CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Friday, April 20, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Grace Francis

Weill Recital Hall
British pianist Grace Francis is one of the best-kept secrets in the classical-piano world. Hailed for her brilliant performance by seasoned pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Stephen Hough, she was introduced to an international audience by legend Vladimir Ashkenazy. With unbounded virtuosity, Francis presents some of the most ambitious pieces of the 19th and 20th centuries for her Carnegie Hall debut, including Mussorgsky’s epic Pictures at an Exhibition and Brahms’s timeless Variations on a Theme by Paganini.
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The Program

 

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Book II from Variations on a Theme by Paganini in A Minor, Op. 35

About the Composer


Brahms had a lifelong interest in variation form. An avid student of music history, he relished the challenge of erecting new structures on old foundations. It mattered little whether the base he built upon was a popular folksong, one of his own melodies, or a theme by Paganini, Handel, or Schumann. The important thing, he told violinist Joseph Joachim, was that variation form "must be kept stricter, purer." The old masters, Brahms observed, were rigorous in their use of ground bass and other variation techniques, whereas he and his contemporaries tended to "rummage around the theme. We keep anxiously to the melody, but we do not treat it freely, do not actually create anything new from it, but only load it down. Thus the melody is barely recognizable."


About the Work


Like the Handel Variations, the two books of Paganini Variations—or "studies," as Brahms preferred to call them—date from the early 1860s. The ambitious young man had recently moved to Vienna from his native Hamburg and was determined to prove his mettle as both pianist and composer. Whether he wrote the Paganini Variations for himself or for the eminent Polish virtuoso Carl Tausig, with whom he had struck up a close friendship, is uncertain. In any event, Tausig reveled in their finger-twisting pyrotechnical display. "Everybody considers them unplayable," he wrote to Brahms, "yet secretly they nibble at them, and are furious that the fruits hang so high." Clara Schumann considered the 28 variations so fiendishly difficult that she dubbed them "witches' variations." 


A Closer Listen


With its catchy tune and regular phrase structure, the bouncy A-minor theme from one of Paganini's caprices for solo violin gave Brahms (and later Rachmaninoff) ample opportunity to "rummage around" without straying too far from his original source. In several of the 14 variations from Book II, the melody is indeed "barely recognizable," either buried beneath an avalanche of "black" notes (as in the first variation) or completely transformed in shape, meter, and character (as in the 12th). Although virtuosity is very much the point of the exercise, Brahms doesn't stint on poetry: The gently swaying waltz of the fourth variation is one of his loveliest lyrical creations.


—Harry Haskell


 

MODEST MUSSORGSKY
Pictures at an Exhibition

About the Composer


As one of the group of nationalist composers known as the "Mighty Handful," Mussorgsky was in the vanguard of the movement to create a specifically Russian musical tradition in the mid-1800s. Neither by training nor by temperament was he fitted to join the ranks of the musical establishment. A career civil servant, he gravitated instead toward men such as Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, largely self-taught composers who drew inspiration from Russian folklore and history. Declaring that "my music must be an artistic reproduction of human speech in all its finest shades," Mussorgsky forged a powerfully expressive, proto-modernist musical language in works such as the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain and the opera Boris Godunov.


About the Work


Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in June 1874, fresh from the hugely successful premiere of Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. This suite of miniature tone poems commemorates an exhibition of drawings and watercolors by the composer's recently deceased friend Viktor Hartmann. Pictures is perhaps best known in the masterful symphonic transcription that Maurice Ravel made in 1922 (following the example of Rimsky-Korsakov, who had taken it upon himself to correct the "mistakes" in many of Mussorgsky's orchestrations before publication). However, many pianists have championed the original keyboard version, including Vladimir Horowitz, who couldn't resist adding a few "improvements" of his own to the score.


A Closer Listen


A majestically striding theme, which recurs throughout the work as both interlude and motif, ushers the listener into the exhibition hall. The air of nobility is soon spoiled by the grotesque antics of a clumsy gnome—the first of Mussorgsky's incisive musical pen-portraits. One by one, the vivid images pass before our eyes: a gloomy medieval castle; children gamboling in the Tuileries Gardens; a lumbering Polish oxcart; a scherzo-like vignette of chicks pecking at their eggshells; two Jewish men animatedly arguing and gesticulating; a bustling French marketplace; a ponderously chordal descent into Paris's subterranean catacombs; a witch's hut transformed into a strutting hen; and, for a resplendent climax, the hymn-like strains inspired by Hartmann's sketches for an imposing city gate at Kiev.


-Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

 

SERGEI PROKOFIEV
Selections from Visions fugitives, Op. 22

About the Composer


Prokofiev rose to fame before World War I as a leader of the Russian avant-garde. Immediately after the Revolution, however, he turned his back on the Soviet Union and immersed himself in the cosmopolitan culture of the West. Many of his most popular works date from this period of self-imposed exile, including the fairytale opera The Love for Three Oranges, the Third Piano Concerto, and the ballet Romeo and Juliet. In 1936, he returned to a hero's welcome in Moscow, only to fall prey to withering ideological criticism as the political winds shifted. He died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin, his chief patron and persecutor.


About the Work


Composed between 1915 and 1917, the Visions fugitives owe their title to Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, who wrote: "I do not know wisdom—leave that to others—I only turn fugitive visions into verse." Something of a political naïf, Prokofiev held himself aloof from the revolutionary fervor that played itself out daily in the streets of Petrograd. In his diary, he expressed irritation at the proletarian masses who milled about "in such a monstrously aimless manner" while the tsar's troops fired on them from rooftops. Holing up in his apartment, the composer devoted himself to recording his musical "visions," which are by turns playful and poetic, wistful and sarcastic.


A Closer Listen


Unlike Prokofiev's nine ferociously difficult piano sonatas, most of these 20 short pieces are delicate, almost impressionistic creations that demand more finesse than virtuosity of the performer. Not surprisingly, Prokofiev often played them as encore pieces on his recitals. A recording of nine of the Visionsfugitives that he made in Paris in 1935 illustrates the sharply etched, unsentimental, and occasionally acerbic style that was his hallmark as both pianist and composer. The simple, repetitive melodic and rhythmic patterns that serve as Prokofiev's basic building blocks are laced with pungent dissonances, chromaticism, and "wrong-note" harmonies. Yet even at its most percussively bombastic, Prokofiev's music never loses its essential lyricism.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

 

FRANZ LISZT
"Vallée d'Obermann" from Album d'un voyageur, S. 156; "Sposalizio" from Années de pèlerinage, S. 161; Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke), S. 514

About the Composer


A peerless virtuoso known for his "transcendental" keyboard technique, the young Liszt took Europe by storm in the early 19th century. Only a handful of performers, including violinist Nicolò Paganini and pianist Sigismund Thalberg, matched his star power. As audiences in city after city succumbed to "Lisztomania," the Hungarian's name became a byword for showmanship as well as technical wizardry. In 1848, at the height of his fame, he virtually retired from the concert stage and devoted the rest of his life to composing, conducting, and proselytizing (with his future son-in-law, Richard Wagner) for the "Music of the Future." In his piano music, symphonic tone poems, and vocal works, Liszt experimented with forms, harmonies, and sonorities that anticipated the musical language of impressionism and modernism.


About the Works


Two of the three pieces on tonight's program—"Vallé d'Obermann" and "Sposalizio"—are drawn from the musical albums that resulted from Liszt's travels in Switzerland and Italy with his mistress, Countess Marie d'Agoult, in the 1830s. Titled Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), these tonal travelogues testify both to Liszt's compositional audacity and to his preternatural sensitivity to extramusical stimuli. "Vallé d'Obermann" evokes a remote Alpine valley described by Etienne Pivert de Senancour, whose soulfully tempestuous poetry and prose (little read today) is the very essence of Romanticism. "Sposalizio" was inspired by Raphael's painting The Marriage of the Virgin, which much impressed the composer in Milan, while the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 takes its theme from the Faust legend as retold by Nikolaus Lenau.


A Closer Listen

 

True to its literary source, "Vallé d'Obermann" is a passionate and richly atmospheric tone poem. Liszt displays all the tricks of his trade, from thunderous staggered octaves to delicate, harp-like sonorities, while ringing changes on the simple descending melody that serves as the piece's principal theme. "Sposalizio"—built on an equally simple three-note motif and its inversion—is notable for its blending of intense spirituality and rapturous, almost erotic abandon. (Liszt struggled with similarly contradictory impulses before finally renouncing the concert stage and taking holy orders.) Mephisto Waltz No. 1 was originally composed for orchestra as the second of the Two Episodes from Lenau's Faust, titled "The Dance in the Village Inn." Liszt's no-holds-barred keyboard transcription, dedicated to his pupil Carl Tausig, has long been a favorite virtuoso showpiece.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert is made possible, in part, by the A.L. and Jennie L. Luria Foundation.
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 Distinctive Debuts.

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