CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 7:30 PM

András Schiff

Zankel Hall
When András Schiff plays Bach, every phrase reveals a passionate love for the music that always adds up to exemplary performances. As New York magazine puts it, “András Schiff would make Bach proud.” Here, Schiff turns his attention to the two-part inventions, as well as music by Bartók, Beethoven, and György Kurtág, plus a world premiere by Jörg Widmann, commissioned by Carnegie Hall.
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The Program

In the Artist's Own Words


This is a very special program, indeed, and I've never done one like it. I constructed it especially for the Perspectives series and for Zankel Hallit would never work in the big hall. It consists entirely of short pieces. There are two main lines hidden in it: the Bach Inventions and the various Bartók pieces. Both Bach and Bartók thought a lot about the musical education of children, even of their own children. Bartók's Gyermekeknek (For Children) and Mikrokosmos collections follow Bach's model; Bach clearly writes in his preface to the collection what he wanted to achieve: inventions, ideas, imagination, fantasy, the art of playing in "cantabile" style, and good taste in composition.

As Bach progresses through the two-part inventions and three-part sinfonias, Bartók also advances from simpler to more complicated pieces in his wonderful series. Both composers have given great music to children, who can now learn the art of keyboard playing without having to play bad music. The program ends with Bartók's Out of Doors Suiteone of his masterpieces, especially the fourth work, "The Night's Music."

Kurtág's Játékok (Games) are very much in this tradition. However, the four pieces I'm playing are deeply tragic and sad, quasi requiems for friends who have recently passed away. Haydée Charbagi was a Tunisian musicologist and literary scholar who died in Paris at the age of 28. Kálmán Strém was the best concert promoter and impresario in Hungary. I knew him very well; he died in 2007 in his mid-70s. And finally my mother: Kurtág was very fond of her and this piece arrived two days after her death. She died at age 95 on October 10, 2010 (10/10/10what a date).

Widmann is a very talented composer of the younger generation. I wanted to include him here and asked him to write something that would go well with the rest of this program. The Beethoven Op. 126 Bagatelles are essential musichis final thoughts on the piano.


András Schiff


JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Inventions, BWV 772786

About the Composer


Although Bach spent most of his life as a hard-working church musician, he was best known to his contemporaries as a virtuoso on the organ and harpsichord. By all accounts his technique was formidable. "Bach is said to have played with so easy and small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible," wrote his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel. "Only the first joints of the fingers were in motion; the hand retained even in the most difficult passages its rounded form; the fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more than in a trill, and when one was employed, the other remained quietly in its position. Still less did the other parts of his body take any share in his play, as happens with many whose hand is not light enough."


About the Works


Bach passed his secrets along to many of his pupils, including several of his own children. Generations of keyboard players have cut their musical teeth on his two-part inventions, a collection of compositional gems masquerading as humble exercises. On the title page of his manuscript, Bach described them as didactic pieces "whereby lovers of the keyboard, and especially those eager to learn, are shown a clear method, not only (1) of learning to play distinctly in two voices, but also, after further progress, (2) of managing three obbligato [non-optional] parts correctly and satisfactorily; and in addition not only of arriving at good original ideas [inventions],  but also of developing them satisfactorily; and above all acquiring a cantabile style of playing, while at the same time receiving a strong foretaste of composition."


A Closer Listen


Counterpoint comes from a Latin term that means "note against note." Two-part counterpoint is the simplest and most transparent kind; for that reason, it is especially hard to make it musically interesting. The 15 pieces in Bach's collection, composed around 1720, alternate between the major and minor modes, but stop nine short of covering all 24 keys, as in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Several of the inventions are based on the principle of imitation, where the two voices chase each other at a respectful distance. Others are constructed of short rhythmic and melodic motifs that are meant to flow seamlessly from one hand to the other. As every student soon discovers, these seemingly simple exercises are far from child's play.


Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

BÉLA BARTÓK
Ten Pieces from Gyermekeknek (For Children), Book II; Three Burlesques, Op. 8c; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos, Book VI; Out of Doors Suite

About the Composer


Bartók's early works are steeped in lush late-Romantic language. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, his exposure to the harmonic innovations of Strauss and Debussy, coupled with his pioneering research into the folk music of his native Hungary and other Slavic lands, resulted in a bold new synthesis. Spiced with modality and bitonal clashes that verge on atonality, along with shifting, irregular rhythmic patterns, this new style would define his music for the rest of his life. Around the same time, Bartók developed a serious interest in the music of J. S. Bach.


About the Works


The radically clarified textures and contrapuntal simplicity of Gyermekeknek (For Children) and Three Burlesques, composed between 1908 and 1911, reflect Bartók's immersion in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, of which he had recently prepared a student edition. During the mid-1920s, his growing interest in Italian Baroque composers coincided with his burgeoning fame as an itinerant virtuoso and with a period of intense concentration on piano music that produced such works as the Out of Doors Suite. A decade later, Bartók's lifelong involvement in music education bore fruit in Mikrokosmos, a collection of 153 miniature technical studies of progressive difficulty that are still widely used today.


A Closer Listen


A host of deceptively simple Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes, filtered through Bartók's modernist harmonic language, supply grist for his mill in the beginner's collection of For Children. The Three Burlesques unite his interest in Bachian counterpoint with a foretaste of his tonal experiments of the 1920s. The music's luminous textures and densely saturated harmonies may also owe a debt to Debussy, with whose music Bartók had recently become acquainted. The Out of Doors Suite is far from a conventional set of character pieces. In the first of the five movements, "With Drums and Pipes," for example, dissonant diads clanging in the depths of the keyboard are set against the right hand's dancing figurations in ever-changing metrical patterns. The Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from the sixth and last book of Mikrokosmos similarly play on irregular groupings of two and three beats.


Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

JÖRG WIDMANN
Zirkustänze (Circus Dances)

About the Composer


Alone among the composers featured on tonight's program, 38-year-old Jörg Widmann is a distinguished clarinetist rather than a keyboard player. He holds joint appointments as professor of composition and clarinet at the Hochschule für Musik Freiberg, and recently signed on as principal guest conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In 2009, the Opéra Bastille in Paris presented the world premiere of Am Anfang (In the Beginning), a musical theater piece combined with art installation that he created in tandem with artist Anselm Kiefer. Last month, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave the first performance of Widmann's Teufel Amor (Devil Love), a "symphonic hymn" inspired by a poetic fragment by Schiller.


About the Work


Like Widmann's 11 Humoresques, written in 2007 for Yefim Bronfman, Zirkustänze (Circus Dances) harks back to Schumann's suites of character pieces. The two works share an elusive, phantasmagorical qualitylaced with a liberal dash of humorand, coincidentally or otherwise, contain the same number of movements. Widmann's compositions can be thought of as sonic environments in which the boundaries between music and noise, motion and stillness, are blurred or dissolved. With its strange timbral effects and extended instrumental techniques, his musical language covers the full range of expression, from dreamy rumination to apocalyptic frenzy.


A Closer Listen


Widmann's suite opens with a kind of anti-fanfare in the form of swooning, slithering four-note chords, and closes with a slightly demented, mock-triumphal march. In between comes music of a more intimate character that accentuates the surreal, circuslike atmosphere. Nothing is quite what it seems. The jagged, rocking rhythm of "Boogie Woogie" is subverted by triplets and eventually falls apart, much as the innocent "Carousel Waltz" is fractured by its own giddy momentum. Three other waltzes of wildly varying characters contrast with the tender strains of "Four Nostalgic Verses," the playful tone clusters and glissandos of "Children's Rhyme," and the exotic lyricism of "Hebraic Melody" and "Venetian Gondola Song."


Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Six Bagatelles, Op. 126

About the Composer


Beethoven the pianist, no less than the composer, was a force of nature who seemed incapable of playing by the rules of polite society. His unbridled energy at the keyboard and his formidable powers as an improviser are legendary. Like most of his contemporaries, Beethoven was brought up on the music of Bach. He received his first favorable review at age 11 for a performance of The Well-Tempered Clavier. After moving to Vienna in 1792, he took lessons in counterpoint from the eminent teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Those early studies bore fruit throughout Beethoven's career, and never more so than in the gnarled fugues of his late-period works.


About the Work


The Op. 126 Bagatelles, dating from the spring of 1824, followed hard on the heels of the "Diabelli" Variations, Missa solemnis, and Ninth Symphonyall of which feature extended fugal passages. Fugues seem to pop up everywhere in Beethoven's late piano sonatas and string quartets, as well. Yet there is scarcely a hint of counterpoint in Op. 126; it's as if Beethoven deliberately adopted a lighter tone as a respite from contrapuntal rigor. Unlike the earlier Op. 119 Bagatelles, the Op. 126 pieces were not intended for instructional purposes. Nor, despite their name, were they mere trifles or orphaned sketches for which Beethoven needed to find a home. On the contrary, he composed the Six Bagatelles from scratchapparently to help pay off a debt to his brother Johannand with the utmost care.


A Closer Listen


The first piece, with its sweetly cantabile melody in G major, transports us back to the uncomplicated lyricism of Beethoven's early period. A similarly tranquil mood prevails in the other odd-numbered bagatelles, while nos. 2, 4, and 6 favor drama, dynamism, and sharp contrasts. Yet throughout the set, we encounter haunting passages that seem to float free in time and space, with tied notes and subtle changes of meter obscuring the bar line. In two extraordinary episodes in the fourth piece, the harmony remains essentially static while graceful melodic arabesques swirl above the left hand's gently lapping chords. Most astonishing is the finale in which a wistful Schubertian waltz is bracketed by Beethovenian outbursts of incongruous ferocity.


Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

GYÖRGY KURTÁG
Adieu, Haydée I and Adieu, Haydée II from Hommage à Bartók; Rituale, in Memoriam Kálmán Strém; In Memory of a Pure Soul: Klara Schiff in Memoriam

About the Composer


Hungarian composer György Kurtág once described composition as a process of "continual research" aimed at achieving "a sort of unity with as little material as possible." Like Anton Webern, whose music he came to love long before it was widely known behind the Iron Curtain, 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, his music is densely packed, eventful, and richly allusive.


About the Works


Two threads that run throughout Kurtág's work are a sense of playfulness and a dialogue with friends and fellow composers. The playfulness is reflected in Kurtág's response to Bartók's Mikrokosmos: an open-ended series of pedagogical piano pieces titled Játékok (Games). The dialogue takes the form of numerous musical memorials and homages to composers as diverse as Bach, Schubert, and Stockhausen. The four recent pieces on tonight's program fall into the latter category. Hommage à Bartók was commissioned by the Library of Congress in 2009; its first two sectionsAdieu, Haydée I and Adieu, Haydée IIcommemorate the composer's friend Haydée Charbagi, a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. Rituale, in Memoriam Kálmán Strém is dedicated to the memory of a noted Hungarian concert presenter, and In Memory of a Pure Soul: Klara Schiff in Memoriam is dedicated to András Schiff's mother.


A Closer Listen


Kurtág's music has a sensuous, almost tactile quality that invites close listening. In distilling music to its basic elements, the composer seems to put sounds together for the sheer joy and adventure of it. Schiff, who was Kurtag's student at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, tells a revealing story about his first lesson during which they spent two and a half hours on a single Bach invention. "We couldn't even get through the first three bars," the pianist recalls. "Kurtág was talking about vitally important thingstone quality, harmony, articulation, counterpointand in that first lesson, I learned that music is not just a matter of life and death, it's more important than that."


Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Perspectives: András Schiff

Part of

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