Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Programme Note 17/07/14, Hamburg Stock Exchange

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Sonate Es-Dur Kv 282

Menuetti I, II

This Sonata is one of six virtuosic works which Mozart composed in Salzburg and Munich between 1174 and 1778. In contrast with the other five sonatas, Mozart here unusually substitutes the first movement allegro for an unashamedly romantic adagio, which is nevertheless in a sort of condensed sonata-form with a tiny coda. The middle movement comprises two minuets, which would certainly have been of influence to Beethoven in his setting of the third in many of his large-scale four movement sonatas. The concluding movement is a quick, very brilliant allegro, also in sonata-form. The overall expressive characteristic recalls the Empfindsamkeit style of the middle-period Classical style.

Die Sonate ist ein Teil von sechs virtuosen Klaviersonaten die Mozart zwischen Salzburg und Munchen von 1774 bis 1778 komponiert hat. Anders als in den anderen funf Sonaten is die Reihenfolge der Satze umgekehrt, sodass die Sonate ungewohnlicherweise mit einem romantisch anmutenden Satz beginnt. Dieser Satz ist trotzdem in einer Art kondensierter Sonaten-Hauptsatzform angelegt. Der mittlere Satz entspricht ein Paar eleganten Menuetten, das Beethoven sicherlich als dritten Satz in einer vierstazigen Struktur gebraucht hatte. Ein schnelles Allegro ersetzt als Schluss auch einen Sonaten-Hauptformstruktur. Der expressive Duktus des Werkes ist dem Stil der Empfindsamkeit verpflichtet, der die mittlere Periode der Klassik kennzeichnet.

Frederic Francois Chopin (1810-1849)

Grande Valse brillante, Ab Major, op 42, Vivace

An often-quoted cliché concerning Chopin’s works based upon dances, is that they are not intended for actual dancing. Certainly, the rhythms of the types of Polish traditional dance music (Mazur, Krakowiak, Polonaise), as well as the elegant Viennese Waltz, are appropriated and transformed through Chopin’s uniquely personal language and often take on a harmonic, structural and expressive complexity far removed from the ballroom.

That said, four of the five Valses composed between 1834 and 1840 are titled as above – grand, brilliant – are definitely well-suited to the dance floor and orchestral versions of some of them have been made (including by Glazunov for the ballet Les Sylphides). This Valse – perhaps the most musically ambitious of all of Chopin’s waltzes – simultaneously recreates the glittering spectacle of the Society ballroom, while delivering the harmonic richness so much associated with Chopin’s mature work. It begins majestically with a heralding trill and segues into a swiftly lilting melody employing a 2 against 3 cross rhythm followed by a highly virtuosic arpeggiated figure, a third episode recalling the dotted Mazur rhythm, a central section of retrained melancholy; a reprise of the opening and second sections and concluding with an extremely bravura coda.

Valse op 34 no 2, A minor, Lento

This is the third work which appeared in the original series of 14 Valses originally published, of which eight were printed during Chopin’s lifetime and six posthumously (there are another four which have subsequently entered the repertoire, two more which exist but are not published, and another fourteen which are no longer in existence). Although this Valse is also marked grande valse brillante, it could not be further removed from the title; it is a work of intense loneliness and despair. The left hand takes the opening melody accompanied by a hypnotic swaying chordal figure omitting the first beat of the bar in a complete reversal of the rhythmic propulsion of Waltz rhythm – this is a ghost of a waltz.

This gives way to a more conventional syncopated, delicately ornamented second section, modulation to a marginally more cheerful third section in C Major; this cancelled out by a doleful fourth section in A major, which is repeated en minore. Sections two, three and four are then exactly repeated before a return to the opening left hand melody; but here, sublimely, there is a coda and a shift- like a sudden ray of sunlight – into E major; this then dissolves to the concluding bars of complete desolation.

Etude, op 25 no 7, C sharp minor, Lento

Continuing the mood created by the previous work, this Etude, numbered seven in the second set of twelve studies op 25, is a masterpiece of form, harmonic boldness and tonal sophistication. It is one of only two slow-tempo studies in either of the two collections (op 10 of 1836 and op 25 of 1838), and its technical purpose very different from that of its companions; this is a study in texture, voice-layering and tone, with the left hand taking precedence throughout. An opening recitative-like figure initiates the work and the following, richly harmonised melody in the bass, accompanied by a floating counter-melody in the soprano, resembles an operatic aria. Chopin was a devotee of the opera house; the composers of the bel canto style (Bellini, Donizetti etc.) were a profound influence and it is of interest to note that Chopin seriously considered composing an opera towards the end of his life.

The central section, moving towards the relative E major, is a sudden and violent outpouring of passion, with a dramatic chromatic sweeping cadenza in the bass. This may be entitled a study, but it is also one of the most musically powerfully realised of Chopin’s mature compositions.

Impromptu op 36, F sharp Major, Allegretto

This, the second of a collection of four works with the title Impromptu ( the fourth is possibly Chopin’s most well-known composition, the Fantasie Impromptu in C sharp minor – he heartily disliked the work!) was written in 1839, when he was arguably at the height of his powers; he had recently completed the Preludes op 28, the Second Sonata, op 35 and was at the most relatively settled part of his life, living in close proximity to Georges Sand in Paris, spending productive summers at her country house in Nohant (until 1846), with his tuberculosis in statis, if not remission.

It is perhaps rather trite and obvious to connect this period with the mood of this gloriously sunny and – for Chopin – optimistic work; after all, the Second Sonata, composed at around the same time, is a work of the blackest despair. However, this work is a relatively rare example of Chopin being fully engaged in a musical sense – the handling of a freely- structured sequence of episodes is masterfully achieved – with a warmth and open romanticism far removed from the darkness of other mature works.

The close connection with direct improvisation which is the nature of the impromptu suits Chopin exactly here; although he was notoriously fussy and perfectionist in composing, one can feel the results of countless hours of free improvisation in this work, and it is interesting to note that Georges Sand remembered that to hear Chopin extemporise at the piano on long summer evenings at Nohant was to hear him at his best: “many of his greatest compositions were never actually written down”. The work begins with a Nocturne-like walking bass (the harmonic cover of the whole work) over which is spun a graceful, chanson melody (with more than a shade of the future in Fauré) which gives way to a majestic alla marcia in D major, before dissolving into an exquisite final section with a rich tenor melody over which a cascade of brillant right hand arpeggiations is set.

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