In our celebrity-obsessed, ‘image is everything’ times, it seems that the fledgling concert pianist’s path to the modern concert arena – the ‘Three C’s’ of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto – has turned professional piano playing into a kind of Olympian activity whose creed is “faster, higher, louder”, and has reduced the vast and wonderful repertoire to a relatively small stable of over-played warhorses, most notably, perhaps, the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Today’s young piano superstars are using technique as the be all and end all, rather than as a means to serve the music. Thus, while we might be impressed by flashy technical prowess and grand gestures, we are often being offered only superficial display.

Just as the four-minute mile has been shaved down by 17 seconds over the 50 years since Bannister’s record-breaking run, certain pieces in the standard piano repertoire seem to be getting faster – and/or louder. I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter followers and Facebook friends to see what other people thought about this. As one person said, “….people are generally and more easily drawn to the more obvious things in life (just take a look at anything in the media today). Faster and louder is definitely more obvious than subtle and artistic. It also requires less work….”

Thus, certain pieces are wheeled out over and over again by young, ‘generic’ pianists, not because they are necessarily the hardest in the repertoire, but because they are the most impressive, both visually and aurally. And here I must admit that I was absolutely gob-smacked by the speed at which Marc-Andre Hamelin’s hands moved around the keyboard at his late-night Liszt Prom, even though I didn’t like the actual piece (Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H) that much. But in his Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude, Hamelin proved that he is not just a brilliant technician: his account was ethereal, luminescent, profound and emotional, and it spoke of a long association with the music, something which younger players may not appreciate with their desire to rush from showpiece to showpiece.

My informal poll revealed a general consensus about certain works, acknowledged amongst pianists to be some of the most challenging in the repertoire, in terms of technical difficulty and/or length. These include, in no particular order (links open in Spotify):

Beethoven – Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’. The daring opening leap should, of course, be played with one hand!

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

Stravinsky – Trois Mouvements de Petrushka

Chopin – Etudes (especially Op 10 Nos 1 & 2, Op 25 Nos 6 & 11)

Liszt – Transcendental Etudes (especially Feux Follets, Wilde Jagd)

Liszt – B minor Sonata

Brahms – Paganini Variations

Rachmaninov – 3rd Concerto

Prokofiev – 2nd Concerto

Bartok – 2nd Concerto

Alkan – Concert for Solo Piano

Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus

Godowsky – transcriptions of Chopin Etudes

Sorabji – Opus clavicembalisticum (a piece which lasts around 4 hours)

Of course, while being hugely technically and physically demanding, many of these works, when played well, sound effortless (which, of course, is what we as pianists are all striving for!). And yet even the simplest piece, such as Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, which I heard played as an encore at an eccentric little arts venue in Highgate some years ago, can sound sophisticated and refined – ‘Olympian’ even – in the right hands!

As a postscript, my own personal ‘Olympian’ works include:

Chopin – Etude Opus 10, No. 3. As my teacher said, the difficulty lies less in the technical demands, and more in the fact that this Etude is so well known, so one wants to do it justice.

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge, no. IV of the ‘Vingt Regards’. For someone who had not really attempted any true atonal music before, the difficulty in this piece lay, initially, in “tuning” my ear into the discordant harmonies. Also, at first sight it looks utterly horrendous on the page!

Debussy – Prelude & Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’. The Prelude requires playful, fleet and pristine fingers, while the big, hand-filling chords of the Sarabande presented their own problem for the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Exercises and solid technique have enabled me to play this piece comfortably and without pain.

More on ‘Pianistic Everests’ from Tom Service

I’ve been playing and listening to Schubert’s  Opus 90 Impromptus since I was about 14, when my mother fell in love with Brendel playing the fourth of the set, in A flat, and insisted that I learn it. So, armed with a Peters edition of the score, I set off to my teacher’s house on my bicycle and made a fair attempt at wrecking Schubert’s sublime, ethereal semiquavers. In retrospective, Schubert’s late piano works are perhaps not best tackled by a precocious teenager. These are works born out of the tumult of Winterreise, and, in my humble opinion, are best tackled by a musician who has lived with the music, and the composer (albeit deceased), for a long time. Sure, one can process the notes, but these works are imbued with profound, complex and mixed emotions, and only a hefty degree of ‘life experience’ can truly inform one’s playing and interpretation of this music.

Schubert famously and tragically died young, at 31, possibly from complications arising from syphilis, yet in his short life he, like Mozart, and Chopin, and Mendelssohn, produced a phenomenal amount of work, not all of it complete, much of it sublimely beautiful, absorbing and endlessly fascinating. And so, one can say that the music which came post-Winterreise – the late piano sonatas, the two sets of Impromptus, the D946 Klavierstucke – are most certainly “mature” works.

I learnt the E flat Impromptu (no.2) properly for my ATCL Diploma. My teacher cautioned me against learning, or rather re-learning something I had learnt in my teens, as despite the distance of many years, old mistakes would surely remain. So, my strategy for studying this piece some 30 years since I first encountered it, was to treat it as a completely new venture. I threw out my dog-eared Edition Peters score and purchased a new Henle edition. Of course, the fingers do remember what they learnt before, and in one or two places, I felt them straying into the forbidden territory of bad habits and sloppy or clumsy passage work, but, on the whole, I managed to avoid such errors, mainly by practising the less certain measures very slowly, in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne. This technique was been particularly helpful for the trio section, which, in the past, I had a tendency to gallop through, over-emphasising the fortissimos and sforzandos, and not paying enough close attention to the melodic line which is still evident, despite the anger and torment. This ‘Chopinesque’ treatment has revealed some really beautiful moments – I always knew they were there, but allowing myself time to hear and consider them has enabled me to shape the music in a different way.

The Opus 90 Impromptus are often performed as a set, though sometimes a single one will be offered in a programme, or as an encore (Schubert himself told his publishers that the works could be issued singly or in a set), and the four pieces do present a kind of journey (‘Reise’), both musical and metaphorical, when considered together. Much has been written on the connections between the works, and it is easy to drown in a sea of complex musical analysis and confusing hypothetical debate as to whether the pieces share connections and organised structures. Indeed, Schumann made the somewhat muddled assertion that the second set, the Opus 142, is a sonata “in disguise”.

The first of the Opus 90, in C minor, opens with a bare, arresting G octave, and the ensuing lonely dotted melody sets the tone of the whole piece. In one recording I have, the work freezes, calling to mind the exiled fremdling (traveller) of songs such as ‘Gute Nacht’, from Winterreise. The chill never really thaws as the music continually struggles to break free of that portentous, restraining G: it never truly succeeds, despite the lyrical and nostalgic A-flat sections. The warm, major key offers little real solace, as the harmonic progressions constantly drag the ear away from the resolution it craves, and any pleasant recollections are quickly forgotten by the return of the chilling tread of the opening motif, the tyranny of the G, and a horrifying attempt to finally break free.

The E-flat Impromptu suggests an etude, with its swirling, tumbling triplets, which need careful articulation to sound dancing, fluid and limpid. The opening scalic melody, repeated not once but twice, reflects the composer’s ongoing crisis, the fremdling’s agonised progress, and despite its serpentine coiling, its attempts to slip away, remains firmly tethered by an insistent, repetitive bass line.

The streaming, scalic figures of the opening require wrist flexibility and suppleness, the wrist acting as a shock absorber to help shape the phrasing here. While the music is marked ‘Allegro’, there needs to be some give-and-take within the phrases, signaling shifts in mood and tone. There are measures of great charm and true Schubertian “prettiness”, but these are quickly offset by the darker, minor sections. The longer melodic lines must be shaped and preserved at all times: despite the tempo, this is not a moto perpetuo exercise in the manner of Czerny! It is an Impromptu, and by its very name it suggests romanticism rather than rigour.

As the RH ascends high into the upper registers, marked forte, the tone grows more hysterical and desperate, before the music descends to an angry, accented section, preparation for the drama and anguish of the Trio. Here, the 3/4 time signature suggests a rough, bohemian waltz, with a figure of widely-spaced bare octaves, and stamping off-beat accented triplets, alternating with a division of the beat into quavers, a stark contrast to the flowing triplets of the earlier sections. There are some moments of great melodic beauty and poignancy here, but the roughness and tension is never really smoothed, while a sobbing, repeated triplet figure acts as a bridge, leading us back to the opening material. The pieces ends, emphatically, in the minor key, signalling once again the confusion of Schubert’s lonely traveller.

The third Impromptu, in G-flat major, is probably the best-loved of the set, with its serene, nocturne-like melody, redolent of Schubert’s Ave Maria, and its fluttering harp-like broken chords, which soothe after the torment of the previous piece. There are storms – bass trills, and a shadowy, frequently-modulating middle section – before the music returns to the same flowing calmness of the opening.

And so to my favourite, the No. 4, in A-flat, and here at last all the uncertain tonalities of the preceding movements find a home. This is not prefigured at the outset, rather the protagonist, the meandering fremdling of these four pieces, must strive for eventual and gradual disclosure: the piece opens in A-flat minor, though it is written in the major, with accidentals, and the harmonic ambiguity lingers until bar 31, when the graceful, cascading semiquaver figure is at last heard in A-flat major, beneath which the left hand has a fragile, ‘cello-like melody. At the centre of the piece is a lyrical trio reminscent of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ fantasy, after which the sense of alienation and tension from the earlier pieces is swept aside by the gradual acceleration of all the elements and the home key, A flat, becomes fully dominant, while a life-affirming dance-like figure takes over in the bass. The final cadence is an emphatic A-flat major descent and two forceful closing chords. Home at last.

It may be fanciful to assign such complex musical and thematic considerations to these pieces, but play them, or hear them, as a set, and I think the sense of a journey, and its eventual completion is evident, if only in the progressive tonalities of each piece. In any event, these are poetic, timeless, and very personal works, which display a gravity and intensity far beyond the typical nineteenth-century drawing room Albumblatt or klavierstück.

Further reading:

Fisk, Charles – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Intepretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas. University of California Press. 2001

Daverio, John – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Oxford University Press, USA. 2008

Ian Bostridge with Julius Drake (piano) – from the film of Winterreise by David Alden


Robert Levin in action (Photo credit Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Anyone expecting a ‘traditional’ concert experience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday night would have been disappointed – or maybe pleasantly surprised. Consistently innovative, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) are offering a new music concept in the form of The Works, in which you can learn more about a Great Classical Masterpiece in a fun and informal way in the company of the orchestra and an ‘expert’. Future events include harpsichordist Laurence Cummings on Bach, but for the first event of this new series, the OAE were joined by charismatic pianist and renowned Mozart specialist Robert Levin.

Levin, who has a passionate and forensic interest in the minutiae of Mozart’s music and his creative life and compositional processes, is a lively and engaging speaker. While not everyone may like his particular brand of New York Jewish ebullience nor necessarily agree with his “scholarship”, there is no doubting his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He has studied Mozart’s manuscripts in microscopic detail to winkle out all the details of his creative process and to attempt to understand his precise vocabulary of rhythm, melody, counterpoint, harmony, architecture. As Levin says, “Mozart hides sophistication behind apparent simplicity” (thus, calling to mind Schnabel’s famous quote about Mozart’s music). His detailed study of Mozart informs both his teaching and his playing.

A few years ago, I attended a study day with him entitled ‘Mozart and the Piano’ in which he examined the evidence to suggest that Mozart was not only intimate with all the quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses of the musicians with whom he worked (a bassoon part written for a player with loose teeth, for example) but also with the capabilities – and limitations – of the instruments at his disposal. It was a fascinating and entertaining angle on Mozart’s music.

“If Mozart had had access to a modern Steinway, just think what he would have written!” Levin declared provocatively at the start of The Works. Of course, as Levin immediately countered, we cannot make such assumptions: Mozart worked with what was available at the time – the harpsichord, fortepiano and fledgling piano. What we can do, however, is look at the documentary evidence – the drafts, the autographed scores, his letters – to gain a glimpse into the compositional world of Mozart.

Levin has argued, convincingly, that the paper, ink and quill that Mozart used all point to a prolific genius who could turn his hand to almost anything, a consummate multi-tasker who would sketch out a draft of a piano concerto and then set it aside to work on more lucrative projects.

He also feels Mozart was the “Duke Ellington” of the 18th century, endlessly improvising off the cuff, and knocking off dazzling cadenzas at the drop of a hat. He didn’t need to write them down because each time he performed he would do something new.

Levin is also an improviser, and his intimate study of Mozart allows him to offer suggestions as to how Mozart may have performed (directing from the piano, of course) which sound fresh and natural, but never ersatz. Sometimes there is an astonishing latitude in Levin’s interpretations, but at no point have I ever felt, when hearing Levin perform, that he is taking unfounded liberties with the material. Rather, there is a sense of someone who is thoroughly immersed in the ‘language’ of Mozart, but who does not hold up what is written in the score as “sacred”. A degree of danger and unexpectedness is what makes Levin’s playing so intriguing, and he believes he has a responsibility to create something “new” in each performance he gives.

I am no purist about historically accurate performance on historically accurate instruments: I feel it is impossible for us to truly recreate the sound, feel, nuance, atmosphere of Mozart’s music in his time – and certain attempts to do this can come across as either overly esoteric, or an undignified ‘Disneyfication’ of the music. Robert Levin’s approach offers some interesting and thought-provoking angles on the subject: in his hands, Mozart’s idiosyncrasies become a wonderful asset and serve as a pretext for a better understanding of the man and his music, as well as reviving the art of improvisation in classical music and promoting novelty in musical performance.

Robert Levin talking about how differently things would have been done in Mozart’s day.

Robert Levin on improvisation in the Piano Concerto No. 23 from the OAE blog, and on Radio 4’s Today programme.

The following text is the welcome address from Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division, Piano Faculty, of the Boston Conservatory. It is moving, succinct and sensitive.

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re wasting your SAT scores!” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp. 

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds. 

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does. 

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation. 

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” 

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”