Stephan Moss: Piano music, rare and familiar

This program brings together well-known works of Beethoven and Brahms with seldom-heard selections by Chabrier, Fauré, Roussel and Viardot.

Sunday, February 18, 2024, 7 p.m.
Drinkward Recital Hall

A realistic drawing of what is suggested a European square or a street surrounded by apartments, shops, and restaurants. Human figures are dressed in early 20th century fashion.Franz Poledne (1873-1932), Haus zum Rothen Igel, 1904, watercolor. Public domain image provided by Stephan Moss. “This is a painting of a restaurant frequented by Brahms, as well as Beethoven and Mahler” (Moss).


Klavierstücke, op. 119 (1893)
    Intermezzo, Adagio
    Intermezzo, Andantino un poco agitato
Johannes Brahms

Sonata, op. 31, no. 2 (1802)
    II. Adagio
Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonatine, op. 16 (1912)    Modéré - Vif et tres léger
    Trés lent - Modére
Albert Roussel

Sérénade (1885)
Pauline Viardot

Nocturne, op. 36 (1884)
Gabriel Fauré

Pièces pittoresques (1881) 
Emmanuel Chabrier

Klavierstücke, op. 119
    Intermezzo, Grazioso e giocoso
    Rhapsodie, Allegro risoluto

Johannes Brahms published compositions are bracketed by significant works for piano. An active and accomplished pianist, the solo piano figured in many of his works, beginning with the three sonatas published in the early 1850’s and ending with the twenty short pieces, opus 116-119, written and published in the early 1890’s. These final four sets of piano pieces, described by his contemporaries in primarily emotional terms, appeal to us not just in terms of their emotional content, but as examples of supreme craftsmanship, as examples of a composer not in the sunset of his working life but at the peak of compositional skill and expression. The first of the four pieces from op. 119 on tonight’s program is somber in tone and is built from chains of descending thirds, creating some surprising dissonances. Brahms, who sent these late pieces to his ailing friend Clara Schumann, a concert pianist and the widow of Robert Schumann, to brighten her days, apologized for the dissonance of this piece. She noted in her diary how much she was enlivened by this work and the others that Brahms had sent her. The second of tonight’s works begins with an agitated figure in the minor. As is typical of all these pieces, phrase lengths and metrical groupings are freely manipulated to create a flowing texture. The middle section takes the opening idea from minor to major and creates a waltz, harkening back to the waltzes for piano op. 39 and the Liebeslieder waltzes for voices and piano. The opening section returns in a shortened form.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonata op. 31 no. 2, the so-called “Tempest,” was written in 1802. During this period, he was actively developing his musical language, moving from the classicism of Haydn and Mozart to a more personal language that looks ahead to the romantic period. As is so often the case, the name of this sonata is almost certainly apocryphal. This movement contrasts a sense of quiet serenity with a triplet drum beat that creates a distant foreboding. While it is less common today to perform individual movements from sonatas than it was in the past, this movement stands by itself and provides a quiet contrast to the works surrounding it on this program.

Albert Roussel spent seven years in the navy before choosing to pursue a career in music. Though his early music was somewhat influenced by both impressionism and neo-classicism, Roussel developed a musical language that was very much his own, characterized by aggressive rhythmic vitality, boldly dissonant harmony and a dry, straight-faced sense of humor. Apart from Bohuslav Martinů he had no disciples. One can think of the music of Roussel and especially the Sonatine as metamorphic music. Just as stone is transmuted by pressure into something more dense, concentrated, and beautiful, the Sonatine can be seen as a large four-movement sonata condensed into two movements, with the musical development stripped to its essentials and harmony that is dense and dissonant. His extensive use of 11th and 13th chords gives the impression of different chords smashed together. The music of Roussel can be a lot to take in on first hearing but rewards attentive listening.

Pauline Viardot (née García) was the youngest daughter of a family of singers originally from Spain. She was known for a voice with a three-octave range and a dramatic presence that captivated audiences from London to St. Petersburg. She met Robert and Clara Schumann, studied piano with Liszt and composition with Anton Reicha. She added words to twelve of Chopin’s mazurkas. Chopin was said to have been delighted, though his interest in part was in generating more sales of his music. Later in life, she performed in the premiere of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and was well known as a teacher of singing. A gifted composer, she wrote songs, piano pieces, and operettas. Sérénade was originally a short song for solo voice and piano. The text is a Rapunzel story, with the suitor below imploring the fair one above. First bemoaning that their arms do not reach, he asks that she throw down a ribbon or a string from her guitar. Ultimately, she lets down her hair; and he climbs to the top of the tower. The transcription for piano is by Viardot. Where the song is less than two minutes in length, the piano version is more than twice as long and has been expanded into a dramatic scene, with the sounds of the suitor climbing and falling, the beloved’s hair being let down and the blissful conclusion of the adventure. Initially, the two suitors sing the primary melody separately before singing it in a canon. One might imagine Viardot improvising this version to entertain guests or an audience.

Gabriel Fauré, best known for a handful pieces like the Pavane, the Requiem and the Cantique de Jean Racine, created a large body of work: piano pieces, songs, chamber music, and other works. His chamber music is immensely satisfying to both hear and play. Works for piano are central to Fauré’s oeuvre and chart his development as a composer. The Nocturne, the 4th of 13, shows the influence of Chopin, Liszt and Saint-Saens. Eschewing picturesque writing in his music for piano, this piece shows a language of great beauty and sophistication. As is typical of his music, there are three main themes, harmony that is rich and colorful, and a vivid sense of atmosphere.

Emmanuel Chabrier is known today primarily for his orchestral piece, España. He wrote songs, piano and stage works. Despite his relatively small output he was enormously influential on those who followed and was greatly esteemed by his contemporaries as a successor to François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. His most significant work for piano was the Pièces pittoresques, a collection of ten pieces in a variety of forms. The Scherzo-Valse, performed tonight, while in triple time, seems not much like a waltz. The titles of these pieces were added just before publication and are at times at odds with the actual music. As with many of his works, it combines vivid harmony, great energy and a piquant sense of humor.

This evening’s program ends as it began, with two pieces from Brahms’ opus 119. In this case the final two of the four pieces. The first of these, the third of the set, is short and energetic. A simple melody is embedded in repeated chords and supported by a bouncing bass line. The final work, the longest of the four and the most dramatic, might be seen as an emotional expression with its angry final explosion. At the same time it shows a composer in complete control of his art. As dramatic as the turn to the minor at the end is, it is foreshadowed in the primary theme. After three phrases in the major, the fourth phrase suddenly turns to the minor each time it is heard.

Pianist and harpsichordist Stephan Moss was a student of Teala Bellini and Preethi de Silva. He has also studied composition with Barney Childs and is a frequent chamber music collaborator in the Claremont area and accompanist in the violin studio at Scripps College. After receiving a DMA in harpsichord per­formance, he has been active as both an IT specialist and a musician. He has appeared as a soloist with Con Gioia in southern California and the Magic Valley Symphony in Idaho. He has been primarily active as an accompanist and chamber music partner to students and to his colleagues.

HMC is deeply grateful for the generous support that created The Ken Stevens ’61 Founding Class Concert Series.

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