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“An experience that is as much spiritual as intellectual.”—Financial Times (London)

Lars Vogt, piano

BARTÓK: Excerpts from For Children
SCHUBERT: Sonata in G major, D. 894
LARCHER: Poems: 12 Pieces for Pianists and Other Children New York premiere

BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Book I, Op. 35

This concert is approximately 2 hours duration.

Lars Vogt
SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 – Mässig. Durchaus energisch.
(Edel)

Explore The Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

BARTÓK: Selections from For Children

BÉLA BARTÓK

Born Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died New York, September 26, 1945
Selections from For Children
Composed during 1908-10, revised in 1943; 12 minutes

As one of the leaders of the modernist movement during the mid-20th century, Béla Bartók developed an original musical language that, while thoroughly grounded in the features of Hungarian folk music, tended to avoid direct quotations of folk tunes, except in the early part of Bartók’s careerm when the folk influence was more overt. As a talented pianist in his own right, it was only natural that his extensive research into folk music should influence his early piano pieces, many of which (including the well-known Mikrokosmos) were written specifically for children.

Indeed, one of Bartók’s first piano collections was titled explicitly For Children. From 1908–09 he compiled into four volumes a collection of 85 short pieces based on Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes. They are graduated works that increase somewhat in difficulty as the performer works through the set. Still, to accommodate children’s smaller hands, they almost entirely avoid spans larger than an octave.

Bartók revised the set in 1945, removing some of the pieces that were based on inaccurately transcribed folk tunes or which had been revealed subsequently as inauthentic. He altered the harmonizations of some others, and the cycle—now comprising only 79 pieces—was reissued in its definitive form.

The excerpts heard on this program range from the wistful (No. 3) to the mercurial (No. 8) and somber (No. 17), marking points along the varied and volatile continuum of childhood temperaments. The lusty “Drinking Song” (No. 20) and the energetic dance (No. 21) that follow round out the first volume of pieces by presenting a child’s impression of “grown-up” life.

From Volume 2, a syncopated but reserved “Moderato” (No. 26) is juxtaposed against the playful “Jest” (No. 27), and the sprightly “Pentatonic Tune” (No. 29) leads directly into sharp taunts and jabs of the asymmetrical “Jeering Song” (No. 30). An “Allegro non troppo” (No. 33) contains two parallel phrases, both opening bravely but progressively fading to a single pitch.

The three pieces that follow are all exceptionally brief: a richly-harmonized “Allegretto” (No. 34), a “Con moto” (No. 35) that alternates phrases in duple and triple meter, and a “Drunkard’s Song” (No. 36) that seems remarkably assured, given its title. The vigorously embellished “Swineherd’s Dance” (No. 40) that completes this selection approaches softly from a distance, gaining strength as it moves closer before its drone accompaniment and sprightly melody recede into a remote pppp dynamic.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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SCHUBERT: Sonata in G major, D. 894

FRANZ SCHUBERT

Born Vienna, January 31, 1797; died Vienna, November 19, 1828
Sonata in G major, D. 894
Composed in 1826; 40 minutes

During his lifetime, Franz Schubert was known to the music establishment in Vienna almost exclusively as a composer of a handful of lovely accompanied songs. Only some close friends were aware that he also composed numerous solo piano works and chamber pieces. Almost nobody outside his circle knew he had written symphonies. It was not until after Schubert’s death that his other compositions began to be performed, and this was largely through the efforts of Robert Schumann, who praised Schubert’s music extensively.

Schubert completed his Piano Sonata in G major in 1826, but when it was published the following year it was only his third sonata to appear in print. Contemporary reviewers consequently thought it must be one of his first efforts, and while praising his potential, they compared the work unfavorably with Beethoven. What’s more, Beethoven had published his last piano sonatas four years earlier, and the public’s tastes had changed in the meantime. Subscribers were looking for shorter, less demanding works—the long, multi-movement sonata had apparently become outdated, and Schubert’s must have seemed a remnant of a fading era.

Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger, wanted to get the most out of what he presumed would be a financial risk, and did not call this work a “sonata” when it was published. Instead, he listed it as “Fantasie, Andante, Menuetto und Allegretto,” as though it were four separate, shorter pieces, hoping that the option of playing each of the movements as an individual work would help sell the piece. Even today, performers occasionally play excerpted movements individually.

This sonata was written just a few months after Schubert’s last string quartet, also in the key of G major. Connections between the string quartet and sonata are significant—the composer uses some of the same thematic devices, and often the textures of the sonata look as if they were conceived for a quartet. In this regard he follows in the footsteps of Beethoven, who also took advantage of the early 19th-century elasticity between the two genres.

The opening movement is the first time Schubert used a tempo marking of Molto moderato in a sonata. It’s also the first time he used a 12/8 time signature. The effect of this combination is to enlarge the space between downbeats, creating a calm, expansive movement almost entirely free of rhythmic drive. Schubert fills the movement with melody, exploring distant keys and colorful modulations mainly in the development section (which also includes his only use of the fff dynamic marking).

The ensuing slow movement was originally conceived quite differently than its present form. Schubert had followed the opening theme with a gentle B-minor melody, which was the basis for much of the movement’s middle section. He then rejected most of this material, but had to keep the original beginning and ending because the reverse sides of the manuscript contained the end of the first movement and the opening of the minuet respectively.

The third-movement minuet and trio draws on the legacy of Schubert’s dances for solo piano, written earlier in his career. He later borrowed the rhythm of the minuet’s theme in the opening movement of his Piano Trio in E flat, D. 929. The central trio section is in the form of a tranquil and delicate Austrian ländler.

The finale seems to be modeled on the finale of Beethoven’s G-major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1. But while Beethoven labeled his a rondo, Schubert merely implies the rondo form in the alternation of often lengthy episodes. The second episode in particular is so expansive as to constitute a complete self-contained dance with its own trio section.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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LARCHER: Poems: 12 Pieces for Pianists and Other Children (New York premiere)

THOMAS LARCHER

Born Innsbruck, Austria, September 16, 1963
Poems: 12 Pieces for Pianists and Other Children (New York premiere)
Composed during 2001–10; 15 minutes

Tyrolean composer and pianist Thomas Larcher studied at the Vienna Musikhochschule in the early 1980s, where he earned a reputation as an energetic advocate of contemporary piano music. That advocacy continued into the 1990s, when Larcher co-founded the “Klansgpuren” Music Festival in the Tyrol, which quickly gained an international following. While directing that festival (a position he held until 2003), Larcher also taught piano at the Basel Musikhoschschule. He then organized the “Musik im Riesen” Festival (also in the Tyrol), which he still directs today. Soon after, Larcher began to devote his time more fully to original composition, with important commissions coming from festivals in Salzburg and Lucerne. Today he writes music full time, known internationally as one of Austria’s leading contemporary composers. His website is thomas-larcher.com.

Although Larcher has written orchestral and concerto works, compositions for chamber ensemble (many of them piano-based), and vocal pieces, it is naturally in the genre of solo piano music that he feels most at home, with a corpus of works that go back to his student days in the 1980s. One of Larcher’s more recent keyboard works is his Poems, a set of twelve piano miniatures from 2009 written, he notes, “for pianists and other children.” Each piece was premiered individually by young pianists at the 2010 Spannungen Festival in Heimbach (Germany), then the entire set was performed in its entirety by Lars Vogt at the end of the festival. It receives its New York premiere in this performance.

This conflation of childhood and pianism refers in part to the simplified technique—some of the pieces, the composer observes, are indeed very easy. But they arise also from Larcher’s own youthful experiments with music and composition, and of course refer directly to the historical precedents of piano works written especially for young performers, from Bach and Schumann to Bartók and Kurtág.

The sometimes enigmatic titles refer to the inspirations from Larcher’s childhood that stimulated his musical experiments, some dating back to his pre-teen years, which were then reimagined as finished works when the composer was an adult. There is an understandable element of nostalgia about them, grounded in remembrances of the tonal tradition, but infused with Larcher’s characteristic wit and musical idiosyncrasy.

© 2013 Luke Howard

Click here for Thomas Lancher’s own commentary on the work and each movement.

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BRAHMS: Three Intermezzi, Op. 117

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Born Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died Vienna, April 3, 1897
Three Intermezzi, Op. 117
Composed in 1892; 16 minutes

The solo piano was Brahms’s chosen medium both for his first published compositions and his next-to-last works. In between, he periodically returned to the piano while exploring the other genres that more firmly established his reputation: lieder, chamber music, symphony and concerto. His shorter works for piano fall easily, then, into three distinct periods: the early works, the middle period collections of Op. 76 and Op. 79 (written in 1879–80), and the final flowering of piano works composed and published as Opp. 116-119 in 1892–93.

While the early- and middle-period compositions demonstrate Brahms’s youthful fire and energy, the later works are primarily reflective and introspective. The composer’s dear friend Clara Schumann was the first to see them in manuscript, and it is sometimes suggested that Brahms wrote them in a technically less-demanding style so Clara could play them with greater ease. But by this time Clara’s public performing career was essentially over, and arthritis severely curtailed even her private playing. These works seem, rather, to be simply a manifestation of the essence of Brahms’s late style. Each of the lyric miniatures shows a spiritual concentration, a distillation of technique so vivid that every note, every sound, makes its point without superfluous effect or showmanship.

Brahms referred to his Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, as “three lullabies to my sorrows,” and the score includes a epigraph drawn from Herder’s translation of a Scottish folk poem, “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament”:

Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und Schön!
Mich dauert's sehr, dich weinen sehn.


Sleep softly my child, sleep softly and well!
It hurts my heart to see you weeping.

The presence of this poetic fragment has inspired a century of speculation regarding possible programmatic connections between the poem and Brahms’s music. But whether the folk-like song heard in an inner voice of the first intermezzo is a quotation, a pastiche or simply a heartfelt creation of the composer, it still captures a universal feeling of wistful melancholy and nostalgia, independent of any alleged literary connection.

The second intermezzo is nominally in the key of B-flat minor but quickly veers toward the relative major (D-flat), the key of its chorale-like central section. A “black-note” key such as this would in earlier decades have been used for a virtuosic display of piano pyrotechnics. This intermezzo’s gentle arpeggios are, then, a fading echo of the fieriness of Brahms’s younger style and perhaps an allusion to Clara Schumann’s once-vaunted piano technique.

Similarly, the darkness and textural austerity of the third intermezzo’s opening seem to suggest a diminishment of sorts. But the lively central section vividly recalls the passion and elegance of Brahms’s earlier piano works before lapsing back into a reprise of the forlorn opening theme.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Book I, Op. 35

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Book I, Op. 35
Composed during 1862–63; 12 minutes

It was in the early part of his career as a piano composer that Brahms demonstrated most powerfully his youthful fire and energy, a period crowned by his Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, completed in 1863. These variations were the product of the composer’s lengthy conversations with the pianist Karl Tausig on the nature of piano technique and the phenomenon of the virtuoso performer. Comprising two books, each with 14 variations of the well-known tune, the Paganini Variations seem to have temporarily exhausted Brahms’s impulse to write for the piano. It was another 15 years before he would produce his next works for solo piano, the collection of shorter pieces published as Op. 76.

By far the most virtuosic piano writing Brahms ever produced, the Paganini Variations are almost Lisztean (and therefore atypical of Brahms) in their exploration of the limits of piano technique. Originally published under the title “Studies for Pianoforte,” it’s possible that Brahms intended these variations not so much as a unified concert piece but rather as a set of short, virtuosic études for private study. Clara Schumann, whose piano technique rivaled Liszt’s, even referred to them as the Hexenvariationen or Witch’s Variations because of their difficulty. But unlike Liszt, whose phenomenal technique could occasionally lapse into facile showmanship, Brahms’s Paganini Variations call for an emotional maturity and spiritual depth that put this work beyond the grasp of the merely fast-fingered virtuoso. As one writer has put it, they require “fingers of steel, a heart of burning lava and the courage of a lion.”

Each of the two books of variations begin with a statement of the theme, Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice in A minor for Solo Violin, which had by this time already been used as the basis of variation sets by Schumann and Liszt, and would later be used by many others. The concise but richly elaborated variations follow, exploring all facets of extended virtuoso performance and climaxing with a longer “fantasia” variation (the 14th) as a turbulent conclusion.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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Artist Bio

Lars Vogt

Lars Vogt has rapidly established himself as one of the leading pianists of his generation. He has enjoyed a special relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic ever since he was named its first-ever pianist in residence for the 2003-04 season. He also had a residence at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He has also appeared with the New York Philharmonic; Chicago, London and NHK (Japan) symphonies; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and Dresden Staatskapelle and National Accademy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.

This past season, Mr. Vogt made several appearances in North America, performing with orchestras in Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Seattle and touring with Christian Tetzlaff to New York, Philadelphia and other major cities. He performed with the London Philharmonic both at home and on tour in the UK and Germany. As a chamber musician and recitalist, he enjoys regular partnerships with colleagues such as Christian Tetzlaff and Thomas Quasthoff and collaborates occasionally with actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer and comedian Konrad Beikircher.

An EMI recording artist, Lars Vogt has made fifteen discs for the label, including the Hindemith Kammermusik No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Schumann, Grieg and first two Beethoven concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In September 2010, he released a solo Liszt and Schumann disc on the Berlin Classics label.

Born in the German town of Düren, he first came to public attention when he won second prize at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition. In June 1998, he founded his own festival in Heimbach, Germany. Known as “Spannungen”, its huge success has been marked by the release of ten live recordings on EMI. In 2005 he founded “Rhapsody in School” which has become a high profile education project across Germany. His website is larsvogt.com.

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