Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.
Rachmaninov composed his Second Piano Sonata in 1913, the same year which saw him write the choral symphony The Bells. Bell-like sonorities can also be frequently encountered in our Sonata—from the silvery tinkling bells strewn through the lyrical sections to the great tumult of bells large and small at the climaxes of the first and second movements. However, I think we shouldn’t make too much out of this proximity, as the sound image of bells is so inherent to Rachmaninov’s musical language as to be found all through his works: as early as in his first Piano Concerto (Op.1) and as late as in his last work, the Symphonic Dances.
Eighteen years later, in 1931, Rachmaninov revised the Sonata extensively, cutting away more than a fifth of its size, and rewriting significant parts of the remaining material. He seems to have felt the textures of the original version too dense, and the overall plot line not taut enough, saying to a friend that year: so many voices are moving simultaneously and [the sonata] is too long. Chopin’s Sonata lasts 19 minutes, and all has been said. (He was referring to Chopin’s second sonata, which was a staple piece in his repertoire, and which he had recorded in 1930).
The issue of cuts and shortenings in Rachmaninov’s works is a well-known one, as he himself authorized cuts in several works, including the Second Symphony and the Third Concerto (his own recording of it uses the shortened version). Yet that issue becomes somewhat problematic (if not to say painful), once we consider that the reason behind those cuts might well have had to do with Rachmaninov’s lack of self-confidence and his doubt about audiences’ reception, rather than with any desire to improve the works musically. For instance, in 1931 he wrote to his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Medtner describing a series of performances of another work of his, the Variations on a Theme of Corelli:
“Not once have I played them in full. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing increased I would skip the next variation… In one concert… the coughing was such that I played only 10 variations (out of 20). My record was in New York, where I played 18. However, I hope that you will play all of them and that you will not cough.”
Enough said… The Second Sonata, however, is a somewhat different case. Whereas the cuts mentioned above are just that—cuts, i.e. clean jumps from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the score, the revised version of 1931 goes far beyond that. Besides reworking much of the piano writing (always with the aim of achieving a leaner, more transparent texture), Rachmaninov inserts a new section almost every time he makes a cut, and this new material alters the face of the Sonata to such an extent as to make the revised version a separate, independent work.
Several analyses of the two versions agree that the Sonata’s form and structure are better served by the first, 1913, version. As they point out, many of the sections Rachmaninov removed contained important thematic links and development, and at times whole chunks of the sonata form have been done away with, such as the recapitulation of the main subject in the finale. I fully agree with this on paper, but my feeling is that Rachmaninov was once again concerned with how the Sonata would be perceived by the listeners—though in a good way this time.
Looking at the sections which were removed, I think we can find a common thread—they are all somewhat meandering, for want of a better word. They often interrupt whatever line Rachmaninov was following at that time, and embark on a new micro-journey of their own. These might contain some really effective and highly pianistic music, and yet on balance I feel they detract rather than add to the Sonata’s unity. The revised version seems to me much more directional and single-minded, and the resulting structure more organic and easier to follow. (Putting directionality above expansiveness is of course completely a matter of taste. The opposite argument could be made, saying the original version is that much richer due to the way Rachmaninov explores adjacent ground rather than sticking to a single path.)
Through the newly inserted sections Rachmaninov also reinforces the melodic links between the Sonata’s movements. The entire first movement is based on a short motif—four descending chromatic notes, followed by a dotted falling interval—which is first heard at the beginning of the work, right after the initial plunging passage (which already contains all of the motif’s notes but one). This motif occurs frequently in full throughout the movement, and its chromatic notes form the basis for much of the passage-work, as well as for the lyrical second subject (02:08).
In both versions, this motif appears once more, in a reminiscing episode in the middle of the second movement, after the melancholic main theme of the movement has been explored in several variations, and a wonderful, heart-aching climax has been reached. However, in the revised version this episode is fully reworked: it incorporates a longer quote from the first movement, bringing with it the agitated mood of the Sonata’s opening, and gaining so much drive, drama and tension as to make the original episode (which is very beautiful if heard on its own) almost pale in comparison.
Later on, in the coda of the second movement, after the haze that follows the overpowering bell-frenzy has dissolved, there emerges in the revised version the lyrical second subject from the first movement, intertwining the two even more. And finally, to link in the third movement as well, Rachmaninov subtly alters the opening descending passage to include the notes of the first movement’s main motif.
As you will have probably guessed by now, I’m fully in favour of the revised version. But to conclude, I’d like to say that in either version the Sonata is a powerful, passionate, exhilarating work, in which there is much darkness and turbulence, but also places of pureness and light—and it is them, as is often the case with Rachmaninov, that reign triumphant in the end.
I wanted to play Grieg’s Piano Sonata ever since I was a small child. In fact, it is one of my earliest musical memories—my Grandma is sitting at the piano, I’m standing nearby and constantly asking her to perform two pieces from her repertoire—a piano arrangement of Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue and the first movement of the Piano Sonata by Grieg. Those two works stirred my imagination in a way no other music did back then (I was seven, I think), and I could listen to them again and again without tiring; luckily Grandma was happy to be my ‘replay’ button.
Written when the composer was just 22 years old, the Sonata is pure Grieg, from the first note to the last. All the hallmarks of his mature style are there: the lyricism and the fiery passion, the tenderness and the light-footed dance rhythms—and plenty of those beautiful, gentle melodies which give one the impression that Grieg has managed to capture the essence of Nordic nature and landscape and now presents it to us clad in notes. At the same time it is a young man’s work—there’s a freshness to it, an eagerness to explore the musical material (of which there is a generous abundance), and many rapid changes of mood and character.
The Sonata opens with a motif of three descending notes, which are a kind of a musical signature, corresponding to Grieg’s initials: Edvard Hagerup Grieg (H being the German for B). The tempo is not fast—allegro moderato—and the full first phrase gives the impression of being wise beyond its composer’s years. But this mood doesn’t hold for long, and we soon plunge into a passionate whirlwind of chords and passage-work, lasting for quite a while. A simple dance-like tune then forms a transition to the second subject, which is set in a major key and is one of those Nordic melodies I mentioned above, heartfelt and tender. The development is relatively short but full of imaginative writing, including a contrapuntal duet between the soprano and bass lines, and a patch of dark tremolos which lead us back into the recapitulation, starting in near-silence and then growing in a tremendous crescendo (this was my favourite spot as a child).
Even in the recapitulation—a place where many composers would and did content themselves with repeating, more or less, the material of the exposition—Grieg continues to innovate: in the opening theme section, for instance, there are so many changes that it is more of a variation than a repeat. The biggest change perhaps comes in the left hand accompaniment, where the severe Alberti bass figures from the opening make way for gently lapping triplets—resulting in an intimate, much more personal mood. The second subject, too, undergoes a transformation—it is set in a new, faster tempo, giving it a fluttering, butterfly-like character. This new mood, though, changes very quickly as Grieg leads the music towards the coda, which is passion personified, on the verge of despair. The descending-notes motif makes a last, impactful appearance in the left hand, the speed and tension continue to rise, and the movement ends in three decisive, defiant chords.
The opening of the second movement is worlds apart—a lyrical, starry-night melody, first set to a leisurely walking pace in the left hand, and then repeated higher up and accompanied by a tranquil flow of triplets. Grieg explores several other ideas before the main theme reappears again in full orchestral splendour, followed by an unexpected stormy outburst. This soon settles down, and the movement finishes peacefully with a prolonged coda. I feel this is the most mature of the Sonata’s movements, endowed with a kind of unselfconscious beauty and elegance which characterize Grieg’s best Lieder.
The third movement is a kind of a dance—Grieg’s tempo indication reads in the manner of a minuet, but a bit slower. A minuet it is certainly not (at least, it bears no resemblance to any minuets I know by Baroque or Classical composers), but it is spirited and full of character—and has perhaps the catchiest tune of all the Sonata’s movements. Akin to the beginning of the first movement, the emotional range here is very broad, and change comes rapidly: after a slightly reserved, ‘poker-face’ opening, the held-back energy soon bursts out, and with it the dance’s true face: strong and passionate. And by the end of the first page, with its insistent, nearly aggressive chords, the transformation is complete. And then, a surprise—a beautiful middle section: pure in tone and pastoral in mood, it brings a welcome respite from the darker colours and relative roughness of the opening (and yet the two are united by a simple device: they both begin with the same rhythmical figure, which gives the dance its character—a short note followed by an accented long one; the musical equivalent of a dance leap). A shortened recapitulation of the first section closes the movement.
The finale is a quick ride, based on a dotted-rhythm motif with repeated notes. A chorale serves as the second subject, interrupted by the main motif at the end of each phrase. The development section is my favourite bit—I imagine it to be a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream music: magical, mysterious, and slightly dangerous. There is a full recapitulation, followed by a grandiose coda—which is a last repeat of the chorale, festive and majestic, accompanied by bell-like chords in the left hand—all as befits the ending of such a richly varied work. And yet, unlike his Piano Concerto, which ends with a similarly constructed coda, here the youthful drive overtakes the pomp and the very ending is a return to the dotted rhythms of the movement’s main motif, finishing the Sonata with a thunderous cascade of chords in full swing.
It is hard for me to avoid superlatives when writing about Liszt’s B minor Sonata. I see it as the pinnacle of his output, as one of the absolute highlights of piano literature, and from a broader point of view, as one of the greatest Romantic works, in whatever medium. In this Sonata Liszt, whether consciously or not, succeeded in attaining a perfect balance between the musical and the technical aspects of composition; they are so seamlessly blended as to nearly cease to exist as separate elements, organically complementing each other instead, and creating a flexible, rich and highly expressive musical language.
On the technical side, the difficulties (both audible and in a live performance quite visible) are somewhat lessened by Liszt’s thoroughly idiomatic way of writing for the piano, and also by the feeling that they serve a higher musical purpose here, rather than being indulgently employed for virtuosity’s sake. Musically, this Sonata displays perhaps the broadest emotional spectrum of the three, scaling huge heights and descending into very black pits. There is constantly a sense of great depth, and often of a profound spirituality.
All of these elements, together with the dramatic construction of the Sonata and its pronounced programmatic nature (which is just as effective should one decide not to attach an explicit programme to the Sonata and treat it as absolute music instead), join to create a hugely enjoyable, sometimes transforming, and almost always unpredictable performing experience. Unpredictable in a sense that the starting point—the empty octaves and the crawling descending scales of the opening—is known, the ending—the three gently shining B major chords and the cut off low B pizzicato—is also vaguely seen in the distance, but the path between the two is unclear, and at least in a live performance may vary wildly from concert to concert. Discovering it every time anew is a large part of what makes the Sonata such a pleasure to perform.
In some ways, analyzing the Sonata is nearly as much of a pleasure. The more one delves into it, the more one wonders at the seemingly effortless way in which the various elements—the structure, the melodic material and its development, the use of different piano textures, registers and dynamics—are all fully integrated and form a whole which is much larger than the sum of its parts (as is probably the case with all great works of art). And yet, like the mechanism of a fine Swiss watch, those elements do their work quietly, beneath the surface, never interfering with the upper-level musical occurrences.
The structure for instance: a single-movement work which is more than 30 minutes long must have a skeleton to hold itself together. The Sonata’s structure has been analyzed extensively, and I think the solution closest to the truth is one that sees two complementing structures within the work—a single sonata movement with its usual constituents on one hand (opening exposition, development, recapitation, coda), and a full, four-movement sonata structure on the other hand (fast movement, slow movement, scherzo [fugue], finale). This is akin to the structure of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, a work which Liszt greatly admired, performed and even arranged for piano and orchestra. Those two forms do not contradict but complement each other, working simultaneously on two levels to lend a sense of architectonic balance to the long composition.
Structure is just one half of the equation, the other half being the melodic unity. It might be hard to believe, but the melodic material of the entire Sonata is based on just five motifs. We hear three of them right at the beginning of the work: that crawling descending scale which opens the Sonata (the short and empty repeated octaves almost immediately reveal themselves to be the first notes of that descending scale, so not quite a motif in themselves; though, appearing as they do in crucial structural junction points later on—before the fugue, and right before the end—they do have a macro-level delimiting function); then the dotted-rhythm motif, which appears in powerful double octaves, outlining a series of diminished seventh chords; and lastly the motif with the repeated notes which comes straight afterwards. Two additional, longer motifs appear further on—a majestic rising line, and the serene, deeply spiritual opening of the slow section of the Sonata.
But it’s the first three motifs that get the most work (shorter, more compact motifs seem to hold more potential for development than longer ones; this coincides with Rachmaninov’s choice of melodic material for the Second Sonata—using a short motif to unite the work rather than one of his more extensive melodies). They appear as themes, as bass lines, as counterpoint, inside virtuosic figurations—there’s hardly a section where one of them does not appear, and Liszt often combines two of them in various configurations.
They are all of them quick-change artists to boot, shifting their mood as swiftly as their function according to the musical context. A prime example of such a transformation is the one which the third motif undergoes—the one with the repeating notes from the opening, where it appears as a kind of a sardonic, malicious laughter. The second theme couldn’t be farther away in character: an embodiment of purity and innocence. And yet they are one and the same motif. Liszt transposes it several octaves up, sets it in a major key, writes it out twice as slowly—et voilà. Similarly, the lyrical recitativo-like section just preceding it can be traced back to the violent dotted-rhythm motif from the opening.
To finish, a word about the possible programmatic nature of the Sonata. Its narrative, storytelling (or rather story-depicting) element is so strong, that it almost begs for an extra-musical explanation, and indeed, several have been suggested. The Faust legend is the most popular hypothesis, but it has also been connected to the story of Eden and the Original Sin, or was even said to be autobiographical. And yet, Liszt himself never hinted the Sonata was anything but absolute music, nor did he ever indicate a literary source of inspiration (something which he didn’t hesitate to do in his Dante Sonata and Dante Symphony, his Mephisto-Waltz No. 1, or indeed his Faust Symphony). In my opinion the music benefits much by not being subjected to a definite extra-musical interpretation—I believe that the direct power of the music combined with the listeners’ imagination can surpass by far our attempts to delineate it in words, however great their strength.
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