Rameau, Scriabin, Beethoven: Who Provided the Contrast? Juho Pohjonen, pianist, at Tannery Pond

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Juho Pohjonen, Pianist
Juho Puhjonen, Pianist


Juho Pohjonen, pianist
Tannery Pond Concerts, July 27, 2019

Rameau, Suites in A and in G (1729/1760)
Scriabin, Sonata no. 10 (1913)
Beethoven, Sonata no. 28 in A, op. 101 (1817)

Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau was a progressive maverick in the France of Louis XV. This was a profoundly conservative culture whose musical god, Jean-Baptiste Lully, died in 1687, when Rameau was four years old, but who was still worshipped as the fount of officially approved musical culture up to the time of the French Revolution. Rameau’s keyboard music broke boldly away from the delicate, almost precious traditions of the French claveçinistes, most notably François Couperin. It wasn’t until around the time of the latter’s death in 1733 that Rameau began to achieve recognition, both as a keyboard composer and a creator of operas. Meanwhile, keyboard idioms were being broken wide open by Domenico Scarlatti along with his Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese contemporaries, who may have intended their works for the newly developed fortepiano as well as for the harpsichord. Scarlatti was wildly inventive, incorporating flamenco guitar idioms, folk dance influences, and virtuoso flamboyance into his 500 plus keyboard pieces. Rameau progressed more gradually; his first keyboard collection, published when he was 23, closely followed the traditional model. It was to be eighteen years before his second collection, which incorporated pieces that imitated nature, like “Le rappel des oiseaux” (The Call of the Birds) and “Les tourbillons” (The Whirlwinds) and introduced other varied styles sometimes requiring new forms of virtuosity and expressivity. This trend continued in the two suites that Pohjonen presented as the first half of his program. They were published in 1729 and were revised close to the end of the composer’s life, in 1760. 

The inclusion of one complete suite of harpsichord pieces on a piano recital is a novelty; including two complete suites is a way of making a statement. Juxtaposed with Scriabin, it becomes a challenge to the audience. Combined with late Beethoven, it evolves into a way of re-thinking the history of keyboard music. Pohjonen’s interpretations found much in common between Rameau and Scriabin; in his introductory remarks, he described the three composers on the program as innovators, and he tilted the playing field by applying many of the interpretive approaches to Rameau as he was to use in Scriabin. Unlike pianists who seek to imitate the harpsichord (most notoriously, Glenn Gould, but also to some extent Andras Schiff), Pohjonen used not only the piano’s full tonal and dynamic resources in his Rameau, he also applied a very flexible type of rhetoric which meant variable tempos when appropriate. Subtle variety of rhythm is essential to good harpsichord playing, but Pohjonen took a more romantic approach to tempo variation, especially in the slower pieces. Although this almost obscured some structural outlines, these pieces have predictable forms that remained discernible; the variable pacing proved very effective, rendered with sensitivity and tonal elegance, a style of playing exemplifying the term “poetic.” Even the virtuoso pieces like “Les trois mains” (the three hands) or “La poule” (the hen) were delivered with nuance and intimate character rather than serving as extroverted vehicles for demonstrating finger dexterity, although that was also present in abundance.

Following Rameau with Scriabin’s last sonata from 1913 was effective, and also made an interesting point. French claveçin music is filled with delicate ornaments called agréments which add sparkle and accentuation in a light, almost magical way. Scriabin’s final sonata, it turns out, achieves similar results with similar means: it too is filled with fluttering trills that suggest a musical substance that is weightless and airborne. As described by the composer in his typically mystical vein: “My Tenth Sonata is a sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun […] they are the kisses of the sun.” Scriabin’s late music has been described as “atonal”, but in fact it makes much use of the octotonic scale, which fleetingly suggests various tonal centers. This sonata’s formal architecture is kept beneath the surface only to gradually emerge with the sonata-like recurrence of its themes, especially the meditative opening. The music maintains an improvisatory quality; as in the Rameau, Pohjonen’s approach balanced spontaneous character with formal architecture, matching his approach to Rameau in surprising ways.1 

The great contrast, therefore, was provided by the Beethoven sonata, the first of his final period, and the first to include a full-blown fugal movement.2

Even here, however, the music eases into rigorous form only gradually, with a rhapsodic, searching opening whose structure and even tonality are far from obvious. This opening movement is one of the most romantic in Beethoven’s canon, and later found echoes in the music of the 19th century.3 Also romantic is the inclusion of a character piece rather than a scherzo as second movement, in this case an energetic march and lyrical trio in elevated style and humorous character that includes a quote from the first movement. The third movement really sounds like a transition, a recitative introduction to the finale that reverts to direct reminiscence of the opening before plunging into a driving, joyous and virtuosic fugal sonata form. In the context of the rest of the program, this work served as a bridge between the intimate meditations of Rameau, the spiritual ecstasies of Scriabin, and Beethoven’s fugal finale, a formal statement that blends intimacy, spirituality, and grandeur into a total musical experience.

It seems almost superfluous to indicate that such a carefully thought-out program was realized by superb pianism; Pohjonen kept the dynamic palette on the subtle side for much of the program, but when he opened up the sound, the impact was all the more powerful without ever feeling stressed or overwhelming. There was a sense of both control and spontaneity in the performance, of a profoundly thoughtful artist who lovingly shaped his material. The brisk tempo and steady forward momentum of the difficult fugal movement that concluded the program showed fearlessness; the tempo never eased up despite thorny double-note passages. Here the flexibility which marked most of the program yielded to a feeling of inevitability delivered with clarity and power. 

The single encore brought us back to the world of the opening, or even further back: it was François Couperin’s claveçin piece “L’exquise” from that composer’s fourth book. The title said it all.

  1. Scriabin’s older impressionist colleague, Debussy, was a great admirer of Rameau, as shown in his piano piece “Hommage à Rameau” that is included in his collection Images, Book I.
  2. Beethoven had of course written fugues before, even for the piano, but not in any earlier sonata. He was to make this a more regular practice, including fugues in sonatas nos. 29 and 31, as well as in his “Diabelli” Variations.
  3. For example, there are fascinating parallels between this work and the Violin Sonata of César Franck, including the tonal structure of the first movements, the character sequence of the four movements, the recitative quality of the third movements, the use of strict contrapuntal forms in the finales, and a network of thematic cross-references among the movements.
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