Explore The Music
(Click the names below to expand info.)
DEBUSSY: Suite bergamasque
Born St. Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862; died Paris, March 25, 1918
Composed in 1890, revised in 1905; 18 minutes
At the end of the 19th century, as French music was just beginning to assert itself after 150 years of Austro-German domination, Claude Debussy developed a novel and thoroughly French style of keyboard composition. In contrast to the Germanic styles, Debussy’s music favored timbre and texture over form and structure. His harmonies were often non-functional, employing parallel chords, unresolved dissonances and free modulation. Debussy’s ideal was, after all, “music so free in form that it seems improvised,” as if it were “torn from a sketchbook.” It was a new language for music, one that would ensure the composer’s popularity and reputation.
Yet, despite Debussy’s focus on instrumental color and free form, he still looked back to the traditions of keyboard music for inspiration. He considered himself essentially a Classicist, not so much in musical language and style but in attention to rhythm, phrasing, form and development, as demonstrated in his 24 piano Preludes (an homage to Bach and Chopin) and twelve Etudes.
Debussy toyed with historicism more overtly in his Suite bergamasque, begun in 1890 and completed in 1905. Drawing inspiration from Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de lune,” he created a suite of Baroque-style movements surrounding the now well-known piano rhapsody that took its name from Verlaine’s poem. But rather than following exactly the form of a Baroque suite, with its paired dances, Debussy’s suite also closely imitates the four-movement format of a string quartet or symphony.
The suite’s title has two related connotations: “bergamasca” was a renaissance-era dance (mentioned specifically in Verlaine’s poem) and also an allusion to clowning and buffoonery. Though Debussy’s music shares little in common with the traditional bergamasca tune and chord progression, his suite impressionistically illustrates the nostalgia and melancholy of Verlaine’s “almost sad” costumed dancers from a bygone era. The improvisatory Prélude explores a variety of moods, followed by a playful Menuet that is more comedic than courtly. Clair de lune (or Moonlight) is justly famous for its lingering evocation of nighttime serenity. And the Passepied, quicker than the authentic Baroque dance, presents a lively yet wistful conclusion.
© Luke Howard
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BRITTEN / STEVENSON: Peter Grimes Fantasy
Benjamin Britten / Ronald Stevenson
Born Lowestoft, November 22, 1913; died Aldeburgh, December 4, 1976 / Born Blackburn, March 6, 1928
Peter Grimes Fantasy
Composed in 1971; 8 minutes
Benjamin Britten’s first popular success in opera—a genre he would almost singlehandedly sustain through the middle of the 20th century—was Peter Grimes from 1945. The work was adapted from George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough,” published in 1810, which deals in part with the tragic tale of a fisherman from the small village of Aldeburgh in Suffolk (the same village, incidentally, where Crabbe was born and where Britten moved permanently in 1942). Grimes is a social outcast in this close-knit, morally-judgmental community, fueling a tragic story in which Grimes is compelled by the villagers into a maddened suicide.
In 1971, the Scottish composer, pianist and writer Ronald Stevenson wrote a fantasy on themes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. In his original compositions, Stevenson draws on an extraordinary range of influences but, like Liszt, he also frequently transcribes and paraphrases for piano the music of others. In this respect, Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy is an extension of the Liszt tradition of operatic paraphrases, as it makes available to pianists some of the music of a crucially important opera composer. (Though Britten was a pianist himself, he left very little music for solo piano, preferring to regard it as “a background instrument.”) Stevenson’s evocative fantasy brings together themes that represent the darker aspects of Grimes’s character, the turbulence of the sea and the horrific consequences of the villagers’ displaced morality.
© Luke Howard
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ADÈS: Darknesse Visible
Born London, March 1, 1971
Composed in 1992; 7 minutes
The English composer Thomas Adès has in recent years been hailed as the brightest young star of British music; if not the “new Mozart,” then certainly the “new Benjamin Britten,” as London critic Andrew Porter has dubbed him. After initial success in piano performance, his rise to prominence as a composer was meteoric, culminating in 1999 with his receipt of both the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and the Grawemeyer Award. Adès has written in all the major musical genres, enjoying especial success with his two operas Powder Her Face (1995) and The Tempest (2003). He was simultaneously making his mark as a talented conductor, and he served for ten years as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, from 1999-2008.
Adès’s music is notoriously vivid, difficult and elaborate. While avoiding complexity for its own sake, he challenges performers to push their limits. His approach to composition is also flexible—the resulting sonorities are totally new, with a freshness that derives from personal emotion fused with spectacular technique.
Though he appropriated the title from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adès conceived his Darknesse Visible (written in 1992) as a reworking of the melody of John Dowland’s renaissance-era lute song, “In darknesse let me dwell.” Adès retains every note of the original tune, but he (in his own words) “explodes” the song by altering the tempo, texture, register and dynamics. In this chiaroscuro combination of light and dark, tremolando effects serve to suspend the music like a shimmering phantasm. He leaves the conclusion tantalizingly unresolved.
© Luke Howard
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RAVEL: La valse
Born Ciboure, France, March 7, 1875; died Paris, December 28, 1937
Composed in 1920; 12 minutes
For a modernist composer in fin-de-siècle France, Maurice Ravel was uncommonly interested in the traditional forms and genres of keyboard music. His first two piano compositions, for example—Menuet antique (1895) and Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899)—were both reworkings of archaic dance forms. While his colleague Debussy dabbled with historical models in his own Suite bergamasque, it was Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917) that paid direct homage to the French clavecinists in the form of a Baroque dance suite. Throughout his career, Ravel continued to cultivate and treasure a reverence for the balanced forms and textural clarity of earlier styles.
No surprise, then, that Ravel should be drawn to the keyboard waltz of the 19th century as a compositional form. In 1911, he wrote a series of piano waltzes, based on Schubert’s models, published as the Valses nobles et sentimentales. Similarly, Ravel conceived an “apotheosis of the Viennese waltz” that he completed in versions for solo piano and two pianos in 1920, though sketches date back as far as 1906.
This work—originally referred to as Wien (Vienna) but eventually titled La valse—was intended as a dance score for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. Although the impresario recognized in it “the portrait of a dance,” Diaghilev did not find it acceptable as a ballet score (a slight for which Ravel never forgave him). The work was later produced as a ballet, but has found a home more securely on the concert stage.
Various other composers and writers have interpreted the rise, peak and dissolution of the waltz form in La valse as representing the decline of the Hapsburg Empire, the cultural catastrophe of World War I or a programmatic representation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. The composer himself refused to admit to any larger symbolic meanings in the work and, as with his celebrated Boléro, spoke of it primarily in technical terms. “One should only see in it what the music expresses,” he remarked, “an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.” He continued: “It doesn’t have anything to do with the present [post-WWI] situation in Vienna, and it also doesn’t have any symbolic meaning in that regard. In the course of La valse, I did not envision a dance of death or a struggle between life and death.”
Since this was intended as a ballet piece, however, Ravel provided his own choreographic narrative. “Through swirling clouds, waltzing couples can be made out,” he wrote, “the clouds gradually disperse, revealing a great hall, with a whirling crowd of dancers: the scene is gradually illuminated, with the chandeliers bursting into light, revealing an Imperial court of about 1855.” Ravel’s narrative covers only the opening of the work, which then begins to swirl and pulsate into an elegant D-major waltz. The dance gains momentum until the fragments become more animated, almost manic. After resetting itself, by returning to the opening theme once more, the waltz rapidly reaches an impassioned critical mass and frantically careens out of control, leading in the final measure to an exhausted collapse of the dreamlike evocation.
© Luke Howard
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SCHUBERT: Sonata in A major, D. 959
Born Himmelpfortgrund, suburb of Vienna, January 31, 1797; died Vienna, November 19, 1828
Sonata in A major, D. 959
Composed in 1828; 39 minutes
During his lifetime, Franz Schubert was known to the music establishment in Vienna almost exclusively as a composer of a handful of lovely lieder. Few were aware that he also composed solo piano works and chamber pieces, since hardly any of these were published at the time. Almost nobody outside his circle of close friends knew he had written symphonies—they were never performed in his lifetime. It was not until after Schubert’s death that his other compositions began to be heard, and this was largely through the efforts of Robert Schumann, who wrote extensively in praise of Schubert’s music.
Although Schubert played piano himself, he was not a performing virtuoso of the caliber of Mozart or Beethoven. But his piano sonatas—21, in all—rely on the same classical formats and early Romantic techniques that previous keyboard masters, especially Beethoven, had explored and established. Despite Schumann’s imprimatur, Schubert’s piano sonatas were largely ignored during the 19th century, dismissed as inferior to Beethoven’s, and they have only entered the pianist’s core repertory in the second half of the 20th century.
The reliance on Beethoven’s models is even more pronounced in Schubert’s last sonatas, written after Beethoven’s death. His final three sonatas, which are frequently regarded as a trilogy, were sketched during the summer of 1828, then completed during a four-week period of intense activity in September; his own death was only two months away. These sonatas remained unpublished until 1839, and although Schubert intended to dedicate them to composer and virtuoso pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the publisher Anton Diabelli dedicated them instead to Robert Schumann.
These works are particularly indebted to Beethoven, yet they also manifest Schubert’s innate lyricism—his natural gift for pure melody was more pronounced than Beethoven’s—and his creative answers to Beethoven’s innovations. As the famed Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel has observed, Schubert’s familiarity with Beethoven’s sonatas “taught him to be different…. Schubert relates to Beethoven, he reacts to him, but he follows him hardly at all. Similarities of motif, texture or formal pattern never obscure Schubert's own voice. Models are concealed, transformed, surpassed.”
In the first movement (Allegro) of the Sonata No. 20 in A major, the Beethoven influence is evident in the motivic nature of the exposition, which explores a unusual variety of contrasting themes. The development section raises a fairly insignificant theme, heard near the end of the exposition, to an important role before the movement is completed by a customary recapitulation and expressive coda.
The second movement (Andantino) starts out as a poignant barcarolle before turning more improvisatory in its virtuosic middle section, where a subtle reference to the enharmonically-equivalent Impromptu in G-flat major (D. 899) reveals Schubert’s penchant for self-borrowing. A leaping, playful A-major Scherzo follows, in the mood of one of Schubert’s songs, though the theme is then varied pianistically in subsequent episodes.
The theme of the lyrical finale is taken from an earlier Schubert sonata (No. 4 in A minor, D. 537), though the structure is borrowed from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1. But, as the renowned scholar and pianist Charles Rosen has remarked, “with the finale of the A-major Sonata, Schubert produced a work that is unquestionably greater than its model.”
© Luke Howard
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With this concert, pianist Inon Barnatan makes his 92nd Street Y solo recital debut. A winner of the 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Mr. Barnatan has performed with many of the country’s leading orchestras since moving to the US from his native Israel in 2006, including the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras, and the Dallas, Cincinnati, Houston and San Francisco symphonies. Internationally, Mr. Barnatan has appeared with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Israel Philharmonic, London Soloists Chamber Orchestra and the Jerusalem, Shanghai and Winnipeg symphonies.
This evening’s program is drawn from Mr. Barnatan’s second solo recording, Darknesse Visible, released on Avie Records in April 2012. Named after Thomas Ades work which is featured on the recording, the CD’s programming draws inspiration from literature and explores the interconnection of darkness and light. To further explore these themes, Mr. Barnatan collaborated with filmmaker Tristan Cook and artist Zack Smithey to create a series of videos that are available on YouTube. Darknesse Visible has received critical acclaim and was named BBC Music magazine’s instrumentalist CD of the month. This season, Mr. Barnatan is also giving recitals taken from the CD’s program at the Ravinia Festival, Kennedy Center, London’s Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw; and in California, Texas and Oregon and in South Africa.
Mr. Barnatan opened his 2012/13 season this past September with performances at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last month, he toured South Africa, and later this month, he travels to Mumbai for the Sangat Music Festival, followed in January by the Hong Kong International Music Festival. Other highlights include a 16-city US tour with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in March, conducting and playing Bach’s D-minor Concerto. He also joins cellist Alisa Weilerstein for a series of international duo-recitals throughout the season, including at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.
An avid chamber musician, Mr. Barnatan made his 92Y debut in 2009. He was a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program from 2006 to 2009, and regularly returns to the CMS both in New York and on tour. He has collaborated with musicians such as violinists Miriam Fried and Cho-Liang Lin, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Gary Hoffman, clarinetist Martin Frost and the Jerusalem Quartet.
Born in Tel Aviv, Inon Barnatan started playing the piano at the age of three after his parents discovered he had perfect pitch, and he made his orchestral debut at eleven. Mr. Barnatan's website is inonbarnatan.com
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