From the Vault

Listen: Beethoven Sonata, Op. 26 I

The question of how much to vary the tempo in a set of classical variations—or in a variation movement—is a thorny one.  My teachers were students of Serkin and Schnabel, so I was brought up to think twice before changing tempo to suit each variation.  Doing so might well rob the power of such tempo changes as the author does indicate; or negate, from one variation to the next, the progression of note-values designed to feint an increase or decrease in speed (while in fact keeping a steady pulse and harmonic rhythm); or flatten the effect of other contrasts the composer may be concerned with, perhaps of articulation, dynamics, or register.  A great example of these challenges is the bewitchingly elegant opening movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26:  how to allow for a certain ebb and flow, for an elasticity in the music, but without changing tempo in an obvious way.  (Incidentally, it is in the coda of this movement that Beethoven, for the very first time in his piano sonatas, explicitly marks senza sordino, i.e. to be played with damper pedal—a wonderful nugget courtesy of Barry Cooper and his invaluable new edition of the sonatas.) Here is this movement from my recent performance at the December Evenings Festival—was it successful in reconciling those conflicting goals?..

Listen: Haydn Seven Last Words—Earthquake

Music-lovers are familiar with the solemn and dramatic setting of the première of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross two hundred and thirty Good Fridays ago.  In the words of Haydn himself,

The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse.

The original orchestral version was soon arranged for string quartet and also for piano.  This latter version was expertly executed by an arranger whose name is lost to history, but who met with Haydn's explicit approval:   

I am full of praise for the keyboard reduction, which is very well written and with special diligence.

Still, this excellent arrangement today falls short in three key respects:  One, it is not quite faithful enough to the original; two, it fails to take into account the subtle revisions of phrasing, dynamics, and register that Haydn brought to bear upon his own oratorio version (produced a decade later and therefore not yet unavailable to the contemporaneous arranger for keyboard); three, it falls short of communicating the range and power of the original by restricting itself to a technical level appropriate for 18th-century amateur pianists, but hardly for the professional pianists of today, or for the greater expressive and dynamic range available to us on our modern iron-frame pianos.

And so, in a modest effort to remedy these three shortcomings, I have revised this keyboard arrangement in a manner that I hope might meet with the approval of the nameless arranger and of Haydn himself, were they alive today.  Here is how the closing Earthquake movement sounded in my performance at the December Evenings Festival.

Listen: Liadov Kikimora, Op. 63

Anatoly Liadov was an important figure in Russian music at the turn of the last century—professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and the teacher of Prokofiev and Miaskovsky.  Liadov's own output as composer is modest in scope but impeccably crafted and brilliantly orchestrated (one can imagine Stravinsky himself being inspired by such an unlimited sense of orchestral colour).  Especially impressive are the tone poems Enchanted Lake, Baba-Yaga, and Kikimora, which you can hear me conduct in this recent performance.