Sonntag, 29. Januar 2023

CHF 50 | 30.-

19:30 Eglise de Rougemont

J. Brahms
Sonate pour piano n° 1 en do majeur op. 1

F. Schubert
Fantaisie en ut majeur op. 15, D 760 « Wanderer-Fantaisie »

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Präsentation des Konzerts

Piano Sonata no.1 in C major op.1
On 30 September 1853, Schumann had logged in his diary an apparently straightforward engagement: ‘Herr Brahms, from Hamburg’. The next day, 1 October, one phrase jumps out at the top of the page: ‘A visit from Brahms. A genius!’ What, then, had happened the day before? Something, just possibly, that might be described as a miracle. The established artist had hosted a pupil named Johannes Brahms, and invited him to play the piano. His guest sat down and played the first movement of his Piano Sonata no.1. As the last note sounded, the host rushed out of the salon exclaiming ‘Clara has to hear this!’. The composer’s wife emerged, and in the silence that preceded the encore, his lips stammered out the words ‘Dear Clara, you’re about to hear music the likes of which you’ve never heard before…’ [translated from the French – trs.]. So the 20-year-old repeated the movement, followed by the second movement, and the two final movements. Over the next few days, Schumann’s diary was filled with the name of Brahms. Quite apart from his flair as a performer, it was Brahms’s writing that captivated the older composer: such an epic surge, such breadth of inspiration as to suggest, beneath the sonata, a symphony in disguise – as if the piano had swallowed the entirety of the young composer’s musical experience. Clara’s husband observed: ‘As he sat at the piano he began to disclose wondrous realms, and we were drawn into ever more magical spheres. His playing was inspired: it made the keyboard into an orchestra of voices both mournful and triumphant.’

So, as we listen – what story do these four long, phenomenally dynamic movements tell? No doubt about the youthful fire of the work, of course, as poets have described this mood since antiquity. The opening of the Allegro has been compared to the beginning of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, which Brahms venerated – but also the opening of Schubert’s Wandererfantasie (‘Wanderer’ Fantasy), which forms the second part of tonight’s concert. One thing is certain: if the young prodigy was already a master at handling the various elements of sonata form, his pianistic rhetoric pointed firmly towards the contemporary language exemplified in the music of Liszt and Berlioz. Instead of fragmenting his themes, he opted for ‘thematic transformation’, deploying modulations and reversals with the aim of generating the most vertiginous Romantic mood imaginable, whether in a rhythmic or tonal sense. The ensuing Andante takes its inspiration from a German folk melody, a smooth, murky cantilena that depicts the rising moon. In a flash, the fiery mood is calmed: the adolescent artist is now at rest. Although Scherzo means joke in Italian, listeners will search for it in vain in the third movement – or else the game is a haunting one, living on the threshold of the darkness that captivates the invincible age. The work concludes with an almost simple-sounding Finale, whose main theme, taken from the first movement, repeatedly comes up with new variations.

Schumann’s recommendation of Brahms to several prestigious publishing houses helped to fast-track Brahms’s career, who would rapidly achieve fame in Germany. But his precocity proved as much of a burden as a gift: a musician compared to Mozart soon began to fear that he would disappoint his audiences, and burned a number of his works. Thankfully, this sonata was judged sufficiently valuable to be assigned the first opus number in Brahms’s catalogue, and ultimately to reach our astonished ears.

Fantasy in C major op.15 D760, ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy
Musical history is full of hereditary factors: Brahms would spend most of his career in Vienna, the city of Schubert; and it is well known that Schubert was a major influence on Schumann, who championed Brahms. Yet every artist has a unique, individual voice: in the words of musicologist Claire Delamarche, Schubert – in sharp contrast to Beethoven, was not an architect. He did not seek to bend the world to his will, she explains, but to melt into it. She adds that his temperament found its readiest expression not in symphonies, but in other musical forms such as the lied and, in his Piano music, the impromptu and the fantasy, where episodes were structured according to the train of the composer’s own itinerant thought. That being said, might we not detect in this Fantasy a perfect balance between a desire to bend the world to one’s will, and the desire to melt into it?

For from one perspective, this work is the most intimidating in Schubert’s whole piano repertoire. Written for a rich amateur keen to show off his brilliance, it is full of supreme technical challenges. The composer himself threw in the towel at the Allegro of the final movement, leaving the keyboard in a rage and shouting at his friends ‘To hell with playing that!’ But a different perspective reminds us that the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy owes its moniker to the song of the same name, a setting composed by Schubert six years earlier, one of the bleakest pieces in his entire œuvre, where happiness is everywhere except where it is found. A perfect balance, then, for in spite of these romantic echoes, in spite of the skilful disguising of themes rearranged from one movement to the next, the phantom performance of a familiar classicism – the Viennese artist, aged 25, impulsively breaks down the very idea of structure, stitching together the four different sections of this wild-eyed journey into one single concept, prefiguring the virtuosic surges of Liszt that would follow. We touched earlier on hereditary factors: in 1851, the Hungarian composer would make an orchestral arrangement of the work that so fascinated him.

Arthur Dreyfus
Translation: Saul Lipetz

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