Performance Sunday, April 3, 2011 | 7:30 PM

Aimi Kobayashi

Weill Recital Hall
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LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770–1827) Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”

About the Composer

Beethoven’s early achievements found him extending the Viennese Classical tradition inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As the German composer’s style grew more and more personal, his work grew increasingly profound; he composed many of his masterworks at the end of his life. Beethoven’s combination of exploration and personal expression led to his stature as the dominant composer of the 19th century.

About the Work

The popular “Pathétique” Sonata from Beethoven’s early period may have earned its descriptor from the sonata’s publisher, who was moved by the work’s tragic passion. The “Pathétique” was published in 1799 in Vienna, where Beethoven was residing under the support of many patrons, including the work’s dedicatee, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. Beethoven’s early sonatas pushed the dynamic and sonic range of the pianoforte—an instrument that had been in popular use for more than half a century, but differs greatly from today’s modern piano.

A Closer Listen

The instrument’s dynamic extremes are immediately evident from the juxtaposition of fortissimo and pianissimo in the Grave opening of the sonata. The theme returns in the sonata-form Allegro section that follows, resurfacing yet again at the close of the movement.

The warmth of the sonata’s major-key Adagio cantabile is achieved through inventive and expansive accompaniments to the melody in each of its recurrences; the theme prevails out of each minor-key section to reclaim tranquility.

The final Rondo returns to C minor—this time with a lighter feel. Beethoven eschews the heavy chords of the opening movement in favor of running lines that are diverted by other major-key themes until the music darkens for a strong coda. But even as we race to a C-minor conclusion, Beethoven pauses for a distraction in the major mode, recalling the warm Adagio.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”

About the Work

“I could listen to it every day,” Vladimir Lenin declared in reference to the “Appassionata,” his favorite piece. “I always think, with perhaps a naïve, childish pride, how can man create such wonders?”

Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries observed the wondrous creation firsthand during a countryside walk with the composer outside of Vienna in the summer of 1804. Ries wrote that Beethoven “had been all the time humming and sometimes howling ... without singing any definite notes.” When the student asked what he was thinking of, Beethoven answered that it was the last movement to his sonata. Upon returning home, Beethoven pounded away at the “Appassionata” finale at the pianoforte for an hour without even removing his hat, forgetting all about Ries and eventually postponing his student’s lesson.

A Closer Listen

In comparison to the “Pathétique,” the “Appassionata” seems to be a magnification of the tragic nature of the former. This is certainly apparent in the opening tempestuous Allegro assai, where a quiet theme is overtaken by the swirling chaos of another. Intertwined, the music searches for glimpses of relief in the major sonorities, but inevitably returns to a definitive minor mode with an extended coda. Beethoven makes use of the full range of the pianoforte down to its lowest note (which is, not coincidental with the sonata’s key, an F).

The dreamlike hymn of the Andante con moto makes for a quiet interlude between the energetic outer movements; it begins simply, gains ornamentation, and then returns to its original state, lingering on some diminished-seventh chords before the shocking arrival of the final Allegro.

The Allegro ma non troppo marks the dark return to reality, recalling the mood of the opening movement. Here, the downward fall of the music seems all the more inevitable, as demonstrated in the coda: Hope of escape is repeatedly and definitively stamped out before the sonata comes to a frenzied end.

MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937) Sonatine

About the Composer

One of the most original and sophisticated musicians of the 20th century, Maurice Ravel, a contemporary of Debussy, joined his colleague in exploring new musical possibilities in form, harmony, and texture. If Ravel shared a French sensibility with Debussy, his classicism sets the former master apart: Many of Ravel’s works, including the Sonatine, pay homage to past styles and forms, while seamlessly employing modern harmony and avant-garde compositional technique.

About the Work

Ravel’s charming Sonatine (given the diminutive title because its length is shorter than a traditional sonata) is an homage to the Classical form; however, it also makes subtle use of modern harmony, notably consecutive fifths and ninths. Ravel had a financial incentive for the work’s brevity, as it was originally penned for a 1903 competition by a fine-arts magazine, Weekly Critical Review. The competition called for a 75-measure first movement of a piano sonata; the prize was 100 francs. Ravel, the only entrant, submitted a movement that was a few measures too long. No winner was declared, as the magazine was nearing bankruptcy and cancelled the competition. The composer eventually completed the second and third movements in 1905.

A Closer Listen

The opening movement, “Modéré,” features typical Ravelian characteristics: melodies that are doubled an octave below and a sole melody that is juxtaposed with a simple accompaniment. The melody often moves to the bass, with harmony in the treble. The “Mouvement de menuet” transforms the melody of the first movement with some modal throwback harmony (recalling the composer’s previous piano work, Menuet antique). It lacks the minuet’s traditional trio section, likely in keeping with Ravel’s concept of a shortened sonata. The final movement, “Animé,” is virtuosic; Ravel himself only performed the first two movements of Sonatine when on tour. Again, the melody of the first movement reappears within the cascade of notes, tying this pristine miniature together as a whole.

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810–1849) Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20

About the Composer

For all of his innovation at the keyboard, a strong classical streak steadfastly prevails throughout Chopin’s oeuvre. That much is clear from the way the composer stuck with absolute forms for his titles (Waltz, Ballade, Etude, Nocturne, Mazurka, Polonaise, Scherzo, Impromptu) instead of descriptive or programmatic titles, as his colleagues Schumann, Liszt, and Mendelssohn were apt to use. Beethoven’s thunder appealed to Chopin far less than Mozart’s elegance and proportion and Bach’s organizational powers and contrapuntal acumen.

About the Work

Chopin’s scherzo, derived from the minuet-and-trio form, breaks with Beethoven’s use of the form as a humorous interlude within a larger work. If there is any humor in Chopin’s scherzo, it is very dark indeed. Chopin began composing the work in Vienna in 1830, a professionally sluggish period for the composer, as well as a personally anxious one: The Polish rebelled against the Russians in November of that year.

A Closer Listen

The agitation of the period can be heard in the Op. 20 Scherzo. A driven theme yields to a soothing middle section based on the old Polish Christmas carol, “Lulajze Jezuniu” (“Lullaby to Jesus”). The opening chords of the initial theme return before the arrival of a powerful coda.

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23

About the Work

Chopin’s four ballades did not all grow from the same period in the composer’s life; they are four individual pieces that do not particularly resemble each other, apart from sharing a loose narrative style. The First Ballade was composed over several years, finished around 1835, and published in 1836.

A Closer Listen

Chopin wrote many beautiful themes, but the second theme in E-flat major of his First Ballade may be one of his most arresting: It embraces a soaring quality that presaged Tchaikovsky and an elegance that is the composer’s trademark. The music grows organically out of the opening melancholic theme and then broadly flowers. The opening material is restated and earns a dramatic presto coda.
Ben Finane © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Distinctive Debuts series is made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for the presentation of young artists generously provided by The Lizabeth and Frank Newman Charitable Foundation.

Additional endowment support for international outreach has been provided by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation.
This performance is part of JapanNYC, JapanNYC, and Distinctive Debuts.

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