The programme includes:
Barcarole in F Sharp Major, Op. 60
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No 17 in D Minor,
The Tempest, Op. 31, No 2
Concert étude Un sospiro.
Paraphrases on themes from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto
Pictures at an Exhibition
The barcarolle is a song of the gondoliers in Venice in the characteristically rocking rhythm that conveys the movement of a boat on the waves of the lagoon. This genre was extremely popular with the Romantic composers, and it took off in Russian music, starting with Glinka. Frédéric Chopin turned to the easily recognisable rhythm of the barcarole several times, in particular in his Second Ballade. But he wrote only one work with this word in the title.
Barcarole, Op. 60, was written in 1845–1846 and became one of the composer’s last major works alongside his Polonaise-Fantaisie and his Cello Sonata. It would be natural to expect something in the vein of nostalgic recollections of the distant past from this late work, the more so as it is in the rarely met tonality of F Sharp Major (which was normally used to embody ephemeral visions), but Chopin, quite the reverse, wrote very full-blooded music. The left hand plays the rocking rhythm and the right the songful melody, doubled now into third, now into sixth, and in terms of the volume of ornamentation in the Barcarolle Chopin cedes nothing to Liszt’s virtuoso works. Following several nostalgic moments in the central section of the reprise, the true apotheosis of the Barcarolle comes – it sounds triumphant in a way it had never done with any other composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Sonata No 17 in D Minor, Op. 31 No 2 in 1802. That year was to prove decisive in the composer’s destiny. This was when, in the depths of despair and grief due to his progressing deafness, Beethoven wrote his famous Heiligenstadt testament.
The seventeenth sonata reflects precisely the tragedy the composer was experiencing. Thanks to the anxious and passionate character of the first and third sections, in music circles the sonata became known as The Tempest, The Shakespeare Sonata and Sonata with Recitative. Beethoven himself, however, never gave the sonata a title and he never dedicated it either (which was rare indeed!). Classical in terms of structure, this sonata addresses the future. In terms of the level of its expression, it comes close to the then yet-to-be-written works of the Romantic composers in this genre.
The genre of the paraphrase – a concert fantasia based on popular musical themes (most frequently from audiences’ favourite operas) – was one of the most widespread in the 19th century. And, of course, such a great artist and innovator as Franz Liszt could not but pay it its due: paraphrases and transcriptions (piano arrangements of non-piano music) form a significant proportion of his legacy. Liszt’s paraphrases, unlike works by other composers in this genre, focus not just on demonstrating piano technique. Liszt strove to reveal the artistic content of the themes he chose and introduce the listener to the original musical source. The Concert Paraphrase on a Theme from Verdi’s Rigoletto is based on a quartet in the last act of the opera.
In this scene the Duke declares his love for Maddalena, the beautiful sister of Sparafucile the bandit. Coquettishly, she responds to his love. Gilda who loves the Duke observes them from the window and is plunged into despair. As a short introduction, we briefly hear the theme of Maddalena responding to the Duke’s declarations of love. As the core material for the variation, the Duke’s arioso “O, bella giovine” concludes with a paraphrase of Gilda’s intonations that sounds like a hymn during the coda: true love is invincible and will overcome both treachery and death.
Franz Liszt’s piano étude Un sospiro (A Sigh) as well as the études Il lamento (The Lament) and La leggierezza (Lightness) form the cycle Three Concert Études. Written around 1848, at the start of the composer’s highly productive Weimar period, these études were edited twice – in 1875 and 1885, which speaks of the significance the composer attached to the cycle. The music of the étude concentrates the main features of Liszt the composer: here there is triumphant elation which does not, however, reach theatrical pathos, there is restrained and deep lyricism and there is beauty of timbre and harmonious expressiveness.
In the summer of 1873, the talented Russian artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, a close friend of Musorgsky, died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-nine. On Vladimir Stasov’s initiative and with the support of the St Petersburg Society of Architects, in February and March 1874 the Imperial Academy of Arts hosted a posthumous exhibition that featured some four hundred of Hartmann’s works created over fifteen years – drawings, watercolours, architectural designs, sketches for theatre sets and costumes and sketches of objets d’art. And between 2 and 22 June 1874 Musorgsky composed his Pictures at an Exhibition piano cycle.
This is the story in brief behind the emergence of one of Russian music’s most surprising and mysterious works. In Pictures at an Exhibition, Musorgsky’s only full-scale and fully developed instrumental cycle, there is much that is unusual even for this composer: the abundance of contrasting, fairytale and fantastical images, the principle of providing names for the sections (using seven languages) and, lastly, the bright and triumphant finale and apotheosis, unparalleled in Musorgsky’s music.
Despite all its external diversity of colour, the series Pictures at an Exhibition has a precisely balanced structure and bears the features of an instrumental mystery where there is a Hell and a Heaven, a man with his passions, the path from death and darkness to the triumph of life and light. Hartmann’s drawings and sketches proved to be an impulse for Musorgsky to create “another” reality, it is as if the composer “enters” the picture itself as sometimes happens in fantasy films, the music brings the picture to life from the inside, and often what we hear is not at all what it appears to be.