Poem                                                                                                Aram Khachaturian (1903 – 1978)

The Armenian Aram Khachaturian was one of a number of composers destined at first for a career in medicine; it wasn’t until his late twenties that he entered the Moscow Conservatory with cello and composition as his principal studies. His first work to win him more than local celebrity was his piano concerto of 1936 after which he produced a steady stream of works until the mid-1960s. His style derives much from Armenian folk music with its lively rhythms and colourful harmony; but even he earned official censure in the notorious Zhdanov purges of 1948 although his idiom displayed little of the modernist tendency which was so antipathetic to the musical party line. The scores he wrote to the highly patriotic films ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ and ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’ helpedto restorehis reputation in official circles and he cemented his popularity with a series of informal concertos which he dubbed concert rhapsodies linking regional folklorism with the central Russian tradition.

We shall hear two of his piano works this evening. The Poem is an early work, composed in 1927 and from the first bar we are plunged straight into Khachaturian’s folk-based style, dark in mood, expressive in melody and plangent in harmony.  

Later we shall hear three movements from the Masquerade Suite. This music began life in a score to accompany a performance in 1941 of the eponymous verse play by the nineteenth century dramatist Mikhail Lermontov, a lurid tale of infidelity and jealousy set in St. Petersburg high society. The day after the production opened, German forces invaded Russia; not surprisingly the play was taken off almost as soon as it had opened. The composer salvaged a suite from the score which was later to become one of his most popular works. 

Sonata in G major K. 283                                      Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791)

I: Allegro II: Andante III: Presto

From this distance in time it seems incomprehensible that Mozart should have had such difficulty in obtaining a professional appointment worthy of his phenomenal gifts, this at a time when every court or aristocratic establishment in the German-speaking world boasted at least some (and often a great many) house musicians. Again and again Mozart visited centres in Germany and Austria hoping that the concerts he gave would tempt some wealthy patron to offer him an appointment – but to no avail. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but from the perspective of the 21st century we cannot help but pity these potential employers in the opportunity of lasting celebrity that they missed by not offering Mozart an appointment; even so grand and influential family as the Esterhazys would surely be far less widely known to posterity had they not been wise enough to have Haydn ‘on the staff’ for so long.   

One such fruitless job-seeking expedition on Mozart’s part was to Munich in the winter of 1774/75. He had been commissioned to write an opera to be performed there and, as was common practice at the time, he delivered the work in person and remained to oversee its premiere which, after several postponements, scored a great success. His father and sister were with him and together the family were able to promote performances of a great deal of Wolfgang’s music – but no permanent appointment was forthcoming and in early March the family returned to Salzburg.

It was to this period that a whole group of piano sonatas belongs; six (carrying sequential K. numbers) are all ascribed ‘Munich, early 1775’. All but one follow the usual three movement fast-slow-fast pattern; tonight’s sonata presents a first movement full of ideas but offering only the briefest of development sections, a flowing andante with a darker central section and a bright and nimble finale, the longest of the three movements.        

Ten Pieces for piano Opus 24                         Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

I: Impromptu II: Romance III: Caprice IV: Romance V: Waltz                                                      

Books on Sibelius adopt a luke-warm, even apologetic tone when speaking of his piano music which seems to me a great shame. Yes, it is his symphonies and tone poems which earn him a commanding position in late 19th/early 20thcentury music but there are works in other genres (songs, choral music, chamber and piano music) which, were we to ignore them, would deprive us of much that is interesting, enjoyable and thoroughly worthwhile – very good (if not quite great) music. 

There is piano music dating from the whole of his rather lop-sided composing career – remember that, despite remaining largely in good health, he produced no new music at all for the last forty years of his life. The only sizeable work is the sonata of 1893; the rest of his keyboard music (well over one hundred pieces) comprises short single movements grouped into eighteen albums; some have loosely descriptive titles but there are a great many ‘humoresques’, ‘romances’ and ‘idylls’. The first five of the Ten Pieces Opus 24 were composed in 1894/5 (the rest between 1898 and 1903 suggesting no clear overall plan to the group as a whole) and are engaging movements, clearly characterised and varied in mood and texture.    

Waltz, Nocturne and Mazurka from ‘Masquerade’Suite                                   Khachaturian

Faschingsschwank aus Wein  Opus 26                     Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

Faschingsshwank aus Wien (‘Carnival Jest from Vienna’) was the fruit of a trip Schumann made to the Austrian capital in in 1838/39. The main reason for this visit was to see whether Vienna might not prove a rewarding (in every sense) environment for himself and his pianist fiancée Clara. He was disappointed, commenting that he had sought there in vain for “artists who not only play one or two instruments pretty well but are large-minded men who understand Shakespeare…”. As illness progressively cut short his performing career, so musical journalism had proved the steadiest source of income; but in this area too Vienna, with its very strict censorship laws, promised to be less than welcoming to Schumann’s influential and outspoken musical journal. One of the richest rewards of this visit was his discovery of the manuscript of the Great C major Symphony languishing forgotten in a cupboard in the house of Schubert’s elderly surviving brother.

But there is also the Faschingsschwank, most of which was actually composed in Vienna. If the title might lead the listener to expect something light and inconsequential, nothing could be further from the truth. This is actually a substantial work (in the composer’s words “a grand romantic sonata”) in five movements exhibiting all that we expect from the mature Schumann: a plethora of ideas of very different character, some cast in traditional forms, others allowed to unfold freely and all making full use of virtuoso piano technique. The only ‘joke’ is a veiled quotation from ‘The Marseillaise’ (banned in Vienna at the time) in the first movement – again a typical Schumann device. 

Copyright: Richard Hall July 2023