Thoughts About the Music

Wednesday, June 16

Selected Scarlatti Sonatas and Rzewski Nano Sonatas

Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) wrote 555 keyboard sonatas in service of the queen of Spain. American composer Frederic Rzewski’s series of Nanosonatas, however, originated with a sonata dedicated to a nanophysicist friend of the composer’s which grew into a long series in the genre. In these short pieces, each composer mines the various possibilities of the keyboard (and in Rzewski’s case, beyond it) in his own way. And while there are obvious difference between styles separated by centuries, they share an approach to music that is very gestural and spontaneously inventive. — Shai Wosner

Wosner’s three pairings include Scarlatti’s Sonata in d K. 141 with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 36 (“To a Young Man”), Scarlatti’s Sonata in d K. 9 with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To a Great Guy”), and Scarlatti’s Sonata in c K. 230 with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12.

If juxtaposing music by these two seemingly dissimilar composers sounds like an oddity, Wosner believes they make an interesting match. “I love Scarlatti and I love Rezewski,” the pianist said during an interview. “And I think that Scarlatti and Rzewski are mavericks in similar ways. Of course their music is very different from one another’s, and Rzewski was not trying to emulate Scarlatti in any way with his short sonatas. The Nanosonatas are almost like a stream of consciousness, but I hear that in the Scarlattis as well.”

Wosner also finds both composers’ sonatas to be well structured with a forward impulse to them. “Rezewski’s are short and in some cases even shorter than the Scarlattis, and both are very gestural — big, bold, decisive gestures. I feel something about the temperament of the two composers allows them to converse with each other even though one of them is no longer with us.”

@2021 Mike Telin, excerpted from

Richard Strauss – Violin Sonata in E-flat major Op. 18

Richard Strauss is known mostly for operas and orchestral works. Bursting into critical acclaim and immense popularity at a very young age, at age 23 he already had an enormous body of work behind him, with two symphonies, two piano trios, two concertos and multiple other chamber works and songs. In that same year, he met the Soprano Pauline de Ahna, with whom he fell deeply in love and would later marry. It was then that he decided to write his violin sonata, and the passionate feelings of romance are hard to miss. The first movement freely shifts meter on multiple occasions, with one instance of the violin and piano playing in different meters at the same time as if signifying two distinct characters. It features lush, impassioned violin lines with an energetic main theme that carries its enthusiasm to the very end. The second movement shifts into a poignant, tranquil atmosphere as the violin weaves delicate, improvisatory melodies, and the piano ebbs and flows with rushing bass lines that work to drive the violin into more passionate, dramatic areas. The third and final movement begins with a whispering piano prelude before the agile main theme from the first movement bursts into action. The textures are highly intricate with a dense, brilliant harmonic stability.

Amy Beach – Piano Quintet, Op. 67

A self-taught prodigy, Amy Beach of New Hampshire made her concert debut in 1883, when she was just 16 years old. Her husband, 24 years her senior, insisted she only perform one concert per year in order to keep their social standing. It was only after his death in 1910 that she began to tour around Europe and America. She was the first American woman ever to compose a symphony, and is considered one of America’s most influential composers, with a style romantically rooted yet tonally advanced. Her piano quintet, composed in 1908, begins with a deeply ominous piano section. The movement continues with sorrowful violin lines that carry the music through mysterious, dark territory. Finally, the second movement begins with a romantic violin melody, opening the skies with the bright, lush nature of the movement. While it remains soft and delicate throughout, it burns with emotional intensity. The finale explodes onto the scene with agile runs and chromatic piano lines giving way to an almost Slavic sounding theme. A second lyrical theme is introduced, surrounded by whirling riffs from every instrument. Eventually, the music drops out and the violin and piano play a poignant melody that is embellished by the surrounding instruments, growing feverishly as the piece grows to multiple dramatic climaxes shrouded in a mystical allure.

©2021 Nicole Martin