Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).

So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch  (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).

But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?

This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.

One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?

Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.

Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).

Glenn Gould – French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813/I. Allemande

Bartók : For Children – Quasi Adagio

My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, performed at Sutton House, in Hackney on Sunday evening, in a fascinating programme in which she juxtaposed the reason of Bach with the mercurial romance of Schumann. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

Penelope Roskell is an acclaimed concert pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, and is Artistic Director of Sutton House Music Society.

Sutton House Music Society

Sutton House

by Graham Fitch

I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and  was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back.

Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov.

One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a good mood. Sensing this, I asked him if he was OK and he pointed to a stack of scores on his desk, bemoaning the fact that he had been roped into learning it for the BBC and for concert engagements. It turned out to be by Frank Bridge, whose music at that time had fallen into neglect. The following week, I asked him how he was getting on with it. His face lit up and he enthused for many minutes on the undiscovered qualities of this music and how wonderful it was. Peter was at the forefront of the revival of interest in Bridge’s music, which rubbed off onto me. He immediately suggested I learn the two pieces “In Autumn” and I had much success with them. Among my prize possessions is Peter’s score of the sonata, littered in his inimitable way with crayon and pencil markings that only he could make sense of, certainly a testament to a practical musician!

I was officially registered for lessons with Peter at the Royal College of Music, but after a while my lessons moved from room 68 at the RCM to Peter’s home in Kensal Rise. Not only did I occasionally get to stay for tea and wonderful conversation with Peter and Anita (and Millie the cat), but my good fortune extended to lessons which went on all afternoon.  Three hours was the norm, always without a break, and usually on just one work. He gave of himself unstintingly and generously and as I was walking down his garden path after the lesson, I felt that I had been given the ultimate secrets to the music we had just worked on. This went way beyond a mere piano lesson. There was one time I took a very half-baked Beethoven’s op. 109 sonata along, and yet after my lesson felt that I could almost have deputised for Barenboim that very night, such was the completeness of my understanding of Beethoven’s message. There were many such experiences where I left having had more than a lesson, but a Gestalt of the music – an experience of the essence of the whole picture even though my playing of it might yet be primitive. Pieces that stand out are the Brahms-Handel Variations, Bartok’s Third Concerto, Mendelssohn’s “Variations Sérieuses”, some Debussy and plenty of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven…

It is difficult to describe how Peter taught. One thing I can say is he never, ever talked about piano playing as an activity in itself. His comments were always about the music. He would hear what I had brought in and would always give a totally honest appraisal of what he had heard. He was never one to mince his words, thus you could always rely on his reactions and comments as a very accurate barometer of how you’d done. If he didn’t like it, you would certainly know; if he did like it, he could ooze genuine enthusiasm and encouragement. You always knew where you stood with Peter.

Technical difficulties seemed to melt away, since through his lengthy verdicts and fabulous verbal descriptions of what he wanted to hear (he rarely demonstrated) you were literally infected with a mental and aural picture that left no doubt as to how the piece should go. There were so many times when, before he had finished talking, I was itching to play again because I knew exactly what he meant. After he had said what he needed, I would play again. What was difficult before now often wasn’t at all because I had an ultra clear picture of the sound, of the composer’s meaning. If you did ask for technical help – I mean specific pianistic help – he might even get annoyed. He really did not like talking about piano playing per se. Once I asked him what exercises he practised (I knew he had quite a warm-up ritual for himself). Again, he dismissed my question, saying that he did not want to burden me with it, nor did he like to do his dirty laundry in public.

There are SO many individual lessons I remember crystal clearly. During a lesson on op. 109 I missed a sforzando accent in the second movement and received a very painful dig in the ribs which taught me way better than words could have. Now, whenever I get to that place in the sonata, I feel a psychosomatic twinge of pain. There was the tail end of someone else’s lesson who crowed that he had managed to learn a Beethoven sonata in a week. Peter went red in the face and exploded: “How dare you say that! It took Beethoven months of time, sweat and blood to write that sonata, and you claim you can play it in one week!”. Another lesson that stands out for me was on a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After I finished he told me it was excellent and that he could not fault it. But I noticed a trace of disdain in his voice, and sure enough he said to stop it sounding sterile and boring, I had to find my own voice with the piece. When pushed, he made a few vague suggestions but would not be specific and it took a while before I figured out what he meant, that he expected me to take personal ownership of the piece.

Even after I had gone to America on my Fulbright Scholarship, I would return to Peter to play for him. I always received the same warm welcome and uncompromising advice. His influence is still with me to this day. I very often think of him, and I still miss him!

Graham Fitch is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, piano adjudicator, piano examiner, piano lecturer and writer/commentator on piano. www.grahamfitch.com

Obituary of Peter Wallfisch in The Independent

 

To the Wigmore Hall last night for an evening of late Schubert piano music, performed by Paul Lewis. A few years ago, Lewis stamped his mark emphatically upon the international piano world with his concert cycle and recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, thus elevating him to the rank of one of the top flight pianists of his generation. Now, in another epic world tour, he is exploring the late music of Schubert.

Lewis was taught and mentored by Alfred Brendel – and it shows. Brendel famously does not teach – except for the chosen few (Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner). He performed (he retired in 2008), choosing to concentrate on the Viennese school, he writes and he gives lectures on music. His on-stage persona is austere, didactic, intellectual, highly disciplined.

Watching Paul Lewis play music composed in the last six years of Schubert’s short life, I felt the shadow of Brendel at his shoulder throughout the evening. The opening Waltzes, D145, written in response to the seemingly unending desire for dance music in Vienna, were largely serious, grand and solemn. Only occasionally was the music allowed to “let go”, offering brief glimpses of the private life of a composer who enjoyed evenings of music, song, women (and men, it is said) and wine with his friends, students and writers, radicals and intellectuals. As opening pieces, I would have liked more lightness, more spirit, more playfulness. And maybe a touch less darkness.

In the D899 Impromptus there was a greater sense of the music being thought out in advance, each signpost along the journey of these pieces clearly highlighted, lest we miss it. In the opening C minor Impromptu, there was less coldness in those early measures, less of a sense of the tyranny of the bare G which marks the opening, reminding us that this is a work which falls post-Winterreise. There was warmth in the major key measures and lyricism, but towards the end, from bar 160, the repeated Gs in the treble and bass were too mechanical, too obvious, robbing the music of its portentous chill.

The E flat Impromptu was rapid and polished, and, as a consequence, lost some of its agitation and hysteria. At times, during the Trio, the touch was too heavy and occasionally muddy. Though many measures in this section are marked fortissimo, at times there was not a proper sense or attack, or if there was, it was quickly reined in, cheating the music of its startling contrasts and harmonic and emotional shifts. This was even more evident in the final Impromptu of the set, the A flat. The opening semiquavers never really took flight, and some smeared or inaccurate notes suggested a tiredness on the part of the performer, possibly the result of having played this programme several times already.

The Hungarian Melody D817 was a pleasing opener for the second half, settling us in before the expansive G major sonata. It was enjoyable if overly dark, its folksy elements muted in favour of a grander delivery. (For a really wonderful performance of this piece, I would flag up Imogen Cooper’s from her ‘Schubert Live Vol 3’ album.)

The G Major sonata, D894, was the favourite of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and, in his hands, the spacious opening movement, marked Molto Moderato e Cantabile, comes in at 26 minutes, roughly the same length as an entire Beethoven piano sonata. It is graceful and meditative, Richter achieving an amazing stillness in the first motif. Paul Lewis opted for a brisker tempo, which suited the second subject elements better, but rather robbed the first subject of its grace and philosophy. In the middle movements, my attention began to wander: I craved more life, more bounce and vivacity. Throughout, the very cerebral reading of the score was evident (witness the powerful influence of Brendel!). The final movement was more questioning, charming and humourous, but overall I felt the sonata was played with too much gloss and a curious ‘intellectual complacency’ that diluted the music’s spontaneity and tempered the ever-shifting soundscape and emotional landscape of Schubert’s writing.

Paul Lewis repeats the programme at the Wigmore on Thursday night, and then in Oxford and Schwarzenberg, Austria, before returning to London next week for performances of Die Schëne Mullerin with tenor Mark Padmore.

As a postcript to this review, I must also mention Paul Lewis’s annoying habit of snuffling and “chuffing” as he plays. I have been aware of this “tic” before, and it seems to be getting worse. It was particularly noticeable during the quieter or more profound measures, and was obvious from the earliest bars of the first Waltz.

Sviatoslav Richter – Schubert: Piano Sonata No.18 in G, D.894 – 1. Molto moderato e cantabile

This question seems particularly pertinent as I help prepare another crop of students for their piano exams. The question was, in fact, put to me last week by a student of another teacher (Clarinet) who came to me for some extra aural training ahead of his Grade 5 exam next week. I found myself quoting from the ABRSM website when I said “Aural tests help to train your musical ear, and to help you make an important link between listening to music and playing music”.

I think most of us who took music exams as children would agree that, along with sight-reading, the aural tests were the most dreaded element of the graded music exam. I can still remember being “trained” by my music teacher at school, Mr Weaver, and, in my nervousness, finding it almost impossible to sing a simple major third or fifth. (I was also tested for perfect pitch when I was about 12, in front of the entire class, which was excruciating and cringe-makingly awful.) One of my students, Laurie, absolutely refuses to sing for me and so when we come to the part of the test, where he is required to sing an echo, we mime (or I sing it for him), on the strict understanding that he will sing at his exam!

Joking apart, as well as forming an integral part of the graded music exams, training the musical ear is a crucial process for the developing musician. Intelligent and informed listening lies at the heart of good music making, whether listening to others, or to oneself, and is fundamental to music training, especially for performance. The key aspects from the Prep or Initial stage are:

  • Identifying and clapping a pulse
  • Clapping a rhythm
  • Singing and echo or pitching notes in a sequence
  • Identifying simple features in an extract of music – e.g. detached or smooth playing, loud or soft

As one proceeds through the graded exams, additional skills are tested

  • Identifying a rhythmic or pitch change in an extract of music
  • Identifying features such as staccato, legato, dynamic, tempo or key changes
  • Singing and identifying intervals
  • Identifying cadences
  • Learning to appreciate music from different periods – e.g. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Jazz

What bothered me while working with the other teacher’s student last week was that the child had no idea why he was required to take an aural test, hence my explanation about training the musical ear. Being able to identify a pulse is crucially important, for any musician, and those of us who have played in ensembles or orchestras can surely still remember the player/s who could not keep time. I regularly do pulse and rhythm exercises with my teacher, and anyone who has learnt ‘Bah-Ba-Doo-Bah’ (John Kember, ABRSM Grade 2 syllabus) with me this term has had to do a lot of clapping and counting to master the syncopation in this piece.

Singing is also incredibly useful as a musician, and I often sing (not especially well!) to demonstrate a line of melody or the shape of a phrase. So much music follows a “singing line”, and singing a phrase rather than playing it demonstrates “natural shaping” which comes from the innate rise and fall of the human voice. It’s a pity that so many students are reluctant to sing because I think if they were more prepared to try it, they would find phrasing music so much easier.

When I worked with the clarinet student last week, I was astonished at his lack of knowledge of music history and the distinct periods in classical music. He did not even realise that the piece he played for me was jazz! He came armed with a book on how to improve your aural, and, flicking through it, it fell open on a page about the main periods of classical music. Each one – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – had four bullet points identifying the key features. When I played an extract of a Gershwin Prelude (No 2 – the middle section) he reeled off the salient features of Baroque music – and my heart sank.

If one doesn’t develop an appreciation and understanding of different kinds of music – and not just ‘classical’ music, but jazz, rock, pop, world, ambient, electronic etc – how can one properly understand how to interpret and play a piece properly? One of the first things I do when looking at a new piece with a student is set the music in context. When we study Bach, we look at the kinds of keyboard instruments he was writing for (I have pictures loaded onto my iPad) and listen to Bach played on the harpsichord or organ. While working on a simplified version of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ with a student recently, I played both the sung version and the quintet to him. Result: the next week he was beginning to play the piece with clearer phrasing and a nice sense of the “song line”.

I was very fortunate when I was growing up: my parents were keen concert-goers and LP buyers, and of course there was live music in the house because my father played in both a wind ensemble and an orchestra. From a very early age, I went to concerts, and my tastes and knowledge developed quickly. Listening and playing were normal activities for me – and remain so today. But many children who are learning instruments now are doing just that – learning the instrument, without being taught an appreciation of music. Perhaps their parents are not interested in music, or the school is not encouraging an appreciation? I admit I’m on something of a mission to encourage my students to both play well and to love music: if just one or two of them remember what they did with me as students when they are browsing iTunes or similar when they’re older, and they download some Beethoven piano sonatas, or one of Schubert’s String Quartets, then I can consider my job well done.

So, there is a lot of point to aural – and it is important for us, as teachers, to explain WHY!