Now reading



By Philip Sametz & David Garrett

A hyphenated composer appears in Behzod Abduraimov’s 2017 Great Performers recital program: Bach-Busoni.

This unique composer came into being as a result of Busoni’s admiration for Liszt, and his service to other composers – some of whom came before him, some of whom were his contemporaries – as transcriber and arranger. Liszt was one of Busoni’s musical heroes (the Omega, as he called him) while, in Busoni’s view, ‘Bach is the foundation (the Alpha) of piano playing.’ Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) transcribed Bach’s keyboard music for the modern piano over a period of some 30 years, and in doing so sought to make these works seem new, while simultaneously re-making them. Busoni liked to free works from ‘the dust of tradition … I try to restore them to their youth, to present them as they sounded to people when they first sprang from the … composer.’ To him, according to pianist Nikolai Demidenko, ‘a composer’s text was not so much sacrosanct as a blueprint from which to build castles and fashion spiritual likenesses.’ Unlike Liszt, whose transcriptions were intended in large part to make orchestral and operatic music more accessible, Busoni can be thought of as someone seeking to shine a different kind of light on an existing work. The transcription you hear tonight of Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue may be (inevitably is) a different piece to the one Bach created for organ, yet the clarity and rigour of the result suggest a mind working from inside the world of the music out, not from outside in, to re-cast it in pianistic terms.

Although we often think of Chopin – in his Nocturnes, Scherzi, Impromptus and much more – as creating a revolution in descriptive piano music by breaking free of classical forms, Schubert’s smaller works also constitute the emergence of a new voice in the world of musical Romanticism. If the piano sonatas find Schubert bringing his own aesthetic to a keyboard tradition exemplified by the work of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the Impromptus and the Moments musicaux see Schubert creating an analogue to the world of Romantic poetry. These are mood pieces (‘musical moments’ in every sense) which anticipate by decades music as varied as Liszt’s Liebestraum and Brahms’ Intermezzi. The second of the six Moments musicaux D.780 is an example of that songful melancholy which runs like a thread through so much of Schubert’s later music. With its dancing grace and gentle playfulness, the third of the set is one of Schubert’s most frequently played miniatures, despite (or perhaps because) it was first published as an ‘Air Russe.’ Dating these pieces accurately is difficult, as the manuscripts have not survived. We know that all six pieces were published as a set in the year of the composer’s death, 1828.

When Beethoven published his first sonatas, he was at the height of his fame in Vienna as a pianist and what impressed his listeners most was his powers of improvisation. The Sonata in F minor, Op.57, ‘Appassionata’, came some 10 years later, and although Beethoven was beginning to withdraw from public performance, the links between composition and keyboard improvisation are still apparent. As Peter McCallum points out, Ferdinand Ries’s description of the genesis of the last movement gives apt insight into that fusion: 

During a similar walk in which we went so far astray that [sic] we did not get back to Döbling, where Beethoven lived, until nearly eight o’clock. He had been all the time humming and sometimes howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes. In answer to my question what it was he said: ‘A theme for the last movement of the sonata has occurred to me’ (in F minor Op.57). When we entered the room he ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat, I took a seat in the corner and he soon forgot all about me. He stormed on for at least an hour with the new finale which is so beautiful. Finally he got up, was surprised still to see me still there and said: ‘I cannot give you a lesson today. I still have work to do.’ 

The sonata, mighty in its passion and spontaneous intensity, also feels as if Beethoven is addressing himself to a broader public, and to other pianists – a sonata for posterity. Late in life Beethoven told his pupil Carl Czerny that he regarded this sonata as his greatest, apart from the last five (Op.101, 106, 109–111). Perhaps this was because of its powerful sense of thematic unity, with the outer movements in particular sharing many musical gestures as well as dramatic atmosphere. Typically, Beethoven defies expectation, and an early reviewer recognised this when he praised the powerful effect of the tempestuous outer movements but admitted, almost apologetically, to preferring the theme and variations of the calmer second movement. The sonata was composed during 1804–06, a period when Beethoven was infatuated with the recently widowed Josephine Deym, and it was dedicated to her brother, Count Brunsvik. The ‘Appassionata’ nickname is not Beethoven’s – it is the legacy of an 1838 publication of the sonata as a duet, for which ‘passion’ might well have been a useful selling point.

‘The remarkable stylistic clarity and the structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had never heard anything like it.’ That was the recollection of the pianist Sviatoslav Richter on hearing Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 for the first time. If you’re familiar with the music Prokofiev composed in the late 1930s, not long after his return to the Soviet Union, you will recognize the kinship between parts of this Sonata, the ballet score Romeo and Juliet and the film score Alexander Nevsky, but there is a greater undercurrent of anger in this Sonata; this has been interpreted as a premonition of war, but it is also a reflection of the composer’s increasingly precarious personal circumstances. For although he did not fall victim to Stalin’s ‘Great Terror,’ friends and colleagues did. The arrest and subsequent execution of director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the death of his actress wife Zinaida Reich, who was apparently killed at the hands of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) were particularly crushing to the composer. Prokofiev and Meyerhold were at work on two theatre projects when the blow fell.

Although he began work on his three so-called ‘War Sonatas’ (Piano Sonatas 6-8) at the same time – in 1939, while he was also writing music for the Fifth Symphony – progress on all these pieces was interrupted (ironically) by a commission to compose a cantata for Stalin’s 60th birthday. Prokofiev then turned his attention exclusively to this work, and gave its first performance, in a radio broadcast in April 1940. Richter gave the work its public premiere a short time later.

You are thrown into tumult – even panic – right at the outset with a melodic idea that will also haunt the finale. This leaping, visceral motif is as vivid as bells tolling in alarm, in contrast to the eerie calm of the contrasting second subject. Both ideas are worked over vividly and often violently until the final terse recollection of the distressed clarion call which opened the work.

The second movement begins like a quick march, which, with its regular four beats to the bar and staccato chords, sounds almost balletic. This gives way to a gentler, more expressive second subject, before this relatively short movement ends humorously, and a little teasingly, as if in mid-air.

The third movement waltz is the one that may remind you most vividly of Prokofiev the ballet composer. The central section’s ever-shifting inner voices bring a sense of unease, before the waltz returns. After this relatively gentle movement, the finale moves breathlessly between different tonal centres before being pulled back to the wild despair of the idea with which the whole work opened.

If the Sonata were structured more radically it might sound less radical, but given the exceptional angularity of Prokofiev’s musical language, his decision to structure the work in a traditional pattern – sonata-form first movement, second movement scherzo, slow third movement, and rondo finale – points up how profoundly nontraditional this work is.

You might also be interested in