PROGRAM NOTES Concert Denis Burstein (12/12/04)

Denis Burstein, Piano

Piano Sonata No.1 in F Minor, Opus 2, No.1 

Sonata quasi una fantasia in E-flat Major, Opus 27, No.1
(Piano Sonata No.13 in E-flat Major)

Sonata quasi una fantasia in C Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No.2
(Piano Sonata No.14 in C Sharp Minor) ("Moonlight")

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

by Lawrence Budmen

The 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven constitute the most extraordinary series of works in that genre in the entire keyboard literature. From the Vienesse melodic warmth of the early sonatas to the heaven storming "Hammerklavier" (with its rigorous double fugue) to the ethereal beauty of the final sonatas, these scores are the work of a master who changed the course of music as we know it.

The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler noted that with "Beethoven: It is not the revolutionary who is great, but, born of him, the builder. The revolutionary is a misunderstanding." Furtwangler's point was that although Beethoven changed the course of music history in the most profound manner, he built upon the musical canon that preceded him. His first three piano sonatas (composed between 1793 and 1795) were dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn - the father of the symphony and the string quartet (at least in the modern sense of those musical genres). Beethoven had studied with Haydn between 1792 and 1794. The two men apparently had parted on less than amicable terms. It is therefore an act of great homage for Beethoven to have dedicated his earliest keyboard sonatas to the master. Yet the first sonata is not in any real sense Haydnesque. Indeed Mozart was a greater musical influence for the young Beethoven. (Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony clearly points the way toward Beethoven's first two symphonic essays.) Beethoven's individuality is immediately announced by the sonata's minor key. The development section of the opening Allegro is more complex than in Haydn's very classical keyboard essays. Beethoven's lyrical melodic inspiration flows inexorably throughout the score. The concluding Prestissimo is as long as the two middle movement and continually surprises with its sudden melodic turns of phrase. For all its modest scale, Beethoven's first piano sonata is clearly the work of a genius!

The Opus 27 sonatas were written in 1800 and 1801. The title Sonata una quasi fantasia would seem to refer to the unorthodox sequence of movements. Here Beethoven breaks away from the then standard Allegro; Adagio; Menuetto; Presto. In the E-flat Major Sonata (Opus 27, No.1) the opening movement commences with a songful Andante followed by an Allegro middle section before returning to the mood of the opening. The late pianist Emil Gilels surmised that Beethoven had the timbres of a string quartet in mind - particularly in the Andante sections. Since Beethoven did make a transcription for string quartet of the Piano Sonata, Opus 14, No.1, Gilel's assumption may have some musicological basis. Rushing keyboard figurations dominate the Allegro molto e vivace which is followed by a serene Adagio con espressione. A vigorous finale is briefly interrupted by a reference to the Adagio. In the Opus 27 sonatas Beethoven has found his personal creative voice! 

The novelist and music commentator Ludwig Rellistab (1799-1860) named the C Sharp Minor Sonata (Opus 27, No.2) the "Moonlight." The dreamy mood of the opening Adagio sostenuto seems to suggest some nocturnal accent. Again the term Sonata quasi una fantasia suggests Beethoven's bold originality in opening with such a slow, poetic utterance. The movement is not in sonata form. There is no second theme or development. It is an expressive nocturnal reflection that follows its own artistic voice. The evocative nature of the movement points the way forward to Chopin. The brief, elegant Allegretto was described by Liszt as "a flower between two chasms." The furious cascade of notes of the Presto agitato finale suggests Beethoven the titan. For all its familiarity the "Moonlight" Sonata is a daringly original work which divides the competent performing artist from the extraordinary one. 

Two Fairy-Tales, Opus 14
Four Fairy-Tales, Opus 26
Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)

Nikolai Medtner was a 20th century composer with a musical aesthetic steeped in 19th century Romanticism. In that respect he had much in common with Rachmaninoff. (Medtner dedicated his Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor - premiered in 1927 - to Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff repaid the compliment by dedicating his Fourth Piano Concerto to Medtner.) He studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory with Arensky (a pupil of Tchaikovsky) and Taneyev and piano with Safonov. (Medtner would have had a major career as a piano virtuoso had he not decided, as a matter of principal, to concentrate on composition.) To this day he shares gold plaques of honor with Rachmaninoff and Scriabin at the Moscow Conservatory. 

Medtner taught at the Moscow Conservatory in 1909 and again from 1914 until 1921. Having continued work at his teaching position throughout the First World War, the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath, Medtner and his wife departed Russia in 1921. They went first to Germany; then to Paris before finally settling in London in 1936. He returned to the Soviet Union for a triumphant concert tour in 1927. While his music continued to be published and performed in Moscow during the 1920's, a new decade brought an unofficial government ban on his music. It was not until the late 1950's that his collected works were published in the Soviet Union - edited by the distinguished concert pianist Vladimir Safronitsky, a Medtner pupil. That publication led to a major revival of the composer's works in Russia which continues unabated today. The outbreak of World War 2 brought tragedy and hardship for Medtner. His income from German publishers ceased and ill health curtailed his modest performing career. (One of his final appearances was when he was soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No.3 in E Minor, Opus 60 on February 19, 1944 with Sir Adrian Boult conducting at London's Royal Albert Hall.) In 1946 Sir Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar, Maharajah of Mysore underwrote a series of recordings for the Medtner Society (EMI). Still a formidable piano virtuoso, Medtner's playing is remarkably vivid on this series of recordings. (At the time of his death - on November 13, 1951in London - he had recorded all three of his piano concertos plus several sonatas and numerous songs.) Ironically, this composer who considered being Russian his duty was buried in North London. 

While his compositional style was greatly influenced by the Germanic tradition of Brahms and Schumann, many of his works are filled with nostalgia and melancholy that is typically Russian. Medtner's output was marked by large scale works - three piano concertos, a piano quintet (his final work - completed in 1949), three violin-piano sonatas, over a dozen piano sonatas, and numerous songs (which were programmed and recorded by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf among others). Perhaps his most daringly original works were his "Skazki" ("legends" or "Fairy-Tales"). These are mercurial fantasies, deeply Russian narratives. The demonic spirit of Liszt pervades these dazzling virtuoso works. Denis Burstein joins such legendary titans of the keyboard as Shura Cherkassky and Vladimir Horowitz in his enthusiasm for these remarkable, incredibly original works.

In his oration at Medtner's funeral in 1951 the distinguished conductor Issay Dobroven said "It is a good thing for every man to have a conscience, and for musicians it is absolutely essential to acquire a musical conscience…Musical conscience, in the first instance, finds its concrete embodiment in the person of a musician who is an example to others and whose authority springs from the purity and moral integrity of his life as a creative artist, free from all compromise and subterfuge. Are there many such men? Alas, there are very few! But my contemporaries and I have had the happiness of knowing and loving one who took for us the place of conscience -one whose heart was pure as a child's - Nikolai Medtner, a true knight sans peuret sans reproche. Dear Nikolai Karlovitch! You are no longer with us, but as long as, at least, one of those who knew you is still living, you will remain our guiding light and our musical conscience." 


Infernal Dance, Lullaby, and Finale from the ballet "The Firebird" 
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Transcription: Guido Agosti


In 1910 the young Igor Stravinsky, a pupil of the great Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was invited by the impresario Serge Dyagilev to collaborate with the brilliant modern choreographer Mikhail Fokine on a new work for his Ballets Russes company. The Russian fairy tale ballet "The Firebird" was a major international success and catapulted Stravinsky to international fame. Stravinsky traveled to Paris with the Dyagilev troupe and would divide his time between France, Switzerland, and the United States for the remainder of his life. 

"The Firebird" tells the story of a Prince who comes upon a strange bird with wings of fire. After initially capturing the bird, the Prince releases it and the Firebird gives him a magic egg for his protection. When he meets a Princess who is a captive of an evil magician, the Prince calls forth the egg and the Firebird's power destroys the sorcerer and his henchman. The Prince and Princess are married - the watchful glance of the Firebird in the distance. To this scenario Stravinsky wrote music of glittering color and sensuous beauty. The score at once reflects the coloristic orchestral mastery of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and looks to the future in the motor rhythms and dissonance of the sorcerer's music. 

From the ballet score Stravinsky extracted an orchestral suite which quickly established repertoire status. In 1928 Guido Agosti, a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni transcribed three movements from that score. The Infernal Dance is the evil magician's frightening solo turn. Stravinsky's polyrhythms and clanging dissonance declare a new musical voice has arrived. The Lullaby is a languorous Russian Romanza. The Finale is the joyous music accompanying the final wedding procession. Agosti's transcription is marked by a myriad fountain of flowing colors, daunting technical challenges, and remarkable pianistic sweep. A dazzling reinvention of a classic! 


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