Performance Tuesday, February 4, 2014 | 8 PM

Lang Lang

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
“With his charismatic stage presence, passionate playing, and astounding technique, it was easy to see why [Lang Lang] has garnered a large following” (The New York Times). Dynamic, virtuosic playing has led this superstar to sold-out recitals and concerts in every major city around the globe, including captivating concerts here at Carnegie Hall. Don’t miss “the hottest artist on the classical music planet” (The New York Times) when he returns for what will undoubtedly be a highlight of the season.
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The Program

Piano Sonata No. 5 in G Major, K. 283; Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 282; Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K. 310

About the Composer

In Mozart's day, the piano sonata was not yet the elaborate and serious genre it became in the 19th century; instead, it was an ephemeral form intended for light entertainment and often improvised by the composer or performer on the spot. As musicologist Egon Kenton explains, this was partly due to the relatively insubstantial sound of 18th-century pianos, which were still far from the powerful concert grands of today. Because of its relatively modest capacity, the piano was more often featured as an accompanist to a violin or a singer than exploited as a soloist in its own right.

Mozart did not begin to write down his piano sonatas, which he had simply improvised up to this point, until around 1775 when he created six sonatas possibly with the hope of publishing them. We hear two of these this evening: the Sonata No. 5 in G Major, K. 283, and the Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 282, composed when he was about 19. The influence of Haydn is strong in these early pieces, for the older Austrian master had just published a group of piano sonatas in 1774 that Mozart—just beginning to find his expressive voice in this genre—would surely have studied.

The Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K. 310, composed in 1778 when the 22-year-old Mozart was in Paris trying to secure an important musical post for himself, is something else again: Far from being a work for easy listening, it is an extraordinary personal expression of internal pain and anger. What prompted this mood is unknown. Could it have been the sudden death of his mother, his chaperone on this multinational job-hunting trip? Or frustration over the relative lack of interest in engaging his phenomenal talents that he had encountered in city after city? Or was the reason purely a musical one: a yen for an excursion into the passionate Sturm-und-Drang  style so popular in the 1770s? Whatever the cause, the A-Minor Sonata is one of his greatest achievements in this genre and one that looked far ahead to the Romantic era.

Piano Sonata No. 5 in G Major, K. 283

The opening Allegro of this sonata has a bright and airy quality. The 3/4 tempo gives its graceful principal theme the feeling of a minuet. More intriguing is the second theme, whose syncopated descending scale receives a different rhythmic treatment each time it appears. The development section is full of whimsy, including rude disruptions when the principal theme tries to reprise.

The C-major Andante is all about melody: Mozart creates three distinct but all very lyrical themes for the opening exposition. The development intensifies and deepens these placid ideas with striking harmonic invention. The Presto finale is brilliant, light-hearted, and rhythmically very playful.

Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 282

Unusually for Mozart, the E-flat–Major Sonata replaces the usual Allegro opening movement with a pensive Adagio of great melodic beauty, enhanced by wonderful harmonic colors. The development darkens the mood to minor and intensifies the reflectiveness of this music. At the end, a little coda reinforces the meditative mood.

The first movement is followed by two distinct minuets: The first is straightforward, rhythmically crisp, and rather masculine; the second is more flowing, feminine, and gracefully ornamented. The cheerful finale is closely modeled on Haydn, with a short-long leaping motive generating its single theme and animating a tiny development section.

Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K. 310

In his compositions, Mozart used minor keys sparingly but with powerful effect. Alfred Einstein describes the key of A minor as Mozart's key of despair. The Allegro maestoso first movement opens with a furious theme, edgy with dissonance. The fierce dotted rhythm that launches it will be a prominent motive throughout this sonata. The violent energy of this music intensifies in the development section and doesn't cease until the final three fortissimo chords.

Though the Andante cantabile second movement moves to F major, this does not really lessen the pain. The gorgeous singing principal theme does, however, offer temporary consolation along with an exquisitely expressive use of trills. The development section carries this music into a realm of darkness, propelled by tormented harmonies and a left-hand part of Romantic intensity. Here Mozart seems to leave his own carefully controlled era behind and to forge ahead into the more dangerous, expressive worlds of Chopin and Schubert.

The dotted-rhythm motive returns, driving the closing Presto relentlessly forward and forbidding any coming-to-rest on a cadence. Though this music eases briefly for a folk-like interlude in A major, Mozart soon returns to the minor, refusing to allow this movement to make the traditional happy-ending shift into the major mode.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23; Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38; Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47; Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52

About the Composer

"He made a single instrument speak a language of infinity." No one summed up Chopin's achievements as a composer for the piano better than George Sand, the radical feminist novelist with whom the composer shared a controversial liaison for nearly a decade. While other great composers spread their creativity over a variety of musical genres, Chopin—aside from some works for cello and a few songs—wrote solely for the piano and in the process transformed its expressive range.

The man and the moment were well met. In the early 19th century, the piano was rapidly evolving from the brilliant, hard-action fortepiano instrument of Mozart and early Beethoven. The introduction of pedals to sustain the sound, thicker strings and heavier hammers to make it more powerful, and thick felting on the hammers to make it softer and sweeter were advances Chopin exploited to the fullest. In an era of instrumental superstars such as Liszt, Thalberg, and Paganini, who astounded audiences with their circus-ring virtuosity, Chopin opted out of his own burgeoning performance career shortly after arriving in Paris in 1831 in order to devote his time to composition. In the process, he transformed virtuosity into high musical art, translating and refining percussive sound into pure poetry and, with his harmonic daring, opening new worlds for Romantic creators.

About the Four Ballades

The four ballades were not written as a set, but were created at different intervals over the course of Chopin's career. The most lyrical and rhapsodic, the First Ballade in G Minor is a young man's piece: It was probably sketched in Vienna in 1831 while he was pursuing his keyboard career and completed in 1835 in Paris. The dramatic, highly contrasted Second Ballade in F Major was written in 1839, around the time when he met and began his relationship with Sand. The Third Ballade in A-flat Major (1841) and the Fourth in F Minor (1842–1843) are expressions of his most mature and sophisticated style. They were composed at Nahant, Sand's country estate outside Paris, where Chopin did his best work. Because of the narrative quality the ballades share, there has been speculation—fueled by a remark Chopin made to Robert Schumann about the Second Ballade—that they might have been inspired by the verse of his associate, the revolutionary Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.

The great Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, a friend of both Chopin and Sand, expressed an evocative memory of summers at Nahant: "Every now and then there blows in through your window—opening onto the garden—a breath of the music of Chopin, who is at work in his room, and it mingles with the song of the nightingales and the scent of roses."

A Closer Listen

Though they express different emotional worlds, the ballades share some common premises. They are all in lilting compound meters (6/4 for the first and 6/8 for the other three), but Chopin's rhythmic invention prevents any feeling of monotony. All begin quietly and calmly with a sense of a story gently unfolding. Chopin casts them in free forms of his own devising, loosely inspired by sonata form. After a short introduction (ballades nos. 1 and 4), a lyrical first theme is presented and developed. Later, a contrasting second theme with more harmonic instability comes on the scene. Chopin then seeks a synthesis between the two themes, a process that produces considerable tension and drama. Finally, the tension culminates in a fast coda of virtuoso fireworks that never degenerates into mere display. Though this sounds as though Chopin were simply working to a tight formula, the four works instead achieve considerable variety.

With its glowing melodies and sense of improvisatory spontaneity, the First Ballade is one of Chopin's best-loved works. It features the composer's most limpid, almost boneless piano style and a first theme that is one of his loveliest waltzes.

Ballade No. 2 is revolutionary for its period in that it begins in one key (F major) but ends in quite another (A minor). It is a battle between two kinds of music: the quiet, placid opening theme and the fast, furious second theme that eventually succeeds in hijacking the placid melody into its A-minor tonality.

There are no big contrasts to mediate in the Third Ballade, which maintains a mood of joy and contentment without ever becoming boring.

Many consider the Fourth Ballade to be Chopin's greatest single work. Formally, it combines elements of sonata form and variations technique: Its beautiful waltz triste theme is treated to a series of variants that are breathtaking in their originality and their ability to turn decorative ornaments into expressions of tragic emotion. In 1842, Chopin was devastated by the death of Jan Matuszyński, his close friend since childhood, who died of tuberculosis. Chopin, already suffering from the disease himself, may have intuited his own death, which would come at the age of 39.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Trio of Great Pianists, and Non-Subscription Events.