The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s earliest works. The cycle was composed under the influence of North German organists, something which may be observed in the improvisational nature of the toccata, the special features of the structure of the fugue and the concluding phrasing.
Like some other works by Bach, his music for organ remained largely undiscovered until the 19th century. The cycle was only published in 1833 on the initiative of Felix Mendelssohn, who had a lofty opinion of Bach’s music. Mendelssohn was one of the first to perform this cycle on the organ. The work won great popularity and several versions for piano appeared that were written by piano composers. These arrangements reflect the Romantic tendency of taking a free hand to Bach’s musical text. Ferruccio Busoni took a different approach to arranging Bach’s organ music at the turn of the 20th century. His transcription is not a “retelling” of Bach’s text by means of modern musical language but rather a search for the piano equivalent through the expressive means of the organ.
The Eighth Sonata concludes Sergei Prokofiev’s trio of “war” sonatas, composed in the first half of the 1940s. This is the composer’s longest sonata. It differs noticeably in structure from Prokofiev’s previous works in this genre; alongside the virtuoso piano technique, lyricism plays an important role here. For the first and only time, Prokofiev opens a sonata in a slow tempo. Prokofiev borrowed the theme heard at the start of the sonata from music from the unfinished film The Queen of Spades. In the development there is swift and perturbed movement, and the themes of the exposition take on an incredibly evil character. The growth of the tension leads to the culmination which is ensued by a return of the initial tempo and the main themes. The brief second movement enacts the role of an intermezzo. The music of this passage is linked with yet another unrealised Pushkin idea: it is based on a melody from the music for Alexander Tairov’s Chamber Theatre’s production of Eugene Onegin which was never actually staged. The first theme of the finale reminds us of Prokofiev’s early piano opuses, filled as it is with youthful passion. The expansive episode at the centre of the finale begins as a dazzling waltz, but soon it becomes an infernal dance. It is interrupted by the introduction of the second theme in a high pianissimo register. The exultant and joyful moods return in the reprise and the coda.
The Études-tableaux, Op. 39, was the last work by Sergei Rachmaninoff composed before he emigrated. The music of the études-tableaux, regardless of their technical complexity, go far beyond the genre of the étude itself. The whirlwind-like triplet movement of the first étude sets an anxious mood which is retained in the subsequent pieces. In many of his études Rachmaninoff included the motif of the medieval sequence Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”). In a review of the first performance of the cycle on 5 December 1916 the critic Yuli Engel noted that “There was something hanging over the entire 39th opus <...> in no place was it joyful, in no place was it serenely pleasing... Everywhere, however, its life is palpitating.” Despite the symbolism of the “tableaux” the composer never revealed the programme content of the cycle in public. However, when Ottorino Respighi considered orchestrating several of the pieces Rachmaninoff revealed to him the programmes of Étude No 2 (The Sea and Seagulls), No 6 (Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf) and No 7 (Funereal March). Of course, the content of these études cannot be exhausted by pure invention or a fairy-tale plot. The gloomy colour recedes only for a short time in the pathétique Étude No 5 and the romantic No 8. Neither does the tension ease in Étude No 9 – the only one in major key in the entire cycle.
© Mariinsky Theatre, 2015/Vladimir Khavrov