Souvenirs of Venice and Naples – Ray Luck – Vol. 1 – CR4940


“Judging from this recital, he feels most comfortable with music requiring delicacy and restraint rather than large-scale Romantic gestures, and his program was chosen accordingly”

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In 1770 Charles Burney, the English music historian, noted during his visit to Venice that “. . . the songs of the Gondolieri, or Watermen, are so celebrated, that every musical collector of taste in Europe is well furnished with them.” Evidently, the appeal of the barcarolle (or gondolier’s song) continued into the nineteenth century; ‘barcarolle’ scenes appeared in operas, such as Rossini’s Otello (1816), Auber’s Fra Diavolo (1830), and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman (1881). Piano composers in turn adopted the barcarolle as a character piece, focusing on its romantic Venetian setting and lilting rhythm suggestive of the movement of the gondola on the water. Besides the barcarolles of Chopin and Liszt, other noteworthy examples are those by Mendelssohn (the three Venetianisches Gondollieder from his Lieder ohne Worte), Balakirev, Glazunov, Rachmaninov, and Fauré.

With the publication of a pair of nocturnes in 1812, John Field, the Irish pianist-composer, created a new genre of character piece for the piano. As a young man, Field was the protégé of the composer and piano maker, Clementi, in London. In 1803 he emigrated to Russia where he was active as a composer and performer until his death in 1837. Field’s early nocturnes (in particular nos. 4–6, published in 1817) are worthy antecedents of Chopin’s, whose first works in that genre (opus 9) were not published until 1832. Field conjures up a dreamy, nocturnal scene in these pieces as he decorates a cantilena melody above an accompaniment that often arpeggiates the harmony. His innovative use of the piano’s sustaining pedal produces a singing legato line with a more amplified resonance that was remarkable for its time.

The tarantella may have originated either as a folk dance from Taranto in southern Italy, or from the folk myth of that region purporting the dance to be a cure for tarantism, an hysterical condition resulting from the bite of the tarantula. Eight tarantelle from a seventeenth-century collection, Magnes, sive de arte magnetica (Rome, 1641) published by the Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher, apparently were designated for this therapeutic purpose. These early tarantelle already reveal the dance’s chief characteristics–a rapid tempo, regular phrase structure, and melodies made up of scale figures, repeated notes, auxiliary notes, arpeggiated chords, and leaps. In addition to the tarantelle by Chopin and Liszt, examples by Weber, Rossini, Balakirev, and Rachmaninov also exist.

Frédéric Chopin

In Chopin’s oeuvre, the Barcarolle, published in 1846, is acknowledged as a major masterpiece. Its large-scale conception, wide emotional range, and masterful exploiting of the piano’s sonority are some of the reasons for the work’s exceptional regard among pianists. As in his Nocturnes, Chopin imbues the melodic writing in the Barcarolle with the expressiveness of Italian coloratura (an influence from his early student years in Warsaw) while the chromatic harmony so typical of his last works adds a profundity to this expression. The pervasiveness of the swaying rhythm buoys the entire work both at the moments of great passion and those of quiet reverie.

A fetching simplicity graces the opening of the Nocturne in E Major (published the same year as the Barcarolle) but this eventually gives way to an ever increasing undercurrent of intensity. Progressively, the left-hand accompaniment reflects this change; a gentle gait at the opening leads to an ebb-and-flow motion underlying the second theme, and later, to the agitated surges in the nocturne’s middle section. Over these varied patterns, the eloquence of the melodic writing reigns supreme.

The Tarentelle is a bravura showpiece in moto perpetuo. Chopin asked his publisher, Fontana, to verify that its meter signature and notation were similar to Rossini’s tarantella, La Danza. In spite of his uncertainty, Chopin’s composition conforms to the tarantella’s criteria in every detail. Moreover, as he demonstrated with the mazurka, he could fashion a work of rustic spontaneity and great finesse from such basic folk material.

Gabriel Fauré

While the earliest pieces among Fauré’s thirteen barcarolles and thirteen nocturnes reveal the influences of Chopin and Schumann, those from the middle period (such as the Fifth Barcarolle and Sixth Nocturne) combine a commanding use of musical form with a heightening of emotional intensity. Throughout his oeuvre, Fauré’s ‘voice’ remains unmistakable; his compositions are suffused with a melodic inventiveness, unusual harmonic twists, and a spontaneity of musical expression which form the distinguishing hallmarks of his style.

Fauré composed the Sixth Nocturne and Fifth Barcarolle within a month of each other in the summer of 1894. The Fifth Barcarolle breaks new ground in its formal design; it unfolds in one seamless sweep without falling into the clearly delineated sections of earlier works. An encompassing palindromic design features an opening theme in F Sharp Minor that is motivic in character, an overarching second theme in the enharmonic parallel major key of G Flat, a middle section which ushers in a new theme in E Flat Major, and the return of the two principal themes in reverse order. Following the climax which coincides with the return of the first theme, a berceuse-like coda soothes and induces a state of euphoria.

In his series of essays, French Piano Music, Alfred Cortot singles out the Sixth Nocturne as “the highest possible expression of human emotion . . . there are few works in the literature of music to compare with this.” An auspicious opening in D Flat Major introduces a setting of transcendent calm, which is followed by two sections, each featuring a typical Fauréen melody. The first of these expansive melodies, in the enharmonic parallel minor key of C Sharp, weaves an outline over syncopated chromatic harmony, while the second, in the key of A Major, soars effortlessly over its harp-like accompaniment. These two auxiliary themes alternate, become fragmented, and eventually lead to a dramatic high point where, unexpectedly, the second phrase of the nocturne’s opening theme reappears in the bass. A pregnant pause gives the signal for the continuation of the recapitulation of the opening theme, and in this exalted mood, a feeling of fulfillment is realized as the work comes to a close.

The tarantella-like notation of the Second Impromptu belies the poetic nature of this musical ‘improvisation’. Subtle harmonic shifts under the quicksilver opening theme yield a kaleidoscopic range of tonal colors. Two cantabile episodes in the tonic major contrast with the principal theme and work their charm to convey the easy elegance of the salon.

Francis Poulenc

The composers in the group ‘Les Six’ generally shared the influences of Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie as a common aesthetic link. Echoes of Erik Satie’s musical style and wit can be discerned in the Napoli Suite, written in 1925. À la Satie, a nonchalance is affected in the Barcarolle, and in the middle of the Nocturne, the calm is interrupted by some rude interjections. As in Poulenc’s earlier piano piece, Mouvements perpétuels, the Napoli Suite totally captivates the listener through its straightforward informality. Mild dissonances impinge on insouciant melodies that suggest the ambience of the music-hall or a Sunday afternoon thé-dansant. After the tranquility of the first two movements, the high-spirited Caprice italien sweeps away any reserve. Within its boisterous tarantella-like outer sections, a sentimental interlude whose theme suggests a popular Neapolitan song offers a brief respite.

Franz Liszt

Venezia e Napoli was published in 1861 as a supplement to the collection of pieces, Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième année: Italie. An earlier version of the work dating from 1839 featured four pieces, of which nos. 3 and 4 (Gondoliera and Tarantella) were reworked for the 1861 publication while no. 1 was incorporated in the tone poem, Tasso. The decade beginning 1838 was Liszt’s most active period both as a traveling virtuoso and composer. During these years, the Six Grandes Études d’après Paganini, most of the Italian volume of the Années de pèlerinage, and the second version of the Douze Études d’éxécution transcendante were completed. The technical challenges in the earlier version of Venezia e Napoli give an insight into Liszt’s keyboard virtuosity as a performer.

Gondoliera is based on Peruchini’s La Biondina in Gondoletta (“The Blonde in the Little Gondola”). In the later version, Liszt adds a tremolo accompaniment reminiscent of the Hungarian cimbalom (an instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer). The theme of the Canzone is a direct quote from the gondolier’s aria, “Nessun maggior dolore” in Rossini’s Otello; it is treated to full dramatic effect in Liszt’s transcription. The Canzone leads without a break to the final movement, Tarantella, where the heady whirl of the dance is immediately established. An abrupt change in mood occurs with the introduction of a soulful song, an extract from a collection of popular Neapolitan songs by Guillaume Louis Cottrau (1797-1847). This languorous melody is first decorated with elaborate fioriture and cadenzas, then undergoes a series of transformations, until finally, it succumbs to the tarantella’s propulsive rhythm. This gradual but triumphant return to the frenzied dance brings the Tarantella to a decisive end. Notes © Ray Luck.

RAY LUCK studied with the distinguished French pianist and pedagogue, Yvonne Lefébure, at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris where he won First Prizes in Piano and Chamber Music, and soon after emerged prizewinner at the Geneva International Piano Competition. After graduate study with György Sebok at Indiana University he received the D.Mus degree with high distinction. He has concertised worldwide and has given master classes and adjudicated music festivals during his many travels abroad. After more than a two-decade tenure as the Charles A. Dana professor of music at Randolph College in Virginia, he was appointed professor emeritus in 2002. From his home in Saint Petersburg, Florida, he makes frequent visits to the Caribbean, in particular to the Saint Lucia School of Music where he is a visiting professor. In 1992 he was conferred the Cacique’s Crown of Honour by the Government of Guyana in recognition of his musical accomplishments.

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Review – New York Times

Ray Luck, a pianist on the faculty of the Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Va., made his New York debut in Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday night. A native of Guyana, Mr. Luck has studied in London, Paris and Indiana Univeristy, and has had enough performing experience to know where his talents are best applied.

Judging from this recital, he feels most comfortable with music requiring delicacy and restraint rather than large-scale Romantic gestures, and his program was chosen accordingly.

The pianist offered one of Beethoven’s more intimate sonatas (Op. 27, No. 1), Schumann’s ”Davidsbundlertanze,” Chopin’s Scherzo in E (Op. 54) and two pieces by Dukas, the Haydn Prelude and Rameau Variations. Each of these scores responded to Mr. Luck’s deft fingerwork and concern for detail, up to a point. But even music as elegantly refined as this could be more sharply profiled and presented with less emotional inhibition and a greater degree of architectural strength, particularly the Dukas Variations, which sounded rather too antiseptic and undercharacterized.

On the whole, Mr. Luck was at his most persuasive in the Schumann suite, a graceful performance with a fair amount of tender lyricism and affecting poetic touches. Peter G. Davis

Ray Luck has performed in concert and recital in several music capitals of the world. His performances in New York’s Alice Tully Hall, in London’s Queen Elizabeth and Royal Albert Halls, in Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysées and other major concert venues have won public and critical acclaim. He has appeared as soloist with L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, and the City of London Sinfonia, and has collaborated with ensembles such as the New World String Quartet and the Lark Quartet in chamber music performances. In addition to concert tours which have taken him to East and West Europe, North and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia, he has been a Fulbright Senior Scholar in the Caribbean. Recently he was honored by the Government of Guyana with the Cacique’s Crown of Honor.