Tuesday, March 2, 2010

05/04/2010 @ 6:15 p.m.: Scott Watkins, piano

Renowned concert pianist Scott Watkin's repeats his 2010 Carnegie Hall recital with performances of
Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101, and
Chopin's Waltzes.

Scott Watkins, Assistant Professor of Piano at Jacksonville University, is well known to First Coast audiences for his appearances with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, his numerous solo recitals, and his frequent collaborations with many of the areas finest singers and instrumentalists. His 1985 U.S. debut, an all-Bach recital given in Chicago, was broadcast live nationwide, and has been followed by a steady flow of solo and concerto performances in North and South America, Europe and the Caribbean. He has been heard often in the United States and Canada on National Public Radio and Television, and in South America and Europe on The Voice of America. Performances have included the world premieres of Elie Siegmeister’s From These Shores and Ned Rorem’s Song and Dance.

An active chamber musician, Watkins is a founding member of the Florida Arts Trio and has appeared with the LaSalle Quartet and violinist Eugene Fodor, and a recent performance with violinist Hillary Hahn was broadcast on NPR's Performance Today. Much in demand as an accompanist, he appeared with soprano Elizabeth Futral and baritone Steven White in a recital of Wolff's Italian Song Book in Chicago, and he has released a disc of late romantic lieder with White. Watkins has also released two solo discs, one featuring works from his New York debut at Carnegie Hall, and another, Christmas Cards, featuring music for the holiday season, with works by Bach, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Grainger, and others.

Professor Watkins is the recipient of numerous awards, including the John Philip Sousa Award for Outstanding American Musicians, Rotary Club of Florida's Annual Artistic Merit Award, and France's Jeunesse Musicales. In 1985, he became the youngest winner ever of The U.S. Department of State's Artistic Ambassador Award. His degrees include a Bachelor of Music from the University of Cincinnati, and Master of Music from University of South Carolina. He is currently pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts at Florida State University.

©2010 by Edward Lein, Music Librarian

Beethoven: Sonata No. 28 in A Major, op. 101

1. Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung [Somewhat lively, and with innermost sensitivity]
2. Lebhaft. Marschmäßig [Lively. Moderate march]
3. Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll [Slow and yearning-full]
4. Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit [Swiftly, but not too much and with determination]

The transcendent German-born composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) began his compositional career essentially imitating the styles and forms he inherited from Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and W.A Mozart (1756-1791), but during his "middle" period (ca. 1803-1815) Beethoven expanded and personalized this lnheritance, creating works that have come to represent the culmination of the Classical style in much the same way that the works of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) represent the culmination of the Baroque. During Beethoven's "late" period (ca. 1815-1827), he discovered new paths toward still more personal, even intimate, musical expression, and, despite the gradual and eventually total degeneration of his hearing, he forged the way beyond the Classical tradition into the Romantic.

After the passing of his mentor Haydn, Beethoven found little inspiration in the works of his contemporaries, least especially from the batch of Italian operas then sweeping the Continent. Instead, for artistic renewal he seems to have drawn upon two main sources: first, his lifelong affection and admiration for the music of Bach and G.F. Handel (1685-1759), striving in his final years to achieve a satisfying synthesis of Baroque contrapuntal techniques with Classical archetypes; and second, the straightforward lyricism of the folksongs he collected and arranged for Scottish publisher George Thomson (1757-1851). Beethoven's Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101, the first of his five late period piano sonatas, was written during the summer and fall of 1816, and it demonstrates most especially the contrapuntal challenges he set for himself during his final decade. Beethoven dedicated it to Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann (1781-1849), a close friend whom he regarded as a foremost interpreter of his piano music, and who, appropriately enough, was also an admirer of Bach.

Outwardly, Opus 101 manifests the four movements of a "typical" Beethoven sonata, but in its details it becomes anything but ordinary. The gently-flowing melody of the pastoral opening movement unfolds without any marked contrasts, and it is especially unusual that the clear establishment of the home key is delayed until near its end. Its reverie is interrupted by an exuberant march, used in place of the more usual scherzo. The brief, improvisatory third movement is an elegiac adagio that leads--very uncharacteristically--into a restatement of the first few measures of the first movement, which in turn is followed immediately by a boisterous sonata-form finale. Both the March, with its canonic trio, and the finale, with its fugato development, are dominated by complex contrapuntal textures, which, as Beethoven himself joked, might have justified nicknaming the work "The Difficult-to-Play Sonata." So--and especially because of the reprise of the first-movement tune leading into the finale--the overall effect is rather like a "Prelude and Fugue," but with a big interruption in the form of the march. And, granted, it is unlike anything Bach could have imagined on his puny harpsichord.

"But why," one might ask, "does Beethoven throw in a march?" Well ...

In addition to an unparalleled body of musical works, Beethoven left the world a mass of diaries, letters and notebooks that paint a vivid picture of one of the greatest musical minds that will ever walk the earth--despite his appalling penmanship. But, in retrospect, he rather foolishly failed to detail every aspect of his personal life and each source of inspiration, so it has proven irresistible to virtually every writer about the most-written-about composer to fill in the gaps with insights into the hidden meaning behind the musical notes. Like now.

At this point in his lonely life, Beethoven corresponded that he pretty much had given up on the idea of finding the ideal wife (including his "Immortal Beloved"--most likely Antonie Brentano, who was unhappily-married to one of Beethoven's friends). He was, however, hopeful that he'd find some sort of familial contentment rearing his 9-year-old nephew, Karl, the son of his recently-deceased brother, Caspar Carl (not yet knowing that both Karl and his widowed mother, Johanna, would prove to be a continuing source of consternation). In any case, Beethoven was now resolved to fully dedicate his life to his art (despite his hearing loss and persistent problems with his digestive health). Thus, the gentle opening, "with innermost sensitivity," might be seen as the composer's wistful paean and farewell to the idea of warm and quiet domesticity, leading into renewed vigor and commitment to artful pursuits, appropriately exemplified by the "determined," fugue-like finale. But as he was working on the Sonata, Beethoven received a commission to write a march for military band (i.e., WoO 24), and he was happy to set aside work on the Sonata to fulfill it. Thus, a march interrupted his work on the Sonata, much like a march interrupts the prelude-fugue aspects of the first and last movements, allowing one to wonder if perhaps this is a case of "art imitating life."

Or not.

Chopin's Waltzes

  • No. 5 in A flat major, Op. 42 (1840)
  • No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1 (1847)
  • No. 9 in A flat major, Op. 69, No. 1 (1835)
  • No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 (1847)
  • No. 11. in G flat major, Op 70, No. 1 (1832)
  • No. 10 in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2 (1829)
  • No. 14 in E minor, Op. Posth. (1829)
  • No. 3 in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2 (1834)
  • No. 4 in F major, Op. 34, No. 3 (1838)
  • No. 12 in F minor, Op. 70, No. 2 (1842)
  • No. 13 in D flat major, Op. 70, No. 3 (1829)
  • No. 8 in A flat major, Op 64, No. 3 (1847)
  • No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 18 (1831-32)
  • No. 2 in A flat major, Op. 34, No. 1 (1835)

Before Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) settled in Paris in 1831, his permanent exile from his Polish homeland had begun unexpectedly in Vienna the year before. A twenty-year-old Chopin had returned to the Austrian capital in November of 1830 with the hope of recapturing the success as virtuoso pianist and composer he had briefly enjoyed there the summer of the previous year. But very soon after his second arrival in Vienna, back in Warsaw a group of cadets conspired to liberate Poland from the Russian Empire. Chopin wished to hurry home and join the nationalists' fight against tyranny, but his friends wisely convinced the frail youth that he would better serve his homeland through his music. When the November Uprising failed, Chopin, a known sympathizer with the rebels, found it too risky to ever return to Poland. So it was that Chopin spent his first of every remaining Christmas away from his familial home, all alone, and with the chilly weather heralding the proverbial cold shoulders he got from the generally pro-Russian populace and music publishers in the center of the Austrian Empire.

The waltz was by that time all the craze, and the rivalry between Joseph Renner (1801-1843) and Johann Strauss I (1804-1849) to establish preeminence as composer and conductor of the popular entertainment was already underway. At this point one might like to imagine, "... and so in Vienna began Chopin's lifelong love affair with the waltz," only that decidedly was not the case: Chopin complained that he couldn't believe waltz music was discussed as an art form, and suggested that he (ever the snob) would never be able to master the vulgarity demanded to perform such music properly. One suspects that Chopin might have protested a little too much, especially since he had already written piano waltzes in Poland and continued to write them throughout his brief life. Still, the Viennese waltz had not yet attained its pinnacle reached by Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), and Chopin perhaps was parroting the sentiments offered by denizens of propriety, e.g., the influential British musicologist Charles Burney (1726-1814), who pointedly observed (ca. 1805): "The verb walzen, whence this word is derived, implies to roll, wallow, welter, tumble down, or roll in the dirt or mire."

Chopin's own contributions to the genre are about as far removed from the waltz's roots in the provincial ländler--and apparently grimy lederhosen--as one can get, so much so that Robert Schumann (1810-1856) famously quipped that the Pole's aristocratic diversions should be danced only by countesses. Tiaras or no, Chopin never intended his waltzes as ballroom fare, but they were very much intended for the fashionable salons haunted by said countesses, who not only employed him as their piano master, but warmly welcomed the refined and well-educated commoner through the front door of Parisian High Society. Despite their native habitat, it would be a great mistake to characterize Chopin's richly varied waltzes merely as "salon pieces," or to apply Chopin's own disparaging remarks about the artistic shortcomings of the dance. Ranging from bravura showpieces and extroverted frivolity to the most intimate expressions of melancholy longing, it is a marvel that one composer could distill such breadth and depth from the common oom-pa-pa.

Rightly called the "Poet of the Piano," Chopin's influence is seen in much of all piano music by subsequent composers, and his revolutionary use of chromatic harmonies and unusual key relationships profoundly influenced composers of symphonic music and operas as well (e.g., Liszt and Wagner)--thus Chopin's importance in the development of the "Romantic" style in general cannot be overestimated. Many of his Waltzes remain among the most frequently performed piano pieces, and although as a group they are intentionally less daring both structurally and harmonically than many of Chopin's other works, they lend themselves to (and can withstand) a wealth of differing interpretations. In the recorded repertoire this has lead to surprisingly passionate debates about the virtues of one interpretation over another (usually boiling down to Russian vs. Romanian), which demonstrates the depth of feeling Chopin's Waltzes inspire, the common denominator of all great art.

At the top of the recorded heap is a performance by legendary Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950). Following the advice of incomparable record producer Walter Legge (1906-1979), Lipatti presented the Waltzes not by opus number or date of composition, but in an order suggested by the key relationships among the separate pieces. Scott Watkins likewise follows Legge's advice, and notes:
I'm playing them in the order Dinu Lipatti played them at his last recital, during which he was too weak from leukemia to play the final waltz. So, in my performance, in honor of Mr. Lipatti who was my teacher's (Bela Siki) teacher, I'll take a brief pause before playing the final waltz.

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