Some critics think so

Guest post by Michael Johnson

The crisis in the piano world hit home last week when I realized nobody was interested in buying my Baldwin upright. I can’t even give it away. In fact I would have to pay transport costs to dump it in the knacker’s yard. What a heart-breaking finale for a fine middle-range instrument that has given me 35 years of pleasure.

As in many modern homes, the standard upright or grand takes up too much space, needs costly visits by tuners, and doesn’t even make that much music any more. In the long term the 88-tooth monster looks doomed like the dinosaurs.

The piano mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts. An Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart told me recently, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.”

How will the art of the piano survive? By going electronic or at least hybrid. Here’s an indicator. Try staking out the best hotels on the eve of a concert and you might spot the star pianist checking in with an electronic keyboard slung over his or her shoulder. Is this is the future? It would seem so. With headphones, pianists can run through their programme in their hotel room, limbering up fingers for the real event and not bothering anyone.

I recently gave a talk at Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona on these trends. I constructed a one-hour presentation complete with videos and slides, warning of impending doom. Everyone in the audience went ooh and ahh except the local Steinway dealer. He approached me afterward, fuming. “We are not going away,” he grinned nervously.

The clunky, heavy, expensive classic piano, critics argue, may eventually end up in a museum, displayed as fine furniture.

Only a few piano makers survive in the United States compared to dozens just a few years ago. Some 80 percent of piano production is now in China, mostly for the Chinese market.

New electronic models storming in from Asia are undercutting the classic piano in price and performance with digital or hybrid keyboards that feel and sound just about right. Young players love them. Yamaha, Casio, Guangzhou Pearl River, Samick, KORG, Kawai and others are competing in this transition period.

Sales projections for electronic keyboards exceed a million units worldwide annually. Steinway, the market leader in high-end acoustics, says it can produce only about 3,000 a year.

Another sign of decline is the destruction of the classic wooden model as a popular sport among college-age boys who enjoy tipping a upright (like my beloved Baldwin) from their dormitory rooftop, capturing it on video as it hits bottom.

Others have derived pleasure out of stuffing the case with explosives and, amid raucous laughter, blowing it to bits or dragging it behind a pickup truck, watching it disintegrate.

Over the years, the Steinway influence has been mixed. Critics such as Stuart refer to the brand as “Stoneway” for its innovation lethargy. The latest new thing, the Spirio, is the best Steinway can come up with. Aggressively marketed at as much as $200,000, it seems to be a toy for the very rich, delivering recordings of leading pianists to run on an electric player piano in private homes. Will a hologram of the player be the next step? The technology is there. But who wants Lang Lang in their living room?

Upmarket brands struggle to maintain smaller share of the market in Steinway’s shadow. Each has its personality, measurable in tiny increments. Boesendorfer, Bechstein, Fazioli, Grotrian, Sauter, Shigeru Kawai, Steingraeber and Yamaha all claim to be the world’s best. In my mind, the American aphorism applies: “Even if you are on the right track, you will still get run over if you just sit there.”

This is not to say the world has fallen totally out of love with the classic piano, whatever its drawbacks. No instrument quite manages to produce such a range of sound, loud or soft, to convey the beauty of our great music. Leading players help keep seats filled in concert halls by staging dramatic performances in short skirts, low tops, high heels, and – for the men – eye makeup and acrobatic writhing, hair flicks and in Lang Lang’s case, the occasional wink at the audience.

We are lucky to be alive as the piano undergoes this metamorphosis. It will be an unsettling, disturbing period, just as Christofori, Erard and Heinrich Steinway dared to rethink the instrument in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now it’s our century. Now it’s our turn.


Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

Contemporary music publisher Music Haven has launched a new digital download service for its sheet music collection. Available via the Music Haven website, this service will initially offer digital downloads of piano music, the centrepiece of which is the first published edition of Czech composer Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

Described by British composer David Matthews as “one of the finest piano works of our time, a worthy companion to Ligeti’s three books of Etudes”, Pavel Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues were composed for pianist William Howard between 1989 and 2006, and were recorded by Howard on the Champs Hill label in 2011. But like much of Novak’s music, this work has remained unpublished until now.

Peter Fribbins, composer, writes:

“Music Haven Ltd. is delighted to announce the publication of Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano. An ambitious and important contribution to the contemporary piano repertoire, they are written in a musical language that has immediate connection and expressive presence. We are also pleased to be able to make Novák’s work more widely and easily available around the world by launching this work via our digital publishing platform.” 

The new edition has taken several years to prepare and the process has been extremely challenging. Painstakingly typeset by composer Cydonie Banting from a hand-written manuscript replete with complex and idiosyncratic notation, and edited by Pavel Novák and William Howard, the work is divided into four books, which reflect the evolution of Novak’s musical language.

Excerpt from score, before & after typesetting

Now for the first time, pianists can explore this remarkable music in an accessible and beautifully typeset digital edition, available from Music Haven. Pianist William Howard says: “I am confident that other pianists around the world will now take up this powerful and dazzlingly original work.

The complete score is available to purchase as a digital download from Music Haven’s webshop


Music Haven Ltd publishes and promotes new classical music in all its manifestations. At its core are the works of a number of established contemporary British composers, including James Francis Brown, Peter Fribbins and Alan Mills, whose music is complemented by exciting new discoveries, or reconstructions, of lost classical works of the past. Scores are beautifully presented and edited to the highest standards.

A key part of Music Haven’s mission is to foster meaningful collaboration between composer and performer, and in doing so, bring fine music to a wider audience.

Music Haven website: musichaven.co.uk

 

Award-winning New York City area composer Brian Field has composed a new work for solo piano in three movements, “Three Prayers for a Feverish Planet” to drive greater awareness around the perils of climate change.  

The first movement (“…fire…”) is a reflection on the forest fires raging across California and the American West on a recurring, and increasingly alarming basis. The work starts with a “spark,” that flickers and quickly spreads, growing more complicated.   The fire begins to rage loudly, and across register, building to a climax which eventually becomes more controlled, as it burns itself out and dies.   

The second movement (“…glaciers…”) is a distant, stately movement that depicts the enormous ices on earth’s poles. These slow, ponderous moments are sporadically interrupted by rapidly falling, thundering episodes, depicting the shearing of the glacial ice with ever-warming temperatures.   

Concluding the set is the third movement (“…winds…”).   This virtuosic finale begins with running winds that become increasingly intense and hurricane/typhoon-like in their destructiveness before dissipating into a barely-noticeable breeze.

Brian Field has been reaching out to pianists around the world to participate in supporting and amplifying this ecological message through recital performances and recordings, both studio and “home-studio” recorded to spread across social media in an ongoing basis.  

If you would like to participate in this project, you may register your interest and download the score and audio demo at the project’s website: https://www.prayersforourfeverishplanet.org/join-now


Meet the Artist interview with composer Brian Field

To Steinway Hall in London last week to celebrate the release of the third volume of Norma Fisher At The BBC, a recording project initiated by Sonetto Classics to bring Norma Fisher’s remarkable pianism to a wider audience.

Born in London in 1940 to Russian-Polish parents, Norma Fisher’s talent was evident from a young age. Mentored by Ilona Kabos, Gina Bachauer and Annie Fischer, as a young woman, barely out of her teens, she won prizes at major piano competitions, including the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition, and shared the Piano Prize (with Vladimir Ashkenazy) at the 1963 Harriet Cohen International Music Awards; that same year she made her Proms debut. She appeared at major concert venues around the world and with some of the “greats” of the era, amongst them Jacqueline du Pré. Hailed as one of the finest pianists the country had ever produced, she broadcast extensively for the BBC in the 1950s and 60s – at a time when this was the key to succeeding as a classical musician in the UK – yet these performances were never committed to disc. In the 1990s she noticed a tremor in her right hand, which was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, one of the cruellest conditions to befall a musician, and withdrew from the concert stage.

“I developed a focal dystonia,” she says, “a highly-debilitating neurological condition that affected my right hand, causing the muscles to seize up without warning. Public performances became unbearably nerve-wracking, knowing that at any moment my hand could just stop working. It never actually happened mid-way through a concert, but I didn’t want to inflict that on myself or an audience and it seemed only a matter of time before it could actually do so.”

She turned to teaching, and has established a reputation as one of the finest piano teachers in the world, nurturing young talents such as Pavel Kolesnikov and Anna Fedorova. She also regularly serves on international competition juries and is artistic director of London Master Classes – which is where I first met her.

Observing Norma teaching talented young students at a London Master Classes event was immensely inspiring and stimulating. Chatting to Norma during a break in the class, her enthusiasm and passion was evident and her eyes literally shone with the excitement of encouraging these talented young musicians. In an interview for this site, she stressed “the importance of sound, understanding the depths and possibilities the keyboard has to offer, and how vital is stylistic awareness“, and one of the chief aims of her teaching is the importance of an “individual sound world”, combined with delicacy and precision (one hears this in former students like Pavel Kolesnikov, where the influence of his teacher is clear in his own personal sound world).

These qualities are more than evident in the three volumes of Norma Fisher’s BBC recordings, now remastered and released on the Sonetto Classics label. An “instinctive pianist”, by her own admission, who eschewed extensive analysis in favour of vibrancy of sound and breadth of expression, these recordings reveal the full range of Norma Fisher’s talents. There is drama and passion, nuance and texture, glittering virtuosity and delicacy of touch, sweet timbres and subtle dynamics, and above all, a profound musical understanding in her interpretations. And due to the constraints of the original recordings and broadcasts (artist and producer were allowed only 90 minutes to make a 60 minute recording and there was almost no opportunity for editing in the way there is today), these recordings have a wonderful spontaneity and freshness – in effect, true “live” performances.

The event at Steinway Hall on 11 May was both a celebration of the launch of the third CD, but also a tribute to Norma Fisher’s remarkable life in music – as both a performer and an inspiring teacher – and many of the guests were personal friends and close colleagues (including Piers Lane, Peter Frankl, Tasmin Little, Dmitri Alexeev, Nelly Miricioiu and John Tomlinson) as well as some of her former students, including two more recent graduates, Siqian Li and Daniel Hyanwoo, who both performed at the event.

Above all, this event seemed to perfectly embody Norma Fisher’s belief that “If we can’t share, there is no point in life, and I think that will remain my philosophy until my dying day“. Norma has shared her music and her musical wisdom throughout her life, and this was an occasion where we all shared in the joy of music and music making.


Norma Fisher At The BBC is released in three volumes from Sonetto Classics

One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello performed live in a single afternoon or evening. Yet it’s a fascinating and absorbing experience because to hear the complete sonatas, one is offered a unique snapshot of Beethoven’s creative and compositional development at three key periods of his life.

The Opus 5 Sonatas are a young man’s works: fresh, vibrant, colourful, and humorous. They are clever and witty – take the false cadences in fast movement of the G minor sonata – but nor do they lack depth, or emotion. They are real “concert pieces”, and also remind us that Beethoven was a fine pianist: the Opus 5 sonatas were composed at a time when Beethoven was carving a career for himself as a virtuoso. The F Major and G Minor sonatas are works for piano with ‘cello, not the other way around, and the piano definitely gets the greater share of the virtuosity: Beethoven was clearly not going to allow himself to be overshadowed by some ‘cellist! Over and over again in these sonatas, the piano seems to lead, and the ‘cello replies.

The A major sonata, the Opus 69, is from the middle, most productive, period of Beethoven’s life. It was at this time that the composer wrote his moving Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he contemplated suicide. His deafness was now acute, if not quite total. The Opus 69 sonata marks a turning point, particularly in the variety and organisation of its thematic material, and its improvisatory nature. It was composed during the same year as the Violin Concerto, the Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its well-proportioned construction, and, in contrast to the earlier sonatas, where the piano and ‘cello are, more often than not, engaged in witty musical repartee, the first movement of the Opus 69 opens with the ‘cello alone; variations of its expansive main theme and a pair of contrasting secondary motifs allow much contrapuntal and melodic interplay between the two players. This an equal sonata for ‘cello and piano, and the material is distributed between the two instruments with wonderful symmetry. The entire work radiates warmth, positivity, serenity and joy.

The final pair of sonatas, the Opus 102, dating from the beginning of the “late” period of Beethoven’s life, sit alongside the beautiful, pastoral Opus 96 violin sonata and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. Like the Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, expressing an almost transcendental spirituality. And like Beethoven’s other late works, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance, but most defiantly not resignation!

The last ‘cello sonata, in D major, contains a prayer in its beautiful slow movement, offering an almost Messiaen-like vision of eternity. The final movement is a life-affirming fugue, that most stable and triumphant of musical devices, bringing us most emphatically back to earth.


Cellist Guy Johnston and pianist Melvyn Tan perform Beethoven’s complete Cello Sonatas over the course of two concerts as the finale to this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music, on Saturday 11th June in Harpenden.

Full details and tickets here


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J S BACH – PARTITAS BWV 825-830, 2 CDs

Release date: 6 May 2022 on the Delos label

Eleonor Bindman, piano

‘Bach playing of the highest order – Andrew Eales/Pianodao.com

Bach’s six keyboard Partitas have long been regarded as one of the most important milestones of the Baroque keyboard repertoire and remain amongst Bach’s most popular works for pianists and listeners alike, with their wealth of invention, drama, intimacy, wit and emotion.

Praised for her musical sense and appreciation of the majesty in Bach’s music, Latvian-American pianist Eleonor Bindman follows her critically-acclaimed recordings of her own transcriptions of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for piano-four-hands and the Cello Suites for solo piano, with her latest release of the complete keyboard Partitas.

Bach published the six keyboard Partitas himself in 1731 as his “Opus 1,” clearly indicating that he was satisfied with his work. The keyboard Partitas follow a similar template to his English and French Suites, with a succession of popular Baroque dance movements which also appear in all six Partitas. But unlike the French Suites, each begins with a form of Prelude with a different title for each of the six (for example, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Praeambulum and Toccata), demonstrating Bach’s flexibility and personality. With the inclusion of a diverse selection of dance movements, the Partitas are the most varied and cosmopolitan of Bach’s keyboard suites.

Eleonor Bindman’s experience of working with the complex counterpoint of the Brandenburg Concertos, which she transcribed for piano-four-hands, as well as with the expressive possibilities of a single melodic line of the Cello Suites (her most recent transcription for solo piano), results in some fresh interpretive insights in the Partitas – for example, in the choice of pace and tempi to allow listeners the opportunity to enjoy the emotional connotations of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint and ornamentation, and in the creative treatment of repeats.

Eleonor explains:

‘I find the variety of keys and the character (largely implied by the opening movements of course) of each suite gratifying. I also believe that the Partitas, as an oeuvre, include some of Bach’s most diverse, ingenious and intimate writing for the keyboard (aside from the Well-Tempered Clavier to an extent, of course). They deserve a lot more attention than the Goldbergs, in my humble opinion.  Rather than a series of exercises in canons, they are in fact a kaleidoscopic representation of Bach’s genius.  The incredible sincerity and communicative warmth of the Allemandes from Suites 4 and 6, the jazzy Courante from No. 6, the comical Aria and Burlesca from Partitas 4 and 3, respectively, the scintillating Praeambulum of Partita 5 and the challenging fugues or Capriccio of Partita 2 as endings – these are unique emanations of Bach’s personality. In the Partitas there isn’t a single even semi-boring page.  The aforementioned Allemandes are my favourite keyboard playing experiences.  Bach doesn’t even try to disguise them into dance form, save for the titles.  Playing the Allemande from Partita No. 4 in D major brings me into a state which I can only – inadequately and clumsily – describe as “participating in a revelation of truth.”’ 

Produced, engineered and edited by Sam Ward Recorded Dececember 20-21, 2020, and January 9-10, 2021 at President Street Studios, Brooklyn, NY

Instrument: Bösendorfer #48862

 


About Eleonor Bindman

Praised for her “lively, clear-textured and urbane” Bach performances and her ”impressive clarity of purpose and a full grasp of the music’s spirit,” New York-based pianist, chamber musician, arranger and teacher Eleonor Bindman was born in Riga, Latvia, and began studying the piano at the E. Darzins Special Music School at the age of five. After her family emigrated to the United States, she attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City while studying piano as a full scholarship student at the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center. She received a BA in music from New York University and completed her MA in piano pedagogy at the State University of New York, New Paltz, under the guidance of Vladimir Feltsman.

Ms. Bindman’s recital appearances have included Carnegie Hall, The 92nd Street Y, Merkin Hall and Alice Tully Hall; concerto appearances have included engagements with the National Music Week Orchestra, the Staten Island Symphony, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the New York Youth Symphony, and the Moscow Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. Classical Archives declared: “Prepare to be surprised” when encountering Ms. Bindman’s vast range of activity.

In the past few years, she has been focusing on the music of J.S. Bach. Her Brandenburg Duets, a new arrangement of the six Brandenburg Concertos for Piano-four-hands, with pianist Jenny Lin, was declared 7 “breathtaking in its sheer precision and vitality” by Pianist Magazine, while the Cello Suites for Piano, an accurate transcription of Bach’s iconic set, made its debut at #7 on the Billboard® Traditional Classical Charts. Both recordings were best-selling releases for Grand Piano Records in 2018 and 2020. A recording of Ms. Bindman’s arrangement of the Orchestral Suites, also for Piano-four-hands, is forthcoming.

eleonorbindman.com


For further press information, review copies and interviews, please contact Frances Wilson frances_wilson66@live.com