Jennifer Tao - The Music

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CD Cover Tao Piano
JDT 3015

  1. Medtner: Fairy Taile in B-flat, Op.20, No.1  
  2. Beethoven: Sonata in C, Op.53 "Waldstein"  
  3. Ives: "The Alcotts" from Sonata No. 2 "Concord Mass." 
  4. Scarlatti: Sonata in D, K. 491, L. 164 
  5. Ravel: Alborada del Gracioso from Miroirs 
  6. LISZT: Au lac de Wallenstadt
  7. Chopin: Ballade NO.1 in G, Op. 23
Sound Samples:
Track 2. Beethoven: sonata in C, Op. 53 "Waldstein"
Real Audio | Windows Media
Track 8. Liszt: Au lac de Wallenstadt
Real Audio | Windows Media
Track 9. Chopin: Balladfe No. 1 in g Op. 23
Real Audio | Windows Media

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About This CD

Although Nikolai Karlovich Medtner (1880-1951)was considered one of the finest pianists of his day, he followed the path of the composer. Even so, his livelihood depended on his piano playing and teaching. Medtner taught at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1909-10, returning from 1914 through 1921. When he left for the west after Lenin came to power, Medtner supported himself and his wife, Anna, by concertizing. A few years before Medtner's death, the Maharajah of Mysore became his patron and was able to fund a project for Medtner to record his own works.

The terms "Fairy Tale" and "Folk Tale" often suggest crude, handmade or "every-day" art, just as a short turn-of-the-century piano composition entitled "Fairy Tale" might indicate an escapist picturesque album-leaf. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Medtner's "Fairy Tale." It leads us through an emotional forest of wild, even hair-raising intensity. In a matter of minutes, we have traveled unimaginable distances. The work's warm, darkly rolling main melody, energized by smoldering cross-rhythms, gives no indication of the scope and intensity of the work to follow. Medtner takes us along his full-blooded melody into realms of passion, even despair, as well as into the tenebrous register of the piano: extremes adeptly framed in the music of a first class artist.

Between 1803 and 1808, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed works so vast in proportion that they are often described as "symphonic" to acknowledge their scope. Beethoven began composing the C major Piano Sonata, Op. 53, in the last months of 1803 and into 1804, around the time he composed the Triple Concerto and the Eroica Symphony. The Op. 53 sonata was dedicated to Beethoven's patron from his youth in Bonn, Count Ferdinand Waldstein.
The opening material with its insuppressible energetic trot contains some qualities which make it an exquisitely complicated and richly nuanced subject for a sonata movement, drawing the listener into its evolution.

A hymnlike, lyrical second movement is followed by a new idea, effortlessly flowing into triplets, intensifying into sixteenth notes where the rhythmic impulse asserts itself again.

This subsides for a flowing, scalar passagework, melting into the gentle closisng with its swift modulations. The ensuing development and recapitulation cast a new light on this richly varied exposition, rounding out Beethoven's multifarious proposition.

Beethoven had originally composed a lengthy andante (later named Andante favori) for the work's middle movement, but he cast it aside for a briefer, better-integrated movement. The second movement here functions as an introduction to the finale. It's almost as if Beetoven is looking toward the first movement with a magnifying glass as we hear the bass motion of the Allegro's main subject outlined in the bass of the Introduzione's first measures. The spare, tenuous music carries such expressive weight as to bring the galloping momentum of the first movement to a poignant cul-desac.

One of the functions of this introductory movement is to awaken each register of the piano with the widely-spaced counterpoint. It is as if this introduction prepares the piano's sound spectrum, allowing the finale to open effortlessly, singing its noble melody aloft transparent, pedaled arpeggious. The transition from introduction to finale, from weight to lightness gives the finale a sense of luminous joy. Astral textures, lavish pedaling, shimmering trills animale this most hopeful of Beethoven's finales.

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954) was the prophet of multiplicity, precariously balancing strata of melodies, rhythms and musical styles in a sonorous musical kaleidoscope. "The Alcotts" movement from Ives' second piano sonata ("Concored, Mass., 1840-1860) is a perfect example of Ives' masterful integration of disparate ideas toward a common cause.
artist photo

Ives described the second piano sonata as "a group of four pieces called a sonata for want of a more exact name." This work attempts to capture the intangible essence and beauty of the thoughts and ideas promoted by America's "Transcendal" philosophers, particularly the Concord Four. Each movement invokes the memory or some special quality of one philosopher (or family): Emerson, Thoreau, Walden and the Alcotts. "The Alcotts" movement was adapted from a lost, unfinished work entitled "Orchard House Overture" written between 1914 and 1917.

Some years after composing the sonata, Ives characterized this piece as an attempt to catch "old man Alcott's ... sonorous thought" as well as depict "the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott chilcren, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony." (Ives, Essays Before a Sonata).

Beginning with a sober, hymnlike phrase, the music is suddenly enveloped by a serene, droning chordal accompaniment. Above this gently pulsing chord floats a disembodied melody. The hymn melody (actually Charles Zeuner's Missionary Chant) returns in this next context. A faster version of the second melody sweeps the music along to a reiteration of the first four notes of the hymn tune which alarmingly recall the signature motto from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. A developmental passage follows playing up the grandiose power of the Beethoven commingled with the melody of the hymn generating a thunderous climax. As this drifts off in a warm version of the second melody, a dreamy bell-like version of the hymn returns.

A warm, flowing song material begins, almost evocative of a Scottish folksong, but actually made up of fragments of another hymntune dovetailed onto a minstrel show song. These fragments are forged into a four-square traditional song that gradually disintegrates with part of the second melody leading to a great climax (reminiscent of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier") and eventually subsiding with a final utterance of that melody.

In the Essays, Ives mentioned a "human-faith melody" which one writer claims is the sonata's prominent original theme, the second one that appeared in the work and the one which closed the movement. It may be more plausible to think that Ives' "human-faith melody" is somewhere beyond naming in this music, something deep beneath the sonic surface, perhaps even that "common sentiment" Ives described.

When a Queen and King who believed (as did the rest of the Spanish and Portugese aristocracy) that all good music comes from Italy, it should be no surprise that a Naples-born musician like Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) would end up in the court of Ferdinand VI and Maria Barbara. Scarlatti lived and worked on the Iberian peninsula from 1720 to his death in 17757. He moved to Madrid in 1729 and spent the remainder of his life there in the service of Queen Maria Barbara for whom he composed many of his 500 keyboard sonatas. Two ubiquitous features of Scarlatti's keyboard works include abrupt modulations and intonations of other instruments, everything from guitars, to trumpets and drums. The D major sonata (K. 49I/L. 164) integrates both these devices into the virtuoso fabric. A very simple imitative texture gives way to an effect suggesting the courtly trumpets and drums, pausing on the dominant. Without preparation, Scarlatti shifts to a seemingly distant key, but soon modulates back to the dominant for a passage of arpeggios and regal close. The second part parallels the first quite closely, but after its stop on the dominant, resumes on an even more distant key before returning to the tonic.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) had sentimental and hereditary ties to the Iberian peninsula. Ravel's mother was a Basque, descended from a people who are perhaps the oldest and proudest culture living on the northern neck of Iberia. Ravel's Parisian upbringing and his attachment to his mother merged in a fascination with Spanish culture. In Alborada del gracioso (Dawnsong of the Jester) from Miroirs, (1904-1905), Ravel evokes a pastoral, sunny dawn in Northern Spain. The alborada is an instrumental dawn song from Galicia, very near Basque country; the gracioso of the title invokes the image of the sly fool or jester of the Spanish theater's golden age.

Eager to paint an orchestral Spanish kaleidoscope with the piano, Ravel makes virtuoso demands of the pianist. The work opens with a rhythmic impulse that twirls up into a delicate melody. The character of the work hinges on the shift between the jocular rhythmic impule and the sweet meoldy--both aspects of the word gracioso. After the unplayable repeated-note episode, the theme returns but is interrupted with passages sounding like a solo singer incanting a soulful recitative. After the episode, an expressive melody sings against pulsing, impressionistic harmony with occasional interjections of spirited rhythm. An exquisite tracery erupts in the upper register of the keyboard, and the music alternates between this exhuberant expression, the incantation and little rhythmic puctuations. A version of the opening rhythmic impule appears and we hear the repeated notes again, this time with double glissandi! The marvelous opening melody returns, but is truncated by a bustling coda combining elements of the gracioso rhythm and the serious melody of the middle section, bringing this Spanish tocatta to a dazzling conclusion.

In the summer of 1835, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) followed his lover, the unhappily married Contesse Marie d'Agoult, to Switzerland. It was there among the "ramparts of granite, inaccesible mountains" that the lovers lived days unfettered by the scandal of their illicit affair. In this glorious landscape, Liszt commenced the Album d'un Voyageur, a collection of pieces inspired by the stories and lancscape of Switzerland. Liszt extensively reworked the collection between 1848 and 1853, publishing it in 1855 as the first of his Years of Pilgrimage. One piece, however, remained unaltered: the impressionistic Au lac de Wallenstadt. Perhaps it was the left hand of this composition that Marie d'Agout was referring to in her memoirs: "The shores of the lake of Wallenstadt kept us for a long time. Franz wrote there for me a melancholy harmony, imitative of the sigh of the waves and the cadence of oars."

The lake imparted a soothing serenity to the lovers, just as the expansive, open sonoroties and lulling rhythm of the piano composition give graceful haven to the simple melody. One of the most impressive qualities of the work is the left hand accompaniment. The root of the arpeggiated chord strikes off the main beat, giving a pleasantly disorienting sensation. The beauty of the melody is augmented in the reprise by virtuoso touches that almost suggest the impression of a clear but distant voice yodeling. Au lac is a masterpiece, a shimmering landscape of crystal clear sounds, free of discord and stress.

By titling his Op. 23 composition Ballade, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) evoked in his contemporaries thoughts of narrative poems or songs setting such poems. In fact, one of the early advertisements for the G minor Ballade indicates that it was "without words"! After Chopin's later Ballades were published, some reviewers were convinced that Chopin was inspired by the ballads of the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz. There are indications that the first theme of the piece harkens back to vocal ballads with their 6/8 meter, but it is more likely that Chopin wanted the title to allude to a poetic narrative.

While Op. 23 heralded the momentous birth of the piano ballade genre, it was not a break from tradition, but a synthesis of the expressive capacity of classic sonata structure with the flamboyant pianism of Chopin's day. Despite the popular image of Chopin as an intuitive improvisor, as a composer he was a meticulous craftsman. The G minor Ballade with its thematic relationships and a dramatic use of sonata structure contradict the myth of a composer depending blindly on instinct.
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Bracketed by tragic recitatives, the hybrid sonata movement unfolds restlessly, changing in tone from one moment to the next. Even the initial theme with its straightforward rhythm possesses an ambivalent quality in its phrasing. In later sections, Chopin returns to this material to generate uneasy tension. Unlike the typical thematic treatment of the sonata forms which serve as a structural background to the piece, Chopin's Ballade focuses on the lyrical and at times passionate second theme. In the section corresponding to a sonata development, a cathartic waltz erupts (not unlike Op. 34, No. 1), abruptly breaking the continuity. In mature Chopin, virtuoso pianism always serves a dramatic function. After the final statement of the opening theme (in a very symmetrical recapitulation), Chopin, with an almost unbearable frenzy, flies wildly to the fateful conclusion.

Notes by David Berg

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