Daniil Trifonov: Musical Pictures program notes

Sunday, August 9, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Beethoven: Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major for Piano, Op. 31, No. 3

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major for Piano, Op. 31, No. 3

One of the commonplaces of Beethoven scholarship is the notion of his three periods—Early, Middle (“Heroic”), and Late. Unlike many long-standing notions that don’t hold up, the idea of his periods has endured because it is an inescapable reflection of the course of his career. But the periods and the divisions between them are not a simple matter. For example, given the variety of voices in his first period, dated roughly from his arrival in Vienna in 1792 to the first years of the next century—some of that music “bold” and “Beethovenian” and some elegantly 18th-century—many have assumed that this was a period of learning his craft, searching for his voice and so on. In fact, there are no apprentice works in the first period. Even the three piano trios of Op. 1 are mature and masterful pieces, even if only No. 3 in C minor sounds unmistakably Beethoven to our ears.

The reason the Second Period is often called “Heroic” is that it is named for the epochal Symphony No. 3, completed in 1804, which Beethoven named Eroica. Around 1801, he had told a friend, “I’m not satisfied with anything I’ve done so far. From here on I’m going to take a new path.” An old, critical narrative says that Beethoven, after his near-suicidal crisis of 1802 when he realized that he was doomed to deafness, pulled himself up by his bootstraps and wrote the Eroica, and what we call the Second Period thereby began. The reality is that he would likely have written the Eroica in any case, and the Middle Period had already begun in the piano music, especially in Op. 31.

To put it another way: in Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the Middle arrived early. As an example, his Op. 18 String Quartets are very much 18th-century in sound and effect, not sounding all that Beethovenian (again, to modern ears). But by the time he had finished those six quartets, he had already written the Piano Sonata Op. 13, which he titled Pathétique, and which in its searing passion is as Beethovenian as it gets.

Two things about the Second Period, then. First, if “Heroic” is not exactly a misnomer, the majority of the works of that period are not in his heroic voice. The raging Fifth Symphony is in that voice, for example, but the gentle Sixth is virtually the antithesis of the Fifth. And overall the voice of the Middle Period is already in place in the piano sonatas of Op. 26 and 31, from 1801-2, well before the Eroica.

Why? Arguably, two reasons. First, Beethoven was a pianist, and composers generally have a special relationship with works written for their own instrument. Second, while as a composer Beethoven was afraid of nobody, he was acutely aware of the repertoire he was going to be compared to. For example, in string quartets, he knew he would be compared with the man who invented the modern quartet, Haydn. Accordingly, in his first quartets, he bided his time. And even though in mid-career, Haydn and Mozart had switched from playing and composing for harpsichord to piano, Beethoven felt that they had remained stuck in harpsichord style, and so when it came to piano music, that was a territory he could own. So his piano music was bolder and more individual sooner than his quartets and symphonies. Each of his mature piano sonatas is so distinctive, not only in its material but in its very sound and texture, that it is as if, with each work, he reinvented the instrument.

That brings us to Op. 31, three piano sonatas in three directions: No. 1 jokey and good-humored; No. 2 stormy and powerful, later dubbed The Tempest; and the work on this program, No. 3 in E-flat major. It begins in an utterly fresh way, with a harmony so strange that it would have earned Beethoven cries of bizarrerie from critics if it did not commence a work of surpassing warmth, wit, and charm. The beginning is an invitation, like a hand extended in friendship or love. That drifts into a blithe and whimsical first theme, a recall of the invitation, and a flowing and almost childlike second theme whose rippling delight simply wants to keep going. The coda of the movement seems to reflect fondly on the invitation figure and the cheery second theme.

What amounts to a scherzo for the second movement is in a bouncy two-beat instead of the usual quick three-beat, its main theme a lurching and comical tune with Beethoven’s trademark offbeat accents. Following the scherzo, most unexpectedly comes a graceful and lyrical minuet—he wanted no slow movement to trouble the warm weather of this sonata. For conclusion, a tarantella marked Presto con fuoco, with the fire appropriate to that old whirling dance in which, once upon a time, you hoped to survive the bite of the tarantula by dancing to exhaustion. Its tireless churning is the equivalent of the same in the D Minor Sonata finale, but there to alarming ends, here to ebullient ends.

—Program notes by Jan Swafford


Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)

Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition in a flurry of creative energy as a memorial tribute to his dear friend Viktor Hartmann, a Russian architect and painter who was only 39 when he died in 1873. Moved by an exhibition of Hartmann’s watercolors, designs, and drawings at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, Mussorgsky composed a piano suite based on 10 of the works and included five promenade interludes that bind the musical exhibition together brilliantly.

Within weeks of the composition of the piece, the exhibition’s organizer, Vladimir Stassov, noted the piece’s orchestral qualities, particularly in the “Catacombs” and “Great Gate of Kiev” episodes. This opinion is one that many have shared through the years, as the piece has been transcribed countless times by figures as disparate as Leopold Stokowski and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Ravel’s masterful orchestration from 1923 has become the standard, but Mussorgsky’s original piano score remains a compelling achievement (and a revealing one, if you only know Ravel’s version), and the piece is frequently performed in this form to this day.

The stately opening theme, in an unusual 11 beat meter, returns in varied form in each of the “Promenade” movements. Mussorgsky himself conceded that the music represents his own stroll through the exhibit, expressing his excitement punctuated by fits of sadness as he remembers his friend.

The awkward starts and stops; the long, descending chromatic lines; and the absence of a consistent meter in “Gnomus” represent the ungainly gait of a grotesque gnome Hartmann illustrated in a design for a wooden nutcracker. “The Old Castle” is a melancholic song in which Mussorgsky imagined the troubadour to be singing in Hartmann’s painting of a medieval Italian castle, and “Tuileries” is based on a watercolor of the titular park in Paris featuring quarreling children. “Bydlo” depicts the plodding progress of a Polish wagon with large wooden wheels drawn by two oxen in Hartmann’s watercolor.

In “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells,” Hartmann sketched costumes for a children’s ballet, one of which shows a small child barely peeking out of a large shell “as in a suit of armor.” Mussorgsky evokes the characters in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” with augmented, melodic intervals in high and low registers differentiating the two figures. “The Marketplace at Limoges” depicts a group of women having an animated conversation by their carts in the market.

“Catacombs” is an eerie depiction of Hartman’s representation of his tour of the Paris catacombs, complete with glowing skulls. The menacing “Hut on Hen’s Leg’s (Baba Yaga)” represents the fairy tale witch, Baba-Yaga’s grotesque hut. The dramatic close to Pictures, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” is based on a fanciful design Hartmann presented for a Kiev gateway that was to be built to celebrate Czar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi