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Review by Jerry Dubins

CHOPIN Piano Sonata No. 3. LISZT Piano Sonata in b. SCARLATTI Keyboard Sonata in b, Kk 87 Leticia Gómez-Tagle (pn) ARS 38 270 (SACD: 65:05)

Pianist Leticia Gómez-Tagle is by now familiar to Fanfare’s readers from a number of previously reviewed albums of music by Spanish and Latin American composers, as well as of music by mainstream 19th-century piano familiars such as Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms. Two of the latter-named composers, Chopin and Liszt, make another appearance here, but this time in a “theme-based” album, the “theme” being the key of B Minor.

If you were going to create a program of piano sonatas around a key, B Minor would be a good choice because it seems to be a key that composers have shied away from in droves for their keyboard sonatas. Not one of Mozart’s 19 piano sonatas, Beethoven’s 32, or Schubert’s 21 is in B Minor. And in his 34 sonatas, Haydn went there only once with his Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32. Even Scarlatti paid B Minor a visit only 12 times out of 543 trips to other keys.

One has to ask the question, “What was so off putting about B Minor?” With only two sharps in its key signature, it shouldn’t be that hard to read or to play. The only answer I can come up with is based on pure speculation. Medieval theorists sowed superstition about the note B. There was no church mode built on B, and the occurrence of the note B in each of the church modes was responsible for the tritone, the interval that theorists dubbed “diabolus in musica.”

The superstition that there was something evil about the note B was passed down through the ages and persisted for a very long time, causing composers to avoid it. There are, of course, some very notable exceptions by famous composers who dared to defy the B-Minor curse: Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, and Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No. 3 come to mind. Okay, so Tchaikovsky paid the price for poking at the curse with a stick, but nothing bad I’m aware of happened to any of the others, at least not causally or immediately.

On the other hand, only good has come to Leticia Gómez-Tagle for her bravery in the face of two of the repertoire’s most technically daunting and musically challenging B-Minor Sonatas, Chopin’s No. 3 and the Liszt.

In notes on the Chopin by Mieczysław Tomaszewski for Polish Radio, the author suggests that while maintaining the outward structure of a four-movement Classical sonata, Chopin has imbued the work, not just with expressions of Romantic moods, but with actual Romantic movement typologies. Thus, in Tomaszewski’s words, “The first and last movements are marked by the character of a ballade, the second is a scherzo, and the third is a nocturne.”

Part of the challenge for the player is to achieve a balance between Chopin’s Classical leanings and his Romantic impulses, and it’s in this, with her grasp of the score’s formal structure, yet yielding to its flights of fantasy, that Gómez-Tagle excels; not that the beauty of her touch and tone, the fluidity of her phrasing, and the solidity of her technique are any less noteworthy. This is a remarkably well-played and extraordinarily communicative Chopin Third.

When Liszt chose the key of B Minor for his dramatic and bravura Piano Sonata in 1853, it must have been because he missed the lecture by Austrian pianist, composer, and educator Ernst Pauer (1826–1905), who instructed his students that B Minor is the key of “melancholy, telling of a quiet expectation and patient hope.” Perhaps Brahms heard those qualities in Liszt’s Sonata, for it’s reputed that he promptly dozed off during Liszt’s performance of it, which certainly didn’t endear him to the great virtuoso. At least Brahms was polite enough not to snore while he snoozed.

I make light, not of Liszt or his Sonata, but of the absurdity of Pauer’s (and others) characterizations of the mental states, emotional moods, and color wavelengths that are supposedly intrinsic to the 24 major and minor keys. My favorite one, quoted by Kevin Lessmann from Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst, as translated by Rita Steblin, is D♯ Minor: “Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D♯ Minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.”

Considering that the key has six sharps, I’d find it pretty soul-sucking too. But methinks Ms. Steblin had too much fun translating Schubart. I doubt that his original German says quite this about B♭ Minor: “A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.” Well, maybe, if Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B♭ Minor, the “Funeral March,” is your prototype. But what about Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1?

It’s very difficult, for me at least, to associate feelings of “quiet expectation and patient hope” with Liszt’s anything but quiet or patient sonata, especially in this reading of it by Gómez-Tagle. This has to be one of the most thrilling performances of the piece I’ve ever heard. The dramatic intensity of it, a product of Gómez-Tagle’s electrifying speed and technical prowess, enhanced by an absolutely killer recording, sounds positively possessed. Dare I say, “demonic,” in light of the B-Minor curse? This is a Liszt Sonata no collection should be without.

As everyone knows, Domenico Scarlatti composed somewhere around 555 keyboard sonatas—give or take a few—approximately half of them in slow tempos, and the other half, fast. They aren’t true sonatas in the Classical sense of the term; they’re standalone, unrelated movements. Most players who include Scarlatti on their recital programs and/or recordings pair them up, a slow one and a fast one.

I don’t wish to seem ungrateful for what is a surely a stunning album even without the Scarlatti encore, but there was plenty of room on the disc to match up the composer’s B-Minor, K 87—a gorgeous slow movement (though no tempo is marked), in stately, Bach-like, strict counterpoint—with any one of eight other movements in B Minor that is marked Allegro: K 173, 227, 293, 376, 377, 409, 497, or 498.

Perhaps it was Gómez-Tagle’s intention to end her disc with B Minor’s “melancholy telling of quiet expectation and patient hope,” which Scarlatti’s K 87 quite effectively does. If that was her intent, it speaks to her keen awareness of the enduring narratives surrounding the “humors” of musical keys. She has even titled her album “Si,” a play on words, meaning “yes” in Spanish, and the note B in the language of solfège. Urgently recommended. Jerry Dubins

 

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