PROGRAM NOTES Concert by Steven Osborne (3/13/05)
By Lawrence Budmen
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) confessed to Clara Schumann that he only felt at home writing for the piano. A distinguished pianist in his own right, Brahms's output for the keyboard is not large - three early sonatas, several sets of variations, the two Rhapsodies, the "Klavierstucke" Opus 76, and four collections of late piano miniatures. This is not entirely surprising when one considers the Brahm's self critical attitude toward composing in the shadows of Bach and Beethoven. Brahms composed his two Rhapsodies in the summer of 1879. The "Rhapsody in B Minor," Opus 79, No.1 was originally titled "Capriccio." This is definitely music of the Romantic age. It is in strict ABA form. This is music in the stormy mode of the composer's D Minor Piano Concerto (No.1). There is a tranquil middle section (in B major) and a quiet, poetic coda.
In the complex life and career of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Catholicism remained a major influence. Liszt composed numerous Masses and religious works. Recently his unfinished oratorio "St. Stanislaus" has been performed and recorded. This torso of an epic score finds the composer experimenting with new harmonies - as if to find some other worldly musical realm. Late in life Liszt even took minor vows as a Prelate. One of his most famous religiously inspired keyboard works is the set of ten pieces - "Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses." Based on poems by Alphonse de Lamartine, Liszt created these works between 1845 and 1852. He dedicated the cycle to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. Two of the four pieces that Steven Osborne will perform at this concert - "Pater Noster" and "Hymn de l'enfant a son Reveil" - are piano transcriptions of choral works. "Funerailles" (the best known piece in the cycle) is particularly significant. Following the failed Hungarian War of Independence (1848-1849) the Austrian Imperial government executed Count Lajos Batthyeany and sixteen other independence leaders. Many were Liszt's friends. For many years "Funerailles" was thought to be a homage to Chopin who died eleven days after Count Batthyeany's execution. The piece is actually a tribute to heroism - both personal and mythic. The Canadian pianist and teacher Philip Thomson has said of "Funerailles": "Dark, poignant, defiant, and tragic, just as the events were that inspired it. More powerful or heartfelt funeral music than this has not been penned."
For Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) life and artistic creation were framed by a deep religious faith. The composer's devout Catholicism and love of birdsong infuse many of his compositions. A true creative original Messiaen went beyond French Impressionism. His use of Hindu and Greek rhythms and meters created a new kind of music. His landmark piano work "Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus" was composed in 1944 during the last days of the German occupation of Paris. The composer was clearly looking to a brighter day. Liberation lay ahead. The bird songs that Messiaen began to notate in the 1920's had a greater meaning to the composer. He considered birdsong to be the voice of Creation singing to God. Three themes dominate the "Vingt Regards" cycle. One is a "theme of God"; the second is the "theme of the Star and the Cross"; the third is a "theme of chords" which the composer considered "as concentrated as a rainbow." Steven Osborne has championed and recorded this epic work. From the cycle he has chosen five pieces for this concert. 1) "Regard du Pere" ("Watch of the Father") introduces the theme of God. 8) "Regards des Hauteurs" ("Watch of the Heights") is a concert of birds that illustrates the heavenly host's descent to the manger. 14) "Regard des Anges" ("Watch of the Angels") is an image of angels which Messiaen relates to birdsong. 15) "La Baiser de L'enfant Jesus" ("The Child Jesus's Kiss') is characterized by the composer as "to be as tender as the heart of heaven itself." 10)"Regard de l'Espirit de Joie" ("Watch of the Spirit of Joy") is the score's central section - a celebration of the joy of Heaven and nature. This cycle is the Messiaen's most important statement of faith for solo keyboard - the work of a master and a 20th century original!