In the autumn of 1853 Johannes Brahms first met Robert Schumann and performed several of his own works for him, among them his piano sonatas. Schumann was delighted with the twenty-year-old youth’s music and in the article Neue Bahnen (“New Paths”) he foretold Brahms’ glory as one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. The scale and clarity of form in Brahms’ sonatas allowed Schumann to refer to them as “veiled symphonies”.
The Sonata in C Major was published as Brahms’ first work in the genre, although it was actually composed somewhat later than the others. Brahms had an excellent knowledge of the classical musical legacy and already in his first opuses he interpreted, in his own style, the experience of past masters. The powerful chords of the first bars remind us of the start of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, the melancholy secondary role and its transformation in the development reminiscent of the music of Schumann and Liszt. The second movement comes in the form of variations on a theme from the early German cradle song Guter Mond, du gehst so stille. In his sheet music Brahms included a subtext and an indication as to how the song could be performed: a chorus responds to a phrase of the solo voice. The third movement is a bubbly scherzo in the spirit of Beethoven, while the finale is structured along the lines of witty metro-rhythmic playfulness. Brahms unites the cycle using recurrent motifs; the initial motif of the scherzo is connected with the concluding bars of the second movement while the principal theme of the finale is connected with the beginning of the first movement.
Frédéric Chopin once admitted in a letter that he did not understand Viennese waltzes and could not play them. In his own works he created new models in the genre. Waltz No 1 and Waltz No 3 from Op. 34 were based on the “dazzling” virtuoso style, fashionable in European drawing rooms at the time. In Waltz No 2 the dance element takes “second stage”, ceding to melancholy and lyricism.
The mazurka is the largest group of works written by Chopin; he composed over sixty such pieces. While retaining several elements of folk music, Chopin uses them as a starting point for his own interpretation of the genre, often being very far from having dance qualities. The Three Mazurkas Op. 63 were the last to be published during Chopin’s lifetime. The first, quite lively in character, still retains features of folk dance, the second is imbued with a melancholy mood and the basis for the third is a lyrical theme that is vocal in quality, which in the reprise is skilfully presented in the form of a canon.
Leonid Desyatnikov was a pupil of the Leningrad Conservatoire and a student of Boris Arapov, one of the “elders” of the St Petersburg school of composition. Desyatnikov has composed several operas (Poor Liza and Rosenthal’s Children) and ballets as well as music for plays and films including Alexander Zeldovich’s Target. The plot of the film Target takes place in 2020 with almost utopian sets. Apropos, film critics noted that this “futuristic megapolis <...> is not an ideal city of the future but rather an ideal city of the past.” Desyatnikov’s music is imbued with a nostalgic mood. This can be heard in the miniature piece Happiness and in the foxtrot where one can hear a quotation from the famous early 20th century song Tea for Two. The suite Echoes from the Theatre (the title is a reference to Robert Schumann’s eponymous piece) was written by the composer using transcriptions of his own music for theatre.
The Seventh Sonata is the second in a triad of “military” sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev composed in the early 1940s. The moods of this sonata reflect impressions of the first months of war. The perturbed nature of the main theme of the first movement is underscored by the fast but uneven tempo and sharp chord beats. This mood is retained in the secondary theme, although here it is restrained in a more peaceful spirit and measured tempo. In the development there comes an intense growth of tension – the main theme sounds even more dissonant and sharp while the secondary theme is transformed and takes on incredibly menacing qualities. The brief coda seems to burst forth at the merest suggestion. The measured main theme of the second sounds in contrast to that of the first. The lyric mood dissolves in the anxious central movement, the culmination of which comes with an episode with bell-ringing before moving into the reprise. The finale of the sonata is in asymmetrical 7/8 time. The impetuous “perpetuum mobile” together with the sharp, dissonant harmonies reminds us of Prokofiev’s early “barbaric” attempts at piano music.
© Mariinsky Theatre, 2015/Vladimir Khavrov