Jon Nakamatsu, Solo Recital in Carmel

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Rondo in D Major, K. 485 (1786)
Fantasy in D Minor, K. 397 / 385g (1782)

Jon NakamatsuMr. Nakamatsu’s recital begins with two works by Mozart who was among the first great composers to write explicitly for the piano vs. the harpsichord. In addition to his masterful concertante and chamber works featuring the “new fangled” instrument, Mozart composed 17 piano sonatas and numerous single-movement pieces: variation sets, rondos and fantasies, etc. The pair of works presented here might well be titled “Mozart light and dark”, so effective is their contrast in exploring Mozart’s emotional range.

The Rondo in D Major, K. 485 is bright, sparkling and utterly classical sporting a simple, main theme with a rhythmic lilt due to what is often called a “Scottish snap.” The formal structure of the piece is actually a crystal clear sonata form (with multiple themes, key change, development and recap), but the lively, motto theme is deployed in such a way that it recurs throughout the structure like the main refrain of a rondo. Like a witty game, the merry rondo theme plays hide and seek, changing keys, moving from the right to the left hand, making digressions, taking on disguises and generally confounding expectations.

The Fantasy in D Minor, K. 397 could not be more different. Composed earlier but never quite finished, the piece surfaced in manuscript and was published posthumously around 1807 with the final, missing bars completed by August Eberhard Müller. Brooding, if not tragic, it begins like a Bach prelude giving way to a delicately dark Mozartian theme. The silences are as musical as the notes themselves as a kind of improvisational moodiness ranges from arpeggio to melody to emphatic repeated figures and broad chromatic sweeps in a manner more Romantic (or Baroque) than Classical. Given formal and expressive license by its disclaiming title “Fantasy”, the music abandons its beautiful gloom for a sudden change of heart, now golden with Mozart’s most Classical charm.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5 (1853)

1853 proved a fateful year for Johannes Brahms. While still only 19, he composed all three of his piano sonatas including his first published opus. That same year, Brahms also met the Schumanns: Clara, who would become dear, life-long friend, and Robert, who would make the stupendous claim in print that Brahms would become the next great lion and savior of German music. Both Clara and Robert were astonished when they witnessed the young Johannes at the piano and it may well have been his magnificent third sonata in F Minor that they heard. Probably the finest of his three sonatas for piano and certainly the most celebrated, it seems to have satisfied Brahms for despite the masterful concerti and chamber music featuring the piano that he would compose years hence, Brahms never returned to the piano sonata again.
The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5 is a massive, epic sonata on the scale of late Beethoven or Schubert comprising five movements and a duration of nearly forty minutes on average. Despite its very early date in his career, the sonata fully displays Brahms’s characteristic musical personality including some of the finest traits of his maturity. It will interest chamber music lovers to note his first important ensemble piece was just a year away: the first piano trio in B Major, Op. 8 of the following year.

The first movement is a sweeping sonata-allegro form with an initial thematic motif subjected to numerous ingenious transformations suggesting his famous technique of thematic variation including a final recasting in the key of F Major. The second movement is the longest movement of the sonata and the slow movement. Here, Brahms reveals the ineffable style of his magical, late intermezzi so early on in one of his most beautiful creations. Brahms inscribed a short poem at the head of the movement describing two lovers together in moonlight. A boisterous, roiling Scherzo quickly dispels the bewitching song with a return to the minor mode but softens again with a warm trio with a predominantly chordal structure that almost seamlessly flows back into the scherzo. The unusual fourth movement is a passing intermezzo that, as its subtitle “Reminiscence” suggests, is a moody reflection on a theme from slow movement love song. The rondo finale initially restores the key of F Minor again with a subdued but rather tense march. The remainder of this most novel movement includes echoes of previous movements and eventually introduces a sublimely simple theme (featuring three falling notes) that richly transforms the ending into F Major for a radiant conclusion.

Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Sonata No. 3 in F Major, Op 46 (1946)

Kabalevsky is apt to be an obscure composer for most listeners. Born just a few years before his compatriot Shostakovich, they are nearly exact contemporaries with Kabalevsky outliving Shostakovich by over a decade. Yet, while Shostakovich and numerous other Soviet composers suffered the censure of the state authorities for their “degenerate” formalism, Kabalevsky faired well, receiving little resistance and, on several occasions, great praise with official honors and prizes. He embraced the tenants of social realism with a Neo-Classical style writing patriotic songs, cantatas and operas for which he is chiefly remembered today. Perhaps his greatest achievements involved his extensive work with the musical education of children. Kabalevsky composed numerous piano pieces for young players, simple but wonderfully modern in style and affect, in the words of one author, “bridging the gap between children’s technical skills and adult aesthetics.” He spent time in the classroom as a teacher helping children develop attentive listening skills and expressing their musical experiences in words. As a composer, Kabalevsky is most celebrated for his prodigious output for solo piano including, notably, prelude sets and three wonderful piano sonatas of which the second and third have entered the repertoire.

Kabalevsky composed his second piano sonata in 1945 in the fresh wake of WWII and perhaps his extensive work with children lead him towards a vivid appreciation of the effects of war on the young. In his own words, perhaps with a nod towards official dogma, he stated, “The Sonata lacks a concrete program, yet two themes, two major images: youth and war, prevail here. The collision of those themes and the final triumph of youth sums up the plot of the work!” Each of the three movements seems to clearly echo this suggestion. The first movement opens with a tuneful, youthful theme with a falling gesture soon met by a more challenging, second theme rising in conflict and eventually growing ominous, menacing, and violent with the suggestion of war. The movement ends with the calm triumph of the opening theme. The middle movement initially features the charming sway of a casual, childlike waltz that repeatedly finds itself challenged by something more sinister, again, literally rising out of the shadows, heavy and full of danger. The finale begins straightaway with the rumbling march of war and, in a manner evocative of Shostakovich, juxtaposes a heavy, dissonant stomping in the bass with a kind of precarious but nimble high wire act in the treble. The mercurial contrasts between heavy and light, somber and witty suggest Til Eulenspiegel constantly evading the authorities, with victory emerging upon the recall of the sonata’s opening leitmotif in the final bars. It is worth noting that, in his youth, Kabalevsky (like Shostakovich) spent some years accompanying silent movies.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 39 (1839)
Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2 (1830-33)
Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 (1842)

Chopin is synonymous with the piano. He wrote prodigiously and almost exclusively for the instrument of which he was a sui generis virtuoso composer-performer, in the process, discovering and “liberating” its full sonorous and expressive possibilities earning him the eternal sobriquet, “poet of the piano.” Though he wrote concerti and sonatas, it was the slew of single-movement topical and character pieces he composed that defined a new era of Romanticism: Etudes, Preludes, Scherzi, Nocturnes and Ballads as well as a number of dances like the Waltz, Mazurka and Polonaise to name only the most obvious. Mr. Nakamatsu concludes his recital with perfect showcase of three pieces, again, demonstrating the range and diversity of Chopin’s oeuvre in miniature.

The Scherzo derives from the symphony or quartet movement of the same title generally featuring the same traits: a lively triple meter with compelling rhythmic figures and a three-part design after the scherzo and trio form. Chopin’s third scherzo, in C-Sharp Minor, begins with a cloud of ambiguous tonality that erupts into it a fiery main theme played boldly and swiftly in octaves. The contrasting “trio” material changes both the key and the character to majestic chorale theme with sparkling showers of descending notes like rain, starlight or manna. After the stormy, driven scherzo, the languid, delicate poetry of a Chopin nocturne completely changes the scene. The Nocturne was pioneered by Irish composer John Field, but made famous by Chopin who would pass the inspiration to Fauré and others as a vehicle for thoughts and feelings of the evening or onward into the late night. The finale piece in the set restores the big sounds and high energy of Chopin’s most exuberant music with a beloved dance from his Polish homeland, the Polonaise. An old folk dance that became fashionable at court and eventually an icon of National pride, the Polonaise features a characteristic rhythmic signature with a little flourish on the upbeat of the first of three counts in a triple meter. One of Chopin’s most famous, this polonaise bears the nickname “Heroic” for its magisterial, triumphant character as well as a victorious marching figure in the contrasting sections.

Program Change / Addendum

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat Major, K. 333 (1783-84)

Mozart may rightly be regarded as the first master composer of great piano music, that is, keyboard music written specifically for the “pianoforte” rather than the harpsichord or its closely related brethren that soon became historical relics. Though initially conceived around the year 1700, it was not until well into the 1760’s before this new fangled instrument appeared in formal concerts and probably not until well into the 1780’s that it began to significantly displace the harpsichord. The eminent music scholar Albert Einstein, who revised Köchel’s original catalog of Mozart’s work, claimed that Mozart composed all 17 of his piano sonatas quite literally for the new instrument and, as they were mostly composed for Mozart’s own concert performances, we may regard Mozart as one of history’s first great pianists as well. Mozart quickly became famous for his lyrical touch and limpid tone, and, as both composer and performer, would elevate the piano to perhaps its first epic zenith of expression in a series of masterful piano concertos composed after 1784.

Mozart’s sonatas for solo piano roughly fall into two historical phases, early and late, with the four “late” sonatas also starting around 1784. Mozart’s 13th piano sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333, was long thought to date from around 1778-79 at the tail end of the “early” period and commentary about this especially admired sonata would warmly suggest it was worthy of his finest mature efforts “to come.” Indeed, recent research into the manuscript paper has confirmed that, in fact, Mozart composed K. 333 while on a trip with his wife in Linz in late 1783 and it swiftly published thereafter in 1784. Like the symphony from the same period, the sonata is sometimes given the nickname “Linz” and it represents a very high watermark in Mozart’s mature catalog. Chamber music lovers will recall that during the very same period, Mozart was hard at work on his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn.

The sonata comprises three movements in the formal tradition of the time roughly corresponding to a fast – slow – fast layout. The first movement follows a clear sonata-allegro form establishing a bright, ebullient mood with that graceful charm that is a hallmark of the true Classical style. Mozart sharpens and briefly darkens the proceedings with an adroit development leading to an embellished recap of the opening material. Operatic drama and lyricism pervade all three movements but especially the second movement that Mozart marks “cantabile” to emphasize its songful expression. Most commentators wax poetic over this beautifully soulful slow movement emphasizing how it must have been a special showcase for Mozart’s own inimitable style of playing, essentially a new phenomenon in the musical world. As Mozart would find his greatest pianist expressions with the mature piano concertos ensuing about the same time he composed this piano sonata, so, the finale is celebrated for its ingenious, illusory invocation of an orchestral concerto miraculously in the context of a solo pianist. The lively rondo finale wonderfully summons the concertante dialog between full orchestral tutti and soloist even to the point of simulating an improvised solo cadenza towards the end. The entire three-movement sonata seems to flow effortlessly yet it is considered quite challenging for pianists. For both performers and listeners, it amply reinforces the famous remark by the great Austrian pianist Arthur Schnabel that Mozart is “too easy for children and too difficult for artists.”

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