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.
Domenico Scarlatti (1685- 1757) was an Italian composer who wrote some 555 piano sonatas, although he did not call them by that title. In any event, Scarlatti in these works contributed greatly to modern keyboard technique, and even influenced the piano writing of Franz Liszt. Of these sonatas, the one in E Major included on this album is perhaps the best known. It is a work that radiates sunny joy and happiness at being alive, like the budding of flowers in Springtime, although a melancholy undertone suggests that such happiness, like the seasons, and like life, is of finite duration. Scarlatti was born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach. Their styles are very different, with Scarlatti's keyboard texture being decidedly leaner and less ornamental than that of JS Bach. Of course, the piano had not been invented at the time either composer wrote; accordingly, as Ralph Kirkpatrick has noted, the performance of their works on the modern pianoforte must be regarded as a transcription. However, it is quite possible that both JS Bach and Scarlatti would have preferred the greater sonority which the modern piano offers compared to the harpsichord or clavichord.
Frédéric Chopin (1810- 1849) wrote his dreamy nocturne in Db Major as a companion to that in C# Minor which forms the first work in his opus 27. James Huneker describes the Db Major Nocturne as 'a song of the sweet summer of two souls, for there is obvious meaning in the duality of voices.' It is perhaps a love duet. Musically, the soothing, halcyon main theme moves into a more anguished and tempestuous territory, represented by increasingly agitated figuration suggestive of a dialogue, before the coda sees a reconciliation of the two themes. This nocturne is one of Chopin's masterpieces and, despite the relatively consistent harmonic structure, it beguiles the listener with its moving theme, increasingly complex ornamentation, and a beautiful coda.
Chopin's Nocturne in C Minor op 48 no 1 is arguably the greatest of the nocturnes. The theme of this nocturne is so perfect that a more beautiful melody could scarcely be imagined, and James Huneker is right in calling this the noblest nocturne of them all. The direction to play at double speed in the middle section should be treated flexibly, as a literal interpretation would undo the consummate artistic fabric and flow of the work. I believe that direction to be in error, and Chopin's intention is better expressed as a resumption of the opening tempo, only a little more agitated. The passionate climax in which the opening theme is accompanied by densely written and increasingly agitated chords in the left hand - analogous to an organ pedal note - is overwhelming. The depth of feeling that Chopin expresses in this work is found in few works, notably the middle section of the third movement of the B Minor sonata op 58, a recording of which sonata will be released in 2013 by Ian Barton Stewart.
The F# Minor Nocturne op 48 No 2 transports us into a dream world, in which Chopin's imagination is set completely free to fly where it chooses, unconstrained by notions of form or classical doctrine. The opening bars are an invitation to enter into this carefree state, and the melody is ravishingly insistent - a reminder that great artists perhaps become obsessed with an object of their desire. After a middle section which resembles a courtly dance or minuet, the main theme returns; however, in the coda it is transformed into an ethereal haunting beauty, suggesting that the world as we know it is peeled away to reveal a world whose beautiful melancholy is poetry in music.
The posthumously published Nocturne op 72 No 1, is very much a night piece and, whilst not of the same calibre as the greatest nocturnes, is a perfect example of Chopin's mournful mood, where the music hovers between sadness and objectivity. It is justifiably a favourite of music lovers.
Chopin's F Minor Ballade op 52 is the greatest of the four ballades, and it may have been inspired by his compatriot Mickiewicz's Lithuanian poems, as Chopin confessed to Robert Schumann. Beyond that, however, it is difficult to read into it any programmatic content, although various people have tried to do so, for Chopin left no clue. That Chopin was inspired by poetry is hardly surprising - Leonardo da Vinci was inspired by cracks in walls, and wrote that one could see a whole universe in them. The ballades expose the absurdity of suggestions that Chopin is a 'minor master' who could not handle the larger forms. No, Chopin is unquestionably one of the very few great composers for the piano - without peer for sheer musical poetry - and it is a pointless exercise to say that he wrote no symphonies, or that his output was small in comparison to Beethoven. In truth, he had no great interest in writing for other instruments, although his piano concertos are unique in their writing for the piano. Great artists find the appropriate vehicles in which to express themselves, and Chopin had no need or desire to write symphonies. I agree with Huneker that this last Ballade is 'Chopin at the supreme summit of his art.' The demands made upon the performer towards the end of this ballade mean that it is also one of Chopin's most taxing virtuoso works. The wild, frenzied coda, that appears after a series of sustained chords, is like a storm after a calm sunrise, becoming more and more agitated until two torrential runs in the right hand cry out in desperation before the final chords silence the turmoil. This final ballade is set on a grand canvas and it is filled with poetic invention that secures it as one of the masterpieces of the piano.
Erik Satie was born in 1866 in France to a French ship-broking father (who later became a music publisher) and Scottish mother who originally lived in London. He was expelled from the Paris Conservatoire of music and tried his hand at various jobs including as a cabaret pianist, before later returning to music studies. He was greatly admired by Debussy and Ravel, but he never found much favour with the conservatoire authorities. His Trois Gymnopédie were published in 1888. Together with the Trois Gnossiennes of 1890, they are slow, almost courtly pieces, and one can imagine that they were inspired by ancient cult dances. They suggest a return to classical antiquity in their languorous, sphinx- like sonority. In them the harmonies are almost static, but that is deliberately so, as Satie wished to avoid musical pretension. There is a suggestion of a slow march in these works, and it is possible that Satie wrote them for a Funeral Procession. If that be the case, they are of a very different character to the great funeral march music of Beethoven, Chopin or Wagner, and there is a curious detachment in them which yet speaks to us down the ages. They are truly timeless and intriguing works.
The final work on this album is Satie's mysterious Gnossienne no 4, with its distinctly ancient harmonic overtones. It is possible that Satie was inspired by the Cretan kingdom of Knossos, but that remains a matter of speculation. Whatever be the case, this work captivates us by its enigmatic and elusive quality. Satie chose to clothe his ideas in relatively simple forms, but he was a great master who speaks to us through the interest of his melodic and harmonic language, and his ability to write music that instantly relaxes us and removes us from the incessant chatter of this world. This work was first published with the second set of Gnossienne in 1968, well after Satie's death. Listen to the mystery that unfolds in Satie's simple but highly entrancing piano writing: it is like nothing written before or since and completely eschews all pretension or adherence to classical form. It ends as mysteriously as it began, and it is music that is timeless, as if it captures a glance of a mythological figure walking along Arcadian fields who disappears as suddenly as the ending of a dream.