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 lives in Melbourne Australia and aside from his musical interests, is a practising artist and barrister, and he will shortly publish his first novel concerning romance and art. He records on a 2001 Steinway Model D played on by many famous 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.
Franz Schubert lived from 1797 to 1828, and he composed a remarkable amount of music in his short life. The first book of Impromptus op 90 were composed in 1827 and are part of an extraordinary quantity of masterpieces written in the last two years of his life. The impromptus contain some of his finest piano music, and they represent a break from the dominance of the piano sonata in the work of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn as the vehicle for expressing musical ideas on the piano.
The first Impromptu in C Minor commences with a thunderous pair of octaves on the note of G that appears like a sudden strike of lightning out of surrounding darkness. The theme is laden with ominous feeling, and it is not until the 17th bar that the C Minor chord appears and established the key of the work. At bar 41 we hear a second theme, more flowing and lyrical. After a cheerful melody, the opening theme recurs, but this time it loses its slow march-like character and becomes darker and stormier in mood, ending in a series of declamatory chords which ascend the keyboard and form the intense peak of the work.
The Eb Major Impromptu op 90 No 2, marked Allegro, is memorable for the series of rapid scale based passages played by the right hand, suggestive of the sparkling flow of water down a waterfall. Although it commences with ebullient gayness, the cascading sforzando passages signal a darker, urgent, episode in the key of B Minor which is marked ben marcato. Here, Schubert's melody soars like an eagle before returning to the effervescent main theme. The Coda commences with the same subject as the darker middle section, but it becomes increasingly desperate and frantic, and Schubert has marked the passage 'accelerando'. The sforzando tumultuous scale runs of the last few bars, which are based on the scale runs leading to the middle section, are frightening in nature and startling in impact and, when the final chords sound in Bb Major and Eb Minor, it is as if everything in life has ended.
The third Impromptu in Gb Major is marked Andante, and is one of the most consistently lyrical pieces that Schubert ever wrote. If one looks for its analogue in the world of painting, Monet's Water Lilies immediately come to mind, with their broad swathes of blue punctuated by other colours which read as modulations of colour rather than graphic representations of water lilies. The effect is similar in this marvellous piece by Schubert, which was originally published in the key of G Major because his publishers feared it might be too difficult for his audience. Ian Barton Stewart plays the piece as originally written in the key of Gb Major.
The fourth impromptu in Ab Major also shows some affinity with water, with its downward theme in arpeggiated chords, punctuated by deliberate, firmly articulated chords. The theme begins in Ab Minor, and then moves through the key of B Minor, before it segues into Ab Major and the left hand begins a short melodic theme which has the character of a dialogue. After a longer falling passage that ends with a series of sforzando diminished chords, Schubert introduces the second subject in Ab Major, which is a lyrical duet between the left and right hands. The middle trio in the key of C# Minor commences with a brooding but passionate passage that eventually scales an emotionally exciting crescendo, before the work returns to the theme with which it commenced.
The second of the six Moments Musicaux begins with a chord-based questioning theme in Ab Major, which is repeated and developed until the middle section of the piece introduces a beautiful but melancholy song in F# Minor, showing Schubert at his most introspective and poetic. After a return to the main theme, the F# Minor theme is repeated, this time in thunderous, insistent chords that cry out to the listener almost in desperation, before the work subsides and draws to a close.
Brahms' First Ballade in D Minor is loosely based on an old Scottish ballad in which the young man Edward is asked why his sword is coated in the blood. His father has been murdered and he is suspected of the crime. At first, Edward avoids the stern questioning, but eventually he confesses his guilt. The tone of the work is eerie until a more agitated middle section, marked Allegro in D Major, which exploits the upper registers of the piano, and suggests a rapid dialogue perhaps suggesting Edward's repeated denial. A sequence of thunderous chords built on the deep bass notes of the piano signal the climax of the work, and perhaps indicate Edward's confession, or his mother's chastisement. The work then returns to the main theme and original tempo, but now the theme is transfigured and becomes like a series of mournful, brooding sobs. The majestic sweep and deep pathos of the work place it in the first rank of piano pieces. It is truly a dark, marvellous and powerful masterpiece.
Brahms' Capriccio in F# Minor Op 76 No 1 is marked un poco agitato - a little agitated - and its opening theme in ascending passages suggests waves of water, reminiscent of Keat's allusion to the magic casements opening on the foam in his Ode to a Nightingale. This passage ends in a thunderous fortissimo passage that crashes back down the keyboard, before a short two bar passage announces the second theme. With this middle theme we are transported to a distant world where the music makes us think of soaring in the sky, or perhaps lying down on freshly mown grass in summertime, looking up at the world spinning around us. Then the first theme returns, this time sounding more ominous as it appears in broken form, as if it is struggling to break free of something holding it down. In the coda to the work, a very expressive, lyrical transformation of the main theme occurs, suggests a happy conclusion to the tumult that has preceded it.
Brahms selected the sombre and desolate key of A Minor for his extraordinary Intermezzo in A Minor op 116 No 2. The work is marked Andante, and is ternary form, comprising slow first and third sections which surround an intriguing, almost mystical middle section marked Non troppo presto (or not too fast). No other composer could have compressed so much emotional power into such a short and simple form. On completion of the middle section we hear the first theme restated in the major tonic, where it is now projected more brightly than originally. After a series of stringendo chords, the theme is restated in the tonic minor and ends with a poignant sense of dying away.
The Intermezzo in E major op 116 No 6 is similar in structure to the A Minor Intermezzo. The texture of the opening section is thick and lush, suggesting a reversion to Brahms' earlier habit of writing thick, almost orchestral, chords. The middle section is a dreamy episode which sounds almost as if the composer is talking to us, so beautiful is its mournful theme. The main subject then returns briefly, before a note of resignation is sounded again in the coda.
The mood of the A Major Intermezzo op 118 No 2 is intimate and heartfelt, and this work is perhaps more lyrical than the two preceding works. The middle section commences in the relative minor key of F# Minor, and leads into a series of una corda (with the soft pedal) chords commencing in F# Major marked più lento (slower) by Brahms, in which the music becomes suffused with reflective feeling and slows almost to a halt, as suspended in time. We then hear the return of the first theme of the middle section, this time stated more passionately, before the opening theme begins to recur but is interrupted by rinforzando chords, after which the music meanders along to expressively and sweetly (dolce) to its conclusion.
The B Minor Intermezzo Op 119 No 1, one of Brahms' most intimate and profound masterpieces, has a theme consisting of the notes of chords that are allowed to fall down like sighs from heaven or, if a more Earthly metaphor is sought, like snow melting in the sunlight of spring. The middle section commences in the relative D major key leading to a passionate climx, after which the falling theme recurs, in layers stacked one upon the other like an image slowly but repeatedly reflected back and forth between two mirrors, before it is transformed into triplets that flow on until the coda.
The final work on this album is Brahms' Intermezzo in E Minor Op 119 No 2. It is a very beautiful, sad work and shows Brahms at the height of his reflective mastery. The quickly repeated broken chords of the introduction lead into an intimate section marked più p ('a little quieter'), which is loosely repeated towards the end of the first section of the work. The middle section begins in the brighter key of E Major, before the main theme is repeated. This time the second quieter section conveys a sense of looking back, perhaps nostalgically to some romantic love that Brahms experienced and which has left a deep and everlasting heartache inside him. Whatever be the case, this is surely timeless and inspiring music.
The cover art for this album is taken from Ian Barton Stewart's oil painting titled Reflections. You can view this painting in full on Ian Barton Stewart's website.