Andrew von Oeyen, Schubert and Ravel
This evening, Andrew von Oeyen offers a tantalizing recital of solo piano works in two parts, each transfixing in its own way, and together, a tour de force. The first half features a single epic sonata in four movements by the Viennese master Franz Schubert at the pinnacle of his power near the end of his short life. The second half jumps nearly one hundred years, from Schubert to Ravel, from Vienna to Paris, from the 19th to the 20th century, and from high Classical Romanticism to modern Neo-Classicism, Impressionism and proto-jazz. The program immerses us in the musical personality and style of each composer, so brilliant in their unique and contrasting ways. Together, they complete a truly rich and comprehensive program expressing broad and deep a reach of history. They both share an essential quality: Schubert and Ravel are treasured for their mesmerizing beauty. We are fortunate this season at Kohl Mansion to expand on Mr. von Oeyen’s foundation as later concerts will explore the exquisite ensemble music of both Schubert and Ravel. Tonight, we will enjoy the first of a multi-part story.
Franz Schubert, 1797-1828
Piano Sonata No. 20 D. 959 in A Major, 1828
When Schubert turned 30 in January 1827, his native Vienna was in the thrall of what might then have been called the “Age of Beethoven and Rossini.” Schubert had achieved some renown for his work, but he was still publicly regarded as a gifted “song and dance man”, a notch or two below the pantheon. Schubert was warmly admired for his Lieder (German songs), dances and piano duets including a few genuine hits. But he was not (yet) held in the same esteem as Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, largely because Schubert had not written (to the public’s knowledge) a “serious” concert work. He knew this, and his scant correspondence finds him yearning to compose a long-form instrumental work, to enter the great foray.
In March of that year, Beethoven died. Schubert was deeply moved and literally carried a torch in the funeral procession. Although we don’t know if they actually met, Schubert was intimately aware of Beethoven’s music including the final works – the piano sonatas, symphonies and quartets – and held him in the highest esteem. Schubert himself was a ticking time bomb: he knew he was battling a fatal but unpredictable illness. Beset with fragile, volatile health, his mortality quite real. With no time to lose and a vacancy now left by Beethoven, Schubert entered his “last year”, one of the most astonishing in the history of classical music. Although his unparalleled creative surge would not be fully appreciated for decades, between the winters of 1827 and 1828 just before he died, Schubert produced a torrent of long-form instrumental masterpieces including the three late piano sonatas, two towering piano trios, the transcendent string quintet and drafts of a 10th symphony. If only he could have known that, today, we look back upon these magnificent years as the “Age of Beethoven and Schubert.”
Schubert’s twentieth piano sonata is the second of the three last and arguably “late” sonatas written during this prodigious final year and campaign for greatness. As with many of his last grand instrumental compositions, its scale is epic. The first movement alone occupies nearly a quarter hour. During the first minute, Schubert begins with bold regal chords, immediately departs into development, resumes the opening theme more warmly, then more boldly interrupts with a rising chromatic disruption establishing a dramatic instability that fuels the entire movement. A second theme, chaste and songlike with clear and direct harmonies brings calm, lyrical repose as a temporary counterbalance, a refuge portending even greater disruption to come. While such overall mercurial, unsettled tension is clearly akin to Beethoven, Schubert’s sonata style is his own. Rather than a tightly “argued” narrative, Schubert pursues his more characteristic oscillation between familiar lavish themes where each recurrence brings a change in scoring, a fresh figuration and a new provocative harmonic twist. The conclusion combines the second, lyrical theme with a newly beatified version of the first, which, is at last allowed to resolve without interruption and quite generously with ever-expansive cadences. The final effect is magical.
The second movement is soulful and poetic, laden with elegant melancholy that moves slowly with great poise until it explodes into black anguish in the middle section of a three-part form. In a classic elegiac trope, sorrow gives way to despair as florid sprays and washes of scales, stomping chords and pregnant silences rage until spent, leaving the initial lonely theme to reemerge newly glowing in a major key. As he reprises the opening restored again to its minor mode cast, Schubert gently embellishes the texture with delicate echoes: a second voice in the treble sings in duet with the first, a subtle but artful elaboration of great beauty and atmosphere.
The third movement Scherzo banishes the shadows with sparkling playful light. Although it is the shortest of the four movements, Schubert writes two trios for a fecundity of thematic material matching the vast scope of the entire sonata. Such an outpouring of invention and expression so miraculous throughout his final year continues unabated in the ample finale, nearly as long as the opening movement and perhaps even denser with musical riches. Schubert titled the movement “Rondo”, which, despite some commentary to the contrary, it definitely is, but it is somewhat disguised by much variation, development a recurrent secondary theme. The primary refrain is a full, lovely song highly evocative of Beethoven, particularly the Ninth symphony. As it recurs, it takes on ornaments, counterpoints, a shift from major to minor and a great degree of elongation and elaboration, and at one point, a whole new Mozartian character with a shift to a higher register. One of the episodes again recalls Beethoven with its great muscularity, its brooding seriousness, a sense of crisis and destruction. The ultimate return of the refrain to its original form signals the pending conclusion but not until Schubert treats us to surprise and pregnant pauses, new exotic flourish and a grand series of final cadences. On close inspection, the last bars turn out to the very beginning of the sonata’s first movement played backwards in cancrizans or “crab motion” ending this epic sonata with a touch of brilliant symmetry.
Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937
A la manière de Chabrier, 1914
The change from Schubert to Ravel is immediately apparent in at least three obvious respects. First, the early 19th century Classical / Romantic harmony of “clean” major and minor gives way to nearly new aesthetic of pastel harmonic extensions, exotically ambiguous “modes”, suggestions of minimalist stasis, all of it more modern and ancient simultaneously. Second, Schubert’s sprawling, “heavenly lengths” give way much shorter character pieces exploring a more exotic diversity of moods, atmospheres and impressions. And closely related, the Classical aesthetic of long range sonata-form development gives way to compact ternary dance and song forms or perpetual motion mono-forms, even short meditations that seem nearly formless.
The second half of the program begins with two bewitching miniatures. The ineffable Prélude evokes both French Impressionism and a prescient “projection” of 20th century jazz piano at its most elegant and reflective a la Bill Evans. Apparently, he composed it for a sight-reading test associated with an entry test for a women’s piano competition ultimately won by Jeanne Leleu to whom the published piece is dedicated. A la manière de Chabrier includes the subtitle “Paraphrase sur un air de Gounod” where Ravel recalls Siebel’s flower song, an aria from the second act of Gounod’s opera Faust, but perhaps as Chabrier might have written it. The older Emmanuel Chabrier composed beautiful, colorful, evocative orchestral and piano music. With his harmonic innovations, Spanish “tinge” and quintessentially French charm, he greatly influenced his younger compatriots. Ravel’s homage perfectly captures an indescribably characteristic French mood.
Le tombeau de Couperin, 1917
With Ravel’s impeccable handling of elegant form, intricate detail, transparent texture and refined expression, he might be called Classical and, compared with previous excesses of boundless Romanticism, his trim precision earned him an apt categorization as “Neo-Classical.” In several instances, however, Ravel might be more correctly called a “Neo-Baroque” composer. From 1914 to 1917 during the Great War, Ravel sketched the several movements of an essentially Baroque suite that he ultimately published as a “tombstone” or memorial to the one of the great French Baroque clavecinistes and composers, François Couperin “le Grand.” Ravel also paid tribute to several French compatriots who lost their lives fighting WWI: each of the movements is dedicated to such a friend. The suite was completed in 1917 shortly after Ravel’s mother passed away. Perhaps Ravel found solace in turning from the tragedies of his time to the idealized achievements of a distant past?
Though the suite is apt to sound little like Couperin, it is Ravel’s own music in the formal mould and spirit of a French Baroque keyboard suite. It begins with a Prelude and Fugue, a two-part pattern pervasive throughout the era especially familiar through the music of J. S. Bach. The Prélude ripples, trills and sparkles to a perpetual motion with dazzling figurations just a typical prelude would. The Fugue is in three voices with a very modern yet chaste sound that is vividly more Ravel than Couperin or Bach. The next three movements are named after Baroque dances, each with their diagnostic patterns of meter and accent that at one time accompanied real dancers. The Forlane again evokes a startlingly “jazzy” flavor. The Rigaudon is a lively folk dance recalling the bucolic south of France, complete with a musette for a trio. The Menuet is one of the loveliest Ravel ever penned: with a moderate pace, poise and finesse, he celebrates the enduring French minuet restored from more than a century of wild scherzi to its erstwhile courtly elegance. Both the perpetual motion of keyboard virtuosity and the continuation of a strong dance impulse combine in the driving Toccata finale finishing this Baroque-inspired suite with a dazzling modern sheen.
La valse, 1920
For a grand finale, Mr. von Oeyen’s program takes us from Ravel’s “little” pieces to an epic of grand color and virtuosity with Ravel’s own transcription of La valse for solo piano, a rarely played work of immense difficulty where the pianist will be called upon for his transcendental technique. If you know Ravel’s great orchestral masterpiece, you might be incredulous about an arrangement for piano not unlike Liszt transcribing Beethoven’s Fifth or even Stravinsky and Debussy playing a four-handed Rite of Spring. But Ravel remained eminently flexible throughout his life successfully transforming works for solo piano into vast orchestral canvases as well as the other way. Between his technique and his taste, Ravel was surely a genius.
Considering the Boléro, and the numerous additional explicit or implicitly inspired dance movements he wrote, it easy to imagine how Ravel gravitated towards the waltz. Of this he wrote himself:
“You know my intense attraction to these wonderful rhythms and that I value the joie de vivre expressed in the dance much more deeply than Franckist puritanism.”
Ravel specifically loved the waltz music of Johann Strauss II and set out to compose a tribute he originally titled “Vienna.” A commission for a ballet from the great Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev famous throughout Paris at the time for his work with Stravinsky prompted Ravel to complete La valse in 1920. Diaghilev, however, never staged the ballet famously calling Ravel’s work not a ballet but a “portrait” of a ballet. Greatly insulted, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev’s hand almost resulting in a duel. The two men never spoke again. Ravel ultimately published La valse as a concert work with the title poème chorégraphique pour orchestre.
Aside from its statue as a beloved concert work, La valse enjoys some of its fame from its potentially controversial interpretation as both sound and metaphor. The composer George Benjamin started the phenomenon with this two-part suggestion:
“”Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz.”
Ravel begged to differ:
“While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it – the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war, etc… This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion… pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement. “. . . It doesn’t have anything to do with the present situation in Vienna, and it also doesn’t have any symbolic meaning in that regard. In the course of La Valse, I did not envision a dance of death or a struggle between life and death. (The year of the choreographic argument, 1855, repudiates such an assumption.)”
In this last comment, Ravel was referring to his own original description of La valse published at the top of score suggesting not “decay and destruction” but more fancifully, a modern “impressionistic” take on ballet tableau:
“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”