Showcasing her masterful artistry through the lens of the great Russian composers, Wu Han performs a colorful solo piano recital of both favorites and lesser-heard gems of the repertoire.
Pytor Il'yich Tchaikovsky
Les saisons (The Seasons), op. 37b
Prelude op. 23, no. 1, in f-sharp minor
Prelude op. 32, no. 5, in G Major
Prelude op. 23, no. 5, in g minor
Prelude op. 23, no. 3, in d minor
Prelude op. 23, no. 10, in G-flat Major
Prelude op. 32, no. 12, in g-sharp minor
Prelude op. 23, no. 2, in B-flat Major
Fritz Kreisler (arr. Rachmaninov)
Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy)
Piano Sonata no. 4 in f-sharp major, op. 30
Wu Han (piano)
Notes on the Music:
PYOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Les saisons (The Seasons), op. 37b
Born May 7 [O.S. April 25], 1840, Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia; died November 6 [O.S. October 25], 1893, St. Petersburg
Composed: December 1875–November 1876
Other works from this period: Piano Concerto no. 1 in b-flat minor, op. 23 (Nov. 1874–Feb. 1875); Sérénade mélancolique for violin and orchestra, op.26 (Jan.–Feb. 1875);Symphony no. 3 in D Major, “Polish” (Jun.–Aug. 1875); Slavyansky marsh (Slavonic March) for orchestra, op. 31 (completed October 7, 1876); Francesca da Rimini, symphonic fantasia after Dante, op. 32 (Oct.–Nov. 1876); the ballet Lebedinoe ozero (Swan Lake), op. 20 (Aug. 1875–Apr. 1876); Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra,
op. 33 (Dec. 1876)
THE COMPOSITION OF SOLO PIANO MUSIC assumed secondary priority during Tchaikovsky’s first decade in Moscow, following the pianist and conductor Nikolay Rubinstein’s invitation to teach at the newly founded Moscow Conservatory. Despite Rubinstein’s encouragement that he compose in this primarily salon-oriented genre, Tchaikovsky by and large balked. Composing for larger forces (ergo for the concert hall rather than the salon) portended more lucrative returns; but more than this, it seems the prospect of solo piano composition simply failed to captivate Tchaikovsky’s imagination. But while the medium may have done little to spark Tchaikovsky, the reverse is by no means true. Indifferent though he may have been, Tchaikovsky nevertheless produced a small body of delectable works for what was, after all, his instrument. These include Souvenir de Hapsal, op. 2 (1867), and the Romance in f minor, op. 5 (1868)—both very popular works indeed among Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries—and, composed throughout 1876, the enduringly beloved Les saisons.
This set of twelve miniatures (which might more appropriately be entitled “The Months”) resulted from a commission from N. M. Bernard, the editor of the monthly music periodical Nuvelliste. Tchaikovsky was requested to compose a musical supplement to each issue for a year—a simple task for a master craftsman, as suggested by the account that the composer needed a monthly reminder from his assistant to complete the next installment. On command, Tchaikovsky would produce a charming new vignette in one sitting. Though this may be no more than fable—for Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with Nuvelliste suggests that the entire cycle may have been completed by May—the whole of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre nevertheless lends evidence that such facile composition was well within the maestro’s powers.
Preludes, op. 23, nos. 1, 5, 3, 10, and 2; op. 32, nos. 5 and 12
Born April 1 [O.S. March 20], 1873, Oneg, Russia;
died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California
Composed: 1901 (op. 23, no. 5), 1903 (op. 23, nos. 1, 2, 3, 10),
1910 (op. 32, nos. 5 and 12)
Dedication: Rachmaninov dedicated the ten preludes of Opus 23 to his early piano teacher (and elder cousin) Alexander Siloti.
Other works from this period: The Preludes of Opp. 23 and 32 constitute the bulk of Rachmaninov’s piano writing over the first ten years of the 1900s. This decade also saw the composition of the Suite no. 2 for two pianos, op. 17 (1900–01); Variations on a Theme of Chopin, op. 22 (1902–03); Polka italienne for four hands (1906?); and the Piano Sonata no. 1 in d minor, op. 28 (1907). Other significant works during this time include the Cello Sonata, op. 19 (1901); the Second and Third Piano Concerti (1900–01 and 1909 respectively); and the symphonic poem Ostrov myortvïkh (The Isle of the Dead) (1909).
BETWEEN THE UBIQUITOUS PRELUDE in c-sharp minor from Rachmaninov’s Opus 3 Morceaux de fantaisie (1892), the Opus 23 set of ten preludes, and the thirteen preludes of Opus 32, Rachmaninov equaled a signature compositional feat established by Bach and mimicked by other notable composers for the keyboard from Chopin to Shostakovich: a collection of twenty-four piano pieces spanning each of the major and minor keys. In addition to containing each key, the Preludes collectively encompass a wide emotive spectrum. Witness the chasm between the wide-eyed effervescence of the Prelude in G Major, op. 32, no. 5, and the militaristic Opus 23, no. 5. Rachmaninov’s characteristic penchant for expressive ambivalence often dominates within a single work: Opus 23, no. 1, in f-sharp minor pairs long-breathed melancholy in the right hand with restless
anxiety in the left; the minuet of Opus 23, no. 3, manifests a menacing gracefulness. The set presented on this recording appropriately ends with two widely disparate Preludes. Opus 32, no. 12, escalates quickly from the bleak mystery of its rarefied opening measures to agitated despair. The Prelude in B-flat Major, op. 23, no. 2, responds with loud, crashing chords of unbridled joy.
Kreisler/Rachmaninov: Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy)
THE LIEBESFREUD of violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962) is one of over a dozen arrangements Rachmaninov made of works by other composers for piano. (In addition, he made piano arrangements of his own songs for soprano and piano, including “Daisies,” op. 38, no. 3, and “Lilacs,” op. 21, no. 5, as well as an arrangement of Musorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair: Hopak.) Rachmaninov arranged the Liebesfreud in 1925, four years after similarly arranging Kreisler’s Liebeslied (Love’s Sorrow). This charming transcription serves here as a fitting postlude to the selections from opp. 23 and 32.
ALEKSANDR NIKOLAYEVICH SKRYABIN
Piano Sonata no. 4 in F-sharp Major, op. 30
Born January 6, 1872 [O.S. December 25, 1871], Moscow;
died April 27 [O.S. April 14], 1915, Moscow
Other works from this period: The year 1903 saw the completion of no less than a dozen works for solo piano in addition to the Fourth Piano Sonata. Skryabin also composed his Symphony no. 3 in C Major, “Bozhestvennaya poema” (The Divine Poem), between 1902 and 1904.
SKRYABIN’S FOURTH PIANO SONATA marks the dawn of an important chapter in the composer’s creative career, during which his treatment of tonality and form grew increasingly liberal. Until 1903, Skryabin’s music bespoke a mastery of the late Romantic idiom of Liszt and Chopin, though his innovative approach to form is evident even in his early works. With the Fourth Piano Sonata, this approach grows more daring still. The work comprises two equally weighted halves—the first movement Andante, followed attacca by the virtuosic Prestissimo volando—whose musical material is closely related throughout. Much of the Sonata’s musical ideas germinate from the Andante’s introductory measures (and especially the ascending fourth that begins the melody), creating an organic work without relying on classical sonata form. Harmonically, too, the Sonata represents the beginning of Skryabin’s departure from tonality. (Sketches for his notorious Mysterium project—which would occupy his later years and remain, inevitably, unfinished—reveal harmonic experiments using all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, radical thinking that would come to fruition by Schoenberg’s hand.) Though never abandoning the premise of a tonal center, the Sonata nevertheless moves facilely through exhilarating harmonic terrain.