Sofya Gulyak, the first ever woman to win the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2009, has returned to the Music Room at Champs Hill to record a second disc, exploring the fascination of the Baroque Chaconne, with its distinctive bassline (which repeats), for Romantic composers and beyond.
- Ranging from Bach to Gubaidulina, it showcases her remarkable talent. Her debut album was described as ‘Stunning’ by Gramophone, with the Washington Post admiring her “tremendous precision and coloration ... exquisite soft playing ... with delicacy”
- The winner of numerous international competitions, she has appeared as soloist with orchestras including the LPO, St Petersburg Philharmonic, RLPO, Hallé Orchestra and is demand at piano festivals. She is currently a professor of piano at the Royal College of Music in London.
- Beginning with the Busoni re-invention of Bach’s D minor Chaconne from his Second Partita for Solo Violin, Gulyak takes us on a music journey. The same Bach piece also influenced Nielsen’s Chaconne of 1916, and Casella’s Variations on a Chaconne of 1903, clearly shows his reverence for Bach. Busoni’s original work of 1920, Toccata: Prelude, Fantasy and Chaconne, is also included.
- Handel’s Chaconne in G major followed by another famous transcription, or re-imagining, by Liszt which freely re-works the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s “Almira” with late-Romantic sonorities.
- Despite being an early work and less familiar, Gubaidulina’s Chaconne of 1962 is a powerful statement of the young female composer and closes this recital.
- Sleeve Notes
While some sources suggest that the Chaconne was originally a lively dance imported to Europe from South America in the 16th century, as a compositional form it became most firmly established early in the 18th century, during the so-called Baroque era. Among the Chaconne’s distinguishing features are its use of a ground bass – that is, a bass line which is constantly repeated with changing or evolving harmonies built upon it – and its being, typically, in triple time. Perhaps the most celebrated example is JS Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, originally the final movement of his Second Partita for Solo Violin, and today an established pinnacle of the violin repertory. Indeed, it is so substantial a movement that often it is performed as a self-standing work. Lasting a little over a quarter of an hour, Bach’s Chaconne is based on a descending motif – D-C-B flat-A. So skilful is Bach’s harmonic and contrapuntal dexterity – all the more striking for being achieved on a single stringed instrument – that the piece evolves naturally into three parts: an intense opening section in the home minor key, then a more sweet-toned major section, and finally a return to the minor in a more reflective style.
What we have here, though, is not the work as Bach originally conceived it, but its transcription – or rather, re-invention – by the great pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). As a boy Busoni received his earliest music education from his father, Fernando, a Tuscan clarinettist of raw talent and of uncertain temper. Yet, either through pure luck or a stroke of insight amounting to genius, Fernando – whose own favoured repertoire, the composer recalled, included “fantasias on Il Trovatore and the Carnival of Venice” – realised that his musically talented son would thrive on a diet of Bach, this “in a country [said Busoni] in which the master was rated little higher than Carl Czerny”. When Busoni gave his first public recital, not yet aged ten, in Vienna on 8 February 1876, he was warmly praised by the critic Eduard Hanslick, who claimed that Busoni’s own works demonstrated “a remarkably serious, masculine mind, which indicates a dedicated study of Bach.” The following year Busoni encountered Franz Liszt, another composer noted for his Bach transcriptions, who admired the boy’s talent.
Yet it was not until Busoni was in his twenties that he was first moved to transcribe Bach for the piano, so beginning a series of transcriptions eventually published as the Bach-Busoni editions. The initial impulse for making this transcription, it appears, was a suggestion by his pupil Kathi Petri (mother of Egon Petri, who would become another Busoni pupil) after they had heard a Prelude and Fugue performed on the organ at Thomaskirche, Bach’s old haunt in Leipzig. According to Busoni’s first English biographer, Edward J Dent, the experience – both of that performance and of making his first Bach transcription – had a profound effect on Busoni’s own piano playing, as he now cultivated a particular sound: “it can be said unhesitatingly that the louder Busoni played the more beautiful the sonority of his tone became”. In short, Busoni strived to evoke the majestic sound of the organ, and not only in his transcriptions of Bach’s organ works.
By the time Busoni made his now much celebrated arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne in 1893, he was convinced that Bach’s intentions could not be fully realised by the apparently meagre resources of a solo violin (even though it was precisely for that instrument that Bach composed the work!); Busoni therefore re-imagined the work as if it had been written for organ, then transcribed that hypothetical version for piano. Not only does Busoni’s version spell out some of Bach’s implied harmonies, and increase the music’s sonority by, for instance, transferring much of it down an octave or spreading chords across the bass clef, but it also increases its virtuosic element with rapid octave passagework and other pianistic effects. The result is a stunning display of sonorous virtuosity that has firmly established itself in the repertoire of pianists around the world.
One might be tempted to consider the Chaconne in G major by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) as performed here a more ‘authentic’ work. First published as a single-movement ‘suite’ in a pirated edition printed in London in around 1727, the G major Chaconne has since been identified by most scholars as an early work, probably dating from Handel’s years working in Hamburg in the first decade of that century. It is something of a Cinderella among Handel’s keyboard works, recently dismissed by one scholar as “an overlong and obviously early Chaconne”, and without even a definitive version; indeed, the work appears to have originally been intended as a work for harpsichord and orchestra, though no full orchestral score has survived of that version. Yet Handel himself continued to perform it as a concerto well into his successful London career. And as a solo keyboard work, notwithstanding its snooty dismissal by musicologists, it has been beloved by several pianists, including Edwin Fischer and Sviatoslav Richter. Certainly the charm of its increasingly sparkling variations is heightened by the not unexpected but nonetheless highly effective pathos of its contrasting minor-key Adagio ninth variation.
We stay with Handel for the next piece, albeit as re-imagined by Franz Liszt (1811-86). The Hungarian’s Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s opera Almira (those dances originally appearing in reverse order early in the opera) was written in 1879 for his English student Walter Bache. Liszt had last made a transcription of Baroque repertoire some twelve years earlier: but whereas that transcription of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, had been faithful to the text, Liszt’s treatment of Handel in this late work is much more free, using Handel’s Sarabande as a basis for his own variations and achieving a level of late-Romantic sonority which anticipates Busoni’s style of ‘transcription’. Curiously, in Liszt’s reworking it’s the Sarabande, rather than the Chaconne, which through use of a repeating bass line sounds more typical of the Chaconne form; the so-named ‘Chaconne’, which in Liszt’s re-invention is introduced with a fragmentary and somewhat furtive rising bass line, appears closer to the lively dance form originally imported from South America.
Busoni composed his Toccata (Preludio, Fantasia and Ciaconna) in 1920 when he was in his mid-fifties. Already in seriously declining health, he headed the score with a near-quotation from Frescobaldi: ‘Non è senza difficoltà che si arriva al fine’ – ‘One does not reach the end without difficulty’. Whether this was meant as a reflection on his own physical and emotional state, the motto also appears a fair echo of this virtuosic work’s character – sparkling and with a touch of the diabolical. Possibly, too, the Toccata had some autobiographical significance for Busoni, since it includes quotations from two of his own works: the Prelude is derived from a theme from Die Brautwahl, his first completed opera originally staged – unsuccessfully – in 1912; then the following Fantasy includes a lyrical theme from Doktor Faust, an opera Busoni was yet to complete even by the time of his death in 1924. The concluding Chaconne, though with something of the expressionist flavour of the Second Viennese School, also has something of the nightmarish quality of the turba choruses of Bach’s St John Passion, as well as some of the most hair-raising moments of virtuosity in all Busoni’s work.
Casella’s Variations on a Chaconne, by contrast, is not just an earlier work, but also one written relatively early in that composer’s career. Said to be a direct descendant of the madrigalist Casella of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) studied piano with his mother from the age of four. By the age of eight, he had mastered all of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. In 1896 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied composition under Xavier Leroux and Gabriel Fauré, and piano with Louis Diémer, who was noted for his interpretation of old keyboard music, and as editor of a two volume collection of French harpsichord works, Clavecinistes Français. Given Casella’s training, it is no surprise to find a deep connection to Baroque forms not only among his early works but also throughout his composing career. Variations on a Chaconne, composed in 1903, clearly manifests the influence of Bach, quite besides making use of the ‘Folia’ theme often used in Baroque music (and also used by Rachmaninov in his so-called Corelli Variations).
Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin was a direct inspiration for Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne, Op. 32, composed almost fifteen years later. As it happens, the Danish composer had met Busoni in Leipzig in 1891 – about two years before Busoni made his arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne – and the two composers corresponded over the next thirty years. In that same year, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) met his future wife, the sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen. Though on one level it was a meeting of creative minds, the marriage soon came under strain as Brodersen spent long periods away from home, and Nielsen was susceptible to other women in her absence. Late in 1916 Nielsen took a break away from his strained marriage for the Christmas holiday, and on 19 December wrote to his eldest daughter, Irmelin: “I have begun the first days of my holiday by embarking on a large-scale Chaconne for piano, which I am already well along with… I think this piece will grow strong and big over Christmas; just for now it greatly amuses me to give my fantasy free rein within these fixed periods (8 bars in a moderate 3/4 metre). You must know Bach’s beautiful Chaconne for solo violin. If I could reach up to his shoulders with mine for piano!” Though most critics at the first performance of Nielsen’s first piano work in 16 years were bemused by its arcane manner, the work has since been recognised as one of his most important piano works.
Born in the Tatar town of Chistopol, Sofia Gubaidulina (b1931) grew up in the city of Kazan. Aged five, she received her first piano lessons with Ekaterina Leontieva, a teacher who lived across the street from the Gubaidulina family. Leontieva introduced Gubaidulina to the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and by the age of eight she had made sufficient progress to perform in a Bach festival. By the age of ten, Gubaidulina had decided to become a composer.
After graduating from the Kazan Conservatory, Gubaidulina attended the Moscow Conservatory where she studied composition under Nikolay Peiko, and then undertook post-graduate work with Vissarion Shebalin from 1959. In 1962, while still pursuing her post-graduate studies, she composed her Chaconne at the prompting of the Georgian pianist Marina Mdivani. As Gubaidulina recalled, Mdivani “had a powerful chord-playing technique as well as a lively temperament at her disposal” – both qualities reflected in her Chaconne. Gubaidulina later dismissed this work as a ‘student work’; yet, though not fully manifesting Gubaidulina’s mature style, it is a powerful and masterful work. It starts with a clear statement of its eight-bar theme (in duple time rather than the genre’s usual triple time); after a series of variations, the piece evolves into a toccata, and then a fugue which in style may appear to owe more to Shostakovich (a staunch champion of the young and ‘wayward’ Gubaidulina) than to Bach, before the final return of the opening theme.
© Daniel Jaffé
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