Music is a powerful means of communication, by which people share emotions, intentions, and meanings, and our personal engagement with music, whether in a live concert, listening to a CD or via a streaming service, is driven by the medium’s ability to convey and communicate emotion. Music can arouse strong feelings, recall memories; it can promote extreme happiness or engender feelings of deep love or loss….
Like speech, music has an acoustic code for expressing emotion, and even if a piece of music is unfamiliar, we can “decode” its message. Because of this, while musicians perform music according to their own interpretations, we can still understand the basic acoustic code: a crescendo indicates increased intensity or drama; a minor key suggests seriousness or melancholy; pauses create suspense and anticipation.
For the performer, the ability to communicate emotion or tell a story in music requires more than the technical facility to process what’s on the score. A good understanding of the structure of the music is important for a convincing, and communicative, musical performance, allowing the musician to respond to aspects such as variations in tempo and dynamics, harmonic and melodic tension and release, phrasing, repetitions, etc. By responding to these elements, the listener is given a set of musical “signposts” which guide them through the music, and bring cohesion, interest and variety to the performance.
A performer must resolve the entire depth of the ideas contained there. How often carefully notated shadings, accents, tempo changes reveal not simply a positive characteristic of sound but rather the untold sides of the author’s concept. How many directions we find in Schumann, Chopin, Scriabin, even Beethoven that a pianist should follow not in a real sound but by addressing the subtlest hints to the imagination of a listener!
– Samuil Feinberg
Communicating emotion is the most elusive aspect of the performer’s skillset, and is the fundamental reason why people – performers and listeners – engage with music. At a basic level, music communicates specific emotions through simple musical devices, for example:
- Happy – fast tempo, running notes, staccato, bright sound, major key
- Sad – very slow tempo, minor key, legato, descending sequences or falling intervals, diminuendo, ritardando
But there is something else which makes a performance particularly rich in expression or communication. Performance is generally regarded as a synthesis of both technical and expressive skills. Technical skills can be taught, while expression is more instinctive: it is of course possible to act upon expression markings in the score, but in order for these to sound convincing and, more importantly, natural the performer must draw upon other factors, including extra-musical ones.
Many performers create a vivid internal musical and artistic vision of the music they are playing. This may include an aural model; the use of metaphors or adjectives to create a narrative or picture for the music; and personal experience, including extra-musical experiences. A performer’s own emotional experiences may influence the way they convey emotion in the music. This suggests that only a performer who has actually experienced the highs and lows of romantic love can perform, for example, Schumann’s Fantasie in C with the requisite emotional insight. Of course, not every performer will have the life experience, but they can still convey emotion in their performance by awakening their imagination to bring expression and emotional depth to their playing. In addition, in a concert situation, the imagination of the listener is very much at the disposal of the performer, to be shaped and influenced through sound.
We talk about performers “communicating the composer’s intentions” (i.e. paying attention to and acting upon directions in the score such as dynamics, tempo and expression markings, articulation, rests and pauses etc) or “conveying the story of the music“, but fundamentally I think as listeners we crave a performance which touches us personally. Listening to music is a highly subjective and personal experience – we’ve all had those ‘Proustian rush’ moments when a piece of music, or a single movement or even a phrase, provokes an involuntary memory, sometimes with physical side-effects such as goosebumps or shivers (physiologically, this is the result of the release of Dopamine, the brain’s “reward” neurotransmitter). Sometimes we want to feel uplifted or transported by music, taken us out of ourselves and the mundanity of everyday life to another place, to experience something touching the spiritual or transcendent. Such moments, and the memory of them, are very special and individual.
Occasionally one is at a concert where a very palpable sense of collective concentration can be felt in the auditorium. This occurs when the performer creates an intense communication between music and listener. I experienced it, along with the rest of the Wigmore Hall audience, at a performance of Beethoven’s last three sonatas by the Russian pianist Igor Levit in June 2017. The sense of concentrated listening and suspense was extraordinary. How did Levit achieve it? I’m not sure…. a combination of exquisite tone control, musical understanding and the sheer power of the music itself.
Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions such as joy, grief, sadness, and image of nature, a subject for daydreams or – still better – oblivion from “everyday life”. They want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realise its intrinsic value.
– Igor Stravinsky
Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth
Rick Wakeman has been a consistently fascinating artist throughout his decades-long career. As a fan of both classical and progressive rock music, I feel he’s been a constant presence, his cape sweeping nonchalantly across any so-called dividing lines between genres and styles.
In contrast to the grandeur of some of his earliest and most familiar work, Wakeman’s most recent releases have felt more intimate and introspective. The 2017 album ‘Piano Portraits’ was just that: solo piano treatments – somewhere between arrangements and variations – of an eclectic range of pieces that covered Debussy and Fauré, Elgar and Holst, Bowie and the Beatles… and not to leave out his own band, Yes.
This new album, ‘Piano Odyssey’, is in many ways a sequel with seemingly deliberate echoes of its predecessor. As before, there are two Beatles tracks, and just the one from Bowie this time, amid other carefully chosen cover versions. Yes is represented by two new arrangements. On the classical team are Liszt, Dvorak and Handel.
As the album title suggests, though, a journey of some kind has taken place. Rather than simply repeat himself, Wakeman has added strings and a choir more or less throughout, diluting the forensic focus on the lone piano. However, the lush arrangements can’t disguise the fact that this feels like an even more personal project, surveying Wakeman’s career more incisively and giving it a perhaps unexpected unit
I think this unity is behind the quality I loved most about the disc, which is that it sounds exactly like something its creator would pull together – and yet at the same time, it feels like a surprise, not quite like anything else. In theory, given the forces involved, the classical feel should dominate, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, it’s rather more like listening to a kind of ‘chamber’ prog: Wakeman often deploys his string players and singers as if they were band members, the choir in particular performing ‘solos’, moving in and out of tracks as needed rather than saturating them. His own distinctive playing has him operating like a combined rhythm and lead guitar might, capturing the melodies at the top end with great delicacy (and some very agile embellishments!), without sacrificing a sense of real propulsion.
As a result, the pieces that really hit home for me are the two Yes songs, in particular ‘And You & I’, and the reworks of two of his solo tracks, ‘After the Ball’ (now merged with Liszt’s ‘Liebestraume’), and ‘Jane Seymour’ (originally composed on organ, and with Bach coursing through its bloodstream). In the CD liner notes, Wakeman explains how the new versions make what he was trying to do clearer, more audible. And there’s no doubt that ‘Piano Odyssey’ is giving him the opportunity to shine a light on his practice: without trying to ‘match’ or ‘outdo’ Liszt, he has deliberately designed his medley to show how the composer influenced him. (Elsewhere, he uses this technique to illuminating effect in ‘Largos’ – merging Dvorak and Handel with the utmost respect, but a refreshing lack of deference.) Equally, in ‘And You & I’, the sparkling high-pitched melody is so evocative of Jon Anderson’s vocal it’s somehow uncanny.
I don’t think the record is totally flawless. How you react to the more familiar covers will inevitably depend on your relationship to the originals, and what you want a new version to achieve. I felt ‘The Boxer’ was a misfire: to me, the song, while tender, has an underlying resolve and pugnacity that befits its title. Here, the slow pace fatally weakens it, along with oppressive strings and the choir contributing isolated ‘lie la lie’s with no context. On the other hand, a similarly sentimental treatment of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ fits the song like a glove. The version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is shot through with wit, subverting any bombastic expectations the listener might have – even Brian May’s guitar cameo appears out of nowhere.
Two completely new compositions again emphasise the personal – named for two adopted moon bears, Rocky and Cyril (Wakeman is a passionate animal rights advocate). Writing from scratch in this idiom allows Wakeman to produce probably the most nakedly emotional tracks on the record, the signature traits (again, the steady motor, the climb to the high register) reflecting how much of himself he has put into these pieces. And I think it’s fair to say that the whole album – a heart-on-sleeve musical autobiography-of-sorts – wins through as an accomplished yet totally sincere attempt by the artist to communicate a true audio sense of himself.
Rick Wakeman’s ‘Piano Odyssey’ is available now on the Sony Classical label.
Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at http://www.adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk
Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist
This could be the best thing I’ve heard this year. A bold claim, I know, but listening to Igor Levit’s new recording Life (Sony Classical) literally stopped me in my tracks….
With four recordings already and glowing reviews wherever he plays, this latest offering – his first in three years – from German-Russian pianist Igor Levit was eagerly awaited. It’s very different from his previous recordings which have focussed on “big” serious works (the Diabelli and Goldberg Variations, Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, late Beethoven Sonatas). ‘Life’ is a classical concept album, a very personal existential reflection on life and death, prompted by the death of a close friend. Music has proven therapeutic benefits and Levit finds a way through his grief , though perhaps not a sense of closure, in a series of solemn, valedictory and deeply thoughtful works by Busoni, Bach/Busoni, Schumann, Rzewski, Wagner/Liszt and Bill Evans. There’s no flashiness here, no glittering runs or vertiginous virtuosity – that would be inappropriate. Instead we have a continuous meditative flow of music from Busoni’s Fantasie after J S Bach through the fleeting poignancy of Schumann’s Geister (‘Ghost’) Variations to Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, an unusual but entirely fitting work with which to close this wondrous recording.
Every note is considered, measured, poised but never mannered: there’s none of the pedantry other “intellectual” pianists tend towards in performance. This playing epitomises the maxim “through discipline comes freedom” – something I felt very strongly in Levit’s mesmerisingly intense concert of Beethoven’s last three sonatas at Wigmore hall last year. You could have cut the atmosphere – one of concentrated collective listening – with a knife, and Levit achieves the same palpable sense of presence, intimacy and profound communication on this recording. It’s as if you’re in the room with him, quietly observing, listening, almost without breathing, while he plays. He finds incredible delicacy in the quietest reaches of the dynamic range – technically hard to achieve and emotionally wrought – and the entire album has a compelling processional quality, felt most strongly (for me) in Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal, to which Levit brings immense control and a hushed, prayer-like quality to the magisterial architecture of this work. The Fantasia and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarum undum’, the longest work on this 2-disc recording, is another glowing transcription, also by Liszt, demonstrating that music, like life, is subject to change. Isolde’s passionate Liebstod and Busoni’s poignant Berceuse pave the way for the final work on the recording.
Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ matches the solemnity and intensity of the rest of album but in its ostinato bass and delicate treble filigrees, so redolent of Chopin’s tender Berceuse, there is, finally, a sense of consolation. It’s beautifully played by Levit, as are all the pieces on this recording.
Talismans and Tokens: Rituals of Performance
Performance itself is a ritual – it happens in a special place, at a special time, for which the performer wears special clothing to distinguish him or herself from the audience, and the audience observes particular customs during the entirety of the performance. These rituals of performance are familiar to all who perform, no matter what the genre of music, whether at Sydney Opera House, Hollywood Bowl or a local music society, and are crucial in helping performers and audience enter the right frame of mind to engage with the performance and the music.
Individual performers also have personal rituals associated with performance which are used to help allay performance anxiety and act as “good luck charms” to enable the performance to go well. From lucky jewellery or shoes to a red handkerchief casually tucked inside the piano, these talismans can be highly significant. Most of us know deep down that these items hold no real power, that superstitions such as wearing a particular necklace or shirt cannot really influence the performance and that a concert is more likely to go well if we are properly prepared for it. Yet we invest meaning in these tokens, believing them to have special powers, and take comfort from having them with us. Such rituals are common to sports people as well: tennis player Serena Williams always wears the same pair of socks for the duration of a tournament.
It’s easy to scoff at such superstitious behaviour, but research has shown that these behaviours do actually have a beneficial effect on performance by increasing confidence, self-belief, setting higher goals for oneself, and self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to do well at the task in hand). However, it can be risky to invest too much in lucky charms or special rituals to the extent that one develops an obsessive dependence on them and may feel anxious and lacking in confidence without them.
On a more practical level, most musicians employ pre-performance rituals ahead of a concert which help them focus mentally and keep them grounded, especially if travelling a lot, which can disrupt one’s regular routine. Here is pianist Alexandra Dariescu:
My ritual starts in the morning with a positive attitude. You never know what can go wrong on the day of a concert (flights canceled, trains running late, piano missing…) so an optimistic outlook is incredibly helpful. I like to practice slowly in the morning, on the score, looking at every detail and refreshing the memory. If there’s a rehearsal with an orchestra, I usually save energy for the evening performance. Lunch consists of fish, rice and lots of veggies. A nap is always welcome but if I can’t fall asleep, I lie down and breathe 3 in 7 out, a ritual I’ve had for years. I also visualize the hall, coming in and feeling free.
And Stephen Hough:
On the day of a concert, I have morning practice from about 10:30 to 1 PM. Then a substantial lunch, sushi is a favorite, and if a pudding is irresistible only a bite (or two). Then a walk, ideally somewhere where the spirit can soar, so a park, a museum, a surging cityscape. Then a nap, bedclothes thrown back, as if nighttime with the curtains firmly closed, phones unplugged, pillows fluffed, and unconsciousness for at least an hour. I set the alarm clock and at about two hours before the concert, I am out of bed. Then, with the kettle on, I travel with my own and the best tea bags I can find. I also usually just eat half a cookie to lift the mood a little. I Shower at full throttle–it takes the same time to brew a cup of tea as it does to wash your hair. I sip my mug of strong tea as I check emails. Then, dressed, I head over to the hall. I like to arrive about an hour before I’m due onstage. I like gentle, calm backstage practicing, most often on pieces other than the ones I’m playing that night. Then into concert clothes about ten minutes before going out from the wings.
(from The Musician’s Lounge, official blog of Utah Symphony)
While most musicians admit there is no “magic formula” to guarantee a successful performance every time, a consistent pre-performance ritual, combined with thorough preparation in practice, will ensure a concert goes smoothly. Certain pre-performance rituals are common to all musicians, whatever their genre, including resting ahead of the concert to keep mind and body relaxed. Any disruption to these rituals can leave one feeling disoriented and it is important for concert organizers, venue managers, colleagues, and friends and family to appreciate the rituals and not interfere with them. Of course some aspects cannot be controlled, such as delayed travel, the weather (too hot/too cold), or illness, but once again good preparation enables one to cope with these exigencies and not allow them to derail a performance
In the final minutes before going on stage, many musicians use visualization techniques – imagining themselves walking across the stage to take their place at the piano or in front of the orchestra and hearing the first notes of the first piece in their “mind’s ear” before they begin to play. Recalling a past successful performance, and the positive feelings associated with it, is also a useful ritual and one which pianist Polish Piotr Anderszewski employs.
…there are the occasions when none of the above is possible. And, strangely, those are often the best concerts. Ah, the frustration and joy of the glorious unpredictability of being human!
Clara Schumann: Prodigy, Muse, Virtuoso
Reiko Fujisawa, piano
Brahms – Intermezzo Op 119, no. 2
Clara Schumann – Scherzo Op 10, Romance Op 21, no. 3
Chopin – Impromptu no. 1
Schumann – Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op 26
Schumann/Liszt – Fruhlingsnacht & Widmung
The Sherling Studio, a small theatre space at the Lighthouse Poole, proved the ideal venue for Reiko Fujisawa’s lunchtime recital celebrating the life and career of Clara Schumann and the key personalities in her artistic and musical circle.
This concert marked the premiere of this programme, part of Reiko’s new Clara Schumann project – a series of narrated recitals, chamber music and concerto performances which will take place throughout the 2018/19 season and autumn 2019, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Clara’s birth.
The size of the performance space, with the audience arranged on three sides of the pianist, combined with Reiko’s poised and self-contained presence, created an intimate ambiance which was entirely appropriate for this programme of music which would have been enjoyed in the home or salon rather than the concert hall. It allowed for very close communication between pianist, music and audience, from Brahms at his most passionately introspective in a late Intermezzo to the sparkling virtuosity of Clara Schumann’s music (written for herself to perform) and Robert Schumann’s exuberant ‘Carnival Jest from Vienna”, written to show off their twin talents as composer and agile performer. This engaging programme was presented with elegance, colour and commitment.
Still only a tender three year old, the London Piano Festival, organised by pianists Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva is already a significant part of the London piano concert calendar, an event much looked forward to by myself and piano friends. In just three years it has grown from a weekend festival to a 5-day extravaganza and it looks set to extend further, such is the quality and variety of its programmes and performers. The secret of its success and evident popularity (judging by the commitment and enthusiasm of the audiences) lies in a simple formula: an impressive line up of pianists, imaginative programmes and a friendly atmosphere. Owen and Apekisheva curate the festival and also perform in it, thus creating a wonderful sense of common purpose, very much music with friends, for friends, and amongst friends. This year the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov stole the show, at least as far as I was concerned, in both his solo concert on Saturday afternoon (review here) and his performance with his duo partner Samson Tsoy which opened the 2-piano marathon on Saturday night.
While last year’s 2-piano marathon had a rather epic sweep to its programme, this year’s was more thoughtful, the main focus being the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death, and the tone was set by the opening works, Schumann’s Six Pieces in Canonic Form, performed with exceptional control, poetry and musical maturity by Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy. It would be hard to match the exquisite intimacy of this performance, but the great thing about the 2-piano Marathon is that each pianist brings their distinctive voice to the repertoire performed, the pairs of performers sparking off one another, collaborating and interacting with evident enjoyment. Two works by Arnold Bax provided an impressionistic follow up to the Schumann, expressively played by Margaret Fingerhut and Charles Owen. Three works by Poulenc offered further contrasts, the triptych closing with his joyous l’Embarquement pour Cythere. The first half closed with Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos, a work which requires lightning-fast reflexes, masterfully played by Kolesnikov and Tsoy. It was good to see this extraordinarily mature duo together in more extrovert music.
The deliciously sensuous post-interval works by Debussy – En Blanc et noir and Danse Sacree et Danse Profane – were welcome bookends to Thomas Ades Lisztian Concert Paraphrase on Power Her Face, which while expertly played felt over-long and self-indulgent. It was good to see Stephen Kovacevich grace the stage once again at this year’s festival, side by side with Charles Owen in Debussy.
The closing work, Rachmaninov’s Russian Rhapsody for two pianos, was memorably played by Konstantin Lifschitz (who gave a solo performance earlier in the festival) and Katya Apekisheva, and left us with a hummable foot-tapping folk tune for the homeward journey.
Plans are already well underway for the 2019 London Piano Festival and full details will be announced in the new year.
Photo credit: Viktor Erik Emanuel / Kings Place