Program Notes for Valentina Lisitsa, March 11


Valentina Lisitsa, piano

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 7:30 pm


Join us at 6:45pm in the Marzitelli Foyer for a pre-concert talk.

Parking Alert! 

Please allow extra time for travel and parking. Downtown St. Paul will be more congested than usual because of the Minnesota Wild hockey game at 7pm at Xcel Center. 


Program Notes

Chaconne for Solo Violin

J. S. Bach (1685–1750), arr. Busoni


J. S. Bach needs no introduction, but Ferruccio Busoni may. Busoni’s father, a clarinetist, was so convinced of his son’s destiny that he christened him Ferruccio-Dante-Michelangelo-Benvenuto. The boy played Mozart’s C-minor Piano Concerto at seven and gave his first full recital at nine. Through a peripatetic childhood, Busoni received only a scattershot education, studying for a time in Vienna and Leipzig. It was early exposure to the music of Bach and later friendship with composers like Delius, Mahler and Sibelius that set him on a path of self-education. By 1897, the probable date of this arrangement, Busoni had lived in Helsinki, St. Petersburg and New York City, and had settled in Berlin, where he was acknowledged as a leading virtuoso.

Busoni’s recitals often included Bach transcriptions, and his name became so entwined with Bach’s that Busoni’s wife, during a stay in New York, was often addressed as “Mrs. Bach-Busoni.”

A chaconne is a set of variations, usually in triple meter, on a repeated bass line or harmony. It was a favorite vehicle for improvisation in the Baroque era. Michael Steinberg has described Bach’s chaconne as “a compendium of string possibilities, much as the Goldberg Variations are an encyclopedic compendium of keyboard technique. But more marvelous still is Bach’s mastery of architecture: this is one of those pieces—the opening choruses of the Saint Matthew Passion and the B-minor Mass are others—where he works on a scale never before attempted, creating a line that creates incredibly powerful cycles of tension and release.”

Busoni proceeds with both reverence and no little temerity to move Bach from the string to the keyboard medium. Although one misses the singing power of the violin, in other ways—dynamic range, pitch spectrum—the move is enriching. In places, Bach simply writes chords with the instruction arpeggio, intending the player to improvise a texture. Here, Busoni’s pianistic solutions are ingenious and dazzling. At the still point, a poetic move to D major, Busoni adds quasi tromboni, evidence of the “piano orchestration” for which he was famous. Two variations later, that same trombone line reappears, added by Busoni, but completely appropriate. And where Bach ends his D-minor Chaconne with a unison, Busoni chooses a ringing major chord.

Program note by David Evan Thomas.


Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Opus 13, Pathétique

Ludwig van Beethoven

(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)


Standing on its own rather than in a set, the distinctively titled “Grande Sonate pathétique” was published in Vienna in 1799. It is dedicated to Prince Carl Lichnowsky, who had been a pupil and friend of Mozart and became, in Beethoven’s own words, “one of my truest friends and patrons.” In his earlier Vienna years, Beethoven lived for a time in the Lichnowsky house; other dedications to the Prince include the Piano Trios, Opus 1; the Piano Sonata in A-flat, Opus 26; and the Second Symphony.

C minor is Beethoven’s most characteristic minor key for full-length works; prior to such celebrated embodiments as the Third Piano Concerto, Fifth Symphony, Coriolan Overture, and last piano sonata, it was also the key of a piano trio (in Opus 1), a string trio (in Opus 9), a violin sonata (in Opus 30)—and, of course, the “Sonate pathétique.” This is the first of Beethoven’s

piano sonatas to begin with a slow introduction—which, unusually, recurs before the development and again before the brief coda. The pounding urgency of the main Allegro involves an accompaniment of tremolo octaves that has been criticized (by the noted Swiss Beethovenian Edwin Fischer, among others) as more orchestral than pianistic in effect, but the hand-crossings of

the second subject are nothing if not idiomatic to the instrument.

The warm A-flat major of the Adagio cantabile’s celebrated melody is twice questioned by episodes beginning in minor keys and variously recalling aspects of the first movement; to each episode, no other reply is made than the repetition of the melody itself, except for a quickening of the middle voice’s divisions in the final statement. The concluding rondo (there is no scherzo) begins with a theme recalling the first movement’s second subject, while an episode in A-flat major grows from a chain of fourths, like that found in the second phrase of the slow-movement melody.

Program note by David Hamilton.


Sonata in D minor, Opus 31, No. 2, Tempest

Ludwig van Beethoven


In 1801, Beethoven had told his friend, the violinist Wenzel Krumpholtz, that he was “only a little satisfied with his work thus far. From today on I shall take a new path.” Historians and critics have been much exercised trying to determine what, precisely, had in mind, but generally it is clear that Beethoven is now entering a new phase in his creative life, that his compositions are inclined to be bigger, bolder, more dramatic. Not even the fairly casual listener is going to mistake many of Beethoven’s works from the first decade of the new century for Haydn or Mozart.

It was the beginning of a period of unparalleled fertility for him. Between 1802 and 1808 he would write the five symphonies from the Second through the Pastoral; the three Rasumovsky string quartets and the two piano trios, Opus 70; four violin sonatas, including the Kreutzer, and the Cello Sonata, opus 69; six piano sonatas, among them the Waldstein and the Appassionata, the Third and Fourth piano concertos, the Violin Concerto, and the Triple Concerto; the opera Fidelio in its original form and its first revision; the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, the C-major Mass, and the Choral Fantasy; to mention only the big works.

In 1802, he had reproached himself for indolence, but in better moods he was aware of its being a special time in his life: “For a while now I have been gaining more than ever in physical strength and in moral strength, too. Every day I come closer to my goal, which I can sense but don’t know how to describe.” To another friend he wrote: “I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the next is already begun. The way I work now I often find myself working on three, four things at once.” Energy for work and for life was limitless. If, inescapably aware of his advancing deafness, he know the despair that speaks in the will that he wrote at Heiligenstadt in October 1802-—“As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered—so likewise has my hope been blighted . . .; even the high courage—which has so often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer—has disappeared”—he knew also the state of mind in which he could say that he would “seize fate by the throat.”

The D-minor Sonata, Opus 31, No. 2, one of the great ones, is one of the works of the period imbued with a tragic vision. The three sonatas of Opus 31 were written in 1801–02 and published in 1803 by Nägeli of Zurich, who enraged Beethoven not merely by putting out a printing full of errors but even more by contributing some measures of his own (Beethoven would not have felt any better for knowing that Nägeli had done Bach the same favor.). Nägeli’s edition has no opus number: 31 first appears on the composer-authorized “édition tres correct” issued by Simrock in Bonn later in 1803, though, confusingly, a Viennese publisher simultaneously printed the work as Opus 29, a number preempted the year before by the C-major String Quintet.

The dramatic D-minor Sonata stands between two pieces of more relaxed temper. Its very first gesture is amazing, a chord of the kind often used to introduce operatic recitatives, but here unfolded very slowly and in pianissimo. But what ensues is a scurrying Allegro, halted almost at once by an expansive cadence. This play of violent contrast gives way to a forward-thrusting music of extreme concentration; music, moreover, in which minor-mode harmonies are scarcely ever relieved except at the recurrences of the introductory broken chord. The relentless drive is unprecedented in Beethoven’s music: It is of this movement that he said, “The piano must break!” The seeming promise of the opening chord to prepare a recitative is eventually redeemed in an astonishing, darkly mysterious passage in which a solitary voice speaks as though from an immense distance, the music washed in dissonance by the pedal. (This pedal effect, though not the combination of pedal and recitative, Beethoven had seen in one of Haydn’s late and marvelous piano sonatas.)

The Adagio, too, opens with a softly spreading major chord. Here it is the beginning of a noble music whose repose is threatened by the undercurrent of distant drumming. The third movement is a restless and haunted piece, filled with pathos until that final moment at which it seems simply to disappear off the bottom of the keyboard.

The Sonata’s name comes from Anton Schindler, the self-important liar and forger who was friend, social secretary, and general amanuensis to Beethoven from 1819 to 1824 and again in the last few months of the composer’s life. In the biography he published in 1840, Schindler tells of asking Beethoven the meaning of the D-minor Sonata and being told to read Shakespeare’s Tempest. Here is Sir Donald Tovey on the subject: Though the two works have not a single course of events on any parallel lines and though each contains much that would be violently out of place in the other. . . there is a mood that is common to both.

Beethoven would never have posed as a Shakespeare scholar; but neither would he have been misled by the fairy-tale elements in Shakespeare’s last play into regarding them as consisting only of mellow sunset and milk of human kindness. With all the tragic power of its first movement the D-minor Sonata is, like Prospero, almost as far beyond tragedy as it is beyond mere foul weather. And it will do you no harm to think of Miranda at bars 31-38 of the slow movement (the dolce and drumless second melody); but people who want to identify Ariel and Caliban and the castaways, good and villainous, may as well confine their attention to the exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel when the Eroica or the Fifth Symphony is being played.

Program note by Michael Steinberg. Reprinted by kind permission of Jorja Fleezanis.


Sonata in B minor

Franz Liszt

(b. Raiding, Austria, 1811; d. Bayreuth, 1886)


Whenever the boy Liszt was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would point to a portrait of Beethoven and say: “Like him.” Liszt gave the first public performance of Beethoven’s imposing Hammerklavier sonata. Without Liszt’s generosity, a Beethoven Monument might never have been unveiled in Bonn. Liszt even possessed the great composer’s death mask. When it came time to write his only sonata, Liszt naturally turned to Beethoven—particularly the Ninth Symphony—as a model. We speak of “sonata form” as if it were as evident as a square or a circle, but in the mid-19th century the idea was still being codified. As Beethoven had expanded the form to include recitative, fugue and the transformations of themes, Liszt combined sonata with fantasy to produce a thirty-minute single-movement play of unity and contrast.

The Sonata in B minor was finished in 1853 and is dedicated to Robert Schumann. But Schumann, soon to be committed to an asylum, never heard the piece. Twenty-year-old Brahms did, at The Altenburg, the home Liszt shared with Princess Carolyne.

William Mason recalls that “casting a glance at Brahms as he played, Liszt found him dozing in his chair.” Some have read a Faustian theme into the Sonata; others have found a Christian testament, with the grandioso theme proclaiming “Crux fideles!” Liszt was silent on the matter.

The sonata begins as if ending, with what Liszt called “muffled timpani strokes.” There are three highly contrasting ideas: a slow, descending scale, a wiry, agitated line, a series of quick “hammer strokes.” A culminating fourth idea rises, grandioso. Liszt’s themes serve multiple purposes. A chant fragment rises to heights of passion; hammered notes turn into a tender and pleading fifth theme. A simple theme in F-sharp major introduces the slow movement. The fugato in B-flat minor stands in for a scherzo.

Most poetically, after fireworks we hear a mystical coda in the major mode. 

Program note by David Evan Thomas.