On Monday 22 August, pianist Yeol Eum Son takes to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage to perform works by Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Franck and more as part of Melbourne Recital Centre's Great Performers series. Explore the program in this excerpt from the official program notes, written by Phillip Sametz.
Yeol Eum Son’s graceful and timeless interpretations, crystalline touch and versatile, thrilling performances have caught the attention of audiences worldwide. She is highly regarded as a brilliant virtuoso whose playing has a rare balance between enormous kinetic energy and substantial gravity.
When you hear the term ‘Theme and Variations’ it may suggest something as monumental as Bach’s Goldberg Variations or something as playful as Mozart’s Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Like those works, Yeol Eum Son’s program demonstrates the seemingly infinite possibilities of the form, and how it has become a vessel for composers to create some of their most compelling work. ‘Theme and Variations’ is an astonishingly durable idea. The program begins with a set of double variations, created as Europe was in revolutionary turmoil in the 1790s, and you end five years before the Berlin Wall crumbled, with a work that sounds like improvised jazz.
Why double? Although the Andante you hear at the beginning of Haydn’s Variations are in F minor, its second subject is in the major, and Haydn proceeds to cast his spell over both themes. Trills, ornamental scale passages and syncopations abound in a work full of deep feeling. In the months before composing this work, Haydn had returned to Vienna from his first London visit, to find that his beloved Mozart was no more. Not long after that his close friend Maria Anna von Genzinger died aged only 42. Although his correspondence with her is platonic in tone, he apparently held deep feelings for her, and may have composed this F minor work as a memorial. And as an international traveller, he can’t have been insensitive to the political storm sweeping through Europe. This is not the Haydn of the Surprise or Miracle symphonies (premiered in 1791), but a more wistful, inward-looking figure. And as Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon observed, its demands leave the world of the harpsichord behind; its status as a fully pianistic work makes it especially apt as the first work in this program.
Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated sets of theme and variations are orchestral: those which conclude his second symphony and third orchestral suite. The Op.19 set is gentler and more playful than those, and forms the self-contained finale of a set of Six Pieces, which he composed in 1873 (just after his symphonic poem The Tempest). Like a closed flower, the gentle, unassuming theme opens its petals slowly but delightfully over the course of 12 variations and a boisterous coda. There is a touching, lyrical – almost vocal – quality to the Fifth variation, an ecclesiastical one to the chorale of the Seventh, a graceful nod to Chopin in the mazurka of the Ninth (which has a little cadenza), and a tribute to the Schumann of Carnaval and the Symphonic Studies in the 11th, which is even marked ‘alla Schumann.’
The mental journey from the coda of Tchaikovsky’s variations to the opening of Arvo Pärt’s is vast. Pärt composed this short, seemingly simple work in 1977 for his daughter Ariina, who was recovering from surgery; yet the surface simplicity is deceptive. As with so many of Pärt’s works written in his tintinnabuli style, it’s constructed with the greatest care and precision. The theme is a simple, unhurried rising and falling pattern. The first three of the six variations are in A minor, the second three in A major. These two-voiced variations (which might be regarded as 20th century relatives of Bach’s Two-part Inventions) create their atmosphere of meditative consolation by way of carefully calibrated pedalling instructions, and pacing which emphasises resonating overtones.
‘Everything about Charles-Valentin Alkan is strange,’ wrote pianist Raymond Lewenthal, one of the prime movers in the Alkan revival, when the world was re-discovering the composer’s music in the 1960s. Since then, although Alkan scholarship has become richer and deeper, and his music far more widely played and recorded, the startling strangeness of the music by this reclusive 19th century virtuoso has not diminished. Le festin d’Ésope (Aesop’s Feast) is the last of a monumental set of 12 studies in all the minor keys. (How monumental? A complete performance would last just over two hours.) The title may refer to an apocryphal tale in which Aesop, legendary storyteller, was tasked by his master to create two feasts, one in which only the best food was served, and one which was to feature only the worst. For both feasts Aesop served tongue, to prove that the word was capable of greatness and wickedness. Then again, the jaunty, slightly Hasidic-sounding theme is subject to 25 variations and a coda which appear to include references to Aesop’s many animal fables; the leonine march of variations Five and Six; Variation 13, which is so sprightly as to suggest a kangaroo (or even a rabbit); Variations 14 and 15, where we appear to be at an increasingly energetic hunt; and the particularly wild Variation 22, marked abbajante (barking). Alkan maintains a spirit of unpredictability until the very end, when the grandiose coda ends more quirkily than you might expect.
Franck created his most enduringly popular works – including the Violin Sonata, the Symphony and the Symphonic Variations – in the last decade of his life. He had spent most of his career as an organist and teacher, and was regarded by many of his colleagues at the Paris Conservatoire as either incompetent or presumptuous, yet he was idolised by the circle of pupils he gathered round him. These included Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Vincent d’Indy, the last of whom was to become Franck’s principal propagandist after his death. Franck’s original version of the Prelude, Fugue and Variation was a duet for piano and harmonium; a few years later, in 1868, he adapted it as an organ solo. The transcription you'll hear Yeol Eum Son play was made by pianist Harold Bauer in 1910. Franck delineates the three sections clearly: the Prelude, with its gentle repetitions of a five-bar phrase, the Fugue, with its own prelude, and the Variation, in which flowing semiquavers decorate the theme with an almost vocal beauty.
Program note excerpt by Phillip Sametz.