Ian Barton Stewart is a Fellow of Trinity College London. He obtained his Fellowship in Piano Performance playing Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata and Scriabin's Black Mass Sonata. He is based in Melbourne Australia and aside from his musical interests, is a practising artist, barrister, and he will shortly publish his first novel concerning romance and art. He plays on a 2001 Steinway Model D played on by many concert pianists at the Vienna Musikverein. His repertoire includes JS Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's sonatas on this disc as well as the Appassionata Sonata op 57 and the last three piano sonatas, op 109, 110 and 111; Chopin's two mature piano sonatas, nocturnes, preludes and waltzes, Schumann's Symphonic Etudes and Fantasy in C major op 17, Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Dante Sonata, as well as numerous works by Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and various other composers. Further recordings made by him of these works will be released throughout 2013.
Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata was written in 1804 and ever since its publication it has been one of the most highly regarded pianoforte sonatas. It is a demanding work, from both a technical and interpretative point of view, and aside from the consistently difficult technical level of the work which demands nimble fingers, contains exceptional difficulties towards the end of the third movement, including octave glissandi played by both hands, and a melody floating over continuous trills for the right hand. However, one is less conscious of its virtuosity than, say, Liszt's B Minor Sonata, of 1852, but both works are justifiably amongst the pinnacles of the pianoforte literature. The Waldstein Sonata combines wonderful pianism, exciting melodic passages and harmonies, and an abiding sense of the strength of the human spirit and its acceptance of challenge, to produce an extremely satisfying work for the performer and listener.
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata commences with a meditative, reflective adagio, one of the most inspiring and atmospheric works in the piano literature. It is, perhaps, not as highly esteemed as it ought to be, because it is a victim of its own popularity, and consequently is the subject of many unremarkable performances. However, there is a reason why the Moonlight is so popular, and the enduring popularity of a work of art is in no way a negative, but a strength of the work, indicating that it speaks to a large section of the population. The first movement is in mood the musical analogue of Caspar David Friedrich's Monk Before the Sea, and is suggestive of aspects of the universe which are hinted at, and perhaps perceived by us, but not seen. Listen carefully and you will realise what a magnificent, timeless and unique creation Beethoven has produced. This slow and remarkable movement is followed by a short interlude like as a bridge between Heaven and Earth, or the calm before the storm. The final movement, a fiery presto, seethes with remarkable energy, vitality, and virtuosity. Although its character is a world away from the first movement, being vibrant and dramatic in contrast to the introspective nature of the first movement, it nevertheless retains a similar quality.
Brahms Rhapsody in G Minor op 79 no 2 is an example of the tempestuous Brahms, written in the period before his output became considerably more spiritual and subdued in perspective (though not in musicality) in his late works for the piano. The Rhapsody commences with a bold and adventurous theme and is loosely based on sonata form, and leads to a dramatic climax which is almost orchestral in its sonority. Whilst not programatic, the Rhapsody reminds us of Homer in the heroic way in which it launches into a storm, like Odysseus and his men navigating the Siren-populated waters. The work is infused with an unrelenting sense of adventure, and the final climax is extremely immediate and effective - it is an ending which simply cannot be ignored.
Brahms' Eb Minor Intermezzo op 118 No 6 is one of his most profound late masterpieces. The work expresses a deep grief, and it is significant that Brahms based the melody on the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass. The intermezzo is in ternary form, and the middle section commences with a slightly brighter, more optimistic passage based on chords of Gb major and Db major and then wandering through remote harmonies of F major and C major, before Brahms takes us to an overwhelming (and technically very demanding) outpouring of emotion that is scarcely rivalled by anything else in music. The last section of the work is of a serene, heavenly character, with the Dies Irae theme struggling to be heard, like a murmur, before being restated tenderly and eventually being transfigured into a higher plane that seems to speak to us from afar, with an inner glow of reassurance. However, the work ends on an arpeggiated Eb Minor chord, which is like a summing up of all the emotion that Brahms has captured in this masterpiece, beginning in the lower register of the piano on Eb and building to a long, sustained chord that, in its slow decay, speaks of the finality of life.
Debussy's Prelude, The Girl With The Flaxen Hair is one of his most endearing works, and is perhaps, of all the Preludes in Book One, the most diatonic in harmony, avoiding for example the whole tone harmony of Voiles, or the modal character of The Sunken Cathedral. The tone throughout the work is that of joy and, if one accepts that Debussy entitled the work as he did with a programmatic reason, the joy is likely to be that experienced when in the presence of the girl.
Reflections In the Water, the first work in Debussy's Images, is amongst his finest works written for the piano. Debussy, along with Ravel, was a master of Impressionism, and one can well imagine the reflections in the water evoked by this work. In painterly terms, the work reminds me of Claude Monet's Water Lilies at the L'Orangerie in Paris, where Monet's huge sprawling water lilies register on the senses as modulations of colour and recall Mark Rothko's remark that in a large painting we feel that we are 'in' the painting rather than before it. Debussy, of course, has the dimension of time to play with in this work, and the opening, serene, and rather static page gives way to a series of figurative passages which, if they resemble water, are to be perceived as a waterfall. However, the figuration is like a series of stars coruscating in the sky, leading to the first climax of the work, where the gentle mood of the work is shattered by a series of dramatic chords. Then the opening theme is restated in broken arpeggios which become more and more agitated as they lead to the main climax of the work, sounded by insistent arpeggiated figures leading to full blown, mighty chords. After this, Debussy employs passages using the whole tone scale to slow the pace and timbre of the work, and the work assumes a distant, meditative character before concluding with a dreamy serenity that harks back to the spirit with which it began.
Maurice Ravel's Pavane For A Dead Princess was published in 1900 and is a very beautiful, sad work, also known by its orchestral version. The Pavane does not commemorate a particular princess, and the title arose out of Ravel's admiration for Spanish culture. Although it is said that Ravel simply liked the title, and did not write the music to reflect it, the music is achingly beautiful and evocative. The opening theme appears in three main iterations, broken by a searching second theme that is marked 'very distant'. The first time the theme is stated, it is in rather simple figuration. After the contrasting subject, marked trés lontain, the main theme is restated in a very open and beautiful iteration employing broken chords in the left hand. Then the tempo broadens a little before another theme, like a question, emerges out of the rich harmonic fabric, concluding in very effectively written chords marked trés grave. Finally, the song-like theme is stated in the right hand accompanied by a series of semiquavers and seems to float in the air or shimmer before us, before Ravel ends the work with a swathe of broad, satisfying chords.
Gaspard De La Nuit is a set of three poems for the piano written by Ravel in 1908 and has three movements based on a a poem by Aloysius Bertrand. Ondine is the first of these and tells the tale of a water fairy's sad and tender song, sung to seduce a watcher. It begins with a haunting melody, Ondine's song beckoning the watcher to visit her kingdom deep beneath the waves. The song is repeated several times, each time with increasingly complex figuration, and we get the sense that song is working its intended seduction on the listener. Several pages into the work the theme changes and becomes a dialogue between the two characters, before Ondine becomes more insistent in her demand that the watcher become her lover in her kingdom. The drama is expressed by Ravel in a technically demanding passage where the right hand plays a series of descending double thirds in the right hand over a theme suggestive of Ondine's urgent demands in the left. This is repeated several times as the tension builds, until the pair join each other in the climax, marked by Ravel with the direction Un peu plus lent (a little more slowly), becoming entwined in a passionate musical embrace of incredible sonority that is one of the great dramatic musical achievements and one of the hardest passages in the pianoforte literature. After this, the ecstasy and the music subsides and becomes languorous, although it still flows, and Ravel, in a passage marked a little slower than the beginning, evokes the gentile waves washing over the pair. But, in the poem, Ondine beseeches the man to accept her ring on his finger and be her husband, visit her palace and be king of the lakes. However, when the man replies that he loves a mortal, Ondine wept some tears and uttered a burst of laughter and vanished in a shower that streamed white. Musically, the passion dissolves in a questioning melody marked Trés lent, in which Ondine poses the question, and upon the man's answer that he cannot be king, we hear a rapid and brilliant arpeggiated passage evoking her burst of laughter and disappearance, as she returns to the waters of her domain, which waters return to their serene state at the beginning of the work.