Malcolm Bilson
Saturday, June 21 at 8:00 pm
PepsiCo Recital Hall, TCU

Johann Baptist Cramer was born in Germany in 1771 but moved very early to London and spent most of his life in that city as an active pianist, composer and teacher. He was perhaps the most universally admired pianist of the time. He left a large corpus of compositions, mostly for the piano, but is mostly remembered today for his 84 Studio per il pianoforte , exercises which, along with those of his contemporaries Czerny, Hanon and Clementi, were long the cornerstones of piano teaching. His style, unmistakably evident in these charming variations, was always marked by a kind of conservative elegance - skillful, idiomatic for the piano, but lacking the Gothic drama of a Clementi or Dussek. He lived until 1858, and in later years expressed dissatisfaction with the ‘excesses' of the newer schools of composition, noting that when he was young piano playing had been ‘ fort bien ' (very good) but that it now had become merely ‘ bien fort ' (very loud).

Jan Ladislas Dussek (or Dusík) is considered, together with Cramer and Muzio Clementi, a central figure in the so-called London Pianoforte School of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He actually lived in that city only the 1790s, marrying the daughter of the music publisher Corri and going into business with him as Dussek, Corri and Co. The firm eventually went into bankruptcy and Dussek was forced to flee, abandoning his wife and child, neither of whom he was ever to see again; he died in Paris in his early fifities, most likely from overeating and drinking.

Dussek is reputed to be the first to sit sideways on the stage as is the custom nowadays. His writing foreshadows Schubert and Chopin, even Liszt by several decades - full, orchestral, with heavy chords and much chromatic writing. Close proximity of ff and pp, dim. and cresc. characterise this passionate and extroverted style. The Fantasy and Fugue in f minor was written in 1805, decidated to Cramer and published by Clementi. The Fugue is anything but strict, with voices entering and leaving at will, modulating to the most far-flung and remote keys, and displays a repeat sign at the end of what Dussek appears to have considered an exposition! (Sometimes I take the repeat…)

Hungarian musicologist László Somfai notes that the F Major Sonata K. 332 is far less often heard in concert than its two neighbors (K. 330 in C and K.331 in A), yet with the reappearance of Mozart-era fortepianos it has begun to take its rightful place as one of Mozart's most brilliant solo sonatas. Somfai believes that this is not by mere chance: On Mozart's instrument, in contrast to the more conventional ideal of a smooth legato heard so often nowadays, the single-bar slurs, the brusqueness of the sforzandi and the strong dynamic contrasts can all contribute to the drama and intensity of the opening movement. The Adagio , which we have not only in autograph form but from the first edition with suggestions for embellishment by Mozart himself, can serve as a model for those movements where Mozart has left the embellishment to the performer. And the final movement, with its rapid runs, passionate second theme and stormy development, is certainly the most virtuosic finale in all of Mozart's solo keyboard sonatas.

In his first years in Vienna Beethoven quickly garnered a reputation as a brilliant pianist. Aside from playing his early concertos, he was apparently without peer as an improviser, a creator of free fantasies. At that time piano sonatas were not, as a rule, heard in public concerts; they were considered Hausmusik, meant for domestic consumption, and little by little Beethoven brings this improvisatory aspect into his written-out piano sonatas. The two sonatas of Opus 27 each bear the title Sonata quasi una Fantasia, and in some sense this will become a guiding principle for much of his sonata writing from that point on.

I choose to play Opus 31/2 and Opus 31/3 together because Beethoven has used an almost identical strategy to create two works that could hardly be more psychologically different: the d minor dark and perilous, at the end subdued but by no means overcome, and the Eb humorous, in places almost hilarious in its constant turns and witty surprises. Both sonatas begin tentatively; the player (as in any good free improvisation) not quite sure what will come next, probing his way, and indeed often going somewhat astray.

My performance of these two works utilizes some elements that are different from what is normally heard today, in part inspired by the instrument, in part by the extremely problematic source situation (there is no autograph and there are considerable differences in the early prints), in part inspired by the commentaries of Beethoven's one-time pupil Carl Czerny (On the Proper Performance of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, 1842). In the d minor sonata, for example, Czerny proposes lengthy pedallings which I find musically compelling, yet which would not be possible on later pianos with their much longer decay, there only creating a discordant blur. And for the Eb sonata a general improvisatory manner, brusk tempo alterations, some but not all suggested by Czerny, all serve in my opinion to evoke Beethoven at his most ebullient and wittiest.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Program notes by Malcolm Bilson