Notes on the Program
By Mary Hunter, A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Music, Emerita at Bowdoin College
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
Mozart’s C-minor sonata was written in 1784, in Vienna, for the pianist Therese Trattner, who was his student, and the wife of Thomas Trattner, his landlord at the time, and a well-known music publisher and retailer. This sonata is one of more than a dozen piano works written for Mozart’s female students, many of whom were first-rate musicians, limited in professional opportunities because of their gender. The key of C minor (the same key as Beethoven’s 5th symphony) and the stormy music often associated with it (as in the Beethoven) is often taken to represent a truer or more direct expression of emotion than is found in Mozart’s more usual major-mode music, but it is more accurate to think of the fast outer movements of this sonata as quasi-theatrical explorations of such affects as rage and grief rather than as expressions of Mozart’s inner life. The slow movement is comparably theatrical, but rather than rage and grief, it takes Empfindungskeit or extreme sensitivity as its topic; the sudden changes of gesture and somewhat fragmentary phrases are characteristic signs of this mode, which was also a popular subject in literature of the time.
Sonata in G Minor, op. 22, and Two Tales, Op. 48
Nicolai Medtner was born in Russia, studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory, graduating with that institution’s highest prize in piano, after which he decided to devote his life to composition despite not having taken the full pre-professional composition course. He was not a supporter of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and in 1921 he and his wife left Russia for Europe. His musical style was as anti-revolutionary as his politics, however, and he did not find success in the post-World War I European world of artistic ferment and experimentation. Rachmaninov, seven years his senior, and already successful as both a pianist and a composer, championed Medtner’s career by helping arrange some tours in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and also by playing his music. Medtner found a warmer welcome in England than anywhere else, and moved there in 1935. One of the more striking events of Medtner’s life was the establishment, in 1946, by Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the last Maharajah of Mysore, of a Medtner Society, which supported the composer in making recordings of many of his own works.
Medtner’s music shares several characteristics with Rachmaninov’s. Both can be quite virtuosic, involving extremely fast passages, the use of the entirety of the keyboard in very short spaces of time, complicated chords that follow each other in quick succession, different and equally complicated work for both hands simultaneously, and and melodies that need to be articulated with individual fingers while the other fingers are doing elaborate accompanimental work. Both composers like the lower reaches of the piano, especially and beginnings and endings, and the openings of the two sonatas in this program, which were written at more or less the same time, are remarkably similar. Both composers play constantly with rhythm, using syncopation (accents not on the strong beats), rhythmic dislocation (e.g. a tune which does not fit with the prevailing sense of beat), and both require a mixture of rhythmic rigidity and flexibility in performance. However, Medtner’s melodies are not as “grabby” as Rachmaninov’s most famous tunes, and there are more moments like Beethoven or Mendelssohn than in Rachmaninov.
The Sonata in G minor, op 22, written between 1901 and 1910, is the 4th of his 14, and is one of the ones without an illustrative title: some of his others are designated “Tragic Sonata, Romantic Sonata, Threatening Sonata,” and so on. This sonata is in three movements — fast, slow-fast — but they are barely separated at all, and they share a lot of material, so the effect is completely different from the movements in the Mozart sonata, which are like three short stories, loosely connected by some underlying procedures. The Medtner movements are more like three chapters of a tightly-woven novel, where the same characters and events persist throughout. The most important idea in the piece is the very opening few notes, which consist of an upward leap (followed by a return to the original note), and then a twitchy dotted rhythm (“ta-DA”). Over the course of the piece the dotted rhythm gets incorporated into the rising motif; the middle movement, whose opening is marked by a couple of short silences, begins with this, as does the last movement. The last movement brings back a lot of material from before, some of it quoted literally, and some transformed.
The first of the two skazki lives up to its title of “Dance Tale” by being all about rhythm. It is a work of Schumannesque caprice, with touches of syncopation reminiscent of the Dvořák Slavonic Dances. Its middle section is a clumsy march in the low register of the piano (perhaps an unwanted guest at the ball?), which morphs back into the original material. The second one alternates between dreamy, sly, and lightning-fast — elves are complicated creatures.
Sonata no. 1 in D minor, op. 28.
Like Medtner, Rachmaninov left Russia as a result of the Bolshevik revolution and lived in both the US and Europe for the rest of his life. His career as a pianist in the US was more successful than Medtner’s, and he made a considerable income. His first sonata (1907) is not the work of a very young man (he was 34), but it displays the energy and technical power of a young performer out to dazzle the audience. It is less well-known and generally less-well regarded than his second sonata, but it is an astonishing encyclopedia of pianistic effects. Its thematic material is more short ideas than long-breathed and memorable tunes, but the first movement includes several repetitions of a melody that sounds very much like Russian Orthodox chant — always placed over a rich and atmospheric accompaniment. This material comes back briefly in a kind of apotheosis at the very end of the last movement.
Alexander Malofeev performs Thursday, February 3, 2022 at 7PM at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.
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