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

I grew up hearing music from the time I can remember anything at all. My parents both played instruments, and when my mother was not playing the piano, my father was playing Mozart symphonies for me (fantastic LPs of Bruno Walter and Bernstein and Toscanini).

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

In terms of musical influences I would have to say my teachers Elizabeth Buday (a graduate of the Liszt Academy and devoted Dohnanyi pupil who taught me about digging into the scores and keeping relaxed while playing), Amanda Vick Lethco (who taught me about color in music), and Morey Ritt and Anton Kuerti (who both emphasized fidelity to the score, deep musicality and the highest calibre of technique). Kuerti was also immensely important in my thinking about pedaling which he understood very well and utilized brilliantly); other artists who were influential were (and are) Cortot, Horowitz, Serkin and Annie Fischer; one non-musician who had an immense influence was David Rockefeller, Sr., the great arts patron and philanthropist. He was both a great friend and supporter of my playing and also of my interest in commissioning new music. He and his wife had superlative taste in art and music and often had great musicians such as Casals, Rubinstein and de Larrocha playing in their homes; both encouraged me to study and perform the very finest repertoire (they loved Schubert; he once memorably said while encouraging me to go for depth over surface, “Playing beautiful music beautifully is the art, and you can do that.” That simple phrase has really stuck with me over the years.

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

The great challenge for any artist is to find their own voice and listen to it. I remember really hearing my “voice” for the first time in a performance when I was 9 years old; then there was a period where I felt I had lost it, or found it difficult to regain that purity of communication and expression I heard so clearly when I was a child; as I began to really listen, REALLY LISTEN, not only to my music, but to myself, I found it again; my playing and my life changed with that moment, and I’ve listened to and used that “voice” ever since.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The recording I made called Heavy Sleep contains a number of works of Bach, one of which I waited 30 years to record. A reviewer from the New York Times wrote that the performance revealed “heart-breaking tenderness and vulnerability” which is exactly what that work should convey. It was my hope that somehow I could get this sense of the fragility of life across in my interpretation. I feel I finally achieved that in this recording.

I feel very much the same about my new recording Windows. I have heard and played Schumann’s Kinderszenen, a central work on the album, for most of my life. It is such a seemingly innocent and deceptively beguiling piece. Compared to so many of Schumann’s piano works, there are far fewer notes, but each note really counts. There is an overall hidden psychological complexity to the cycle that is quite difficult to convey. One must capture each vignette for the delicate and childlike watercolor it is, yet fit it into an overall canvas that forms a very adult sensibility of the memories and remembrances of early life. I hope it is not too immodest to say I believe I manage to convey that in this new recording.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I very much “hear” in color, so I believe I am really at my best with works in which I can utilize my sense of colors and shadings. It is not necessarily appropriate to use a wide spectrum of color in every genre, and sometimes one may choose, as a photographer does, to “shoot” a piece in black and white, or shades of grey, but one still can still use colors, which for me have the ability to convey tremendous emotional and musical information.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I keep many different programs going at the same time. Some of these have overlapping works and some not all; some things I’ve played my whole life and some are very new. I think keeping the new and old in dialogue, in repertoire and most everything else, keeps oneself and one’s music informed, alive and fresh.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have played a lot at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and I love them both. It may be because both are in New York where I have lived for so long, but both venues are places where I not only played a lot myself, but heard others give very memorable concerts and performances; so they have very special places in my heart.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Of figures from the past or no longer performing, I would say Cortot, Horowitz, Carlos Kleiber, Rudolf Serkin, Annie Fischer, Leontyne Price, Michelangeli, Callas, Louis Armstrong ; of active living performers I am often moved by Fleming, Sokolov, Uchida, Trifonov, Argerich and my colleagues of the original Brooklyn Rider quartet, Eric and Colin Jacobsen, Johnny Gandelsman, Nick Cordes, all astounding musicians. Of composer / performers I have to mention Lisa Bielawa and Philip Glass, both incredible composers, of course, but also generous and wonderful collaborators.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’ve had many great experiences so it is hard to choose; but in terms of sheer “wow” factor, hearing Vladimir Horowitz live in 1985 for his “comeback” concert at Carnegie Hall was pretty memorable. I was given a front row center “keyboard” seat by Steinway and Horowitz was very “on” that day. The music, the hall and the atmosphere were electrifying.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It’s all about expression of feelings and emotions and of course what a piece, a composer, and oneself is trying to say. Achieving a perfect, expressive voicing or color, or a perfect pianissimo in the exactly the right place at the perfect moment makes me very happy. But that is rare, which is the pain and joy of what we do!

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

Listen to your own voice. It is unique. Don’t let anyone change that. Find yourself and be fearless. Mistakes and funny turns are all part of life, but it’s your road. Take it.

Bruce Levingston’s latest Sono Luminus recording, entitled WINDOWS, was released on January 26 2018.


Bruce Levingston is a concert pianist and one of the US’s leading figures in contemporary classical music. He is known for his “extraordinary gifts as a colorist and a performer who can hold attention rapt with the softest playing” (MusicWeb International). Many of the world’s most important composers have written works for him, and his Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center world premiere performances have won notable critical acclaim. The New York Times has praised his “mastery of color and nuance” and called him one of  “today’s most adventurous musicians”; the New Yorker has called him “a force for new music” and “a poetic pianist with a gift for inventive — and glamorous — programming.”

 

Levingston’s recordings have also received high critical praise. His recent album Heavy Sleep was named one of the Best Classical Recordings of 2015 by The New York Times which called the album “tender” and “exquisite.” England’s The Arts Desk called the album “sublime” and Gramophone declared his playing “masterly.” In a glowing review of his CD Nightbreak, The American Record Guide wrote “Levingston is a pianist’s pianist… stunning and highly illuminating performances.” MusicWeb International named his album Still Sound “Record of the Month.” His CD Heart Shadow also received notable praise and was named “Album of the Week” by New York City’s WQXR. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called Levingston’s recording “vivid and richly expressive” and Classics Today lauded his CD Portraits for its “transcendent virtuosity and huge arsenal of tone color.”

Levingston has appeared in concerts and music festivals throughout the world, and his performances have been broadcast internationally on radio, internet and television. Noted for his creative programming, he has worked with some of the most gifted artists of our time, including painter Chuck Close, composer Philip Glass, authors George Plimpton and Michael Cunningham, actor Ethan Hawke, dancers Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, Colin and Eric Jacobsen and the Brooklyn Rider, and choreographers Jorma Elo, Russell Maliphant and Alexei Ratmansky. Levingston is the founder and artistic director of the music foundation, Premiere Commission, Inc., which has commissioned and premiered over fifty new works.

Levingston has collaborated with numerous prominent cultural institutions on programs related to art and music including Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of Art; Alliance Française/French Institute; The Aspen Institute and Aspen Music Festival; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In 2015, Levingston’s new biography about the painter Marie Hull, Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull, was published on the 125th Anniversary of the famed Mississippi artist’s birth. Levingston also curated two major exhibitions of Hull’s work at the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in conjunction with the publication of the book.

Long interested in human rights and education, Levingston gave a special premiere performance for the opening of Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and collaborated on the commission and world premiere of the oratorio, Repast, which was based on the life of the civil rights figure Booker Wright. Levingston regularly performs and conducts master classes in public schools to promote the arts and bring live music to young audiences. He was awarded the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Levingston is the Chancellor’s Honors College Artist in Residence and Holder of the L. G. Fant Chair at the University of Mississippi. He resides in Oxford, MS and New York City. 

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When the concert is perfect, does that make the reviewer redundant?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I enjoy writing about the concerts I attend but I also struggle with the purpose and value of concert reviews. At the most fundamental level, a review is a record of the event, setting it in context and as a moment in history. A review should also offer readers a flavour of the event and the thoughts and opinion of the reviewer about that event. When I left Milton Court last night I told my concert companion I could not write about the concert we’d just attended because it was so perfect that to write about it could not possibly do justice to the quality of the performance…..

Last night I attended American pianist Jeremy Denk’s concert at Milton Court, one of London’s newest concert venues and, in my opinion, the finest for piano music because of the clarity of its acoustic. Add a pianist whose musical insight and intellectual clarity, magical touch and sense of pacing bring the music to life so that you want to hear him “no matter what he performs” (NY Times), and we have the makings for an evening of exceptionally fine pianism.

It was a typically piquant programme, changed from the published version to include just three works – two magisterial, transcendent late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, twenty fleeting miniatures, by turns quirky, ethereal, rambunctious, grotesque, poetic, delicate, fragmentary….. Denk revealed their individual characters so carefully, so delightfully that each tiny gem felt like a stand alone piece in its own right.

Beethoven’s piano sonata in E, op 109, the first of his triptych of last sonatas, also opens with a fragment – a tiny arabesque of just two notes in the right hand to which the left hand replies with a similar figure. It’s not a melody, yet that opening is immediately memorable. In Denk’s hands the music unfolded before us, its narrative flow so naturally paced. A muscular middle movement which dissolved into a theme and six variations, surely some of the most transcendent Beethoven ever wrote and handled with a delicacy and robustness, when required, by Denk which pulled one into this otherwordly soundworld so completely that one was transported, fully engaged and utterly overwhelmed. It was akin to meditating.

It felt almost wrong to leave the auditorium for the interval and face the noisy crush around the bar, but we knew the second half would take us to another special place, the unique world of late Schubert, his final sonata completed just a few months before his death.

Is the Sonata in B flat, D960 Schubert’s “final word”? A valediction for his departure from this world? I’ve always been suspicious of this view of this great sonata, whose expansive opening movement is like a great river charting is final course before the ocean, and whose finale is a joyful outpouring of hope, a reminder perhaps that Schubert had more, much more to say, had he lived longer. This was certainly Denk’s take on Schubert’s last sonata. The opening movement’s first theme had the serenity of a hymn, the second theme more unsettled, but the overall sense of repose remained, occasionally interrupted by dark, but never ominous, rumbling bass trills.

The meditative quality of the Beethoven variations was felt again in the slow movement of the D960. In some pianist’s hands, this movement can sound funereal, but Denk gave it a mystical grace and a sense of forward movement, so that the warmth of the A major middle section when it came infused rather than surprised the ear. The Scherzo poured forth with the agile freshness of a sparkling mountain stream, but the Trio reminded us that melancholy is never fair away in Schubert’s world, the bass accents (too often overlooked in other performances/recordings) here perfectly highlighting the change of mood….

The finale opens with a bare G, potentially as cold as the opening of the first Impromptu, but a dancing sprightly rondo quickly ensures, rising to a joyous conclusion, all masterfully and imaginatively presented by Denk. The overall pacing of this Sonata, like the Beethoven, was so elegantly managed: it is a long work (around 40 minutes) yet Denk’s clear sense of a through narrative and overall architecture of the music ensured there were no longueurs, not a moment when the mind wandered to other realms.

The encore was Brahms’ ever popular Intermezzo in A, from the Op 118. Tender and poignant, it was a lovely conclusion to an exceptionally fine evening of pianism.

when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

– Jeremy Denk (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)


Meet the Artist – Jeremy Denk

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

We had classical records at home. I loved to listen to them and dance around to them – it was a crucial growing up time for me, like a refuge And there was an old broken down spinet in the house and I loved to play on it. I had favourite albums growing up – the Saint-Saens organ concerto, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, oh and the Verdi love duet, that was one of my favourites, the one with Pavarotti. My parents were not musicians, though my father played the guitar, but they were music lovers.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

György Sebők, the great Hungarian guru of the piano, whom I encountered at my last year at Oberlin Conservatory, sort of randomly when he gave a recital and a masterclass. He had a totally different value system and way of thinking about music. There were so many things about Sebők that were crucial to me, but one of them was this urge to find a kind of balletic parallel to phrases, to find a way to move at the piano that exactly mirrors the essence of the phrase. It was very important to him, as a Hungarian pianist, that notes that are up should be “up”, and notes that are down should be “down”, if that makes sense….there was a way that he used to demonstrate this. There was a naturalness and a simplicity that he was after that I really adored. He had a beautiful way with Mozart which really opened up the music up for me. I knew that I always loved Mozart but I didn’t really know why: he used to unpack the simplest phrases of Mozart, to find a tremendous sense of play, a sense of constant exchange, little surprises that had to be dealt with one way or another or reacted to. I could talk about Sebők for hours!

There was another teacher from that period, who was almost the opposite to Sebők. He was a ‘cello professor at Oberlin and one of things that he talked about was “inhabiting” the music, almost like method acting in theatre. He coached a friend of mine and I on the slow movement of Beethoven E-flat major ‘cello sonata. We loved to argue, as many young musicians do, and he made us meditate on separate things: he made my friend meditate on “filling out” each note right to the end. He made me think about the saddest thing I could imagine, which for me was the idea of not playing the piano. He had an incredible emotional investment in every moment of the music.

These two approaches were quite different, one was incredibly European, the other totally American, but they worked because they were both after the same things

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

Trying to do too much! And balancing writing and playing. I would say the greatest challenge is just to play well night after night and to practice well. And having a life on top of all of that!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

There is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov, when asked what was his favourite novel, he replied “the one I’m about to write”, which I think is the best answer to this question! When I did the Ligeti Etudes it was a very charged moment in my life, it was music I really believed in, and it was fun to work on that music that hadn’t been that much recorded at that time.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I do a lot of Bach, a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, some Schumann. And I’ve been doing with a great deal of pleasure, especially for me, a lot of Renaissance keyboard music. And through Sebők I am a big Bartok person. And Ligeti and Ives too

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Each project comes from a kind of notion, for example with the music history programme, I felt we all know the story of Western classical music from classes at school, although in the classical world the focus tends to be between 1650 and 1950 and of course there are many hundreds of years that are shunted off to the side. And the story is longer than that and has many beautiful elements. To my mind it is like an epic story or an epic poem, and I felt it would be useful, as in a time lapse photo, to watch it go by and feel the pull of time and see all the new ways in which each new gain or vision of music is also a loss – an incredible cycle of destruction and creation. I tried to find a way to do it in an evening’s span. I was very constrained – in the selection of pieces and how long each piece should be, so it was kind of a mental exercise.

When I did Goldbergs Variations and Ligeti Etudes that was interesting – Ligeti is all about disorder and chaos, and a new mathematical order to the world, whereas Bach is the opposite: at the end of the Variations it is all about order and clarity

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is a rather complicated thing to say but the times when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

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

For pianists make sure that the left hand is not subservient to the right, that the harmonies get their due. One of the things that bothers me most about young musicians today is the sense of the metronome working behind everything with no sense of rubato. Without it the music just begins to sound like a diagram. But when you say rubato they always think you mean slowing down, but of course it also means speeding up.

 

Jeremy Denk begins an Artist Residency at Milton Court Concert Hall on October 12th. For further information and to book tickets please visit the Barbican’s website

 

Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists. Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, Denk was also recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with Academy St. Martin in the Fields.

In 16-17, Denk toured extensively throughout the US, including returning to the National Symphony led by Sir Mark Elder, and performing with the St. Louis, Vancouver, and Milwaukee Symphonies. He also toured the UK in recital, including appearances in Perth, Southampton, the Bath Festival, and a return to Wigmore Hall. He returns to the BBC Proms this Summer playing Bartok 2 with the BBC Symphony. He has also recently appeared with the Britten Sinfonia, with whom he will perform at the Barbican next season–where he is artist-in-residence at Milton Court. Denk also recently made his debut at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie in Cologne, and Klavier-Festival Ruhr, and continues to appear extensively on tour in recital throughout the US, including, recently, Chicago, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, and at New York’s Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in a special program that included a journey through seven centuries of Western music. Next season, Denk returns to the San Francisco Symphony with Tilson Thomas, and Carnegie Hall with Orchestra St. Luke’s, and continues as Artistic Partner of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with multiple performances throughout the season, and a new piano concerto written for him by Hannah Lash. He also makes his debut on tour in Asia, including recitals in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul. Future projects include re-uniting with Academy St. Martin in the Fields for a tour of the US.

Denk’s upcoming releases from Nonesuch Records include The Classical Style, with music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the complete Ives violins sonatas with Stefan Jackiw. He also joins his long-time musical partners, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in a recording of Brahms’ Trio in B-major. His previous disc of the Goldberg Variations reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart.

In 2014 Denk served as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, for which, besides performing and curating, he wrote the libretto for a comic opera. The opera was later presented by Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Festival. Denk is known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praises for its “arresting sensitivity and wit.” The pianist’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, The Guardian, and on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a book for future publication by Random House in the US, and Macmillan in the UK. Recounting his experiences of touring, performing, and practicing, his blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.

In 2012, Denk made his Nonesuch debut with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111, and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by the New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post, and Denk’s account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano. Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas featured in many “best of the year” lists.

Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School. He lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at jeremydenk.net.

 

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I have two musician parents and had a musician grandmother. I grew up in a house where music was quite literally everywhere, and I think that was probably the single most important influencing factor. I really do believe in this idea that music is a language and you feel comfortable in the language that you hear from the beginning of life. I heard music from the beginning of my life, and I think I just wanted to speak that language

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

You go through a musical life and you’re exposed to so many people and it’s not easy to narrow this down. But probably studying with Leon Fleischer was the most formative experience in my life, beyond growing up in the house I grew up in.

I had grown up hearing his recordings long before I met him, and he was a huge influence before I even knew what he looked like. And then I met him and spent four years studying with him. He’s one of those rare musicians who is equally eloquent as a player as a teacher – a musical philosopher. Hearing music described by him and seeing the unbelievable integrity with which he approached music, I think that really marked me.

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

It’s all hard! I don’t mean that in a negative way, but basically you spend every day touching these masterpieces but you never come to some end point where you can say “that is just the way I want it” because you’re always looking for more in them. That is exactly what is so wonderful about them too, but it is simultaneously what is very difficult. So I guess maybe the challenge is finding a balance between being very driven and determined and ambitious (and I don’t mean ambitious in a career sense), but to also take a real joy in playing these works.

There’s a wonderful quote from Schnabel that over the years he taught, relatively many students who could convey sorrow in their music making, but only a couple in all of those years could really convey joy. It’s a huge part of music’s expressive vocabulary and hugely important not to lose sight of that.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have certain love for Schumann’s music. Not that I love it more than other pieces, but I feel a kind of closeness to it, that it speaks to and for me in a way that it is different from other works.

And of course I feel unbelievably pulled towards Beethoven – who couldn’t be?! – so I can’t say I have any real favourites. But this is the music that is most important to me in my life at the moment.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

The first thing is that I have to love the music that I play. I have to really want to play it. And then I start thinking about recital programmes, how a good programme would be to put together. What programmes work well, how much repertoire can I handle in a season without becoming overwhelmed, how much do I need to feel there’s enough variety

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have many. I have had a very long, very very happy association with the Wigmore Hall, which I think is a really very special place. I love playing at the Concertgebouw, in the big and small halls. I’ve lived in NYC for 16 years now so Carnegie Hall has a special resonance for me as well.

I played at Milton Court (London) in November (2016) and it was a fantastic pleasure. This is another small-ish hall in London which is totally different in vibe, has a different audience, with an excellent acoustic

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

The first thing is that as you work – and as a young musician you have to work hard – you must never lose sight of what made you fall in love with music in the first place. You have to find a way, and it’s a question of hours where you really strive to improve, but you never move away from that aspect of music which drew you to it. You should never let the work become a distraction or be dutiful. That I think is incredibly important and not easy to achieve.

I think the other main thing that you have an incredibly profound responsibility to try to understand the mentality of the composer. It’s very difficult and you will never do it perfectly: notation is so abstract, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility of trying. You have to really, really try to look for what this person is trying to communicate – if you choose to play music which is not your own music, you have a responsibility to do more than just play the notes.

How do you feel a musician should approach this?

I think a close interrogation of the music is necessary and it takes many forms. Even though in Beethoven piece to piece he changes enormously, you should not play the piano sonatas without knowing the quartets and symphonies. I really believe that

Understanding structure, the way the music is put together, the way it functions psychologically is unbelievably important – I don’t think it’s that important for the audience, but it’s especially important for anyone who wants to play music. This is abstract music, not a literal reflection of the life of the composer, but I do think especially when talking of the music of the past, because the world has changed so much, trying to understand the world these composers lived in – and it will only get you so far – remains a real responsibility.

Talking specifically of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959 (which Jonathan Biss will perform at his concert in London on 2nd May 2017) do you feel the slow movement of this sonata is a reflection of the composer’s mental and physical state?

All this is intensely subjective, but I would say yes. When I play the second movement I really do think it’s a composed hallucination. There’s no other piece by Schubert or anyone else that is like it. The are little moments in his earlier music, but in the late music alongside the lyricism, which is so incredibly beautiful, there is this sense of real terror, and I think when you know this is a person who was months away from death, it’s very difficult not to think there is a connection [in the second movement]. The warmth of the finale is really astonishing in contrast to that.

Tell me a little more about your Late Style project. What drew you to this examination of composers’ late music?

As with all my programming this is music which is important to me. Beyond that, it really has interested me that there are so many composers who were already writing great music but still at the end of their lives moved in new directions. For example, with Beethoven because the late works are so special, had he stopped at Op.80, we’d still say he’s one of the greatest, but he still found a new language in later life. This is also true of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and figures as diverse as Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich and Gesualdo. I am just fascinated by this idea that the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is finite, limited, seemed to have focussed so many composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. Either age and/or coming to the end of life it seems you reach the point where you just say what you need to say, you don’t worry about how it will be received. All of these works are very different but I think the link is that these people have the freedom to say what they need to say.

Jonathan Biss performs late works by Schumann, Chopin, Kurtag and Brahms at Milton Court on 27 March, and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, and Schwanengesang, with Mark Padmore, on 2 May. Further information here

(Interview date 28 January 2017)

Jonathan Biss’ biography

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My parents were great music lovers and the gramophone and radio were central to my early exposure to music.  My musical guardian angel was my maternal uncle, Benjamin Spieler, who studied clarinet at Juilliard with Prokofiev’s friend and colleague Simeon Bellison (principal clarinettist in the NY Phil) and pursued studies in flute, oboe, and clarinet and saxophone at the Paris Conservatory and bassoon at Columbia in New York.  He discovered that I had absolute pitch and arranged my musical education forthwith, chaperoning me to Fontainebleau to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.  It is impossible for me to express adequately my debt to him.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Nadia Boulanger and Sir Clifford Curzon when I was young; Felix Galimir and Rudolf Kolisch later on..

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Let the listeners decide!  I have particular commitment to Viennese classical repertory, French music, and contemporary music, though the works I perform span the Elizabethan masters to the present.

What, for you, makes Mozart’s piano concerti special/significant in the canon of classical music?

They are operatic scenes, incorporating a breathtaking span of emotions that unfold under the guide of a masterful dramatist who perhaps is equalled only by Shakespeare.

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of Concertos 3 & 4 which you performed with Aurora orchestra as part of their Mozart’s Piano series at Kings Place?

The solo keyboard parts are written not by Mozart, but by expatriate composers living in Paris in the middle of the 18th century, together with C. P. E. Bach; Mozart supplied orchestral accompaniments, thereby transforming these movements into concertos.  It is fascinating to see how in doing this Mozart prepared himself for the task of composing instrumental concertos from scratch.  These are therefore works of apprenticeship.  From here Mozart develops the techniques of solo and tutti within aria form, transforming its structure to the domain of the instrumental concerto at the moment that he chafes against the static nature of opera seria and wants to have dramatic development WITHIN arias, not just BETWEEN them (in the recitatives, where the action typically happens in opera seria).

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are many.  Hearing Gilels’ and Richter’s first recitals in New York.  Hearing Horowitz’s after his return to the concert platform.  Hearing Rudolf Serkin’s Hammerklavier sonata and Emperor concerto.  Hearing Curzon in solo and concerto repertoire.  Hearing Haitink conduct Bruckner 8 and Mahler 9.  And there then are my own experiences on stage—constant excitement, an endless learning curve, reveling in the exalted danger of risk-laden performances.

What advice would you give to anyone learning Mozart’s piano music?

Learn the grammar and the aesthetic, learn to discern the myriad character changes inherent in the fluid discourse, learn what is to learn, and then walk onstage and do what you must do to communicate this dizzying sensual world to an audience that will be forever changed by the message you bring to them.

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

Engagement with the musical narrative, character, drama, colour.  Be an actor—do for music what Meryl Streep does for the screen and the stage.

Mozart’s Piano, Aurora Orchestra’s monumental new five-year project offers audiences the rarest of opportunities: a complete cycle of the concertos, staged live in concert in the beautifully intimate surroundings of Hall One at Kings Place. Further information here

Pianist and Conductor Robert Levin has been heard throughout the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia. His solo engagements include the orchestras of Atlanta, Berlin, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montreal, Utah and Vienna on the Steinway with such conductors as Semyon Bychkov, James Conlon, Bernard Haitink, Sir Neville Marriner, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. On period pianos he has appeared with the Academy of Ancient Music, English Baroque Soloists, Handel & Haydn Society, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Sir Charles Mackerras, Nicholas McGegan, and Sir Roger Norrington.

Renowned for his improvised embellishments and cadenzas in Classical period repertoire, Robert Levin has made recordings for DG Archiv, CRI, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, ECM, New York Philomusica, Nonesuch, Philips and SONY Classical. These include a Mozart concerto cycle for Decca; a Beethoven concerto cycle for DG Archiv (including the world premiere recording of Beethoven’s arrangement of the Fourth Concerto for piano and string quintet); and the complete Bach harpsichord concertos with Helmuth Rilling, as well as the six English Suites (on piano) and both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier (on five keyboard instruments) as part of Hänssler’s 172-CD Edition Bachakademie. The first recording in a Mozart piano sonata cycle has also been released by Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

A passionate advocate of new music, Robert Levin has commissioned and premiered a large number of works.  He is a renowned chamber musician and a noted theorist and musicologist. His completions of Mozart fragments are published by Bärenreiter, Breitkopf & Härtel, Carus, Peters, and Wiener Urtext Edition, and recorded and performed throughout the world. (source Rayfield Allied)

 
 

Richard Goode plays Schubert’s last three piano sonatas at Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 25th May 2016

“….the most delicate nuance, significance everywhere, the keenest expression of the particular, and finally the whole suffused with a romanticism…..And the heavenly length…..”

SchubertThis quote from Schumann actually refers to Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, but the phrase “heavenly length” is often used in relation to Schubert’s late piano sonatas. The final triptych, drafted in the spring of 1828 and completed a few months before Schubert’s death in the autumn of the same year (extant manuscripts suggest a preliminary sketch and then a full final version), are big works, each with four movements, meticulously structured with cyclic motifs running through each individual sonata and the set as a whole, revealing Schubert’s innate sense of musical geometry and bold treatment of the traditional sonata form. These are works in which one sees the entire arc of the work mapped at the very beginning, neatly concluded at the close of the finale, and it takes a particular performer to tackle both this musical architecture and the sonatas’ length.

Some pianists, and scholars, feel these sonatas can be legitimately “shortened” by omitting the exposition repeat in the first movement. In the C minor (D958) and A major (D959) sonatas, this repeat adds only c5 minutes to the length, while in the final sonata in B flat (D960) observing the repeat creates a first movement of c20 minutes, which is as long as an entire early to mid-period Beethoven sonata. Personally, I always feel somewhat cheated myself, and on behalf of the composer, if the exposition repeat is omitted in performance or on a recording. But I suspect some pianists omit the repeats because they feel the audience cannot cope with such a long programme, or perhaps because the performer wants to be out of the hall and heading home before the pubs close. This misjudges audiences’ expectations, in my opinion. Those of us who choose to hear Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in concert are prepared for a long evening – that is the great pleasure of this music when played well.

richard-goode-2013-steve-riskind-450sq
(photo: Steve Riskind)
I have enjoyed Richard Goode’s recordings of Schubert’s  piano sonatas and his recording of the penultimate sonata, D959, remains my benchmark. Thus I went to his concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall (part of the International Piano Series) with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, helped in no small part by the fact that I met a pianist friend there who like me is very fond of Schubert’s piano music.

Occasionally, very occasionally, I go to a concert where from the opening notes I can tell it will be a perfect evening. This year there have already been a few (Pavel Kolesnikov playing Debussy Preludes at Wigmore Hall, Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square, Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards’ at Milton Court); these really are the “wow” moments of my concert-going life, performances so outstanding, exhilarating, spell-binding, magical and above all memorable, that to write a review of the event afterwards has felt like a heavy task because I could never put into words exactly why the concert was so wonderful. I deliberately chose not to review Richard Goode’s concert for Bachtrack.com (and yet here I am writing about it now) because I wanted to immerse myself in the sound, to listen to every note, every idea, every nuance, every shading and colour. I didn’t want to have to get up the next morning, with the memory of the music still resonating in my mind and imagination, and “explain” the concert in a review.

I’m not going to describe each sonata in detail – there will be other reviews no doubt for that. In fact, what follows is a series of responses to what I heard, notes I made in the programme during the concert, and thoughts shared between myself and my concert companion.

Heavenly length

Richard Goode observed all the exposition repeats, yet at no point did the sonatas feel long. Some pianists feel a need to muck around with the pulse and rhythm in Schubert in an attempt to highlight aspects such as the rapid emotional voltes faces or extraordinary harmonic shifts which colour Schubert’s music. In fact, by maintaining a clear sense of pulse and rhythmic vitality the longer first and final movements moved forward apace, yet never hurrying nor pushing the tempi, and the works actually felt short, even with all exposition repeats intact. In all three sonatas, the finales were vibrant and colourful – in the D958 the tarantella became a witty dance, in the D959 and D960 one felt Schubert’s urge to say more, so much more, that the ideas were still tumbling from his mind and pen.

Schubert’s soundworld

Goode can do Beethovenian robustness and muscularity when required (the C minor Sonata contains a number of obvious “hommages” to Beethoven, while the references are more subtle in the D959 and D960), but he has a keen sense of the ethereal qualities of Schubert’s writing too. Thus his fortes and fortissimos were rich and orchestral, never strident, while the softest end of the dynamic range was delicate yet still focused. At times the sound shone or glowed from within, thanks to Goode’s superlative clarity of tone, touch and articulation. Schubert’s magical and daring harmonic shifts were highlighted, Goode lingering over them briefly before moving on to the next one, so that they became fleeting and elusive rather than obvious.

Simple but never simplistic

There’s an awful lot of baggage, theorising and debate surrounding Schubert’s late music, in particular the extraordinary Andantino of the D959, a slow movement quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote. That Schubert was dying of syphilis and the debilitating side-effects of the cure is known and documented; likewise that he was living in a city ravaged by war and social upheaval. Whether these sonatas are his response to his illness or his social situation, or are his “last words”, a farewell, a valediction, is open to debate, but I get frustrated by pianists who try to read too much into the music and allow their interpretations to be overly psychological, clouded by the psychobabble. Goode’s approach to this music is straightforward – he gives us what is on the page but what we hear is enriched by his long association with this music and his evident understanding of it.

Some pianists take the Andantino at Adagio and turn it into a funeral dirge. Goode opted for a lilting tempo to highlight the simple melancholic folksong qualities of the opening melody. The middle section opened like a Bachian fantasy, increasingly interrupted by the frenetic trills and triplets before the full savagery was unleashed. In the slow movement of the D960, the tempo was restrained, but it never dragged. The result was a movement of extreme concentration and contemplation whose atmosphere shrank the vastness of the Royal Festival Hall to the intimacy of Schubert’s salon. Compare this to the expansiveness and breadth of the first movement which unfolded like a great river plotting its final course.

This for me was an example of how Schubert’s piano music should be played: unfussy (yet with a clear understanding of the importance of the music’s bold structures and harmonic landscape), witty, robust, melancholy, joyful, intimate and expansive. Richard Goode returns to the Festival Hall in 2017 in a programme of Beethoven – a concert I greatly look forward to.

Just to add that Goode played the entire programme from the score, with a page-turner (his wife in fact): at no point did this detract from his ability to communicate this wonderful music.