CHOPIN Two Nocturnes Op.48 (14’)
RAVEL Gaspard de la Nuit (23’)
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor Op.20 (9’)
Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor Op.31 (10’)
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor Op.39 (7’)
Scherzo No. 4 in E Op.54 (11’)
For Tim’s penultimate concert in his compelling series exploring Chopin’s most beguiling music, he again includes music inspired by the mastery of the composer.
This time it’s the great Maurice Ravel. In ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’, Ravel’s piano-writing creates dazzling portraits of characters and landscapes, with moments of thrilling energy and serene beauty.
With Tim on the piano stool, this is guaranteed to be a breathtaking evening of music.
CHOPIN Frédéric, Nocturne Op.48 No.1
Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor is among the finest of all his explorations of this form. More overtly dramatic than most of his other nocturnes, it begins with a solemn, halting melody in the right hand, supported by chords that have some of the characteristics of a funeral march. The result, though, is more lyrical and more plangent (reminding us of Chopin’s fondness for bel canto opera) than the austere tread of his most famous funeral march (in the B flat minor Sonata). The central section is a richly harmonized chorale in C major, that is – in due course –infiltrated and disturbed by a quicker, more chromatic figure in a triplet rhythm that eventually provokes an explosive climax – complete with Lisztian octaves – before the music turns back to the minor key, and the material from the opening. Here Chopin does something unexpected. The uneasy triplet rhythms that had disrupted the chorale are now transformed into a restless, agitated accompaniment for the melody, and it is only in the last two bars that the nervousness finally subsides.
This Nocturne was the first of a pair dedicated to a favourite Chopin pupil – Laure Duperré, the beautiful daughter of an admiral – and was first published in 1841 by Schlesinger in Paris. The following year, it was reviewed in the Revue et Gazette musicale by Maurice Bourges. Writing in the form of a letter to an unnamed Baroness, Bourges offers a description of the work’s design that was quite novel for the time outside the pages of composition treatises (Schumann was one of the few who had attempted something similar in the general musical press): ‘Here in a few words is an outline of the thirteenth nocturne. A first period, in C minor, is distinguished by the character of the melody that dominates it; the second, in C major, begins pianissimo; it belongs to the complex form that has been very aptly called melodic harmony; then it ends with a restatement of the first theme, accompanied this time by pulsating chords that give the general rhythm a new warmth.’
Nigel Simeone 2010
RAVEL Maurice, Gaspard de la Nuit
Maurice Ravel completed Gaspard de la nuit on 8 September 1908, and the first performance took place on 9 January 1909, at the Salle Erard in Paris. The pianist was Ricardo Viñes, one of the most energetic advocates of new French and Spanish music, and a long-time friend of Ravel’s. Exact contemporaries, they were both members of Les Apaches, a group of like-minded artistic friends. While they were students, Viñes had introduced Ravel to the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand that was later to inspire Gaspard de la nuit. Gaspard refers to a Persian treasurer guarding the royal jewels at night.
Betrand’s prose poems had been published in 1842 (a year after his death), and influenced later Symbolist poets, notably Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Ravel’s Gaspard, subtitled ‘three poems’, begins with Ondine, a dream-like depiction of a water sprite. Ravel’s music seems to mirror the strange beauty of the poem:
Listen! … it is Ondine who brushes drops of water on the resonant panes of your windows, lit by the gloomy rays of the moon; and here in gown of watered silk, the mistress of the chateau gazes from her balcony on the beautiful starry night and sleeping lake.
Le Gibet is a grim evocation of a corpse hanging from the gallows. A bell – incessant and obsessive – tolls throughout the piece, represented by repeated B flats, the first and last sounds we hear.
Ravel once said his initial idea for Scarbo had been to ‘make a caricature of Romanticism’, but admitted that ‘perhaps it got the better of me.’ The result is music of dazzling originality. The poem depicts a goblin who darts in and out of the shadows, and Ravel’s piece mirrors this with quiet passages disturbed by sudden outbursts. The critic Vladimir Jankélévitch described Scarbo as ‘a fiendish encyclopedia of all the traps, obstacles and snares that a limitless imagination can devise for a pianist’s fingers.’
(C) Nigel Simeone
CHOPIN Frédéric, Four Scherzos
Chopin’s Scherzos were composed between the mid-1830s and 1843. Scherzo means ‘jest’ or ‘joke’ and earlier composers such as Haydn and Beethoven often invested scherzo movements with playful elements. But Chopin took the form in a quite different direction prompting Robert Schumann to ask about the B minor Scherzo, Op.20: ‘How is “gravity” to clothe itself when “jest” goes about in such dark veils?’ Certainly, the mood of the B minor Scherzo (published in 1835) is sombre and sinister, the outer sections full of suspense and wildness. Only in the central section (in B major) is there any sense of repose.
The B flat minor Scherzo, Op.31 (1837), was likened by Schumann to Byron’s poetry, ‘overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.’ Chopin himself is said to have compared the hushed opening to a question, the explosive second phrase providing the answer, but the piece as a whole is remarkably intense and unified, its ideas seeming to grow from one to the next to create a remarkable inner coherence.
His approach in the C sharp minor Scherzo, Op.39 (1838–9) is rather different, depending for its effectiveness on the sharp contrasts and surprising juxtapositions between the rapid octaves at the opening and the hymn-like second theme and the exquisite tumbling cascades with which it is decorated. The mood at the close is dazzling and defiant.
The E major Scherzo, Op.54 (1843), is the one which perhaps most clearly matches the expectations of its title: there is a certain playfulness and elegance in a work that was composed tandem with the Fourth Ballade and the Polonaise in A flat, Op.53. But in spite of its apparent conformity with the title, this is late Chopin and the music is full of innovation, whether in the exploration of piano textures or Chopin’s increasingly rich harmonic palate. More introspective than its predecessors, it is also a work which seems tinged with sadness as well as mercurial brilliance.
© Nigel Simeone