Born in Berkeley, California in 1998, pianist Karin Kei Nagano began studying piano at age 3 and has worked with the late Germaine Mounier and the renowned teachers Vera Gornostayeva, Igor Lazko, [...]
They spoke about it
This album was conceived when I was 18 years old, at an important turning point in my life. Back then, as a sophomore at Yale College and at somewhat of a crossroads, I took my first class in architecture and fell deeply in love with it. After years of performing and mastering the art of the keyboard, beginning something new from scratch felt unsettling. But it was a process that, though frightening, felt right.
My first mentor in architecture was Professor Kent Bloomer, generally considered one of the greatest living American sculptors and designers. After hearing about my career in music, he generously took me under his wing to begin a long-standing conversation about ornamentation in architecture and in music. Discussions of how rhythm, melody, and harmony translate to built structures naturally brought together one chapter of my life with the next in a way that felt almost cyclical. Out of this emerged a wellspring of inspiration and important new perspectives – the results of which are reflected in this recording.
The two pieces on this album, both part of larger circular anthologies, convey the cyclical notion of end and of beginning: reincarnation.
While Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat represents a bittersweet and painful negotiation with death in a moment where his life is fading, Messiaen’s Première communion de la Vierge celebrates the overwhelming joy of new life and birth. The two works are connected by the B-flat major chord, which both triumphantly marks the end of Schubert’s sonata and opens Messiaen’s piece, this time notated with a piano dynamic and marked intérieur.
Schubert’s constant wavering between the narrative of the past and dreams of a new life – evoked through his rapid and oscillating tonal changes – arguably conveys the struggle of detaching from the human world without a sense of resolution. Yet the finale, composed before the first movement, seems to end with a confident acceptance and embrace of death, a vigour that parallels the outbursts of joy in Messiaen’s work.
Although fundamentally a still, meditative contemplation, Première communion de la Vierge explores the divine mystery of the birth of Jesus and of “the Word made flesh” through climactic episodes characterized by rhythmic and animated repetitions of the same three chords, which Messiaen said represent the “theme of God.” This theme underpins the entire piece, occasionally interwoven with birdsong and flickering lights, and forms the basis of a spiritual outlook on the phenomenon of birth and creation.
Though the works are starkly different in style and time period, I felt that, together, they create a singular narrative of cycle and reconstruction, a process deeply evocative of the human condition throughout history, including my own personal path.
In bringing together Schubert and Messiaen, this album intends to bring to light those profound and fundamental human sentiments that I hope the listener can identify with, sentiments that we, as a society, can find solace in.
This album would not have been possible without the mentorship of great masters, Maestro Alfred Brendel, Melvin Chen, Rita Wagner, and Peter Frankl, whose exceptional artistry and wisdom have continuously inspired and fueled this work.
I would also like to give a special thanks to my family, Mari Kodama, Momo Kodama and Kent Nagano, for opening the doors to the musical arts and for their unwavering support, love and guidance.
Franz Schubert: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (1828)
In both his life and work, Franz Schubert was the perfect archetype for the emerging Romantic century. He led a bohemian life that eschewed bourgeois conventions, spending his days composing and his evenings carousing. He died young, at the age of 31, leaving behind an immense body of work, much of which was entirely unknown beyond his inner circle.
The Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 is one of three large-scale sonatas Schubert wrote in the final year of his life. These sonatas were composed simultaneously, beginning with initial drafts in the spring of 1828 and concluding with final revisions in September, just two months before his death. As such, the sonatas share deep thematic and tonal connections that have long fascinated musicologists and performers.
As with so much of Schubert’s music, themes of death and mortality seem to abound. The first two movements especially are imbued with a meditative, pensive quality suggestive of the composer contemplating his own demise. Indeed, one can hardly avoid such an interpretation of the ominous G-flat trill in the opening of the first movement, and heard again before the repeat of the exposition – especially when considered in the context of, for instance, Schubert’s early setting of Goethe’s haunting The Erlking, or the variations on the melody from Death and the Maiden, in the eponymous D Minor string quartet. Yet this same “fateful” G-flat trill has purely musical implications as well, presaging the formal importance of G-flat as a key area in both the first movement and the movements that follow.
The Sonata in B-flat Major, along with its two companions, is the culmination of Schubert’s grand and expansive formal designs in his larger works. In his exploration of ever more remote key areas, in the prominence of melodic line and its development, and in the continual return to extramusical themes at once personal and universal, Schubert provided an important model for the generation of composers that followed.
Olivier Messiaen: Première communion de la vierge
from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944)
French composer Olivier Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic as well as an avid collector of birdsong. These consuming passions, along with a keen interest in Hinduism and numerology, help define his highly personal musical language. It is an idiom rich with modernist complexities used in the service of an intensely personal expression of faith – religious fervency fused to predetermined musical techniques. Or, as musicologist William W. Austen noted, a “strange combination of novel intellectual challenge and old-fashioned emotional indulgence.”
These myriad traits are present in Première communion de la vierge (The Virgin’s First Communion), the eleventh movement from Messiaen’s monumental 1944 work for solo piano, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Glances on the Child Jesus). The work was initially begun after a request for 12 short piano pieces to accompany a radio broadcast of Nativity poetry. However, at over two hours in length, the work far eclipsed its modest original purpose.
This is one of Messiaen’s most intense and spiritual scores. Messiaen wrote extensively about his own works and musical language, noting, “They express the various contemplations of the child Jesus in the crib and glances which are bestowed upon him; from the inexpressible Glances of the Father to the manifold Glances of the Church of Love, through the unparalleled Glances of the Spirit of Joy.”
© Joseph Stillwell