Guest post by Andrew Wright

thalberg_s_2Sometimes it happens that an artist or musician achieves a stellar level of fame and success during his lifetime, only to vanish into the footnotes of history upon their death. The composer-pianist Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) is one such figure. Lauded by royalty and critics alike, the one-time rival of Liszt is now only known to students of music history and pianophiles.

Let us begin by briefly examining his early life. Considerable doubt surrounds his birth and parentage: whilst his birth certificate lists his parents as Joseph Thalberg and Fortunée Stein of Frankfurt-am-Main, the general belief is that he was the illegitmate son of Count Moritz von Dietrichstein and Baroness von Wetzlar. It is perhaps no coincidence that Thalberg is one of the Dietrichstein family titles, nor that the Count’s middle name was Joseph. What we can be certain of is that the young Sigismund grew up in very comfortable surroundings and was duly sent to Vienna to prepare himself for a career in the military or the diplomatic corps.

However, music was to intervene – it is worth noting that the Baroness von Wetzlar was a distinguished amateur pianist – and before long his gifts had become apparent. We find him taking lessons with Hummel and Moscheles, making his public debut in London in 1826. His opus 1, a Fantasy on Weber’s Euryanthe (setting the tone, perhaps, for an output later characterised by a plethora of operatic paraphrases) was published a couple of years later, shortly followed by, as befitted the aspiring young virtuoso, his piano concerto, opus 5.

Over the next few years he continued performing in Germany and Austria, making the acquaintance of Chopin, Mendelssohn and the young Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann), whilst developing his compositional style and technique. During this time, he made a pivotal discovery, one which was to have profound implications upon the development of pianistic technique and texture. The famous pedagogue Czerny wrote

“[Thalberg] conceived the idea of extending pedal effects which formerly occurred only in bass notes to the notes of the middle and higher octaves, and thereby produce entirely new effects […] When the notes of a melody are struck with energy in a middle position and their sound continued by skilful use of the pedal, the fingers can also perform brilliant passages piano, with a delicate touch; and thus arises the remarkable effect, as if the melody were played by another person, or on another instrument.” 

It is famously stated in contemporary reports that audiences, bemused by what they were hearing, stood upor on chairs, trying to see how this so-called “three-hand effect” was being produced.

In 1835, Thalberg arrived in Paris as one of the most famous musicians in Europe, having been appointed Kammervirtuos to the Emperor of Austria. 1830s Paris played host to a remarkable selection of piano virtuosi – Liszt, Chopin, Alkan, Kalkbrenner, Herz and Pixis amongst others, and Liszt had come to be seen as the Crown Prince of them all. Thus in many ways the timing of Thalberg’s arrival was fortuitous – Liszt had left earlier that year and moved temporarily to Geneva, not least to escape the controversy over his relationship with the married Countess d’Agoult.

Paris took to Thalberg with enthusiasm, not least his aristocratic demeanour and elegance. Thalberg was a believer in producing spectacular technical effects with an apparent minumum of physical effort and movement – the polar opposite of the flamboyant, even histrionic, Liszt. In other respects, too, Thalberg was the opposite of Liszt, a classicist par excellence – but one equipped with technical gifts and imagination that exceeded his predecessors, redistilled through the rapid development of the instrument itself (we must not forget that the 1830s grand piano had far more in common with the modern day instrument than the piano of Mozart’s time, or even that of mid-period Beethoven). Liszt was much more of a progressive modernist, experimenting to create orchestral and storm effects on the developing instrument.

With all these differences, it is perhaps unsurprising that critics took sides. A year later, Liszt returned to Paris, and a war of words broke out in the press, certainly not helped by a highly disparaging article critiquing Thalberg’s compositions, and published in Liszt’s name (although it is generally believed it was in reality written by the Countess d’Agoult). Mutual friends attempted to damp down the flames, suggesting a joint recital. Thalberg is reported to have replied “I do not like to be accompanied”. Finally a resolution was reached when the Princess Cristina di Belgiojoso arranged for both pianists to perform at the same musical event in her celebrated salon.

Both pianists performed flamboyant virtuoso paraphrases and arrangements: Liszt offering his Fantasy on Niobe (an opera by Giovanni Pacini, wildly successful in its time, but now almost forgotten) and a solo piano arrangement of Weber’s Konzertstück, whilst Thalberg contributed his Fantasy on God Save The King and his Fantasy on Moses in Egypt (the coda of which contains the most celebrated example of the “three-handed effect”: the melody being completely enveloped in rapid, sweeping arpeggiation whilst accompanimental harmonies appear in the bass). Liszt’s biographers have (unsurprisingly) tended to give Liszt the victory, but the supporting facts are less clear. The press reports of the time were inconclusive, and the Princess’s oft-cited quote is diplomatically ambiguous: “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world – Liszt is unique”. What we can infer is that, whilst Liszt was normally the considerable superior of rival pianists, Thalberg represented serious competition to his crown. This was to be the climactic moment of Thalberg’s career; certainly by far the most historically famous.

He and Liszt went their separate ways but remained certainly very much aware of each other. The connoisseur of their respective virtuoso fantasies may observe that a certain amount of compositionalcrossfertilisation took place after the event – we find Liszt cloning the climactic passage of Moses in his Norma Fantasy, and we find Thalberg utilising rapid interlocking chromatic octaves (which make their first appearance in Liszt’s Fantasy on La Juive) a few years later in his Fantasy on La Sonnambula.

Thalberg retired, a rich man, from the stage in the 1860s, having conducted two lengthy tours of the Americas, and lived out his final years cultivating vineyards at his new home in Posillipo (his Soirées de Pausilippe provide a gentle, but still classically-centred, counterpart to his virtuoso career). Strangely, there was no piano in his home.

And so we return to the observation of the first paragraph and ask “Why?” The truth probably lies in a combination of factors. Firstly, his music was rooted in the generation of his forebears; whilst his great rival sought to move forward and “throw his lance into the future”. Secondly, and more importantly, we must be objective and say “yes, he was a great pianist, but..” and realise that, for all that Thalberg’s best paraphrases are attractively and ingeniously constructed, Liszt was a far more protean and skilled composer, and that supreme technical excellence in one field does not necessarily confer the same level of excellence in another, even when they are closely related.
Recommended listening:

Fantasy on La Sonnambula (op. 46)

Fantasy on Moses in Egypt (op. 33) – second half, variations on Moses’ Prayer

Casta diva (arranged as part of L’art du chant, op. 70)

 

Further reading

 


andrew-wrightAndrew Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, and showed an early interest in music, having his first piano lessons at the age of seven, and giving his first public performance at the age of eleven. Further lessons followed with Dr William Stevenson and latterly with Kenneth van Barthold and Nicholas Pope. In addition to his performing career, Andrew has an active interest in composition and improvisation, and has featured some of his own works in his recital programmes.

During his studies, Andrew acquired a conviction that much of the conventional repertoire is over-exposed, and that there are many hidden gems to be found in the works of lesser-known composers. This belief resulted in him making a detailed study of the minor figures of 19th-century and early 20th-century pianistic history.

This study culminated in 2013 with the release, to critical acclaim, of “A Night at the Opera”, an album of transcriptions and paraphrases taken from opera. Following these initial positive reactions, the album was re-released as “The Operatic Pianist” by the US-based record company Divine Art. The album included not only established arrangements by Liszt, but also lesser-known pieces by Thalberg, the world premiere of Martucci’s Concert Fantasy on Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, and a selection of three self-penned paraphrases. Of these paraphrases, MusicWeb International commented: “.. hyphenated Wright takes its place alongside hyphenated Liszt and Thalberg, and that represents something of a Himalayan challenge to Wright’s credentials. It’s a measure of his aplomb that his own transcriptions fail to wilt even in the glare of such declamatory historic precedent.”

Andrew has given a multitude of recitals featuring a wide variety of such operatic transcriptions and paraphrases. He also includes lesser-known etudes and compositions within his performance repertoire, and has given recitals at numerous venues throughout the United Kingdom.

www.andrewwrightpianist.com

24831421_1977456932270252_449304737319407869_o

Helen Anahita Wilson – BHOOMA, 6 December 2017

Magical music calls for a magical venue – and the Treehouse, a large open-plan space above a pub in Shoreditch, proved the perfect place to enjoy new music composed and performed by Helen Anahita Wilson. While traffic growled along the Great Eastern Road, for two hours we were bathed in exotic, sensual sounds, cocooned in a wonderful urban eyrie. The lights were low, the ambiance relaxed, the air delicately scented with incense, the music entrancing.

In a typically imaginative and unusual programme, Helen played her own compositions as well as works by her beloved teacher, the late Peter Feuchtwanger, Chick Corea, Handel and Stephen Montague. Her own pieces reflect her musical preoccupations – Asian musics and jazz – and evoked Indian rhythms, harmonies and instrumentation, with Sitar-like shimmers of sound, hypnotically pulsing accompaniments, and perfumed chords infused with Eastern and jazz harmonies, sometimes redolent of Debussy’s idiosyncratic soundworld. These works were complemented by Feuchtwanger’s Tariqa I, an absorbing, atmospheric study based on preludes in Persian or Arabic music, which transforms the concert piano into an Arab Qånun (a type of stringed instrument), and Dhun, a northern Indian Råga. The first half of the concert closed with Beguiled (2015), a striking work by Stephen Montague (receiving its world premiere at this concert), at first exuberant and extrovert before retreating into a more introspective and tender realm.

The second half opened with Incarnation II by Somei Satoh, an extraordinary work constructed from a series of repeated notes which capitalises on the piano’s resonance to create multi-layered timbres which evoke horns, drums, low strings, bells….. while the rapid repetitions and very slow overall pulse bring a sense of suspended time. The spare elegance of the Adagio from Handel’s Suite in F, HWV 427, provided a wonderful contrast, like a musical palette cleanser, before three more works by Helen herself, all infused with Asian idioms and rhythms, music which spoke softly yet deeply expressive and always engaging. The collective silence at the end of the performance was a mark of how absorbing this concert was.

This was the ‘salon concert’ reinvented for the 21st century – the atmosphere relaxed, warm and intimate, the music exquisitely played and elegantly presented.


Meet the Artist – Helen Anahita Wilson

A stunning 12-CD box set, Beethoven Unbound, will be released to mark the completion of Llŷr Williams’ monumental Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD). All the works were recorded live at Wigmore Hall over three years and nine recitals, and the box set will be released by Signum Classics internationally on 30 March 2018.

lylr_3322374b

As well as the complete piano sonatas, the box set also features other works including the 32 Variations in C minor, Eroica Variations, Opus 126 Bagatelles and the Diabelli Variations, a total of almost 14 hours of music. This is Williams’ fourth album on Signum Classics. Beethoven Unbound is presented in a beautiful hinged box with extensive notes by Mischa Donat, and personal notes by Williams and the album’s award-winning producer Judith Sherman, with whom Williams worked previously on his Wagner without Words release.

Williams comments on the box set and the partnership with Sherman:

“Rather than adopt the chronological approach, I have arranged the works roughly in the order that I played them in the concerts, and each CD has been devised as a mini-recital programme. This has sometimes allowed for creativity in putting the pieces together. Working with Judy on this project has been a joy and a privilege. It was sad to reach the end – but at least we still have a Schubert cycle to look forward to!”

Williams has developed a reputation as one of the finest exponents of Beethoven, since giving his first Beethoven cycle in Perth in 2010, and winning a South Bank Sky Arts Award in 2012 for an epic two-week marathon in Edinburgh. The Guardian said of one of his RWCMD cycle recitals in 2016: “Williams’ already considerable stature as a Beethoven interpreter seems to grow with every performance” (Rian Evans, 25 March 2016) and The Independent commented on a Wigmore recital: “Williams treats it [the keyboard] as an extension of his body, and with the three Opus 10 sonatas plus the Diabelli Variations he took us onto an altogether higher plane” (Michael Church, 12 October 2016). 2017 saw the conclusion not only of the solo series at Wigmore Hall and the RWCMD, but also of a complete concerto cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Born in 1976 in Pentrebychan, Williams read music at The Queen’s College, Oxford before taking up a postgraduate scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, where he won every available prize and award. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and in November 2017 was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Wales.

Beethoven Unbound will be launched with a one-hour public recital at the project’s birthplace, Wigmore Hall, on Wednesday 4 April 2018 at 1pm. A private reception for press and supporters will follow.

 

Beethoven Unbound
Signum Classics,
SIGCD527

CD 1

Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1

Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2

Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3

CD 2

Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’  

6 Variations on an Original Theme in F, Op. 34

Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1

Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2

CD 3   

Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77

Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’

Piano Sonata in C# minor, Op. 27, No. 2 ‘Moonlight’

Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 101

Für Elise

CD 4

Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 31 No. 1

Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 ‘The Tempest’

Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31 No. 3

CD 5

Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 22

Piano Sonata in F Major, Op. 54

Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 53 ‘Waldstein’

Andante Favori, WoO. 57

CD 6

Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme in E-flat Major Op. 35 ‘Eroica Variations’

Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 26 ‘Funeral March’

Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ or ‘Das Lebewohl’

CD 7

Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 ‘Pathétique’

7 Bagatelles, Op. 33

Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 90

Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 79

CD 8

Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’

6 Bagatelles, Op. 126

CD 9

Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1

Piano Sonata in F Major, Op. 10 No. 2

Piano Sonata in D Major, Op. 10 No. 3

32 Variations in C minor WoO 80 

CD 10

Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1

33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120

Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 49 No. 2

CD 11

Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 7

Piano Sonata in F-sharp Major, Op. 78

Piano Sonata in D Major, Op. 28 ‘Pastoral’

Rondo. Allegro, ma non troppo – Più allegro quasi presto

CD 12

Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 109

Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110

Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111


(Source: press release/Harestones Communications)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

The joy of discovering new things in music inspired me. I was self-taught, and I just found the notion of making music such a thrilling adventure.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I think a composer draws inspiration from all of the events in their lives. But looking back, I’m pretty sure some of the music I listened to when I was young provided some serious influence…the Beatles in particular. My flute teacher, Judith Bentley was also a huge influence. And then there are all of my colleagues…they continue to inspire me every day.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Starting out in my undergrad not knowing much of anything about classical music was an incredible challenge. For a long time I felt that I was climbing a huge mountain of knowledge, trying to pick up as many “pebbles” as I could manage to carry. But every step made me smarter and stronger. Along the way, I realized that one spends an entire lifetime learning.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Every piece is a challenge. To create something from nothing is a big thing. Sometimes I’m learning about a particular instrument’s needs (I just finished a tuba concerto…so I studied a lot of the repertoire and talked with various players to get a sense of what would be ideal in the piece). Other times, I’m trying to craft something that works for the performer(s). Then there is the challenge of getting notes on a page, which I hope the performer and listener will find interesting.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I don’t think it’s possible to make a generalization about this (I’m so lucky to be able to work with such a huge assortment of performers)…each piece is different and the challenges and pleasures change daily and yearly.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know if it’s possible to be proud of one particular work. They all reflect so many things for me. But the one that feels very personal is “Blue Cathedral” … it seems to affect so many people. I’m sometimes surprised at how many instrumentalists and composers tell me this is the first piece of contemporary music that they encountered when they were younger. Even more surprising is how many people have performed it more than once. That’s one of the things that makes it special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I let other people decide that for themselves.

How do you work?

I try to work every day, composing 4-6 hours a day: consistently, persistently, and conscientiously.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Impossible to name as there are literally thousands!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’m lucky to have had many incredible and memorable experiences. One of the most life changing was the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of my “Concerto for Orchestra” which took place at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference. My life changed over night after that performance. Suddenly I was known, and commissions started coming in.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Make sure you love what you’re doing, as you’ll spend so much of your waking time doing it. Work hard and do it to the best of your ability. Share the joy with as many other people as you can.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Composing in my studio

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing in my studio

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon (b. Brooklyn, NY, December 31, 1962) is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. Higdon started late in music, teaching herself to play flute at the age of 15 and beginning formal musical studies at 18, with an even later start in composition at the age of 21. Despite this late beginning, she has become a major figure in contemporary Classical music and makes her living from commissions. These commissions represent a range of genres, including orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and wind ensemble.

Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.M. in Flute Performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Hailed by the Washington Post as “a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form and a generous dash of pure esprit,” her works have been performed throughout the world, and are enjoyed by audiences at several hundred performances a year and on over sixty CDs. Higdon’s orchestral work, blue cathedral, is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral compositions by a living American with more than 600 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000.

Her list of commissioners and performing organizations is extensive and includes The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony, The Atlanta Symphony, The Baltimore Symphony, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luzern Sinfonieorchester, The Hague Philharmonic, The Melbourne Symphony, The New Zealand Symphony, The Pittsburgh Symphony, The Indianapolis Symphony, The Dallas Symphony, as well as such groups as the Tokyo String Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the President’s Own Marine Band. Higdon has worked with musicians that include Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Hilary Hahn, and Yuja Wang.

Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in January, 2010. Higdon also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, with the committee citing Higdon’s work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”

Among her national honors, Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. She was also honored by the Delaware Symphony with the A.I. DuPont Award for her contributions to the symphonic literature. Most recently, she was awarded the Distinguished Arts Award by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

Higdon has been a featured composer at many festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Grand Teton, and Cabrillo. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with several orchestras across the country including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Wheeling Symphony and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Higdon was also honored to serve as one of the Creative Directors of the Boundless Series for the Cincinnati Symphony.

One of Higdon’s most current project was an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. It was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. All performances in Santa Fe were sold out and Higdon’s opera became the third-highest grossing opera in the company’s history at Opera Philadelphia. Higdon recently won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere.

Dr. Higdon currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she has inspired a generation of young composers and musicians. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.

For more information: www.jenniferhigdon.com

Guest article by Ian Flint, a pianist and piano teacher based in North London. It was originally published on pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

Chopin’s extraordinary Ballade No.1 seems to inspire serious students of the piano, whether dedicated hobbyists or aspirant professionals, like no other single piano work. Its role at a pivotal moment in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist has doubtless contributed to its celebrated status. More recently the sense of Zeitgeist around this masterpiece has been further enhanced by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s book in which he outlines his endeavours to learn the piece against all the odds (Play It again: An Amateur Against the Impossible).

This article assesses the main recordings of the work available on YouTube, with the aim of helping you locate the most compelling performances. Given the range of richly rewarding interpretations on offer, from widely divergent artistic personalities, it’s clear that this piece of music truly inspires many of the world’s greatest pianists too. They are in good company: Chopin apparently told Schumann that this Ballade was his favourite among his own works.

Maurizio Pollini

Having long occupied an exalted place amongst interpreters of this work, Pollini is well represented on YouTube, mainly in recordings taken from ‘live’ performances. If Pollini is at his best when he combines his commanding brilliance with a sense of space and a willingness to yield to the more lyrical impulses of the music, one of these recordings is pre-eminent. This is indeed a magisterial account, granitic, turbulent when the music demands, but also with an enchanting sense of reverie in the second subject, truly faithful to Chopin’s sotto voce marking. Throughout the work Pollini’s phrasing comes in long, organic paragraphs, contributing to an inexorable sense of the work’s overall architecture.

 

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter is also well-served on YouTube, mostly via recordings of various concerts from the 1960’s. Richter’s interpretation remains fairly consistent across these performances. His introduction is restrained rather than consciously arresting, and leads to a subdued main theme, cowed with sorrow. In the midst of such a weighty reading, his rather insouciant way with the second limb of the second subject in the recapitulation (from bar 180) is rather quirky – hardly the con forza stipulated by the composer. But in general Richter is fully responsive to the unfolding drama, and the denouement is suitably demonic.

 

Vladimir Horowitz

Much less consistent are the various YouTube versions of Vladimir Horowitz, again from ‘live’ performances. The most impressive of these is a video of a Carnegie Hall concert. As might be expected from Horowitz, this is a big-boned rendition, but there are also many charming individual moments of lyricism and a delightfully teasing quasi-waltz (from bar 140). Even in this performance, though, there is sometimes an unwarranted heavy-handedness, a certain lumpiness in the phrasing and rhythmic relationships:

These less appealing characteristics are more pronounced on the various other Horowitz performances on YouTube. Indeed one version (posted by ‘boomzxz’) is nothing short of a travesty.

 

Arthur Rubinstein

The countless admirers of Arthur Rubinstein would cite the sheer individuality of his poetic sensibility as one of the crowning glories of his playing. His recording of the 1st Ballade, dating from 1959, certainly has those moments of insight, but some will feel that at times his rubato and tonal shading step across the border from revelatory to wilful. For example, the way he curtails the very first note of the piece or flattens out of the triplet in bar 4 seem difficult to justify. Chopin was a perpetual revisor, and was on occasion even capable of sending substantially varied versions of the same work to his different publishers, so it would be ill-advised to argue for a frigid fidelity to the text in the performance of his music. However, he notated the rhythm of this Ballade’s introduction so precisely that it seems appropriate to adhere to his written intentions.

 

Alfred Cortot

Whatever are Rubinstein’s eccentricities, they pale into insignificance when set alongside Cortot’s performance. There is certainly something of the tortured artist here, and Cortot’s rhythmic liberties are at times so spasmodic that he could scarcely be seen as a prime contender. However, if one can disregard his distortions of Chopin’s text in, for example, the second subject, one can be drawn into a quasi-improvisatory dreamscape that is oddly intoxicating.

 

Lang Lang

Yet pianists from a bygone era such as Cortot don’t have a monopoly on extreme expressive freedom. The ‘live’ video of Lang Lang reminds us that not all today’s pianists are sanitized in comparison with their predecessors. Lang Lang allows himself more poetic (and sometimes textual) licence than most of his colleagues, past and present. There is fervour and panache in abundance; indeed the overall effect might be mesmerising to someone who had never heard the piece before. For those more familiar with the composer’s score and the general stylistic history of Chopin playing, some aspects of his interpretation are likely to be puzzling at best.

 

Claudio Arrau

For more convincing examples of rhythmic flexibility one might turn to Claudio Arrau. Of the many versions available on YouTube, recorded at various stages of his career, perhaps the most consistently fulfilling is one dating from 1953. Here, his way with the third phrase of the main theme (bars 12-14) or the apogee of the second subject (bars 79-80), to give just two examples, is very rubato indeed, but seems to fit perfectly in the context. Indeed, Arrau’s second theme in general is one of the most exquisitely contoured to be found anywhere. It is true that Arrau is less scintillating than many in the more bravura passages of the work, but this is a performance to treasure for the beauty and gravitas of its musical soul.

 

Martha Agerich

In many ways Martha Agerich’s interpretation is the polar opposite of Arrau’s, in her characteristic emphasis on the volatile, tempestuous aspects of the work. Yet Agerich also finds room for a winningly tender second subject. Another strength of this performance is the dazzling clarity of her fingerwork in the central section, giving a wonderful sense of caprice.

 

Evgeny Kissin

This Russian artist strikes a fine balance between respect for the score and apparent spontaneity. Individual phrases are lovingly sculpted and intelligently related to each other; this thoughtful approach shines, for example, in his very organic transition between the first and second subjects (from bar 36). There is much profundity in both main themes (although the slightly halting quality in the first theme is somewhat curious), and the central section pulsates with verve and playfulness.

Unlike many others, Kissin observes Chopin’s con forza (bar 180) in the recapitulation of the second subject, giving this section a great sense of élan. The main body of the coda is not utterly relentless; instead he withdraws at the beginning of certain phrases, both tonally and rhythmically. Rather than detracting from the drama, this seems to magnify the ultimate annihilation.

 

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli,

In a studio version captured on video, Michelangeli offers an aristocratic reading, understated and seemingly effortless. There’s not much red-blooded passion here, and the performance isn’t free of his ‘left hand before right’ mannerism, but there are substantial compensations, notably an irresistibly languid second subject.

There are also various ‘live’ performances by Michelangeli (posted by ‘RabidCh’ and ‘incontrario motu’ among others) which are by no means carbon copies of each other, but in general he seems more emotionally involved and allows himself more expressive freedom (not always to the music’s advantage) than in the video recording.

 

Vladimir Ashkenazy

The main recording by Ashkenazy, taken from his Decca box set, has that emotionally searching quality that is one of the hallmarks of this artist. The main theme is mournfully ruminative, setting the tone for a performance full of pathos, perhaps sometimes at the expense of propulsion. Yet there is plenty of the requisite majesty and drama too, and Ashkenazy’s peerless tonal refinement makes for a deeply satisfying listening experience.

There is an earlier ‘live’ performance by Ashkenazy, recorded in Moscow in 1963. This has much more of the impetuosity of youth (it’s over a minute shorter), the expression is in general more overt and the ferocity of the coda even more seismic. The recording quality is admirably clear but shows its age in an occasional hard edge to the piano sound.

 

Murray Perahia

Perahia gives a powerful and insightful account. Some of the underlying chords in the first theme (especially in the recapitulation) are a little dry and obtrusive, but this is a minor quibble. This is a highly convincing performance, poised and intelligent, titanic when necessary but devoid of hyperbole. Other versions might be more captivating in individual aspects of the work, but few achieve Perahia’s cohesion, both in the relationships between individual phrases and the logic of the overarching structural framework. This masterful grasp of the musical narrative is perfectly illustrated, for example, in the transition (bars 188-194) leading to the final stricken intoning of the first theme.

 

Emil Gilels

Gilels has an imposingly strident manner in this work, sometimes to good effect, especially in an exciting ‘live’ performance from Leningrad in 1963. There are moments of melting beauty, but in general the emotions are conveyed quite forcefully, and sometimes the sound is a little too stark for the context, for example towards the end of the first theme.

 

Umi Garrett

There is a remarkable ‘live’ recording by the 14-year-old Umi Garrett. This is not just a question of gaping at a Wunderkind, and musing sagely if the child prodigy will be able to mature into a genuine artist. On the contrary, this is already a fully-fledged performance, full of artistic sensibility as well as marvellous dexterity, one with which to try a ‘blind test’ on your musical friends.

 

Jorge Bolet

Bolet is represented by a video recording, made late in his career, and indeed this performance has a distinct sense of a master looking back. Although many other pianists engulf us more remorselessly in the work’s turmoil, this performance is suffused with a haunting sadness that perhaps compels more deeply than some other more extrovert readings.

 

Andrei Gavrilov

Another performance of impeccable artistry comes from Andrei Gavrilov. From his suitably portentous introduction Gavrilov takes us on an absorbing journey through the work’s ever-changing landscapes. This is music-making of the utmost sincerity, and Gavrilov always directs his stupendous physical prowess to the service of the music. Towards the end of a titanic coda, his pronounced rubato and the sheer slowness of the final octave descent (perhaps too melodramatic for some listeners) crown the work with an epic fatalism. Unfortunately the rather muffled sound quality of the recording is not commensurate with the quality of the playing.

 

Krystian Zimerman

The opening bars in Zimerman’s hands immediately set the tone for a performance of great grandeur and finesse. Every musical gesture is delivered with great conviction. His rubato is highly idiomatic and his phrasing wonderfully nuanced, although he is less ethereal than some in the more introspective episodes, especially the initial statement of the second subject. The central A major statement of the second theme is toweringly imperious. Overall, Zimerman’s interpretation has a severity that seems entirely appropriate, no more so than in the main body of the coda which is relentlessly pulverising rather than frenetic, leading with gripping inevitability to a bone-crushing final catastrophe.

 

So who are the best interpreters of Chopin’s First Ballade?

With such a range of outstanding performances to choose from it is genuinely difficult to select one definitive version. The most poignantly lyrical performances are not necessarily the most riveting in the more magmatic or mercurial aspects of the work. Ashkenazy, Gavrilov, Kissin, Pollini, Perahia and Zimerman are amongst the most enthralling communicators of Chopin’s kaleidoscope of emotions. But if forced to take just one performance to the proverbial desert island, it would be Krystian Zimerman.

 

About the Author:

Ian Flint is a highly experienced and versatile pianist and teacher, who has established a thriving piano teaching practice in London, where he specialises in coaching adult pianists. Inspired by his own Russian-influenced training, he is extremely dedicated to developing each student’s physical approach to promote maximum freedom, agility and beauty of sound. For more of his articles and additional information about piano lessons, go to pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

One concert leads to another, or so it would appear based on recent events in my musical life….. Less than a month ago, at a super lunchtime concert given by the sparkling young British pianist Christina McMaster, we were chatting after her performance and she asked me if I was free in early December to play in a private house concert down in Sussex at the lovely country home of Neil Franks, Chairman of Petworth Festival. And so a couple of weeks and two rehearsals at Steinway Hall later, I found myself playing the Wilberg Carmen Fantasy with three other pianists, including Christina and Neil. To say it was great fun would be an understatement – it was possibly the most fun I have ever had at a piano: making lots of wonderful noise (music!) with like-minded people with a true passion for the piano to a very appreciative audience. Add in welcoming, generous hosts, plenty of Prosecco and wine, good food and good company, and one has the makings for a perfect evening.

The programme was eclectic (see pictures below) but it worked and I think the audience really appreciated the range and variety of music played, from Rachmaninov’s striking and vibrant Symphonic Dances (brilliantly performed by Neil Julian) to miniatures by Satie and Etudes by Debussy (beautifully played by Christina), interspersed with works by Peteris Vasks, Chick Corea, Britten, William Grant Stiff and Prokofiev. A programme need not have a theme nor a common thread when performed by a mix of people who simply want to share their favourite music – and their love of playing music – with others. And that sense of a shared experience, between musicians and audience, was very palpable, judging by the lovely comments from audience members during the interval and after the concert.

We are so used to hearing music in formal or very large concert venues, like the Wigmore or Royal Festival Hall, that it’s easy to forget that until about 1850, the majority of music was written for and performed in private salons and the home (and music for piano four- or six-hands was composed to satisfy a growing market in the 19th century for piano music to be played in the intimacy of one’s home). Neil Franks’ Pianos at Parkhurst (House) recreates the atmosphere of the rather less formal nineteenth-century salon or haus konzert – an atmosphere that allows for greater connection between audience and performers – and is a delightful and very positive reminder that, fundamentally, music is for sharing.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and hugely enjoyable evening of shared music making – for friends, with friends and amongst friends.


Petworth Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2018. A preview of the 2018 Festival will be on this blog.

For further information about the Festival, please visit www.petworthfestival.org.uk