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8.223377 - FUCHS: Piano Sonatas Op. 19 and Op. 88
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Robert Fuchs (1847- 1927) Piano Sonatas Opp

Robert Fuchs (1847-1927)

Piano Sonatas Opp. 19 and 88

 

The last years of the nineteenth century in Vienna were marked by the rivalry of Brahms and Bruckner. Even today these two giants overshadow many of their contemporaries, who, in other surroundings, might have seemed particularly outstanding, among them the composer and teacher Robert Fuchs.

 

Fuchs was born in 1847 at Frauenthal, in southern Styria, and learned at an early age to play the flute, violin, piano and organ. In 1865 he moved to Vienna to study composition at the Conservatory with Otto Dessoff, earning his living by teaching and from 1866 as organist at the Piarist Church. These difficult early years were marked by the failure in 1872 of a G minor symphony. The success of his Serenade No. 1 in 1874 had a decisive effect on his career. The following year he was appointed conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Society and Professor of Harmony at the Conservatory, retaining the latter position until 1911, subsequently with further classes in counterpoint and theory. His pupils there included Hugo Wolf, Mahler, Sibelius, Franz Schmidt, Schreker and Zemlinsky. From 1895 until 1905 he was organist of the Imperial Chapel, occupying an important position as a composer, and benefiting from the initial encouragement and friendship of Brahms, a musician known for the general severity of his critical judgement. It was Brahms who recommended Fuchs to the publisher Simrock and expressed a particular liking for the younger composer's First Symphony in C major, a work that earned its composer the Philharmonic Society Beethoven Prize in 1886. Brahms praised Fuchs as a splendid musician, a composer of music that was beautiful, skilful and attractive, the cause always of considerable pleasure, a verdict that could not but arouse the jealousy of Brahms's friends Ignaz Brüll or Herzogenberg, whose work never received commendation of this kind. Brahms did not live long enough to know the important chamber music of Fuchs and his Third Symphony.

 

A prolific composer, Fuchs wrote music of all kinds, with a particular leaning towards chamber music. Here he made significant contributions to the repertoire available to skilled amateur players. His Piano Quartet, Opus 75, the two Violin Sonatas, Opus 68 and 77 and the String Quartets, Opus 58 and 71, are at the forefront of a list of some forty compositions. He left three published symphonies, with two others unedited, five serenades, the fourth of which is comparable to the work in this genre of Brahms and of Dvorák, and an overture. Fuchs also excelled in the quintessential Viennese art of the Lied, where he was aprecursor of Wolf, whose harmonic schemes owe much to the older composer. Of his two operas the first, Die Königsbraut of 1889, met severe criticism from the famous critic Hanslick, while the second, Die Teufelsglocke of 1892, remains still unpublished.

 

The piano compositions of Robert Fuchs constitute a summary of his musical development. The influence of Schubert, for whom he had particular admiration, is evident in the freshness and simplicity of his melodic inspiration and in a tendency to triple rhythms, as in the waltz, Ländler and Allemande. He left several collections of waltzes, the Viennese Waltzes, Opus 42, and Waltzes, Opus 110, which justify comparison with Johann Strauss. This Schubertian inheritance is coupled with an impeccable mastery of counterpoint and of form, the foundation for an increasingly complex use of harmony, with a constant need for frequent modulation. His remark on a violin duo by Viotti that he was playing is revealing: "Very fine, but surely one of his early works: it does not modulate." In a later work such as the Third Sonata, here recorded, the elaborate harmony of Fuchs is expressed in aseries of remote and unexpected chords, suggesting the work of Gabriel Fauré. The influence of Brahms is evident on every page, parallel thirds and sixths, tonic and dominant pedal points, cross-rhythms, syncopation and contrapuntal techniques. With this combination of elements of post-romanticism and Schubertian lyricism, Fuchs appears in these three sonatas as an excellent musician whose attractive melodies and consummate technique are an essential element in the Viennese musical landscape at the end of the last century.

 

Earning the appreciation of Brahms, the First Sonata, Op. 19, of 1877 remains still thoroughly Schubertian. The opening Moderato starts with a theme that has the character of a fanfare. The second motif makes its first appearance in the minor, before moving to the major, followed by unexpected modulation in a generally less adventurous harmonic context. Later a complementary idea, in D, demonstrates the composer's love of tonic pedal-point, a tendency learned from Brahms. The Scherzo could be the work of Schubert, with its Ländler rhythm and its charming Trio in which Brahms imagined the appearance of a young swallow. The slow movement treats a classical subject of almost Mozartian character in a series of four variations of which the third, the most developed, sounds like a Schubert Impromptu. The final Rondo alternates its martial refrain with two episodes, one of a similar character with a tonic pedal, the other more distinct and contrapuntal, resembling a chorale. The minor tonality prevails in this piece up to the brilliant conclusion in rapid octaves.

 

The other two sonatas belong to the last period of Fuch's creative life, with a more sophisticated use of harmony and piano writing. They remain relatively modest in proportion and their structure shows an attachment to classical sonata form with a final rondo, an anachronism at the period of their composition. The Second Sonata was written about the year 1910. The first movement is near in feeling to the ballade, with its first subject announced by the two hands in unison, a long syncopated phrase in the minor, punctuated by chords, the conclusion of which resounds with the wild accents of Brahms. The second subject, in the key of B flat major, employs descending sixths, soft and accompanied by left-hand arpeggios. A third idea appears later, more rhythmic, whimsical and natïve in character, like a Schubert Impromptu, with all imitative and harmonic resources employed in the ensuing episodes. The unity of the movement is secured by the overlapping of thematic elements, leading to a pedal point and a reminiscence of the first subject. The Scherzo introduces a sullen theme, in a G minor marked by abrupt modal suggestions. The Trio, with its chromaticism and the inversion in the left hand of elements initially stated in the right hand, confirms this feeling of bleak greyness. The slow movement is the expressive climax of the sonata, combining the melodic innocence of Schubert with a harmonic subtlety inherited from Brahms. It is a Lied with a luminous melody in E flat major alternating with two stormy episodes and leading to a more peaceful conclusion. The Finale has a principal theme with the character of a toccata, with a calmer central section bringing strange modulations and reminiscences of the first movement. The pitiless hammering of the toccata soon resumes and leads to a dazzling conclusion.

 

Daniel Blumenthal

 

From prize-winning performances at the Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians Competition, the Geneva International Competition, the Busoni International Competition and the competitions in Leeds and in Sydney, the American pianist Daniel Blumenthal has continued with a career that has taken him to four continents as a soloist and recitalist, in the former capacity with major orchestras in Europe and America. His extensive recordings include both solo performances and chamber music.


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