On Saturday 22nd October, it is Franz (Ferenc) Liszt’s birthday. So here’s a small selection of ‘Liszt links’, pictures, music, film and other ephemera, some serious, some not, to celebrate his bicentenary.

Please feel free to comment and/or contribute more ‘Liszt Links’

Notes from a Pianist – Throughout Liszt’s bicentenary year, pianist Christine Stevenson has been blogging about Liszt in a series of delightful, thoughtful and quirky posts.

From The Musician’s Way Blog – Franz Liszt: Self-Made Musician

Liszt’s favourite pudding, as noted in Alan Walker’s biography The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847

Visit the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, near Guildford, Surrey (UK) and see an 1845 Erard, autographed by Liszt’s great rival Thalberg. And many other wonderful pianos and early keyboard instruments with “composer associations”.

Liszt's Bosendorfer piano at the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest

Website of the Liszt Museum, Budapest

Stories from a Book of Liszts, a novel by John Spurling (with accompanying CD)

A close-up tour around the Liszt Apartment in the Budapest Museum

Read journalist Jessica Duchen’s intelligent article in Standpoint magazine

Wilhelm Kempff playing ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de Pèlerinage, 2ème année: Italie, the first piece by Liszt I learnt seriously. (Link opens to Spotify). And here’s a YouTube clip of Marc-André Hamelin playing the same Sonetto

 

Cartoon of Liszt in concert, with ladies swooning before him

Martha Argerich plays ‘Funerailles’

And Louis Kentner plays the ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude’

“If nothing else, Fran, you’ll be the best-dressed Diploma candidate this season!”. So declared a good friend of mine who knows well my love of clothes and who has often been an enthusiastic companion on shopping sprees.

Joking apart, the Trinity Guildhall regulations state that one should dress as if for “an afternoon or early evening recital”. So an “evening gown” is not required, but something pretty smart nonetheless. Long before I’d decided on my Diploma programme, I’d already worked out what I was going to wear: a Little Black Dress from LK Bennett with 1950s styling, demure yet faintly sexy, in a fluid jersey fabric which is comfortable and easy to wear, and low-heeled mock-croc shoes. A small heel is essential for pedalling, while a high heel renders the action virtually impossible.

One of my Twitter friends made a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment to me about a blog post on piano teacher’s attire, so this article is, in part, to satisfy his curiosity, as well as my own musings on what pianists wear.

Yuja Wang at Hollywood Bowl (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Recently, Chinese piano Yuja Wang created a bit of a furore amongst critics and concert-goers for appearing in a dress more at home on the fashion catwalk than the concert platform: a thigh-skimming, body-hugging frock and gold stilettos. When I saw the pictures of “that outfit”, my first thought was “how on earth can she pedal in those shoes?”. What occupied the critics publicly was whether such attire was “appropriate” for the classical music scene, while privately many of them were no doubt slavering with delight over the view of a slim young female leg during the 40 minutes or so of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. This hoo-hah says something about the perception of male and female artists in the eyes of both audience and critics.

The days of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails for male pianists are long past, and it is rare to see anyone but the most senior musicians in this attire now (of all the male pianists I’ve heard this year, only Charles Rosen and Maurizio Pollini wore white tie and tails). Lounge suits, open-necked shirts, Nehru collars, silk shirts with diamonté studs (Robert Levin) – I’ve seen them all this season. Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne and Stephen Hough all favour a sort of black “smock” (presumably for comfort?), and Hough is rarely seen without his shiny metallic shoes on the concert platform. Meanwhile, Turkish pianist Fazil Say cut a rather shabby Oscar Wild-esque figure in a black tee-shirt and long velvet coat not unlike a dressing gown.

Angela Hewitt

But while the men are allowed to “go casual”, women pianists are still expected to turn out in a more traditional evening gown, and any deviation from this can be met with cries of horror, the wringing of hands and general pulling of eyes. Some, like Yuja Wang and Angela Hewitt, have made the fashion statement part of their artistic persona: Hewitt favours designer gowns, bright lipstick and red shoes. When I saw her at the Wigmore Hall in June she wore an extraordinary dress with some interesting zip arrangements, not unlike the “safety pin dress” by Versace, famously worn by Liz Hurley, and I confess the zips interested me more than her Chopin. Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida likes the finely pleated creations of Issey Miyake, and so, when she raises her arms, a lovely image is created of the gossamer wings of a beautiful butterfly. Helene Grimaud, who I saw at the Proms this summer, chose a stylish, somewhat mannish, grey suit for her performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Fazil Say

At the end of the day, it is of course entirely up to the performer what they wear, but it is also important that their dress reflects the occasion, for the moment the performer walks onto the stage, the audience’s attention is engaged and awakened. Mannerisms, attire, the way one greets the audience, all these things matter, and all contribute to the experience of the performance for the audience, as well as a means of differentiating performer from audience, and defining one’s role for them.

I admit I’m torn between admiring Ms Wang’s chutzpah for wearing such a daring outfit while wondering whether she wanted the audience to focus on her music or her legs.

And as for my Twitter friend’s enquiry about what I wear to teach piano….. I favour easy, comfortable clothes, my Wright & Teague charm bracelets, which chink and tinkle as I play, low-heeled shoes or boots (it gets cold in my piano room in the winter), and some interesting beads, a pendant or a scarf…..

More on Yuja Wang’s dress here

Last week, with a degree of heart-in-the-mouth trepidation, I submitted the application to take my ATCL Diploma exam. Since I have not taken a music exam for……um……….30 years, the prospect is slightly unnerving, not least because I still retain a very strong memory of my Grade 8 exam: the empty room, the big black shiny Minotaur of a Steinway grand piano, the silent examiner, the Bach Prelude (D minor) which if allowed to, might run away like an excitable horse, the sturm und drang Beethoven Sonata (Opus 10, No. 1), and the Chopin Nocturne (also D minor) which I loathed….

The good news is that with 8 weeks still to go until the exam, I feel fairly well on top of my repertoire. The pieces are all learnt, quite a lot has been committed to memory (one is not required to play from memory in the exam), and the work now is to finesse and refine. The danger at this point, of course, is over-practice. My students, most of whom seem to specialise in winging it in lessons and do very little practice in the intervening weeks, look at me askance when I mention over-practising, but it does exist. Famous cases of over-practising include Scriabin, who ended up with a hand injury, something I can identify with. On a less dramatic level, the point at which one knows a piece intimately can be, if you’re not careful, the point at which weird and new mistakes start to creep in. These can be the most difficult errors to unlearn and so it is crucial to practice extremely carefully and thoughtfully at this point.

At the piano course I attended last month, we talked about practice diaries, and the benefits of keeping a very detailed practice diary – not just of how much time one spends practising each day, but also notes on what needs to be done, what has been achieved etc., along with a list of questions, which can be applied to each and every practice session, to encourage one to think very carefully about the repertoire one is working on. Here are some ideas for a good practice diary:

Have I warmed up? For quick warm up exercises see my earlier post here

Am I listening as I play? It’s remarkable how easily the mind can wander when you’re working on a piece that is very familiar. Stay focussed, listen, and be strict with yourself about errors, bumpy, uneven or sloppy sections, lazy pedalling, articulation etc.

Have I noted all the dynamics? Articulation markings? Other signs and symbols? Again, familiarity can breed complacence. It’s worth taking the time to do this detailed work even if it’s a piece you know well.

Am I noting rhythm and pulse properly? Practice with a metronome if necessary until an ‘inner pulse’ is established throughout.

Is my fingering secure throughout? There’s a passage in my Bach Toccata (BWV 830) which gets me every time! Slow, quiet practice (“like a Chopin Nocturne”) can be helpful in these instances.

Am I taking care over phrase beginnings and endings?

And what about shaping, colour, contrast?

Which sections do I need to memorise? For example, for an awkward page turn

Keep a detailed note of how many minutes of practice per piece you have completed each day. Keep a clock by the piano, or use the stopwatch feature on your ‘phone. It’s amazing how this can force the mind to focus, especially if you know you have limited time in which to practice.

What do I need to do tomorrow? At the end of each practice session, make a note of what has arisen out of today’s session and what needs attention tomorrow.

Good luck, and don’t ever let your practice sessions feel like the character in this novel:

Work shaped every hour for him, as regular as a lunar cycle, and the cadence by which he set his life. From the age of sixteen, he had known only this life. Without it, he could feel directionless, without focus. Yet practising, four to five hours every day, practising until you never got it wrong, could be a form of captivity. Often, when he was wrestling with something new and tricky, when the same page of the score confronted him day after day, he felt he did not move forward in the night. Then it really was like prison, though without the punishment, only in the sameness of his days.

(from Music Lessons by Frances Wilson)

And take inspiration instead from Robert Schumann:

So what does it mean to be musical? You are not musical if, eyes glued nervously to the notes, you play a piece painfully through to the end; you are not musical if you get stuck and cannot go on because someone happens to turn two pages at once for you. But you are, if with a new piece you almost sense what is coming, if with a familiar one, you know it completely. In a word, if you have music not just in your fingers, but in your head and your heart.

(from Musickalische Haus- und Lebensregeln)

13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined; Lara Downes, solo piano; Tritone Records

Pianist Lara Downes first heard the Goldberg Variations on an LP “as a little girl sitting in my father’s big chair”, played by – who else? – Glenn Gould in his iconic 1955 recording, the same recording my parents had, with the expressive photographs of Gould on the album sleeve. She was, like Gould, like many of us, “transported” by the music, the twists and turns of Bach’s creative process, and Gould’s interpretation and realisation of it.

Inspired by the poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens, ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is, like the poem, an exercise in “perspectivism”, a “re-imagining”, for each piece makes a nod, sometimes obvious, sometimes more tenuous, to Bach’s original, while demonstrating both the permanence of Bach’s great Baroque work, and its ongoing relevance and fascination today. In 2004, thirteen composers were invited to compose thirteen new variations based on Bach’s original. They are not all classical composers, and they represent a diverse and varied group – as do their interpretations. Many share rhythmic, melodic and harmonic motifs with the original, but each is individual, a short stand-alone work.

Catch a phrase or two of some of these ‘reworkings’ and you could easily believe this was Bach’s own creation in their closeness to the original (Fred Lerdahl: Chasing Gold, William Bolcom: Yet Another Goldberg Variation, Ralf Gothoni: Variation on a Variation with Variation), while others bear more than a passing reference to the atonality of Hindemith, Boulez or Messiaen (Mischa Zupko: Ghost Variation, Derek Bermel: Kontraphunctus, Stanley Walden: Fantasy Variation). And just like Bach’s original, there are stately chorales and sprightly dances. This album is almost a palimpsest of Bach: an imaginative and sensitive layering of new thoughts over the original.

The clarity of Lara’s playing ties these separate pieces together with crisp articulation, tender sonorities and arching melodic lines. To accompany the thirteen variations, Lara Downes includes on the album Bach-inspired works by two great American composers, Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss, a fitting tribute to Bach and the lasting inspiration of his music. The final track on the album is the sublime ‘Sarabande’ from the French Suite V, BWV 816, whose exquisite simplicity echoes the opening ‘Aria’ of the Goldberg Variations.

For more information, please visit Lara’s website. The album ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is available to download via iTunes.

I am very grateful to Lara for giving me the opportunity to review this interesting and arresting album.

More on the Goldberg Variations here.

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