Song and dance have formed the root of music from ancient times to the present
day, and it was their universal qualities that led me to choose them as the dual
theme around which to build this recital disc. Most of the repertoire here has an
obvious link to a particular song- or dance-related form, whether opera, ballet, Lied,
courtly dance or folk song, though in one or two cases the theme is approached
more obliquely. Perennial favourites sit alongside lesser-known works which I feel
deserve a more frequent airing, and while at first glance some of the pieces are not
the most obvious of bedfellows, their juxtaposition reveals unexpected resonances.
Although this collection eschews a strict chronological order, it does open with its
earliest work, albeit not in its original form. Gluck´┐Żs Orfeo ed Euridice ´┐Ż premiered in
1762 ´┐Ż was the first and most celebrated of his ´┐Żreform´┐Ż operas, in which fidelity to
drama and ´┐Żnoble simplicity´┐Ż took precedence over vocal display. Gluck´┐Żs choice of
subject matter ´┐Ż a Greek myth about the power of music itself ´┐Ż was significant, and
the short ballet that became known as the Dance of the Blessed Spirits acts as an
intermezzo midway through Act II, at which point Orpheus ´┐Ż having tamed the Furies
that guard the gate to Hades ´┐Ż arrives in Elysium desperately searching for his lost
wife Euridice. The transcription by Italian-English composer Giovanni Sgambati, a
noted pupil of Franz Liszt, remains largely faithful to the original, though the
yearning quality of Gluck´┐Żs melody allows Sgambati to draw out an innate
romanticism through creative use of expressive markings ´┐Ż classical purity seen
through the eyes of the late nineteenth century.
A sense of timelessness pervades Grieg´┐Żs Sl´┐Żtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances),
published in 1903. Although greatly inspired by Norwegian folk music throughout his
life, Grieg initially had mixed feelings about the request that he should make a piano
transcription of a number of folk tunes, whose origin was in dances played on the
Hardanger fiddle and passed down by ear through the generations. The challenge of
trying to transform these elusive, ´┐Żuntamed´┐Ż melodies into conventionally notated ´┐Żart
music´┐Ż led him to put the project on hold for several years, though the eventual
result ´┐Ż the Sl´┐Żtter, Op. 72 ´┐Ż represents arguably his most extraordinary, radical
treatment of folk music, subtle and illuminating, and perhaps his solo piano
Wedding marches are central to the Hardanger fiddle repertoire, and the Bridal March
from Telemark is a captivating example passed down by the fiddler Knut Dahle, who
had first suggested the project to Grieg; The Goblins´┐Ż Bridal Procession is a figure
dance performed ´┐Ż according to legend ´┐Ż by a tiny fiddler with a red cap who led a
wedding procession of gnomes in Vossevangen; while the Prillar from the Parish of Os
refers to a folk instrument made from a goat´┐Żs horn with a juniper reed.
The Sl´┐Żtter were to have a great influence on a number of composers, including the
young Béla Bart´┐Żk, who was directly inspired by them to start amassing and
transcribing Hungarian folk music. His Three Folksongs from the Cs´┐Żk District date
from 1907, only four years after the appearance of Grieg´┐Żs Sl´┐Żtter, and are based on
tunes which Bart´┐Żk had heard played on a shepherd´┐Żs pipe. The transcriptions here
are simply done, with no hint of the modernist acerbity which was to characterise
later folk adaptations. The first two pieces are slow and meditative, with florid
melody lines; the third is more dance-like, with strummed accompanying chords
suggesting a zither. Earlier publications of the pieces include the titles The Peacock,
At the J´┐Żnoshida Fairground and White Lily respectively.
Stepping back 80 years, Schubert´┐Żs first set of impromptus, D. 899, was written
between the two halves of Winterreise in 1827, the year before his untimely death.
Born out of the shadow of this darkest of song cycles, the Impromptu in G flat, the
third of the set, is one of the most exquisite songs-without-words ever written,
radiating serenity and poignant eloquence.
Another late work by a composer who died too young, the Polonaise-Fantaisie was
written over a period of eighteen months during 1845 and 1846, a troubled time in
Chopin´┐Żs life when serious tensions had developed in his relationship with George
Sand and his health was deteriorating rapidly. The work´┐Żs hybrid title reflects its
complex and entirely original form ´┐Ż the spirit of improvisation that infuses the
work and inspires such flights of imagination led Chopin initially to designate the
work simply as a Fantaisie, but beneath its apparent freedom lies a taut structure,
the whole work being underpinned ´┐Ż even haunted ´┐Ż by the rhythm of the Polonaise,
the national dance of Chopin´┐Żs beloved Poland. Appearing initially in fragmentary
form, the full Polonaise melody emerges only gradually, at first introspective, finally
heroic in stature. Chopin had left Poland as a twenty-year-old, settling in Paris. He
never returned to his war-torn homeland, but his heart always remained in Poland,
and it is perhaps unsurprising that, as an ill and homesick man, he should have
imbued this late masterpiece with a heartfelt ´┐Ż though never sentimental ´┐Ż
nostalgia, an unmistakable longing for a time lost forever.
A sense of memory ´┐Ż and of the limitations of memory ´┐Ż spills over into Gy´┐Żrgy
Kurt´┐Żg´┐Żs extraordinary miniatures from J´┐Żtékok. Kurt´┐Żg´┐Żs early ambition to study with
Béla Bart´┐Żk was prevented by the death of the elder composer in 1945, but Bart´┐Żk´┐Żs
Mikrokosmos, which Kurt´┐Żg studied assiduously as a student, clearly served as a
model for J´┐Żtékok (Games), an ongoing series of miniatures initially conceived as a
pedagogical tool for children. The pieces were begun in answer to Kurt´┐Żg´┐Żs desire to
know ´┐Żif it is possible to create music with practically nothing´┐Ż; in these pieces the
quality of silence and a sense of improvisatory freedom are every bit as important as
the notes (often rendered graphically) on the page.
Two of the miniatures heard here are homages to Ferenc Farkas, Kurt´┐Żg's composition
teacher at the Music Academy in Budapest: in Scraps of a colinda melody ´┐Ż faintly
recollected, notes distilled from the melody of a traditional Romanian Christmas carol
delicately emerge in a dreamlike monologue, as if a child were picking out the notes
on a piano, with long empty spaces suggesting the gaps of memory; Evocation of
Petrushka echoes Stravinsky´┐Żs ballet music which appears later in this recording, with
brilliant suggestions of the eponymous puppet presenting himself in powerful leaps.
The tiny microlude in homage to Nancy Sinatra strongly recalls, without ever quite
quoting, the accompaniment to her hit song These Boots Are Made for Walkin´┐Ż.
This ticking accompaniment finds its more lyrical counterpart in Ravel´┐Żs Pavane pour
une infante défunte of 1899, which brought the composer his first taste of popular
success, immediately becoming a favourite in salons across Paris. The piece´┐Żs striking
title was perhaps as important to its initial appeal as its undoubted beauty and
lyrical serenity, but Ravel claimed to have chosen the title simply for the sound of
the words, and clarified ´┐Ż as a warning to indulgent pianists ´┐Ż that it ´┐Żis not a
funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of a pavane that a little
princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.´┐Ż Indeed, it is the
realms of fantasy and nostalgia, rather than those of elegy, that the music seems
primarily to conjure up.
Later in life Ravel came to find the continuing success of his youthful Pavane
embarrassing, and given the stylistic development that took place in the decade
between its composition and that of Gaspard de la nuit, his reservations are
understandable. Gaspard is the work of a unique musical voice and a master of
keyboard writing ´┐Ż in the words of Alfred Cortot, it represents ´┐Żone of the most
extraordinary examples of instrumental ingenuity which the industry of composers
has ever produced.´┐Ż
Gaspard de la nuit was the title of a curious collection of prose-poems by Aloysius
Bertrand, published posthumously in 1842, to which Ravel ´┐Ż endlessly fascinated by
magic and the macabre ´┐Ż had been drawn while still a student at the Paris
Conservatoire. Ondine, the first of the three movements of Ravel´┐Żs work, depicts the
nocturnal siren song of the water sprite (´┐ŻEcoute! C´┐Żest moi, c´┐Żest Ondine´┐Ż), who
tempts mortal men to her palace beneath the lakes. The transparent, transitory
surfaces of Bertrand´┐Żs text are evoked by Ravel´┐Żs shimmering piano textures,
cascades of water falling and flowing around Ondine´┐Żs sensuous vocalise.
Ravel was a master orchestrator, and many of his piano works were later given
orchestral incarnations, including the Pavane, whose much-loved version for small
orchestra appeared in 1910, the year after Gaspard de la nuit was first performed.
Gaspard, however, always remained too brilliantly pianistic to lend itself to such
It was to the piano works of Franz Liszt that Ravel ´┐Ż aware of his own pianistic
limitations ´┐Ż had turned for inspiration when composing his deliberately virtuosic
Gaspard. Liszt was a pianistic superstar and a virtuoso of the highest order, but his
own arrangements of works by other composers were made not only to show off his
technique, but also to bring the music of those he admired to a wider audience.
Although often criticised for his flamboyant treatment of other composers´┐Ż music, in
these two transcriptions of songs by Robert Schumann, Liszt remains relatively
faithful to the original source, perhaps in part because the songs in question
already have fairly extrovert leanings.
Both are love songs from among Schumann´┐Żs great outpouring of Lieder in 1840, the
year of his marriage to his beloved Clara Wieck, following years of opposition from
her father. Widmung (Dedication), the opening song of the cycle Myrthen and a
setting of a poem by Friedrich R´┐Żckert, is as pure an assertion of romantic love as
can be imagined; the postlude quotes ´┐Ż in homage to Clara ´┐Ż Schubert´┐Żs Ave Maria.
Fr´┐Żhlingsnacht (Spring Night), the final song from Schumann´┐Żs Eichendorff
Liederkreis, is a passionate celebration of love won over. Here, Liszt doubles the
length of the original song, giving himself the space to indulge in some exhilarating
As it was for Chopin and Ravel, Paris became a musical home for Stravinsky, and ´┐Ż
though initially begun as a concert work ´┐Ż it was for Sergei Diaghilev´┐Żs Paris-based
Ballets Russes that his orchestral score for Petrushka was completed in 1911.
Diaghilev had commissioned music from a number of eminent composers (though an
attempt at collaboration with Ravel ended somewhat disastrously with Diaghilev
challenging the composer to a duel), but it was his collaborations with Stravinsky
that were to produce the most brilliant and controversial results.
Petrushka, with its story of a puppet who comes to life, quickly proved hugely
popular both on stage and on the concert platform, and in 1921, Stravinsky was
persuaded by his friend Artur Rubinstein to ´┐Żrecompose´┐Ż for piano three segments
from the ballet. The original orchestration was huge, and Stravinsky explicitly stated
that these were not transcriptions attempting to reproduce the sound of the
orchestra, but rather that his aim was to create a score that would be essentially
pianistic, both technically challenging and musically satisfying. The miracle is that
the piano version seems to lose little of the colour of the original, and perhaps
even gains in excitement by virtue of the extreme challenges it presents.
The third piece, La semaine grasse (The Shrovetide Fair), is a sequence of folk-
inspired dances from the ballet´┐Żs fourth and final tableau, in which a colourful
assortment of characters ´┐Ż wet-nurses, a peasant with a performing bear, gypsies, a
rake vendor, coachmen and masqueraders ´┐Ż passes through the bustling fairground,
oblivious to the fatal denouement taking place offstage between Petrushka and his
rival the Moor.
Gershwin knew both Ravel and Stravinsky personally (and, incidentally, was the
tennis partner of Arnold Schoenberg) and the fact that much of his music was
written in a more popular sphere than that of his contemporaries in no way
diminishes his standing as one of the great composers of the twentieth century.
Someone to Watch Over Me, written in 1926 to a yearningly romantic lyric by his
brother Ira, is one of George Gershwin´┐Żs most enduring ballads, though he had
originally intended it to be an up-tempo jazz number. This disc, then, ends as it
began, with a simply rendered transcription (in this case my own) of one of the
most perfect melodies ever written.