VIAF 2012

An evening of gorgeous piano playing

Gabriele Vianello, who accompanied Dejan Bogdanovich in a duo recital on Friday 15 June, gave a recital of much-loved piano works the following evening. It is with deep gratitude that the VIAF organisers acknowledge Vianello’s participation this year. He was taken seriously ill just a week before he was due to fly out of Venice where he lives and works but he bit the proverbial bullet and got on with it, as it were!

Bach’s monumental Prelude and Fugue in Eb Major BWV552 for organ has been transcribed for pianoforte by Busoni. This is a fearsome work even for the best organists let alone for pianists who have to contend with a left-hand that makes up for the lack of organ pedals and a triple fugue to boot. Gabriele chose this work to start off his recital. Awesome in its architectonic structure, massive in breadth and depth, this is Bach at his most grand and supreme.

“Thus Bach is the end. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads up to him”. Albert Schweitzer’s words, taken from the Preface to his work on Bach, contain a great deal of truth: Bach represents neither the beginning nor the end of musical history. It is perfectly true that many things before his time seem to converge in his art, and it is equally true that no immediate issue to his art can be found. Still, he is not the “termine fisso” of musical history, as Dante would have said – an “eterno consiglio’ he certainly is – but the crowning glory of one of its greatest chapters, of the epoch that reconciles the polyphonic style of the Renaissance with the monody of the early Baroque. While in Italy this process is the result of a gradual reinstatement in the monadic style of polyphonic elements, the merger occurs in the opposite manner in German music, where the operatic elements thrust themselves upon the stubbornly defended traditions of polyphony. Bach is the last great master of this Germanic instrumental polyphony resurrected by the Baroque and with him ends the long period of polyphony that, in spite of a great choral literature, grows from instrumental counterpoint. After him comes a new era in which a melodic style based on homophony is to reign.

Approaching Bach through his instrumental music the discerning listener is awe-struck by the geometric marvels of the severe architecture of his music, which is beautifully tempered by a tender poetry that emanates from the wonderful melodies and meticulously elaborated ornaments of the towering structures. When the attention turns to the source of this poetry, the listener sees the walls and columns of an architecture whose order and logic seem to be unalterably constant. The critic is humbled by the unlimited resources and knowledge of the métier and searches feverishly for the outlets through which pour the broad stream of faith, longing, and exaltation. Yet, he too is misled by the dual unity of absolute mathematics and absolute poetry. A surgical dissection of Bach’s work discredits the very concept of art. A true appreciation of his opus should lead the listener to the aesthetic quality behind the seemingly severe structures. Bach offers one of the most remarkable cases in cultural history of isolation from the general artistic tendencies of his time. This is the more striking when contrasted with Handel’s enthusiastic espousal of the Zeitgeist. Bach’s art rests on the traditions of the German Reformation, which reaches its highest manifestation in him. He belongs in the company of Gryphius, Fleming, Milton, and the great religious figures of the House of Orange, at the same time surpassing them all (with the possible exception of Milton) by the freedom and imagination with which he can abandon himself to human feelings.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, owes its nickname ‘St Anne’ to the close similarity between the theme of the fugue itself, and the eponymous hymn tune by William Croft (1678-1727), to which the words of Isaac Watts’ great hymn “O God our help in ages past” is normally sung. There is, however, no evidence whatever to suggest that Bach might have known Croft’s hymn tune ‘St. Anne,’ which was not known to be sung outside of the British Isles. This work was included in Part III of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (literally Keyboard-Practice) which was first published in September 1739. It was Bach’s first major published edition devoted to new organ pieces, and was issued with the rather cumbersome subtitle of Dritter Theil der Clavier Übung bestehend in verschieden Vorspielen über die Catechismus – und andere Gesaenge, vor die Orgel (Third Part of the Keyboard Studies Comprising Various Preludes on the Catechism and other Hymns for Organ). The complete volume was made up of multiple settings of the German Kyrie and Gloria, pairs of settings of each of the six catechism chorales, and four duets. Surmounting all these was the superb and majestic E flat Prelude and Fugue, performed this evening. It is not possible to determine whether or not Bach wrote these pieces with any particular occasion in mind, although some authorities have suggested that he may well have played some or perhaps all of the set in a recital he gave on the newly installed organ of the Frauernkirche, Dresden, on December 1, 1736. Others have opined that the occasion of the first performance may have been the celebrations held throughout Lutheran Germany on August 12, 1739, to commemorate the bicentenary of the Confession of Augsburg. However, possibly the most likely impulse for these works was Bach’s newly rekindled interest in the church chorale, which had been occasioned by his work for the Schemelli Hymnal project of 1736. Gregory Butler, a noted authority on the original manuscripts of Bach’s organ works, has written that “Clavier-Übung III represents a landmark in Bach’s oeuvre. In it are forecast many of the preoccupations which dominate the works of his last decade; a concentration on the techniques of fugue and canon … an interest in highly abstract, recherché musical thought; and a preoccupation with saying the last word in a given genre with an attendant monumentality of conception.” The ‘St Anne’ Prelude and Fugue attests powerfully to Bach’s attainments in each of these areas, and stands as one of the most noble and eloquent utterances among his many keyboard compositions. Gabriele performed this work with intellectual force and emotional gentleness. He managed to create a big, beautiful sound out of the piano, fully attesting to the power that Bach had in mind. The attention to detail, cross-referencing, contrapuntal textures and singing quality were hallmarks of this performance, a breathless and breath-taking exercise for both performer and audience. I had never heard it played live until yesterday evening and ‘reverence’ is the word that comes to mind when I hear such sublime music being performed with such a high level of excellence. It was truly a humbling experience.

The next four pieces consisted of an alternation between Debussy and Chopin, the Impressionist and the Romantic respectively. The first volume of Debussy’s Images (this title might also serve as a generic commonplace which could usefully be applied to almost any of Debussy’s works) for piano solo was published in 1905. The set comprises three pieces entitled respectively Reflets dans l’eau, Hommage à Rameau, and finally Mouvement. Of the first piece, the composer wrote that it represented “the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry,” which was indeed no idly hyperbolic claim. Behind the flashing arpeggios and shimmering chordal progressions the music somehow loses its focus, much as one’s eyes seem to dilate after gazing intently at an object for any length of time. It is an ingenious agglomeration of whole-tone progressions and endlessly varied pentatonic and chromatic figurations. While the most sonorous climaxes of Reflets mirror the powerful sea music of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the highly impressionistic nature of the coda, with its pattern of three descending notes (which are also heard at the very beginning of this first Image, giving it an overall cyclic unity, despite its harmonic ambiguity) is one of the most memorable and musically effective the composer ever attained. This first piece is one of many works in the composer’s output inspired by water or by the sea. It is also one of the most evocative of the imagery the composer attempts to convey. Debussy revealed that he viewed the piece as a depiction of a pebble being tossed into calm water to make ever-widening ripples. That said, the work also conveys a good bit more, including, as the title suggests, reflections on the water surface, undoubtedly of the sun and sky and nature scenery surrounding it. It opens quietly and unobtrusively, with chords rising into the upper register seeming to depict gentle splashes. Thematically, the work is threadbare; atmospherically, however, it is rich. The main theme is short-breathed (mainly consisting of eight, sometimes ten notes), gradually evolving from the opening material. The middle section develops tension and erupts in music the composer must have envisioned as ripples nearly turning into waves. The mood returns to its earlier tranquil demeanour and this approximately five-minute work quietly ends.

Appropriately for a work which honours one of the great French harpsichordists, the second piece of the set Hommage à Rameau takes the form of a slow, purposeful sarabande, albeit one which springs from a somewhat idealised eighteenth century world; it is a belated funerary offering to one great composer written entirely in the idiom of another. It was composed at the time when Debussy was engaged in revising Rameau’s Les Fêtes de Polymnie, and this study in majestic classical proportions suggests the high regard in which Debussy held Rameau’s keyboard music. The listener was struck particularly by the austerity and economy of the writing which, save for a few passing expressive up-swings, maintained a sombre processional tread, based principally on triadic chords, throughout its entire duration.

The final section, Mouvement, is a toccata-like exercise in physical animation at the keyboard. As Anthony Cross states, “with Debussy rhythm is frequently reduced to continual vibration, to permit the realisation of timbre effects.” It is so here, for although the moto perpetuo torrent of notes seems unstoppable, the music is still rooted firmly to a number of immensely long pedal points which create a feeling of static harmony. Some writers have suggested links with the mawkish humor of Stravinsky’s Petrushka – puppets locked in violent dispute – and perhaps the analogy is a good one. It is perhaps also suggestive of the frenzied flight of the bee in the honey pot-furious, but locked into an orbit from which there is no escape. Gabriele’s touch was silken, seductive and magical, quintessentially Debussyean in texture. He did credit to the work which is by no means an easy piece to perform.

Chopin’s one of two Ballades performed during the recital followed. This is the second one in the Chopin canon and, like all the other three Ballades, is a sheer testimony to Chopin’s beauty. Analogically, Chopin is to music what Keats is to poetry. What matters to him is beauty. Ballade op.38 no.2 possesses, in addition to the normal helpings of powers and beauty, a fascinating structure of exceptional originality. The work is in two keys, beginning in F Major and ending in A Minor, but it is not comparable to the Scherzo op.31 no.2 in Bb Minor/Db Major, or the Fantasy op.49, which uses F Minor and Ab Major as its single tonal home base. The two key-signatures of the second Ballade – the F Major in which it begins, identified throughout with the innocent opening tune, and A Minor, with its story second theme as well as a terrifying third melodic sequence that opens the coda – are always in conflict and never interchangeable.

It begins, however, with one of Chopin’s gentlest tunes: a folk-like melody in a rocking, pastoral rhythm. Cast in exceptionally long phrases, there is considerable harmonic shifting beneath the nearly motionless surface. The tune comes to a point of stasis, after which a soft arpeggio gently signals its end. There is the briefest of pauses before the second tune – in A Minor and at the new tempo presto con fuoco – crashes in. Consisting of hammering octaves in the left hand under slashing passagework in the right, its entrance is terrifying, like that of a dangerous character in a drama, offering the greatest possible contrast to the gentle, long-spun opening melody. Its effect is much like that of the raging middle section of the Nocturne in F Major op.15 no.1, which also invades a tranquil opening but this is yet more violent.

The second part of the thematic group consists of powerful, richly-harmonised chords in the rhythm of the opening theme over a running accompaniment, finally settling down to a magnificent passage in which steady chords in the right hand attempt to quell the turbulence in the left. This, however, continues to threaten in a sequence of long, grumbling runs. The gentle opening theme returns, its innocence now ravished, interrupted by expressive pauses, plaintive minor-key inflections and finally a more angry quality as it is dominated by big, anxious chords in a rising sequence. Things settle down briefly once more, as the rising chords lead to a return of the second theme, here in D Minor. The fast-moving right hand flows about a trouble version of the gentle opening melody, now thundered in octaves in the bass, as innocence and violence are tragically intertwined. Four burning trills lead to the astonishing closing passage in A Minor, marked agitato, in which a panicked right hand expresses terror and rage with chattering short notes in close harmony.

The second theme storms back in with even greater fury than before, ending on the jagged snap of an arpeggiated chord. The opening phrase is heard in the plaintive A Minor one last time, and three quiet chords end this bold work in deep sorrow. Op.38 is dedicated to ‘Monsieur Robert Schumann’, returning Schumann’s compliment of inscribing to Chopin his Kreisleriana op.16 (1838), a great masterly work for the piano, a quality that Gabriele did not lack in his interpretation of it.

Debussy came back, this time in the form of his ‘Estampes’. Estampes means print or engraving, and these three pieces are musical etchings, depictions of particular moments at particular locales. They also represent an interior journey of sorts, a newly personal idiom for Debussy, who is now seemingly unconcerned with the conventions and expectations of the salon and the concert hall.

Pagodes (Pagodas) manages to stay still and flowing at the same time. It is the supreme Symboliste movement in a state of stasis. The stillness comes from the score’s long pedal point, as well as from the harmonic restriction of the pentatonic scale, which is highly characteristic of Asian music. Despite this stasis, the music ultimately conveys smooth motion, thanks to Debussy’s imitation of Javanese gamelan music; it may also be an imitation of the Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas movement from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. The music hovers mostly at low and medium dynamic levels, rising for only a couple of sonorous climaxes that soon recede into the softly tinkling texture. Pagodes shares certain similarities with another work in his output, Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves), the first piece in another triptych, Images, Book II. Both compositions imitate exotic, bell-like sonorities. Debussy was an admirer of the Gamelan, an ensemble of bell-like percussion instruments of Javanese and Siamese origin whose sounds he depicts in this piece. In the later Cloches à travers les feuilles, he ostensibly evokes the sonorities of bells, but the same kind of exoticism in the piece associated with the Gamelan can be heard. Pagodes opens in an ethereal mood, its main theme a mixture of the soothing and the exotic, its upper-register writing ringing and chiming, its harmonies evoking Eastern images and flavours. Throughout, in fact, the mood remains gentle and exotic, although in an alternate guise the theme takes on a muscular demeanor, with belled sonorities loudly ringing out. The piece ends quietly and must be counted among the more successful exotic creations in the composer’s keyboard output.

Soirée dans Grenade takes listeners to Spain, but again the tour guide is Ravel, whose Habañera covers much the same musical territory. Debussy uses the same rhythm – which, technically, is Cuban rather than Spanish, although the French strongly associate it with the Iberian peninsula. Debussy’s dreamy treatment includes rather Moorish material and, except for two brief outbursts four-fifths of the way through, avoids the fast, fiery, flamenco-inspired effects that foreigners associate with Spanish music. Manuel de Falla thought highly enough of this piece to quote from it in his Homage à Debussy. The second piece in Estampes had caused a minor controversy shortly after its premiere when Ravel asserted that Debussy borrowed a feature (C sharp octaves) from his 1895 Habañera nera for use in it. He may have had a point, but Debussy would have been the last to admit to such theft, not least because his effort here is quite brilliant apart from any influence. As can be suspected from the title, La soirée dans Grenade opens quietly, rhythms and thematic bits suggesting nocturnal Spain. Gradually, the music turns livelier, especially with the introduction of a rising rhythmic motif appearing in the outer sections of the work. The main theme appears at last, a festive, proud creation that calls to mind gaudy colors, lively dancers, and romance under a setting sun. It is elegant and graceful, but subtly sensual and alluring, especially as its succeeding music softens and reverts to more nocturnal moods. This colorful, five-minute piece ends after two brief, galloping episodes yield to the serenity of the evening.

The final movement, in the great French keyboard tradition, is a toccata, although Debussy gives it a more fanciful title, Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain). Judging from the movement’s rapidity, this is quite a downpour, although there is little evidence of thunder or lightning; the challenge to the player is to maintain a light touch through most of the movement. The piece incorporates fragments of the French nursery songs Do, do l’enfant do and Nous n’irons plus au bois, suggesting a child unable to go out and play but taking great interest in the rain, watching snug behind some window. This is a typical Debussy piece in the sense that it is characteristic of his Impressionism, evoking a vivid sense of the scene suggested by the title in brilliant colors – one can almost hear the raindrops pelting the foliage, almost feel them on one’s head while racing towards shelter. Debussy has a keen sense for capturing nature scenes and this piece evidences that ingenious talent. The piece opens with an energetic, rhythmic idea, raining its busy notes all over the sonic canvas and creating a sense of joyful menace. Out of the rhythmic drive emerges a theme of playful character, first daintily in the upper register, then more substantially in the middle register. Soon, the theme takes on some muscle, issuing its tones in the lower regions, after which a variation is heard in a less-driven manner. There is further thematic development, through which the mood remains bright and sunny. The piece soon ends, but rather abruptly.

What was astonishingly riveting was the way Vianello switched from the deep Romantic colour of Chopin to the gossamer shimmer of an Impressionist picture. This he did without batting an eyelid, as it were, and the transition was so smooth and effective that the mood settled in immediately in the first couple of bars. The piano lent itself admirably to this, too, and its quality was no less than exceptional in rendering the pieces memorable.

The last work on the programme was Chopin’s Ballade op.47 no. 3. This work was once the best loved of the four Ballades. Since around the middle of the twentieth century, it has yielded pride of place to the fourth one; but its popularity has never really diminished, thanks to its strength of character and radiant beauty, which age cannot wither, as the Bard puts it. It stands in relation to the other Ballades as the Scherzo in E Major does to its companions: where the others are dramatic and usually end in foreboding, this one is joyful; whereas Ballades nos 1, 2 and 4 end in tragedy, no.3 ends in unmistakable triumph. Not that it lacks drama. Rather, the climax of the second theme is pretty aggressive but it is trumped by the apotheosis of the aristocratic and highly memorable first theme, one of Chopin’s great Ab Major melodies, that opens the work in a lovely, long span, passing elegantly between the hands.

Sharply accented octaves form its second part, and a graceful, trill-laden figure that reaches high and low on the keyboard rounds it out. The second group begins with an accompaniment in the right hand, a simple-enough figure that projects a slight limp – a hint of deliberate awkwardness – as the second theme appears, sounding gracious and even mellifluous. Yet, before long, it builds into a more earnest passage, where the theme is stated forcefully in F Minor above the limping accompaniment, now thundered in the bass. While this dies down, the tone of the transitional episode that follows remains serious. As a result, the listener hears the second theme with more respect when it returns.

An entirely new melody follows the reprise: a soaring waltz, high-spirited, ecstatic, and supremely elegant. This opens out into a brief, impassioned variant of the second theme above a swelling Alberti bass. The second theme is heard one last time in its original incarnation before the key changes to C# Minor. The accompaniment picks up in intensity as the second theme drives to a fierce climax, garbed in whiplash pianistic figuration. The rapid accompaniment surges along, palpably seeking release, as fragments of both the opening theme and the second melody break above it like surf a powerful tide. Finally, the big climax – one of Chopin’s most magnificent – approaches clearly, as the opening theme blazes in all its glory. However, as Charles Rosen has pointed out, Chopin reins it in by means of shortening and dramatic key changes to create an excitement and ecstasy that neither an expansion, which would surely contain at least a hint of pomposity, nor a repetition could ever match. A series of big chords leads into the short but spectacular coda, built on the high-flying waltz. This great work, while intellectually complex and challenging, is also eminently satisfying to the listener’s emotions and Gabriele’s interpretation did full justice to this. It was Chopin at his very best.

We look forward to more such wonderful performances from Gabriele!