Rondo in D (K.485) W.A.Mozart (1756 – 1791) 

Although the first surviving examples date from the 1720s, it was another fifty years before pianos began to be encountered regularly; it will have been on harpsichords and clavichords that the boy Mozart dazzled all who heard him on his extensive European tours in the 1760s. The first definitive account of him playing a piano dates from the winter of 1774/5; but it will have been only after his move to Vienna in 1781 that he had ready access to pianos, and it is from this last decade of his career that we can tell from the way the music is conceived and written down that he has the piano rather than the harpsichord in mind. It is to this period that the D major rondo belongs – the autograph is dated 10th January 1786. As we listen to this charming, elegant music, we might just ponder for a moment why he didn’t enter it in the very detailed thematic catalogue of his own works, and who was the dedicatee whose name has been erased from the head of the autograph?  

Six Intermezzi (Opus 118) Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Like Mozart, Brahms possessed a formidable piano technique and it was as a pianist playing his own works that he first became widely known. It was the way in which he played almost as much as what he played that so impressed Schumann and his wife when the twenty-year-old Brahms appeared at their Düsseldorf home. His training as a pianist had been both thorough and conservative: in an age when most young players were only too happy to fritter their talents away on flashy bravura showpieces, Brahms was given (and thrived on) a diet largely made up of Bach and Beethoven. His own compositions certainly demand a formidable technique, but the difficulties they present are as much to do with contrapuntal control and sheer stamina as ‘notes per second’. 

The early piano works favour the strict forms of sonata and variations and it is these works that make the most extreme purely technical demands on the player. The two ‘middle period’ groups (the Eight Pieces and the Two Rhapsodies) are rather more relaxed in form and refined in utterance. And then come the fruits of what is invariably referred to as an Indian summer, a collection of twenty pieces in four groups which appeared in the early 1890s (it is always dangerous to say “composed in…” with Brahms as he so often wrote first drafts and then laid then aside, often for many years) where formal concerns, still of great importance to him, are buried deep in a texture which presents the most intimate thoughts with poise and clarity. The Opus 118 group encompasses a wide range of emotion (from the tragic to the vigorous to the lyrical) via varied forms and textures (sonata and variation, canon and thematic transformation). Brahms was almost neurotically secretive about any external ‘inspiration’ for his music; we should just enjoy them as the works of a wise and assured composer looking back over a long and rich emotional life.        

Three Character Pieces Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1977)

I: ‘John’ – Poco allegro vivace II: ‘Daphne’ – Poco andante grazioso                                                    III: ‘Michael’ – Poco presto e molto capriccioso

Benjamin Britten was another composer also gifted as a pianist. A busy composing career from quite an early age precluded any serious attempt at a secondary career as a pianist but he very frequently took part in performances of his own (and other composers’ ) music, playing advanced music very ably. Curiously there is very little solo piano music in his large output of works, just a handful of small pieces mostly dating from early in his career; the piano does, however, feature prominently in a great many of his mature works. Though far from easy, his piano parts are always highly effective and grateful to play.

The Three Character Pieces are musical portraits of three childhood friends, neighbours in his native Lowestoft, none of whom had special musical accomplishment or remained close after Britten left home. They date from 1930, the year he became a student at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland as his composition teacher. Indeed the third piece contains a short quotation from a piano piece by Ireland. But the general style of the three short pieces owes much more to his unofficial mentor Frank Bridge who opened the young Britten’s ears to contemporary continental piano music for outside the safely parochial diet he was fed at the RCM. 

Sonata No.6 in A major (Opus 82) Sergey Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) 

I: Allegro moderato II: Allegretto                       III: Tempo di valzer lentissimo IV: Vivace

In Sergey Prokofiev we encounter yet another composer who was also an outstanding pianist and who, like Brahms, made his mark early in both branches of activity. He burst onto the public stage at the age of seventeen playing his own piano music and was instantly branded enfant terrible, a reputation he was very happy to live up to. His natural tendency towards iconoclasm and experiment was fed by the ever-growing political unrest in Russia at the time and he quickly became one of the dominant voices in young Russian music. By 1918, however, even he was finding the political temperature too hot and he emigrated first to the USA and then settled in France in 1920. His two decades in the West did something to temper the wildness of his early style though dissonant harmony, intense energy and a penchant for dark, satirical humour remained vital elements in his composing style. In 1938 he returned Russia, but his return coincided with a bleak period for Soviet artists with the state’s grip on creative work ever tightening. Overt patriotism and ‘socialist realism’ were the order of the day, proscriptions to which Prokofiev was partially able to respond without a total loss of personal artistic integrity. 

The three so-called War sonatas (numbers six, seven and eight) belong to the war years, the first of these being first heard in Moscow in April 1940, played by the composer. The grim determination, the anger and the sadness of Europe in the early stages of World War are here, but 1940 is too soon for there to be much confidence in an eventual successful outcome.   

Copyright: Richard Hall