Variations on a Theme by Rode, Opus 33

Suite "Aus Holbergs Zeit" Opus 40

Suite "Napoli"

Ballade No.2 in B Minor

Etudes, Opus 72, Nos. 1, 2, & 6

Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat Minor, Opus 36

By Lawrence Budmen

Three divertissements, a series of elegant etudes, and major scores by two master pianist-composers form the irresistible musical fare of this concert.

Carl Czerny (1791-1857) occupies a unique position in 19th century music history. He was a pupil of Beethoven and the teacher of Liszt. He was one of the most influential teachers of his time. As a composer Czerny wrote more than 1000 scores. Every serious piano student has tackled his numerous studies and exercises. Like every composer who walked in the footsteps of giants, his work has tended to be neglected. Czerny was a brilliant pianist and his works are well crafted for the instrument. In recent years, a new generation of pianists has rediscovered his music. 

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was Norway's musical voice. One of his musical mentors had been Niels Gade, a contemporary of Mendelssohn and a formidable composer of orchestral music. Ludwig Holberg was the founder of modern Danish and Norwegian literature. For the bicentennial of his birth in 1884, Grieg was commissioned to write two commemorative works. The "Holberg Suite" (as it is commonly known) has proven to be one of Grieg's most popular works. While the music is best known in its orchestral version, the composer originally wrote it for solo piano. Grieg ingenuously combines the form and style of a Baroque instrumental suite with his own 19th century Norwegian musical nationalism. Like Bach's suites, the work consists of a Prelude and a series of dances: Sarabande, Gavotte, Air, and Rigaudon. 

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a member of "Les Six," a group of French composers who aimed to fuse elements of French popular culture with the concert hall. His principal teacher was the eccentric Charles Koechlin. Poulenc's musical heroes were Stravinsky and Satie. Their neo-classicism, sophistication, and sense of irony are reflected in Poulenc's music. He wrote many keyboard works: scores for one and two pianos, harpsichord, and organ (both solo and with orchestra.) His Suite "Napoli" reflects a sophisticated Frenchman's musical impressions of Naples. 

The revolutions and violence in 1848-1849 left a deep mark on Franz Liszt. His friend Prince Felix Lichnowsky had been killed by a mob in Frankfurt in 1848. In October 1849 thirteen leaders of the Hungarian uprising were executed. The "Ballade No.2 in B Minor" (composed in 1853) is dedicated posthumously to one of that group - Count Karoly Leiningen. This single movement 14 minute work uses the principles of sonata form. While Liszt did not specify a program, it is clear that this music portrays violence and tragedy. This intense work also tests the extremes of the pianist's technique.

The Polish composer and pianist Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) has been unfairly called a "salon composer." While his music does not have great depth, it is beautifully crafted and is filled with melodic inspiration - qualities that many composers could not equal. His "Suite for Two Violins" is a charming, graceful confection. Moszkowski's "Piano Concerto" is a dazzling virtuoso display piece which deserves to be heard in concert more often. The same glittering pianistic flourishes pervade his "Etudes," Opus 72. These works are filled with instrumental color and variety. Moszkowski's music is always elegant in a grand manner. He is definitely a "pianists' composer."

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was the last great Russian romantic composer. He studied with the great pianist Alexander Siloti. His composition teachers were Arensky and Taneyev. He also worked with Tchaikovsky and was inspired by his musical idiom and structural mastery. The "Sonata No.2 in B flat Minor," Opus 36 dates from one of the composer's most fertile periods. The year of its composition (1913) also saw the creation of Rachmaninoff's large scale symphonic score for vocal soloists, chorus, and large orchestra "The Bells." His next major score (in 1915) was the deeply moving Russian Orthodox "Vespers." All of the hallmarks of Rachmaninoff's style are found in this sonata - grand emotional gestures, small motifs extending into lyrical melody, sweeping musical lines, and brooding melancholy. As in the much later "Piano Concerto No.4" (1926), the composer utilizes these compositional techniques with greater austerity than in many of his best known works. This music demands rhythmic drive, precision, a grand sense of line, and clarity of texture. For Rachmaninoff the pianist, these qualities were a given. His "Sonata No.2" is both challenging and rewarding for the performing artist.

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