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carnegie hall presents
Thursday, May 16, 2013 | 8 PM
Yuja Wang
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

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Program

  • RACHMANINOFF  Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor (1931 edition)
  • LOWELL LIEBERMANN  Gargoyles, Op. 29
  • SCRIABIN  Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19
  • SCRIABIN  Piano Sonata No. 6 in G Major, Op. 62
  • RAVEL  La valse
  •  
    Encores:
  • RACHMANINOFF  Élégie in E-flat minor from Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3, No.1
  • PROKOFIEV  Toccata in D Minor, Op.1
  • HOROWITZ  Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen
  • CHOPIN  Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2
  • LISZT  "Gretchen am Spinnrade" from Six Songs of Franz Schubert

At a Glance

Yuja Wang delivers a recital of Russian, French, and American music from the late 19th and 20th centuries—works that are full of darkness and mysticism, adventure and virtuosity. Her program features two piano sonatas by Scriabin, a Russian mystic who approached both genius and madness and who, after penning an epic orchestral work in 1910 (Prometheus, Poem of Fire), wrote solely for the piano until his death five years later. That period included the shadowy Op. 62 Sonata, a single-movement work that eclipses the significant darkness of his Op. 19, which offers patches of warming light and lyricism. Another study in light and dark is Ravel's La valse, wherein the waltz—a normally elegant dance—turns macabre in the composer's hands, doubtless reflecting his then all too recent experience as an ambulance driver during the First World War. Opening the program is American composer Lowell Liebermann's Gargoyles, in which darkness is offset by playfulness. Rachmaninoff, who like Scriabin was a virtuoso pianist and graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, closes the first half of Ms. Wang's recital with his Second Sonata, Op. 36 (1931 revision), a thunderous work that—even in its triumph—cannot push out tinges of uncertainty.

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The Program

LOWELL LIEBERMANN
Gargoyles, Op. 29


American pianist-composer-conductor Lowell Liebermann has written a great deal for his instrument. His music, lyrical and romantic, recalls Debussy in its coloration and gestural exploration.

Written in 1989 when the composer was in his late-20s, Gargoyles is a work in four movements. In architecture, the gargoyle has served since ancient times to carry water safely away from a building's side, preventing damage to walls and erosion of mortar. While ancient Egyptian and Greek gargoyles tended to be in the form of lions' heads, gargoyles on medieval cathedrals (such as Notre Dame) took the shape of more fantastical creatures-some grinning, others grimacing.

The dark, sometimes playful menace of the gargoyle is never far off in Liebermann's suite. The opening Presto sets up a rollicking 6/8 accompaniment that is punctuated sharply by a driving melody in the upper registers. The Adagio semplice is darker and more thoughtful in its modal unfolding. The rippling Allegro moderato leads to another Presto (feroce), that returns to the 6/8 overdrive of the opening.


—Ben Finane

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36


One of the greatest pianists of his time (and in the same Moscow Conservatory class as Scriabin), Sergei Rachmaninoff thrived as a pianist, conductor, and composer. As a composer, he was the crown jewel of Russian late Romanticism. With Schoenberg and Stravinsky as contemporaries, however, his music was deemed conservative. Now, his soaring lyricism and deliberate nostalgia are appreciated on their own merits.

Rachmaninoff began his Second Sonata, Op. 36, in 1913. He had been performing more than composing-and was not faring well. He received a tough review from a critic after performing the work's premiere that same year and did not return to the Sonata for revision until 1931, reducing its length and number of moving lines-essentially making his musical ideas more direct.

Full of orchestral coloration, booming, and chiming, the Sonata No. 2 yet feels introspective for Rachmaninoff, its virtuosity seemingly in combat with the work's pensive tone. All three movements are thematically linked and also joined by bridges, giving an effect of a one-movement piece. The opening theme of the Allegro returns in the second slower and more expansive movement, which also contains a classic Rachmaninoff "big-tune" melody. The main theme of the final movement, in rondo form, also recalls the opening Allegro's theme and offers a second "big-tune" to contrast with the more rhythmic theme that precedes it. The sonata finishes as this Russian composer's music so often does: with a build and a bang.


—Ben Finane

 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

ALEXANDER SCRIABIN
Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, "Sonata Fantasy"


A piano prodigy at the age of six, Alexander Scriabin was a Russian mystic who embraced Messianic tendencies and a passion for yoga. Musically, he was an elegant craftsman like Chopin; recalling late Liszt, he was a harmonically adventurous modernist who wove dense musical tapestries.

Scriabin's Second Piano Sonata (he wrote a total of 10) took the composer five years to complete. "You've had it long enough," his publisher exhorted him. "Don't fuss with it anymore." Yet Scriabin still hedged his bet upon publication, labeling the piece a "Sonata Fantasy."

Scriabin wrote a program note for the two-movement score, which described the first movement as "dark agitations" in the sea followed by a major-key section of "caressing moonlight" (it had been nearly a century since Beethoven penned his "Moonlight" Sonata), and the second movement as further agitation in the ocean. Musically, the "Sonata Fantasy" offers a lyrical, warm Andante, which rings strikingly contemporary in its use of a bold melody and embracing accompaniment. The closing Presto seems far more disciplined in its structure and development-with a more classical if less soaring beauty.


—Ben Finane

 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

ALEXANDER SCRIABIN
Piano Sonata No. 6 in G Major, Op. 62


Completed in 1912, Scriabin's Sonata No. 6 is cast as a single movement. Often a performer of his own work, Scriabin never played the Op. 62 Sonata, and indeed seemed frightened of the piece, labeling it "dark," "impure," and "dangerous."

Scriabin's dramatic descriptions aside, Op. 62 opens with darkness and an obsessive brooding: A motive returns again and again. Slowly, we crawl our way into some light as the first "brooding" theme bridges into a second, warmer one. Yet the atmosphere remains foreboding; our second theme soon finds itself attached to a two-note motive that becomes its inexorable counterpoint. A third subject appears and builds massively and dissonantly, mingling in development with the return of the first in what makes for a massively virtuosic and challenging bit of finger gymnastics at the keyboard. We climb higher and higher, tension building and ebbing, while the pitch field unhurriedly expands. There is a surge—and then dissipation.


—Ben Finane

 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

MAURICE RAVEL
La valse


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, the former's classicism sets the two apart: Many of Ravel's works pay homage to past styles and forms, while seamlessly employing modern harmony and avant-garde compositional technique.

Ravel's La valse has a rich history. The composer had begun sketching a symphonic poem in tribute to Johann Strauss—master of the waltz form—as early as 1906. Ravel abandoned the work (employing one of the themes in the solo-piano piece Valses nobles et sentimentales) and then returned to it briefly in 1914, with the working title Wien. After World War I, in which Ravel served as an ambulance driver, he became preoccupied with a memorial to fallen comrades, which would become the piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin.  He returned to his Strauss tribute, now called La valse, a project that had grown darker in the shadow of war. While working on the orchestral version for ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Ravel also prepared two-piano and solo-piano versions. The two-piano version was the work's premiere, with Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Poulenc in attendance. Diaghilev found the work ingenious, but did not find it suitable or practical as a ballet. It was instead published as a "choreographic poem for orchestra."

The waltz, once sunny elegance at home in chandeliered ballrooms, is reimagined post-war (tainted by death and disillusion) in Ravel's dark, swirling concoction. The composer offers a programmatic description in the score:

Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.

Ravel's description (likely intentionally) glosses over the darker forces at play in the music. The insistent ictus of the waltz holds sway throughout. At first, the time-keeping is pleasant and even soaring. But as dissonance (Ravel's "clouds") quickly gathers, the pulse becomes unrelenting. Ravel modulates the waltz, crashing through minor keys, and the virtuosity becomes aggressive rather than ornamental. Each recapitulation takes us further away from the familiar and recognizable. The melody veers to the bass, accompanied by clangorous tremble. The rumbling bass builds and overflows into all reaches of the keyboard for a hysterical culmination.


—Ben Finane

 

© The Carnegie Hall Corporation