CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Thursday, May 3, 2012 | 8 PM

Evgeny Kissin

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Evgeny Kissin has earned a reputation as one of the most remarkable musicians of our time, and his Carnegie Hall performances are always extraordinary occasions. On this program, he opens with two sonatas by Beethoven and Barber, and concludes with the music of Chopin, a composer whose music put Kissin on the path to being a legend.
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The Program

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, "Moonlight"

About the Composer


In 1801, Beethoven realized that his hearing was failing. In June of that year, he confessed his condition to a friend. "For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions," he wrote, "just because I find it impossible to say to people: 'I am deaf.'" He held out hope that the illness might be cured, but by the summer of 1802 (which was spent in the country town of Heiligenstadt), he resigned himself to his increasing deafness, plunging into a personal and creative crisis. The Heiligenstadt Testament, an anguished account of his illness and its toll, was penned to his brothers but never sent; it was discovered only after the composer's death.

This time of personal crisis coincided with a period of remarkable artistic growth. Beethoven was working hard to establish himself as a pianist and composer among the Viennese elite, while also struggling with the musical legacies of Haydn and Mozart to define his own position. Beethoven's First Symphony was written in 1800, and his six Op. 18 string quartets in 1798-1800. Both take on genres most closely associated with his celebrated predecessors. Whereas these early works represent a first engagement with Classical forms, however, Beethoven was already comfortable with the Piano Sonata, being a pianist himself. And so the sonatas from around the turn of the century reveal the composer working to expand the genre and make his mark.


About the Work


The sobriquet "Moonlight" was attached to this sonata by poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab. But Beethoven himself gave the work a much more significant title: Sonata quasi una fantasia. By linking two distinct genres—sonata and fantasy—Beethoven reveals the hybrid nature of the piece, the way in which it draws on two separate traditions to become something altogether new. The sonata was, of course, a most prestigious and exalted genre mastered by Haydn and Mozart. The styles and forms of the sonata were generally settled: Three movements, the first in sonata-allegro form staging a dramatic contest between two keys; the second a more lyrical respite; and the third another sonata-allegro or a rondo, generally fast and sometimes furious. The number of movements might contract to two or expand to four, but the basic structure was set.

The fantasy, on the other hand, was the product of immediate invention. Fantasies could embrace multiple styles and employ comparatively free forms. They were generally in a single movement, and whereas sonatas were to be tightly argued, fantasies could be rather discursive. The "Moonlight" Sonata unfolds as a process from beginning to end, with a narrative trajectory toward the sonata-allegro-form finale. In terms of the sonata tradition, the last movement really should be the first.

Musicologist Timothy Jones notes that a sonata-as-fantasy might be understood as an attempt to fix the spark of true and sudden creativity (as represented by the improvisational fantasy) within the established model of the sonata, its heritage and traditions. It was also a way for Beethoven to announce to his audiences his desire to be judged differently, by the standards of his own invention, and thus turn a potential liability—the unusual and challenging nature of his music—into a selling point. This kind of artistic assertiveness was crucial in building Beethoven's reputation among his public as a composer of unique and incomparable genius.


A Closer Listen


The opening of the sonata is (or would have been, to listeners at the time) quite shocking. The first movement might typically begin with a hazy introduction, the real business of the music beginning at a reasonable pace within the conventions of sonata-allegro form. Instead, the first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata unfolds like a song in two strophes. In between, a second idea features a three-note dialogue between hands. The key of C-sharp minor is likewise striking; Beethoven used it for no other work until the Op. 131 String Quartet.

Liszt referred to the second movement minuet and trio as "a flower between two abysses." It falls in a traditional A-B-A form, but the syncopations in the middle section unsettle the triple meter. Whereas the two-note groupings in the minuet lean heaviest, as expected, on the first beat, in the trio emphasis falls on the third beat of the bar.

The opening arpeggios are transformed in the finale, a proper sonata-allegro form, as a stormy first theme marked presto agitato capped by two sharp chords. The second theme is more lyrical, but the accompaniment still roils underneath. Both themes are taken up in the development and repeated in the recapitulation. The coda stays true to the fantasy  with cadenza-like passagework. While the opening movement may have been well within reach of the amateur pianist (a certain source of its popularity), the finale demands the most accomplished technique.


—Elizabeth Bergman

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

SAMUEL BARBER
Piano Sonata, Op. 26

About the Composer


Samuel Barber is best remembered for his Adagio for Strings (1936), a work that has come to be known as our national music of mourning (even though it had no such associations for the composer himself). But he also twice won the Pulitzer Prize—and not for that piece, but for his opera Vanessa (1956-1957) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1962).

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber announced at the age of nine that he intended to become a composer. He studied music at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. A singer himself, Barber distinguished himself among American composers in his brilliant writing for the voice, including songs, orchestral songs, and two operas. The critical panning of the second, Antony and Cleopatra, left the composer devastated. In his later years, he struggled with alcoholism and died of cancer in 1981 at age 70.


About the Work


"Perhaps no other of Barber's works, except the Adagio for Strings, has had as stunning an impact on the American musical world as his Sonata for Piano," writes biographer Barbara Heyman. There's no need to say "perhaps," though the buzz surrounding the premiere may have owed as much to its performer—Vladimir Horowitz—as to the piece itself.

Composed between 1947 and 1949, Barber's Piano Sonata was commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers. Barber intended to work on the piece while at the American Academy in Rome in the spring of 1948, but reached a compositional impasse. He had made good progress by January 1948, but his time abroad proved unproductive. He returned early to his home in Mount Kisco, New York (shared with composer Gian Carlo Menotti), "to sit here, not to move, and to work," as he wrote to his uncle, Sidney Homer. But the premiere would have to be delayed. "Horowitz is furious at me," Barber acknowledged, "as he had programmed it for this season, and it is probably already too late—he learns everything in the summer." He swore to "continue my hermit-like existence" and finish the sonata as soon as possible. But other tasks intervened, and the sonata was not completed until later in 1949.


A Closer Listen


Music theorist Allen Forte has identified Barber's compositional preoccupation with "controlled chromaticism in the context of tonality," meaning that traditional forms and harmonies remain intact even as they are stretched to the limits of comprehensibility. The basics of the piano sonata as a genre and as a form are preserved in this work. True to the essential nature of sonata form, the first movement presents two contrasting ideas: the first craggy, the second more lyrical yet dissonant. The second movement is a scherzo.

The third movement, marked Adagio mesto, reveals its key motif in the first four notes, which will become the basis of the fugue subject in the finale. But as Forte points out, the very first measure contains all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, creating a 12-tone row in the manner of Schoenberg. But Barber treats the row as a true theme, not a basic collection to be transformed in the manner of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg in the early 20th century, or their followers after World War II.

The finale is a toccata-like fugue with an angular subject tossed throughout a densely contrapuntal texture. All the traditional devices of a Bach fugue are deployed—including stretto (overlapping entries of the subject), augmentation (stretching out the rhythmic values of the subject), and inversion (reversing the direction of the intervals)—but there are also tinges of jazz harmonies and syncopated dance rhythms.


—Elizabeth Bergman

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN
Nocturne in A-flat Major, Op. 32, No. 2

About the Composer


"Hats off, gentlemen. A genius!" Thus composer Robert Schumann introduced his exact contemporary Frédéric Chopin. By 1831, when Schumann announced his arrival, Chopin was just getting started in Paris. He made his debut as a pianist in February 1832 and soon assembled a studio of wealthy pupils, earning a reputation as an outstanding teacher. Never comfortable in a large hall, Chopin preferred to give smaller, private concerts in the salons of the Parisian elite. As a composer, he pioneered the quintessential Romantic genres of the nocturne, ballade, and etude. And as an expatriate, he penned polonaises and mazurkas that drew on his Polish heritage.


About the Work


Irish composer John Field is credited with inventing the genre of the nocturne, if only by being the first to compose works for piano solo with that title. But Chopin truly created the genre in the sense of establishing a stylistic tradition.

In the Second Nocturne of Op. 32, the defining characteristic of the main subject is a chromatic (semitone) sway. The middle section changes meter (from the duple 4/4 in section A to triple 12/8 time) and moves through minor keys. The texture also changes from the cantabile, Italianate song of section A to a more insistent, chordal fabric. A long chromatic descent at a fortissimo  dynamic leads back to a newly impassioned repetition of the opening, which only slowly shakes off the dramatics accrued from the middle section, calming to a quiet close. The final measures repeat the very first.


—Elizabeth Bergman

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN
Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

About the Work


Chopin's B-Minor Sonata embraces the Germanic tradition of the Classical and Romantic sonata form. Overall, the work follows the familiar four-movement plan: a first movement in sonata-allegro form, a fleeting second movement scherzo, a lyrical third movement, and a sonata-rondo finale that features two themes that are repeated and varied. The first movement of the B-Minor Sonata also reveals Chopin's often underrated contrapuntal skills, developed through close study of Bach's compositions.


A Closer Listen


The first movement begins with an aggressive first theme in the minor key and moves to a more lyrical second theme. In both themes, the minor mode is enlivened by moments in the major. The middle section (development) varies the first theme, and the final section (recapitulation) takes up only the second. This is a departure from the standard form: Typically both the first and second themes are reprised in the recapitulation. The movement ends in the major mode; the tension between major and minor is set up to be played out in the finale.

The second movement follows the standard scherzo-trio-scherzo form. The trio features rich contrapuntal textures with overlapping, independent lines that complement each other. The ensuing slow movement is in ternary A-B-A form, with an unusually long B section. The repeated left-hand pattern in the return of the opening evokes a lullaby.

The first agitato theme of the finale is stormy and restless, moving in a continuous flow of three-note groupings. The minor-mode theme repeats in octaves before the second theme enters in the major mode with cascading scales. These two themes, minor and major, alternate throughout, until the finale closes abruptly in major mode.


—Elizabeth Bergman


Please note that if you purchase stage seating, please arrive one hour before concert time. There will be no late seating.
KPMG 124X46
Sponsored by KPMG LLP
This performance is part of Keyboard Virtuosos I.