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Popular Piano Pieces Vol. 10

The present collection of popular piano pieces embraces music from Mozart and Beethoven to Rakhmaninov. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, famous as an infant prodigy, was to depend during the last ten years of his life in good part on his ability as a pianist. The famous A major Piano Sonata, with its third movement Turkish March, was probably written in 1783 and was certainly published in the following year. In 1781 Mozart had quarrelled with the Archbishop of Salzburg, his own and his father's employer, and had settled in Vienna. There, in 1782, he had won success with his Turkish opera The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and had married without waiting for his father's permission. In the summer of 1783 the couple returned to stay in Salzburg for three months and it is possible that Mozart wrote his A major Sonata then, for the use of his sister Nannerl. The Turkish element is, of course, purely according to contemporary Viennese convention, imitating the supposed repeated harmonies and percussive effects attributed to the Janissary band.

The B minor Adagio, K. 540, bears the date 19th March 1788. The circumstances of its composition are unknown, although it seems to have been one of the pieces that Mozart sent to his sister in August of the same year.

Beethoven wrote his G major Rondo a capriccio a few years later, or rather began to write it. After an earlier abortive attempt to study with Mozart, interrupted by the illness and death of his mother, he finally settled in Vienna in 1792, winning himself an early reputation as a remarkable pianist. The Rondo was sketched in 1795 but never completed. Its popular title and completion were probably the work of Anton Schindler, the composer's self-appointed Boswell.

Mozart's wife Constanze was one of the daughters of the Mannheim singer, violinist and copyist Fridolin Weber. The Weber family achieved greater musical distinction through his nephew, Carl Maria, who survived a curiously disorganised and irregular childhood to become the creator of romantic German opera with Der Freischütz and a significant figure in the development of the art of orchestral conducting. Weber was a gifted pianist. The first of his four piano sonatas was written in 1812, to the delight of his friends in Berlin, who, according to a flattering contemporary account, must have impeded his playing, as they gathered round him, putting their arms round his shoulders, as he played on far into the night.

Mendelssohn has been regarded as one of the most classical of the romantics. Born in 1809, the son of a banker and grandson of the Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, model for Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, he showed precocity as a child, his abilities fostered by the cultured society that his family kept. The notion of writing songs without Words, a paradoxical idea, was original, but suited well enough popular demand for short and attractive piano pieces that others might market as album-leaves or under any other apt title. The D major Song Without Words, Opus 85, No.4, sometimes bears the title Elegy. It was written in 1845, two years before the composer’s death.

Great composers are instantly recognisable from their musical language. Chopin created for his instrument the piano a characteristically poetic idiom of the greatest delicacy, coupled with brilliance and startling harmonic invention. His Grande Valse in A flat, one of those compositions that elevated the music of the ball-room to the more refined atmosphere of the private salon, was written in 1840, its opening trill introducing a work of typically contrasted rhythms.

Camille Saint-Saëns was a composer who outlived his reputation. A progressive figure in his earlier career, by the time of his death in 1921 he represented a thoroughly conservative tradition in the world of Stravinsky and Les Six, his six young compatriots in Paris. Saint-Saëns was talented and versatile, turning his hand to all kinds of composition, and earning an early reputation as the French Mendelssohn. His popular Danse macabre was written in 1874 and transcribed by Liszt two years later. This Dance of Death is very different from Liszt's own sombre orchestral treatment of the subject.

The greatest of Norwegian composers, Edvard Grieg, coupled a mastery of colourful harmonies with inspiration that was essentially national. Throughout his life he continued to compose short pieces under the title Lyrische Stücke and Evening in the Mountains is taken from the ninth of these collections, written in 1898, the year in which he presided over the first Norwegian Music Festival, recognition of his considerable achievement.

If Saint-Saëns had a debt to Mendelssohn, at least in form and sometimes in texture, Debussy had a much clearer and acknowledged debt to Chopin. This is perceptible in harmonic experiment, but still more apparent in his delicate control of piano nuances in his writing for an instrument with which he at one time had hoped to make a professional career. L'isle joyeùse, written in 1904, draws inspiration from Watteau's L'embarquement pour Cythère and the world of the fête galante he had so recently celebrated in settings of poems by Verlaine.

The name of Tchaikovsky is more readily associated with the world of ballet and of the orchestra. In common with many of his contemporaries he wrote a number of piano pieces, many of them designed for a ready market among Russian amateurs and therefore more immediately profitable than works on a larger scale. His famous Chanson triste in G minor, Opus 40 No.2, was written in early 1878 as one of a set of twelve pieces of moderate difficulty, completed at his brother-in-law's estate in the Ukraine, where he returned, after a stay of some months abroad during which he began to recover from the effects of his disastrous and ill-considered marriage of the previous summer.

In 1878 Tchaikovsky resigned his position at Moscow Conservatory where Sergey Rakhmaninov was to become a student seven years later. Rakhmaninov distinguished himself both as a composer and as a pianist and had established himself also as a conductor before the disruption of war and the revolution of 1917. The rest of his life he spent abroad, relying to a considerable extent on his formidable gifts as a performer. His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written in 1934, makes use of the demon violinist's 24th Caprice, coupled with the idée fixe of the Dies Irae from the Latin Requiem Mass. The lyrical 18th Variation of the theme is one of triumphant love in the programme devised, with the composer's assent, for Fokin's choreographic treatment of the score.

Peter Nagy
Peter Nagy was born in Eastern Hungary in 1960 and is among the leading pianists of the younger generation in his native country. He entered the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest at the age of 15, after winning various prizes at home and abroad, making his first professional international appearances in Finland and in Yugoslavia in 1977, followed by concerts at the Salzburg Interforum in 1978 in a duo with his compatriot Balazs Szokolay. In the same year he toured the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union and in 1979 made his debut in France at the Menton Festival. There followed concerts in West Germany, Switzerland. and the United States of America, where he took further lessons from Gyorgy Sebök at Indiana University. Nagy has played in Japan with various orchestras, was in 1987 Artist-in-Residence at the Canberra School of Music in Australia, and has taken part in the festivals of Aix-en-Provence, Athens, Llandaff, Cardiff, Paris, Bonn, Cologne, Geneva, Moscow and Leningrad. He is at present soloist with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and a member of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy in Budapest.

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