Nocturne in E-flat Major, Opus 55, No.2
Piano Sonata No.3 in B Minor, Opus 58

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

Frederic Chopin was the 19th century's undisputed poet of the piano. His nocturnes are poetic ruminations and invocations of the night. The gentle lyricism and melodic gift that personify Chopin are very much on display in these "night pieces." The Nocturne in E-flat is the second of two pieces (Opus 55) in that genre that Chopin composed in 1843.

Chopin's Third Piano Sonata - composed in 1844 - was his last large scale work. The composer's First Sonata, Opus 4 was a tribute to Johann Nepomuk Hummel - a composer that Chopin greatly admired. (Hummel's charming works - while not of the same exalted standard as Chopin's - deserve revival. Recently the Russian virtuoso Dimitri Ratser has championed Hummel's Piano Concerto.) In his Second and Third Sonatas Chopin speaks with his own unique musical voice. The Third Sonata was written shortly after the composer's break up with George Sand (aka Aurore Dudevant). The extroverted passion of the music reflects the composer's deeply conflicted feelings. (Always in fragile health, the separation would hasten Chopin's final decline.) 

In this remarkable score Chopin expands the traditional Classical sonata form. The opening Allegro maestoso has no less than ten thematic subjects. The opening theme is virtually eliminated from the recapitulation. A bold remolding of formal structures! Of the lyrical second theme the legendary American critic James Huneker noted that it was "an Aubade, a Nocturne of the morn. There is morning freshness in its hue and scent, and when it bursts a parterre of roses." The brief second movement is a scintillating Scherzo: Molto vivace (with a contrastingly lyrical trio episode). The third movement is a Largo - a flowing theme over a march like bass line. The Finale: Presto non tanto is a stormy, passionate showpiece - a challenge for virtuoso pianists. An intense principal theme is contrasted with a typically decorative secondary subject. A vigorous, exultant conclusion (amid pianistic fireworks) turns from B Minor to the major. A grandly Romantic swan song by the 19th century's pianistic genius!

Brazilian Tango, Sliding - Waltz, Breaking Heart, Batuque
Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934)

Unlike Brazil's most famous composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) Ernesto Nazareth was unknown outside of his nation's borders during his lifetime. Like Villa-Lobos Nazareth began his career as a pianist for the café society elite. (He also played in movie houses during the era of silent pictures.) The keyboard was the instrument of choice for Nazareth's entire compositional output. His vignettes fuse serious classicism with salon music. The Batuque is a distinctively Brazilian dance. Nazareth was one of the early tango masters. Of Nazareth's tangos the French musicologist Jean-Pierre Otte wrote "The perfect, enrapturing tango seems to swell from a prodigious blend…passing through all the mirrors of the memory by a fluctuating interplay of exaggerated thoughts, resounding dreams and exacerbated passions." 

Scene X: Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell from Romeo and Juliet - 10 Pieces, Opus 75 
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

One of the great scores for the ballet stage, Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," Opus 64 (composed in 1935-6) initially was rejected by Russian companies as not danceable. After a premiere in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the score was finally taken up by the leading ballet companies of the USSR. (The role of Juliet made the ballerina Galina Ulanova a star and a balletic icon.) Prokofiev arranged several orchestral suites of music from the ballet to help disseminate the score. The lush Romanticism of this work heralded a new lyricism and simplicity for the one time "enfant terrible" composer. In 1937 Prokofiev transcribed ten excerpts for solo piano. A bravura pianist in his own right, Prokofiev vividly evokes a cascade of glittering keyboard colors in these reinventions of the dance scenes. The soaring music of Romeo and Juliet's parting is some of the most impassioned in this grandly Romantic score. Here the composer reimagines the music's lush Romanticism in solo pianistic terms. 

Piano Sonata No.7 in B-flat Major, Opus 83 
Sergei Prokofiev

The nine piano sonatas of Prokofiev are the most significant body of work in this genre of the 20th century. Composed between 1909 and 1947, these scores have been compared to the piano sonatas of Beethoven with their combination of Classicism and complexity. Certainly Beethoven was relevant to the later sonatas. According to Prokofiev's second wife Mira Mendelssohn, in the summer of 1939 the composer had read musicologist Romain Rolland's book on Beethoven and was strongly influenced by Rolland's insightful commentary when composing the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Sonatas - all of which were written simultaneously over the following years. 

Prokofiev finished the Seventh Sonata in 1942 in Tbilisi. (The composer had been evacuated from Moscow after Germany attacked the Soviet Union.) The sonata was given its premiere on January 18, 1943 at Moscow's Hall of the Columns by the brilliant young piano virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter. (Prokofiev would dedicate his Ninth Sonata - his final completed work in this genre - to Richter.) Richter has written that the sonata is a portrait of disorder, uncertainty, and the rage of death dealing forces. The work's conclusion - in Richter's view - "expands into a gigantic, life affirming force." The sonata was awarded the Stalin Prize - the first of numerous such awards the composer would receive. 

In contrast to the neo-classicism of some of the composer's earlier sonatas, the three wartime sonatas are sometimes violent and agonizing in their musical turbulence. The Seventh Sonata opens with an Allegro Inquieto. An agitated opening subject leads to a quieter Andantino section. After a fierce development section, the two principal themes are reversed in the recapitulation. The central Andante Caloroso is hypnotic, almost Impressionistic but with a sense of unease. This movement contains some of Prokofiev's most beautiful writing for the keyboard. The Precipitato finale is often fierce. This music clearly speaks of the sounds of war and danger. The movement concludes with the ultimate rapid fire virtuosic display in a clear and affirmative B-flat major. A ray of hope to the Russian people at one of their darkest hours and a daunting technical challenge to any pianist who essays this monumental score! 

Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen

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