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A Graduate Recital at SFCM explores a diversity of textures

An example of the visual texture of one of Brahms' variations
An example of the visual texture of one of Brahms' variationsfrom Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night I was drawn to one of the student Graduate Recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) solely on the basis of the way in which the program had been arranged. The first half seemed to reflect an observation I had recently made on my national site about an emerging trend to juxtapose Alexander Scriabin and Maurice Ravel on a single solo piano recording. The program began with Scriabin’s second published piano sonatas, his Opus 19 in G-sharp minor, which he called “Sonata-Fantasy.” This was followed by the five movements of Ravel’s Miroirs suite. Then, by way of contrast, the second half of the program was devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms Opus 24 set of 25 variations and a concluding fugue based on a theme from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 434 keyboard suite.

While these were markedly different composers in many respects, the program still had a unifying concept. In each of the three selections, much of the thematic material was introduced and/or developed with considerable attention to a rhetoric of texture. This is often recognized as a trait shared by Scriabin and Ravel; but, while one often makes note of the full-hand density of much of Brahms’ music for piano, the idea that texture might contribute to the logic of exposition and elaboration is usually overlooked. Thus, last night’s listening experience may have been one in which Scriabin and Ravel predisposed mind to think about texture and, so disposed, discover the role it could play in Brahms.

I must confess that “texture” first entered my working vocabulary as a result of reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica articles by Donald Francis Tovey (reprinted in the book The Forms of Music) on the subjects of counterpoint and fugue. He used “texture” as a “weasel word” to evade the issue of how mind can keep track of thematic activity in multiple independent voices. However, the concept of texture need not necessarily be evoked as an “escape hatch;” and, in the study of human vision, there have been impressive attempts to organize textures into categories and to identify the features through which those categories are distinguished.

In the case of Opus 24, Brahms’ fugue could easily have been one of those instances that prompted Tovey to hang the word “texture” on a listening experience he could not easily explain. More interesting, however, is the unfolding of the 25 variations. The Wikipedia entry for this piece includes an impressively extended analysis with the score for each of the variations presented in a separate figure. As one scrolls through these images, one is quickly aware of the unfolding of different visual textures, each of which yields its own distinctive texture in the auditory domain.

One also begins to become aware of how this overall sequence segments into groups, a point pursued by the author of this Wikipedia page. It is quickly evident that not all variations are separated by a full-stop fermata, which indicates that Brahms probably had such grouping in mind. In addition the Wikipedia author discussed Brahms’ “variation on a variation” technique, which would link one variation to its predecessor, attributing that phrase to Michael Musgrave’s book The Music of Brahms. Thus, through an underlying logic in which texture plays a major role, Brahms could escalate his variations from “one damned thing after another” to a more logically defined path that leads from the opening statement of the theme to the introduction of the fugue subject. Last night’s performance seems to have been informed by an appreciation of this logic, resulting in an interpretation admirable for not only its virtuosity but also for its capacity to draw the listener into an almost narrative-like unfolding of the overall journey of Opus 24.

In both Scriabin and Ravel, on the other hand, texture serves more as a background from which the foreground of thematic lines emerge. If these composers are well served by juxtaposition, it is because they both demand a performer who not only understands the often complex relationship between background and foreground but also can express that relationship through his/her execution. Last night’s execution brought clarity to even the thickest of textures that both of these composers could summon.

That clarity was particularly impressive in the performance of “Alborada del gracioso,” the fourth of the Miroirs movements. This music is better known through Ravel’s subsequent orchestration. The original version, however, depends on little more than the selection of notes from the more limited palette of piano sonorities, many of which serve as “sound effects” through which background is established. Ravel was thus obliged to realize through texture what he would subsequently approach, in an entirely different manner, through instrumentation.

Taken as a whole, this was a recital through which the inquisitive listener could come away better informed about three markedly different composers; what more could one ask from a concert?