ClefLogo  Concert 8 - Programme Notes

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Alessandro Taverna Photo by Pierluigi Marchesan    

Concert No 8

8pm Saturday 9th March 2019
at Holmes Chapel Leisure Centre

Alessandro Taverna (Piano)

Supported by HCMS members’ donations 

  “hugely impressive recital . . . adding touches of radiance,
like light catching the colours in a stained glass window.”

- Daily Telegraph

The programme notes for this concert are:

Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante Op.22
Fryderyk Chopin 1810 - 1849

The Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante had a curious genesis and exists today in a variety of forms. Chopin originally wrote just the Grande Polonaiseas a virtuoso concert piece for piano and orchestra between September 1830 and July 1831, when he was in his early twenties. This was an emotionally wrenching time for the composer. He had left his native Poland at exactly the moment it was being subjugated by Russia, and, suddenly homeless, he had spent a disappointing eight months trying to make a career in Vienna before finally fleeing to Paris in 1831. Three years later, in 1834, Chopin returned to the Grande Polonaise and wrote an introduction for it, the Andante Spianato, scored for piano alone. This was the period when touring piano virtuosos were entertaining audiences with concertos, and Chopin had hoped to win a following in Paris with this sort of large-scale work. He gave the première of the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante in Paris on April 26, 1835, but this was to prove one of Chopin's final public performances: he disliked performing before large crowds (modern concert conditions would have appalled him) and thereafter limited his performances to private audiences. In 1836, Chopin returned once again to this music and arranged it for piano quartet, and two years after that he arranged the entire piece for solo piano. At this concert it is heard in the version for solo piano.

The Andante Spianato is unusually calm ("spianato" has been variously translated as "level," "even," "smoothed out"). Over a rippling accompaniment, the gentle first idea of this nocturne-like introduction is heard; a brief trio section leads to the return of this opening material. Fanfares signal the beginning of the Polonaise, which is brilliant music, full of swirling triplets and hammered octaves. A polonaise is an old Polish dance in triple time, but to that stately old dance Chopin in this case brings unusual virtuosity. Like the Andante Spianato, the Polonaise is in ABA form: both the flowing main idea and the dark and noble centre section (in C minor) feature some of Chopin's most characteristic melodic material, and the conclusion is dazzling.

Previous performance at HCMS concerts on 15th November 1997 by John Lenehan. The Andante Spianato was performed on 18th October 1975 by Keith Swallow.


Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52
by Fryderyk Chopin 1810 - 1849

Toccatas, fugues, and sonatas are among the most familiar of musical forms; most piano composers have written in at least one of these structures. However, others have come up with new styles that go outside of the box, and the ballade fits into this category. Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven rebelled against the “rules” and broke the standards on purpose. Chopin, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to write music that reflected his home country. Among his nationalistic compositions, such as the mazurkas and polonaises, are the four ballades, unique in form and standard in Chopin’s piano-exclusive repertoire.

** “The glorious Fourth Ballade is the most remarkable of the set. The gentle and questioning introduction leads to a principal theme of a pronounced Slavonic, bitter-sweet flavour, shyly then exultantly ornamented. The music evolves with a rapid increase in temperature and momentum, includes an aerial cadenza, a canonic view of the main idea and an extended, superbly heroic crescendo. This is the dramatically quelled by four mysterious pianissimo chords before the chase is resumed in a coda of spectacular fury and pianistic intricacy.”

** This part of the programme note is taken from a Programme Note by Bryce Morrison from a recording by Kathryn Stott on the Conifer label (CDCF 169).

Previous performances at HCMS concerts by Christian Blackshaw on 28th January 1978, Imogen Cooper on 10th October 1981 and Graham Scott on 30th September 1989.


Prélude, Choral and Fugue FWV21
by César Franck 1822 – 1890

Franck's original plan, according to his pupil Vincent d'Indy, was to write a plain Prélude and Fugue, the venerable form made immortal by Bach and neglected since Mendelssohn, a visibly serious alternative to the plethora of virtuoso pieces which were so popular at the time. After almost forty years writing mainly organ music and works inspired by sacred texts, the example of Bach was an affirmation that secular music could still retain a spiritual identity in an abstract form. In fact it is significant that the further Franck moved away from specifically sacred music (his liturgical works are particularly lifeless) the clearer and more pure his spiritual vision seemed to become.

The decision to include a central section, separate from, yet linking, the Prélude and Fugue, came later (again according to d’Indy). Perhaps Bach was the influence with the poignant slow interludes of his Clavier Toccatas to say nothing of the very word ‘chorale’ which was eventually used. In the event, however, this central section became the emotional core of the work, its ‘motto’ theme used as a symbol of redemption and as a unifying principle at the climax of the Fugue.

When Saint-Saëns made his tart observation about the piece that the ‘chorale is not a chorale and the fugue is not a fugue’ (in his pamphlet ‘Les Idées de M. Vincent d’Indy’), he was completely missing the point. The forms here have become symbolic, the apotheosis of their academic counterparts; and, furthermore, Alfred Cortot described the Fugue in the context of the whole work as ‘emanating from a psychological necessity rather than from a principle of musical composition’ (La musique française de piano; PUF, 1930). It is as if a ‘fugue’, as a symbol of intellectual rigour, was the only way Franck could find a voice to express fully the hesitant, truncated sobs of the Prélude and the anguished, syncopated lament of the Chorale. Not that the Fugue solves the problem—this is the function of the ‘motto’ theme; but the rules of counterpoint have given the speaker a format in which the unspeakable can be spoken.

There are two motivic ideas on which the whole work is based: one, a falling, appoggiatura motif used in all three sections and generally chromatic in tonality; the other a criss-crossing motif in fourths (the ‘motto’ theme) which appears first in the Chorale section and then again as a balm at the point where the Fugue reaches its emotional crisis. The first motivic idea is clearly related to the Bach Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and also to the Crucifixus from the B minor Mass; the other idea appears as the ‘bell motif’.

Programme note by Stephen Hough from his recording of piano music by Franck, on Hyperion CDA669189.

First performance at HCMS concerts.


Arrangements from Songbook (1932)
by George Gershwin 1898 - 1937

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin, one of the most beloved songwriters of all time and one of our greatest composers, was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other American classical composer.

Gershwin's style derived from the American soul and spirit. He came to prominence during the roaring '20s, the age of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musicals and silent films. His output of more than 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, is all the more astonishing given that Gershwin lived only 38 years.

The George Gershwin Songbook is a generic title used by many pop musicians to describe a collection of their favorite Gershwin tunes. There was, however, an actual George Gershwin Songbook compiled by the composer himself. On almost any night of the week in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gershwin could be found at one of the parties that filled the elite New York social calendar. Ebullient personality aside, his enormous popularity at these gatherings was no doubt due to his inexhaustible enthusiasm for seating himself at the piano from where he regaled the guests with all of his latest songs in wildly virtuosic arrangements. Gershwin's musician friends were constantly urging him to write down these nocturnal improvisations so they could be enjoyed for posterity.

He finally obliged, and the George Gershwin Songbook was published in 1932 consisting of 18 of his favourite songs beautifully bound with illustrations by the artist Constantin Alajalov. Unfortunately, all Gershwin actually wrote down was one chorus of each song, so the majority of the arrangements fill only two pages of music and take less than 60 seconds to play. While such brevity is hardly conducive to concert hall performance, the Songbook nevertheless provides welcome insight into Gershwin's improvisatory skills at the piano.

Program note by Robert Markow; Minnesota Orchestra.

First performance at HCMS concerts except for 'I got rhythm' which was performed by The Cavendish Singers on 4th April 1992.


Concert Etudes Op.40
by Nikolai Kapustin b.1937
No.7 Intermezzo and No.8 Finale

The music of Nikolai Kapustin has made a minor flurry in the classical music world in recent years, largely through the Hyperion CD (CDA67159) of his piano music by Steven Osborne issued in 2000, and through the championing of his music by pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Nikolai Petrov.

The details of his life can be quickly summarized. He was born in Gorlovka, Ukraine, in 1937, and graduated from the class of Alexander Goldenweiser at the Moscow Conservatory in 1961. His musical training was traditional, with a good exposure to the Russian virtuoso piano repertoire. Jazz became a big influence during his teen years, and has remained so throughout his career. From the late 1950s he immersed himself in the Russian jazz world, forming a quintet, and playing with Juri Saulsky’s Central Artists’ Club Big Band in Moscow. Later, he toured with the Oleg Lundstrem Jazz Orchestra throughout the Soviet Union. He now lives in reclusive domesticity in Moscow with his wife, devoting his time to composition and recording.

Kapustin’s piano music is technically formidable, and as a pianist he possesses a technique to match. He remains the definitive interpreter of his own music, not just by virtue of the truism that he composed it, but also because his own recordings are astonishing feats of technical and musical accomplishment.

His style of writing is crossover, in the best sense of the term, and belongs to the ‘third stream’ trend of the later 20th century. He believes that all piano music must be composed at the keyboard, and says that he could not compose if he didn’t play himself.

For the classical pianist, the learning of his music requires a specific approach, distinct in some ways from that of learning classical repertoire. Ultimately there is a "feel" to many passages that is unable to be notated, and it presupposes an aural acquaintance with the jazz styles of Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, and others with whom this music has an affinity. His Eight Etudes, Op.40, partake of the 19th-century tradition of the concert etude. His musical output conforms unquestioningly to classical tradition in many ways.

© This programme note is taken with the consent of the author from “Nikolai Kapustin - A Performer’s Perspective” by Leslie De’Ath.

First performance at HCMS concerts.


Play Piano Play
by Friederich Gulda 1930 - 2000
1. Bagatelle, Fugato      9. Moment Musical, Toccatina
5. Two and a half - Stimmige Invention      6. Toccato

Born in Vienna, Austria, Friederich Gulda learned to play the piano from the age of seven, enrolling in the Vienna Music Academy in 1942 where he continued his piano studies and began taking music theory courses. In 1946 he won first prize at the International Competition in Geneva and began touring in concerts worldwide. He became especially renowned for his performances of Beethoven works, along with J.S.Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel, being regarded as one of the most outstanding pianists of the 20th century. From the 1950’s his interest in jazz diverted his attention, when he began exploring improvisation and composition, writing some songs and instrumental pieces that would combine the jazz and classical realms. His concerts also included works from both genres. In 1951, following a performance with the Chicago Symphony, Gulda sat in at a local club with Dizzy Gillespie trading improvisations. Over the ensuing years, the pianist would perform at various jazz festivals, including Birdland in New York City and at the Newport Jazz Festival. Eventually he would form his own jazz ensemble called the Eurojazz Orchestra which would perform both classical and jazz pieces. And in 1966 he even put together a modern jazz competition in Vienna. In 1970, Gulda was recognized and awarded the Vienna Academy’s Beethoven Ring, but ultimately declined the award to express his concerns with what he considered too strict of an educational system. The ten pieces in the collection entitled Play Piano Play are designated in the score as 'exercises' ('Übungsstücke' in German). Gulda originally designed the series for didactic purposes as one of the steps within what he once called 'the long road to freedom', i.e. a progressive forsaking of all the stylistic strictures of conventionally notated music, along with a freer stylistic approach. One can understand them as 'exercises' if one considers that they are very useful in providing classically trained performers with the means to learn how to 'swing', and in teaching them how jazz inflections differ from classical music. However, Gulda's designation of them as 'exercises' is overly modest, and should not deter pianists from attempting groups of them in recitals, despite the fact that some of them require a certain amount of improvisation. There are ten pieces which are wonderfully refreshing, and demand to be much better known.

First performance at HCMS concerts except No.6 which was played as an encore by Alessandro Taverna on 18th April 2015.


Rhapsody in Blue
by George Gershwin 1898 – 1937

Rhapsody in Blue occupies a special place in American music: it introduced jazz to classical concert audiences, and simultaneously made an instant star of its composer. From its instantly recognizable opening whine in the clarinet through its brilliant finale, Rhapsody in Blue epitomizes the Gershwin sound and instantly transformed the 25-year-old songwriter from Tin Pan Alley into a composer of "serious" music.

The story of how Rhapsody in Blue came about is as captivating as the music itself. On January 4, 1924, Ira Gershwin showed George a news report in the New York Tribune about a concert put together by jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman that would endeavour to trace the history of jazz (Whiteman gave this concert a rather grandiose title, An Experiment in Modern Music.) The report concluded with a brief announcement: "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto." This was certainly news to Gershwin, who was then in rehearsals for a Broadway show, Sweet Little Devil. Gershwin contacted Whiteman to refute the Tribune article, but Whiteman eventually talked Gershwin into taking the job. Whiteman also sweetened the deal by offering to have Ferde Grofé orchestrate Gershwin's music for orchestra. Gershwin completed Rhapsody in Blue in three weeks.

Gershwin's phenomenal talent as a pianist wowed the audience as much as the novelty of jazz stylings in a "classical" piece of music. The original opening clarinet solo, written by Gershwin, got its trademark jazzy glissando from Whiteman's clarinettist Ross Gorman. This opening unleashes a floodgate of colorful ideas, which blend seamlessly into one another. The pulsing syncopated rhythms and showy music later give way to a warm, expansive melody Sergei Rachmaninoff could have written.

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Previous performance at HCMS concerts on 11th March 2006 by the Young Musicians in Concert from Sir John Dean's College.

© Programme notes by Dr Martin Hudson except where other authors are acknowledged.



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