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AN 2 8762

Liszt, Rachmaninov: Sonatas

Release date May 12, 2009
Album code AN 2 8762

Album information

Nareh Arghamanyan is the winner of the 2008 Montreal International Music Competition. On her first CD, she performs two masterpieces of the piano repertoire, sonatas by Liszt and Rachmaninov.

Liszt: Sonata for piano in B minor, S. 178

My dear Franz, at that moment I could feel your presence. Your sonata is beautiful beyond expression, grand, graceful, profound, noble, sublime—just like you. It touched the very heart of me, and all at once the misery of London is forgotten.
?Richard Wagner, April 5, 1855

Full, free and orchestral, Liszt‘s only sonata, the Sonata for piano in B minor, S. 178, is a monument of the piano repertoire. Composed between 1852 and 1853, its single large movement hinges on a cyclical form. While Liszt’s decision to use minimal thematic material may have surprised and shocked his contemporaries—including Schumann, the work’s dedicatee—who hurled murderous critiques at the work, the B-minor sonata is in fact a natural progression of Beethoven’s last forays into the genre, both in terms of its psychological conception and its use of two themes. “With only a few building blocks I can erect an entire musical edifice. […] The essential lies not in abundance but rather in limiting oneself to the absolute essential,” noted the composer himself. This apparent lack of framework also allowed him to intensify the dialogue and drama between the two main ideas.

The work opens with a slow introduction built over a descending Byzantine (or Gypsy) scale that dissolves into two repeated Gs, separated by a significant pause, and this kernel encompasses the narrative weave of everything that follows. Once the curtain is raised, the two principle antagonistic elements are introduced. The first, a willful roar in wide intervals and double octaves, the second, a burst of troublingly close Mephistophelean laughter that springs out of the first without warning. After another pause, a violent struggle breaks out between the two themes, neither ceding an inch of ground. The first wins a brief victory, supported by a return to the introduction, which eventually melts into a new solemn and lyrical theme, Grandioso, buoyed by a particularly dense harmonic mass. This interlude leaves the way clear for a melodic arpeggio-adorned reinterpretation of the first theme, which is promptly interrupted by the diabolical second theme, before morphing into a delightful nocturne that ends in a flurry of trills.

The peace is short-lived, however, and the battle is rejoined with even more fervour, Liszt showing off his mastery of counterpoint, the motifs linking to one another through augmentations, inversions, and superpositions. Octaves streak through the score sardonically, until the Grandioso reappears, borne on a powerful breath of air. Liszt subtly intersperses the music with segments of recitative based on the first theme, soon swept away by diabolical laughter, which are eventually united into a harmonized version of the first theme. The combatants are granted a respite with the contemplative Andante sostenuto, out of which the Grandioso seems to emerge once again, more tragic than luminous; but Liszt is only preparing us for a new confrontation of the two motifs in a spectacular fugal passage, fierce, bitter and incisive. A series of descending scales manages to interrupt the hostilities and the Grandioso rises out of the ashes with Herculean vigour. Liszt then summons the nocturne one last time before seeming to precipitate the work to a furious conclusion. Gradually, however, the two combatants weaken and calm eventually ensues, tinged with almost grating thematic recollections. The work finishes as it began, with a dark, descending scale, soothed by ethereal chords in the high register. A low B is the final stroke, and the B-minor Sonata evaporates into the ether.

Rachmaninov: Sonata for piano No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36

Like Liszt, Rachmaninov crafted his scores with a builder’s dedication. Convinced of the need to serve a higher sense of architecture, he strove throughout his life for an economy of means and simplicity of expression. He explained to the poet Mariette Shaginyan that each piece should be built around its highest point: “The whole mass of sounds must be so measured, the depth and power of each sound must be given with such purity and gradation, that this peak point is achieved with an appearance of the greatest naturalness, though actually its accomplishment is the highest art.” In spite of everything, he doubted himself constantly. Split among his various identities—pianist, conductor, composer, father—and the choices imposed by each, Rachmaninov endeavoured to achieve a delicate balance.

An eloquent example of this balance is his Sonata for piano No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36, which he began in 1912 in Rome (in a room once occupied by Tchaikovsky) and completed the following year, in the roiling shadow of a looming revolution. A hurricane of octaves, a powerful aural upwelling of magma, the sonata seethes with raw energy. And yet between the lines, one discerns a certain fragility, an instability that sometimes seems almost precipitated, kaleidoscopic fragments of Rachmaninov’s emotions. Nearly 20 years later, he would completely rework the piece, eliminating entire sections and changing certain melodic lines to somewhat smooth out its rough edges.

In three movements linked together by way of numerous thematic cross references, the work is unabashedly Romantic and strives to be, alternately, passionate, desperate, energetic and tender. It features numerous sudden calms, which are swept away by extremely high-voltage pianistic passages. From the first eruption of descending arpeggios, the earth trembles. Tumult becomes drama, force and melancholy and takes on a certain Gypsy feel, pealing forth at full volume—none of which is a great surprise, the work having been composed at the same time as his choral symphony The Bells. The Lento is a deeply moving section, steeped with a contemplative sadness, over which the spasms of a world nearing its end seem to break. The work culminates in a majestic and flamboyant third movement, one of the most electrifying Rachmaninov ever wrote.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation : Peter Christensen

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AN 2 8871-2 Rencontr3s / Rencontres
AN 2 8871-2 Rencontr3s / Rencontres
AN 2 8871-2 Rencontr3s / Rencontres

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