CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Saturday, February 25, 2012 | 7:30 PM

András Schiff
Dénes Várjon

Zankel Hall
András Schiff’s Carnegie Hall Perspectives residency focuses on Bartók, and on this concert he teams up with Dénes Várjon to perform the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion—one of the composer’s most popular works. In addition, Schiff and Várjon perform Debussy’s En blanc et noir, which alternates between passionate extroversion and somber reflection.
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The Program

ROBERT SCHUMANN
Six Etudes in Canonic Form, Op. 56 (arr. Claude Debussy)

About the Composer


Schumann revered J. S. Bach. Like his close friend Felix Mendelssohn, whose 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion laid the groundwork for the 19th-century Bach revival, he regarded the cantor of Leipzig not as an outdated master, but as a universal genius—the font and origin of all that was noble and inspired in contemporary music. Schumann’s lifelong study of Bach’s works reached a climax in 1845, when—in the grips of what he called “fugue passion”—he composed a series of Bach-like fugues, canons, and other contrapuntal pieces. Later, he would look back on the experience as his introduction to a “completely new manner of composing,” in which he invested the freely lyrical style of his early works with new rigor.


About the Work


As the name implies, the Six Etudes in Canonic Form were conceived as intimate studies or essays rather than public concert pieces. They were written for the pedal piano, a piano equipped with an organ-like pedal-board. Schumann had recently acquired one of these now-obsolete instruments in an effort to polish his organ technique. He became so enamored of it that he persuaded Mendelssohn to offer a pedal piano class at the Leipzig Conservatory. Opus 56 is one of three works that Schumann wrote for pedal piano in 1845. Years later, Debussy—no doubt intrigued by the instrument’s unusual sonorities—arranged the etudes for two pianos.


A Closer Listen


Recognizing the lyrical impulse that animates even Bach’s most abstruse contrapuntal creations, Schumann regarded fugues as “character pieces of the highest kind.” If none of the six etudes quite rises to the sustained level of inspiration found in Schumann’s finest piano miniatures, they are captivating in their own right. All six are canonic—that is, the voices present the same melodic material in successive entries—and cast in ternary (A-B-A) form, with contrasting midsections. Within those bounds the etudes range widely, from the busy Bachian counterpoint of No. 1 to the light Mendelssohnian scherzo of No. 5 and the calmly measured, chorale-like harmonies of No. 6. Perhaps most characteristically Schumannesque is No. 3, with its rhapsodic melody and throbbing 16th-note accompaniment framed by tender ruminations at the beginning and end.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

GYÖRGY KURTÁG
Selections from Játékok (Games), Vol. 4

About the Composer


Hungarian composer György Kurtág, who is still going strong in his mid-80s, once described composition as a process of “continual research” aimed at achieving “a sort of unity with as little material as possible.” Like his model, Anton Webern, Kurtág is essentially a miniaturist. Both his aphoristic musical language and the forces he uses to express it are radically compressed. Yet despite the abundance of white space in a typical Kurtág score, it would be misleading to characterize such densely packed and richly allusive music as “minimalist.”


About the Work


For Kurtág, it seems, writing for the piano is quite literally child’s play. Játékok (Games) is the collective title of an open-ended series of piano pieces that he began nearly 40 years ago. It evinces the playful, childlike spirit that infuses much of the composer’s music. Children, Kurtág writes, instinctively approach the piano as if it were a toy: “They experiment with it, caress it, attack it, and run their fingers over it. They pile up seemingly disconnected sounds, and if this happens to arouse their musical instinct, they look consciously for some of the harmonies found by chance and keep repeating them.” 


A Closer Listen


These four short pieces from the fourth volume of Játékok illustrate Kurtág’s free-spirited approach to the keyboard, as well as his way of teasing musical meaning out of simple gestures and ideas. In “Fog Canon,” rippling scales punctuated by short, sharp shocks are silhouetted against a resonant haze of chordal clusters. The savage, feverish twitching of “Furious Chorale,” in which the two players pummel the keyboard relentlessly, contrasts with the tinkling tintinnabulations and glacial harmonies of “Bells (Hommage à Stravinsky).” In the last piece, Kurtág salutes the contemporary Hungarian folk violinist Mihály Halmágyi in a lumbering dance spiced with hints of modality and cimbalom-like strumming.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
En blanc et noir

About the Composer


At once radical and traditionalist, Debussy rebelled against the French Wagner cult and the ponderous academic style of establishment composers like Saint-Saëns and d’Indy. At the same time, he urged his compatriots to return to the “pure French tradition” that he admired in the music of the 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Debussy first made his mark in the early 1890s with a series of boldly unconventional and quintessentially gallic works: the string quartet, La damoiselle élue, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Over the next quarter-century, he produced the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and the great piano and orchestral pieces that came to define musical impressionism in the popular mind.


About the Work


Composed in the summer of 1915, En blanc et noir (In Black and White) marked Debussy’s emergence from a long, fallow period in which he had been unable to produce any music of substance. “I’ve almost had to relearn it,” he exclaimed. “It was like a rediscovery and it’s seemed to me more beautiful than ever!” The duet’s intense vibrancy may also owe something to the restorative landscape of the Normandy coast, where Debussy had sought refuge from wartime Paris. Although the title suggests that he was deliberately restricting his tonal palette—in a letter to a friend, he spoke of emulating “the ‘grays’ of Velázquez”—the music is as subtly hued as any he ever wrote.


A Closer Listen


A flood of cascading triplets opens the first movement, marked Avec emportement (“with passion”). Debussy seems to revel in the sheer power and sonority of the piano; the mood of the music is by turns ecstatic and capricious. (He originally called the three pieces “caprices,” but later changed his mind.) The somber second movement memorializes his publisher’s nephew, who had recently been killed on the battlefield.
A strangely disjointed and disquieting dirge, it features sharp contrasts of register, texture, and dynamics, along with haunting evocations of bugle calls, the tolling of bells, and the chorale Eine feste Burg. Most elusive of all is the final Scherzando: Debussy’s mercurial music cuts loose from traditional harmonic and structural moorings, one idea melding into another in a sensuous riot of colors and figurations. 


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

BÉLA BARTÓK
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

About the Composer


In his music as in his life, Bartók straddled two starkly different worlds: the rich peasant culture of his native Hungary, where he conducted his pioneering ethnomusicological research at the beginning of the 20th century; and the violent, angst-ridden landscape of W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. The late 1930s was a heady and productive period for the composer. Relieved of his onerous teaching duties at the Budapest Academy of Music, he returned to the study of Hungarian folk music. Its endlessly varied store of melodies and rhythms combined with Bartók’s mastery of contrapuntal procedures produced a string of boldly expressionistic masterpieces, including the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the Second Violin Concerto, and the Sixth String Quartet.


About the Work


Bartók wrote the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in 1937 at the behest of Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor and patron of the arts who also commissioned Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939). The first performance took place in Basel in 1938, under the auspices of the International Society for Contemporary Music, with the composer and his wife at the pianos. Five years later, in his final public appearance as a pianist, Bartók played his concerto version of the sonata with the New York Philharmonic. 


A Closer Listen


The sonata is laid out in three movements centering on C, F, and C, respectively. The tonal symmetry is reflected in the movements’ characters, with a dark, mysterious Lento sandwiched between a pair of brilliantly propulsive allegros. The Assai lento opens with a sinuous chromatic melody, punctuated by explosive outbursts and shuddering tremolos. The small battery of percussion instruments adds color and definition to the texture. Out of this slow, amorphous introduction emerges a brisk, sharply rhythmicized countersubject—listen for its insistent syncopated pattern throughout the movement. Bartók’s themes are wonderfully varied, from the nervous stutters and swooping glissandos of the Lento to the perky, dance-like tune introduced by the xylophone in the Allegro non troppo. The combination of repetitive ostinatos and driving, irregular rhythms is the source of the sonata’s extraordinary vitality.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Perspectives: András Schiff

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