Three of the works on the program for last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital by pianist Mack McCray at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music were by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. All were composed within a span of five years in Vienna after Mozart had settled there. Nevertheless, over that relatively short period, one could observe a shift in Mozart’s attitude towards what a skilled musician could do behind a piano keyboard. Whether that shift involved Mozart coming to terms with his own maturity is a matter for biographers to settle; but the “maturing” of the music is of interest in its own right.
The program began with the K. 398 set of six variations on the aria “Salve, tu Domine” from Giovanni Paisiello’s opera I filosofi immaginari, composed in 1783. The opera title translates as “the imaginary philosopher,” although the original title was apparently “the imaginary astrologers.” Either character type would explain why the aria was sung in Latin, which may not have been understood by the other characters. The aria is a bit eccentric in both phrase and rhythmic structure, which could have been what attracted Mozart’s attention.
Variations were a perfect vehicle for Mozart to unleash the “show-off kid” side of his personality; but in K. 398 he took his exhibitionism to a new level. Earlier sets of variations tended to use relatively four-square themes, maintaining the structure through each variation as a supporting spinal cord. If that structure was strained at all, it was through an excess of embellishment during the Adagio variation or a cadenza near the conclusion of the set. Both of these techniques can be found in the K. 264 variations on “Lison dormait,” composed in Paris in 1778.
In K. 398, however, we encounter the first real signs of what would come to be called “free” variations. Rather than concentrating his inventions within the structure of the theme, Mozart plays around with the structure itself, breaking from it in unexpected ways and then returning with equally surprising gestures. Since 1781 was the year of Mozart’s competition with Muzio Clementi, arranged by the Emperor Joseph in Vienna, Mozart must have realized that others were mastering the same old tricks. He needed to pull out some new ones; and K. 398 may have been composed as a “line in the sand” for any would-be future competitors.
K. 398 was followed by the K. 485 D major rondo composed in 1786. This composition is less concerned with virtuosic fireworks and more with the conception of a work in which both right and left hands are given their own shares of command over the melodic material. It is also an example of a rondo structured in sonata form with a repeated exposition section. One might say that, while K. 398 was composed strictly for the expressiveness of the pianist, K. 485 explores the domain of greater expressiveness of the music.
However, the real venture in that domain came after the intermission with the performance of the K. 540 adagio movement in B minor. Composed in 1788, this piece also follows the conventions of sonata form but it is particularly adventurous in its approach to harmonic progression and offers some striking examples of Mozart’s rhetorical use of full-stop silence, a technique more frequently associated with Joseph Haydn and developed even more effectively by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is the Mozart who had composed the adventurous K. 475 C minor fantasia in 1785 now pursuing similar adventures within a more rigorous set of formal constraints, and it remains one of the most astonishing accomplishments in the entire catalog compiled by Ludwig von Köchel.
By performing these three works in chronological order, McCray provided a clear statement that things were changing in Vienna during the 1780s and that Mozart was advancing those changes, rather than merely trying to keep up with them. Through McCray’s clarity of execution, one could appreciate the factors that differentiated each of these pieces, turning that chronological ordering into a voyage of discovery. Within that frame of reference, the remaining works on the program could be taken as reflections of how things continued to change after Mozart led the way.
Most interesting was the juxtaposition of that K. 540 adagio with the Opus 28 fantasy in B minor by Alexander Scriabin. This was composed in 1900 before Scriabin began to venture into the chromatic ambiguities that distinguished his later compositions; so one could not take Opus 28 as an effort that “parallels” K. 540. Rather it is representative of Scriabin’s capacity for working with highly thick textures. Thus, the ambiguities have less to do with harmonic progression and more with an often tenuous relationship between foreground and background, given dramatic intensity through a persistent concentration of a single motif. It is also a work whose overall rhetoric is driven by the urgency of accelerating tempo. Combined with the recurring ambiguity of foreground, this gives the subjective impression of rushing headlong into darkness, another powerful dramatic effect. McCray performed with great attentiveness of that dramatism, giving the impression that Scriabin’s fantasy was no less earthshaking than Mozart’s adagio.
More perplexing was George Enescu’s first piano sonata in F-sharp minor, composed in 1924. It was later published along with this third sonata in D major as Opus 24. There does not appear to have been a second sonata completed to Enescu’s satisfaction. Like Scriabin’s fantasy, this three-movement sonata is thickly textured. This made for a sharp contrast, since it was performed after the K. 485 rondo. It also shows a preference for the unfolding of rich embellishments over a slow pulse, the only exception being in the middle Presto vivace movement. McCray made a valiant effort to perform this sonata with expressiveness, but it left one with the impression that Enescu, master of the violin with a fervent interest in ethnomusicology, was a bit out of his depth with this sonata.
McCray concluded his program by following Scriabin’s fantasy with a more traditional one, composed by Mily Balakirev on themes from the opera A Life for the Tsar. This opera was composed in 1836 and was a great success, since it recounted the popular story of how the Russian peasant Ivan Susanin sacrificed his life for the Tsar during a Polish invasion in 1612. Balakirev composed his fantasy in 1899 as a revision of a set of “reminiscences” on the opera completed in 1855. One can assume that his audiences were familiar with Glinka’s score, but this was probably not the case last night. Thus, the impact of the music as a “memory trigger” was somewhat blunted, although McCray certainly never short-changed any of the virtuosic turns that laced Balakirev’s score.
McCray took a single encore, Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 57 “Berceuse” in D-flat major. This unfolding of increasingly embellished variations on a simple rocking phrase elegantly complemented the set of variations that had begun the evening. It also restored a sense of calm after the many adventurous undertakings of the full program.