Alexander Soares: Threnedies = BRIDGE: Piano Sonata; BRITTEN: Variations for Piano; BERG: Piano Sonata; RAVEL: Miroirs – Alexander Soares, piano – Rubicon Classics RCD 1068 (74:45 (6/25/21) [www.rubiconclassics.com] ****:
Pianist Alexander Soares provides the rubric for this personalized album of lamentations:
“The program of this album seeks to illuminate the position of Bridge’s monumental Piano Sonata, by setting it alongside works by the composers who influenced it – Berg and Ravel – and his most famous pupil, Britten. Both the sonata and each movement of Ravel’s suite were dedicated to those who fell in the war. Whilst the repertoire on this disc conveys strikingly varied tones, the title, threnodies – a song of lamentation – reflects the essence of these memorials.”
Soares places the Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Piano Sonata of 1924 as a fulcrum between late European Romanticism and early Continental Modernism. But the grim fact of World War I reigns as the prime motive in the expression of emotions that, like those in Robert Graves memoir, say “Goodbye to All That,” in effect acknowledging the end of a placid way of life. In three movements, the Bridge Sonata opens with bell sounds that soon evolve into a storm of protest, Allegro energico, as, in march form, dark harmonies merge with rhapsodic reminiscence. The syntax of the first movement, influenced by Debussy and Berg, displays energies cross-fertilized by Scriabin’s seeking of the light amidst the chaos. In spite of a decidedly lyrical impulse, the coda reverts to the punishing tenor of the early chromatics, pained and restless, and we recall that the dedicatee of this work, composer Ernest Farrar, had been a fallen hero.
The second movement, Andante ben moderato, opens with the angular haze we associate with Scriabin, lyrical, parlando but with ominous bass harmonies. Little kernels of high register light and strumming relieve the tensions of movement one, but their very tenuousness and sheer fabric seem entirely too vulnerable to the darkness. Is the late Brahms of Op. 119/1 the model here? The infusion of sound clusters juxtaposed with arpeggios extends to the coda, meditative but frustrated in its melodic progress. The last movement, marked Lento – Allegro ma non troppo, begins with menace, a turbulent assault in dramatic, even martial, colors. A brief ostinato impulse leads to brilliant scalar patterns and octave chords. The melody, as such, seems stifled by cluttered harmonies, trills, and percussion. Muddy gauze ensues, Debussy but clouded by weird bells and muttering bass harmonies. The martial impulse dominates, resolute but staggered in expression, virtually tottering in its own gravity. A quietude reluctantly descends upon the whole, but it too has a bitter tenor. If ever a piece of piano music echoed with thoughts from war-poet Wilfred Owen, this sonata does.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1970) stands as Bridge’s most illustrious student. For the 1967 Leeds International Piano Competition, Britten penned the incomplete Variations for Piano, which Colin Matthews completed with eight bars to conclude the sixth and final variation of the proposed ten. Intended to be played “like an improvisation,” the piece exploits color clusters and juxtaposed timbres in various dynamics, often light and transparent. Late in the piece, a brief toccata quality assumes control to lead to the coda.
Alban Berg’s single Piano Sonata (in B Minor), Op .1 presumably came into being between 1904-1908, during his last tutorials with Arnold Schoenberg. Set as a series of chromatic gestures in sonata form, the one movement possesses an exposition, development, and recapitulation in conformity with Schoenberg’s dictates on “progressive variation.” Soares captures the late Romantic, post-Brahmsian tenor of the work, its nervous and contrapuntal evolution’s rippling in Wagnerian, even luminous, chromatics that no longer obey strict tradition.
Maurice Ravel pays homage to fallen heroes in his six-movement suite of epitaphs, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1918), a series of archaic forms that look back to a more innocent sensibility. The technique requisite to this suite looks to Franz Liszt, especially in the concluding Toccata, dedicated to the French musicologist Joseph de Marliave. The opening Prelude, as performed in Soares’ pearly play, belies its demand for a light, moto perpetuo based on a six-note motive. The ensuing, wistful Fugue in E Minor exists as Ravel’s only such published example in the form. The relatively expansive 6/8 Forlane, a form derived from Mediterranean gondoliers, also proceeds in E Minor, and its easy gallop points directly to the namesake for the work as a whole, Francois Couperin. Ravel employs the bright key of C Major for the Rigaudon, a hearty French dance in folk idiom. Soares’ Steinway D makes its resonance felt with a rustic bluster. The Menuet carries a gentle sensibility in G Major, a salon grace that the First World War had made impossible to recover. This charming, music-box piece has a dedication to Jean Dreyfus, who made his home available to a recovering Ravel after he had been demobilized. The concluding Toccata, 2/4, in E Minor, comes close to synthesizing aspects of both Liszt and Debussy. Ravel gave open credit to Saint-Saens as a model of acrobatic virtuosity, but this piece transcends credit to others. It moves in its last pages into E Major, but whether its potent, insistent figures convey triumph or a Pyrrhic victory remains a matter of perception.