titled Der Wanderer, the origin of the Fantasy's nickname. A mournful lament by a wayward traveler for the high mountains lends its melody to the Fantasy's second movement Adagio, its chaste, elegiac tune giving rise to a series of variations not unlike the famous slow movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" for string quartet. Typical for Schubert, the music ranges from dirge to tender hope with intervals of near agony through a series of brilliant variations sporting a variety of colors and pianistic textures. Schubert uses the initial rhythmic motive of the theme to craft another harmonic/melodic variation that permeates the other three movements for a startling degree of thematic unity across the whole piece. In many ways, the entire Fantasy is a kind of giant theme and variations across all four movements further enhanced as the movements flow together without pause, each leading directly into the next – attacca – without full cadential resolution.

The first movement states this cyclic (derived theme) at the outset, as it will literally recur in the third and fourth movements again. While the Allegro con fuoco pursues a sonata form, its contrasting materials are all variations of this primary idea for an essentially monothematic sonata, itself a sort of theme and variations. Following the slow movement at the core of the work, the third movement is a lively Presto dance, a scherzo based once again on the first movement theme. Throughout, Schubert employs a virtuosic technique for a wonderful variety of dramatic contrasts between big, powerful gestures, and a charming little salon waltz. Without a final cadence, the scherzo pauses and hangs momentarily before plunging into the finale.

The finale permutes the primary theme once again forming the subject for a surging fugue that begins in the base with a powerful thrust of forward momentum. After the initial exposition in three voices, Schubert's fugue is not quite as strict as one from either Beethoven or Bach but is really a delightful mixture of fugue subject and counter "figuration," a melody and accompaniment with developments and cadences by turns thundering and glittering where the brief "head" motive familiar from the Fantasy's very first bars comes to the fore. Unusual for its virtuosity as well as cross-movement motivic unity, this is one of Schubert's most exciting large scale works for solo piano, leaving only his monumental final sonatas untouched by this program.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Ballade in G minor, Op. 23 (1831)

With the passing of Beethoven and Schubert and the still-evolving material capabilities of the maturing piano as an instrument, we move into the true Romantic age featuring Weber, Czerny, Schumann, and Mendelssohn as well as a burgeoning cadre of wizard-like virtuoso pianist-composers including, most durably, Chopin and Liszt. The young, Polish Chopin arrived in Paris but a few years after Schubert's death bringing to the French Salon an entirely new sensibility of poetic expression, shimmering technique, formal design and nationalistic fervor that would establish the core, beloved repertoire of the 19th century solo piano. A prolific composer entirely for piano and predominantly solo piano, Chopin refined or created a number of genres including the concert (and truly musical) etude, prelude, scherzo, waltz, the specifically Polish mazurka and polonaise, and, with four epic examples, the ballade. This term has multiple meanings, on one hand, possibly an epic poem about heroic deeds, on the other, the "ballata" or extended dance, aesthetically refined and evolved into its own genre of purely instrumental art.

His first and most popular, the Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, dates from 1831, likely composed while Chopin was living in Vienna just prior to his permanent relocation to Paris. Carrying reminders of both Mozart's wistful rondo and Schubert's bipolar passionate lyricism, Chopin's ballad presents a dramatic introduction and a nearly sonata-like design featuring two themes: a tragic, reluctant waltz (that rises to a swirling, dizzy pitch) followed by uplifting rapture, a rhapsodic arc suffused with color and sparkling figuration that dazzles with a new found pianistic virtuosity. Toward the middle, the virtuosity grows giddy with a remarkably unbridled section that nearly prefigures the manic, almost wacky stride piano of Art Tatum a century hence.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Étude de concert No. 3, "Un Sospiro", S. 144/3 (1848)
Nuages gris (Trübe Wolken), S. 199 (1881)
En Rêve (Nocturne), S. 207 (1885)
La lugubre Gondola No. 2, S. 200/2, (1882, pub. 1885)
Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S. 203 (Nocturne after a poem by Toni Raab) (1883)
Transcendental Étude No. 10 in F minor ("Appassionata"), S. 139 (1838/1852)

It is sometimes said that Chopin seduced the piano while Liszt conquered it. While the expression may devalue Chopin's technical achievements as well as Liszt's own poetic charm, it highlights the historical truth that as the physical instrument found ever greater technical perfection in the late 19th century, Liszt become the pianist with the transcendental technique and the composer with the resultant muse to push the piano towards a Romantic teleology where a lone, nearly supernatural artist channels the universe into monumental creation, the solo piano becoming a vast symphony orchestra in the hands of a single master. Naturally, Liszt would build on the achievements of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann and with a lifespan more than twice as long as Mozart, Schubert or Chopin, presumably the time to work it out. But Liszt had something else that arose well after the death of all these worthy predecessors: the mature musical drama of Richard Wagner. Together (their lives circumstantially intertwined), Liszt and Wagner embodied the so-called New German School featuring an ultra-Romantic quest to express all of reality in music with new forms as new bottles for new wine (as Liszt put it). And a signature ingredient would become Wagner's extended harmonic pallet with the bold freedom to wander, ever unresolved, into every nuance of tonal expression until it would come to seem that tonality itself was conquered, exhausted, finished. Liszt himself was as big and as multifaceted as the ultimate Romantic vision: a prolific composer and theorist, a highly respected conductor, inventor of the tone poem as well as creator of the august solo piano recital where the international celebrity virtuoso incited mania among his star-struck fans.

During his years "gigging on the road," Liszt composed some of his most astonishing music for piano from the short character piece to the concert etude to the full-blown transcriptions of operas and symphonies that impressed with their verisimilitude and admirable service in lieu of the real thing. Following Chopin's lead, Liszt assembled a set of etudes under the title "Transcendental" to suggest their fearsome difficulty, i.e. above and beyond the norm. From this "middle" period come the Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F minor and the third concert etude titled Un Sospiro showcasing, on one hand, the apex of ferocious technique and, on the other, the exquisite poetry of Chopin stretched across the new vistas of Wagnerian harmony, a transcendence in the traditional meaning of the word.

Eventually, Liszt ended the world tours, settled in Weimar, conducted, composed, pursed a life of romantic and marital intrigue and, ever spiritual, turned ultimately to the cloth and life in Rome. Yet Liszt still composed, entering a late phase where the dazzling virtuosity and the rich Romantic color fall away yielding music that is far more stark, by turns epigrammatic and impressionist and sometimes on the brink of atonality. Perhaps most famous from this time is Nuages Gris (best translated as "Troubled Clouds"), a cryptic blend of dissonant motif and amorphous impression that uncannily points towards Debussy who would emerge within a decade of its composition in 1881. The penultimate chord is, historically, a new revelation. In a similar vein is La lugubre Gondola, composed around the time that Wagner died and ultimately titled to reference his funeral procession. A gloomy meditation waxes with unmistakable, yearning Wagnerian bliss, with premonitions of Rachmaninoff and the wild darkness of Scriabin.

And yet, with a late, short nocturne entitled Un Réve (A Dream), Liszt looks backwards and forwards re-evoking Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, and conjuring Fauré, Debussy and Ravel with what might be the ultimate short romantic character piece of all, except, it really seems to evaporate (transcend), unresolved, into thin air. In some odd, historically circular magic, it might well segue back to the beginning of the program right into Mozart's sorrowful Rondo where the young piano achieved its masterful first light.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.