FFGuy for F&AGuest interview by Michael Johnson

François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2200-seat outdoor amphitheatre was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven – playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After the interval, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and shook up the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. Monsieur Guy joined me and a colleague after his concert for a question-and-answer session about his playing, the role of the piano in his life, and his future as a conductor of Beethoven symphonies.

Question: Can you describe your technique for creating such a stormy opening for Hammerklavier? The audience was thrilled.

Answer: I try to achieve several things at once with those opening bars – signaling immediately the dimension of the complete work, its conquering majesty, and the vital energy that begins to build from those enormous, outsized chords. I try to give it weight and pace, as Beethoven wanted. It is as if Beethoven was saying, “Let’s go conquer the universe!”

Q. And your surprising low-key encore? What were you thinking?

A. I enjoy the idea behind this little piece which is probably the best-known and simplest work of Beethoven. I chose it to come immediately after the most dense and complex of Beethoven’s work, one that is relatively little known to the general public. But “Elise” is also Beethoven and can, as you say, touch people to the point of tears.

Q. What does music mean to you, as a career pianist. Since we have known each other – nearly 25 years – you have dedicated yourself entirely to music.

A. Music fills my life, my existence. Even when I am not at the instrument, even when I am speaking of other things…. Through music, one can express things that words cannot.

Q. I see you are busy – 50 concerts and recitals per year.

A. Yes, now it’s closer to 60, apportioned among concertos, chamber music and solo recitals. I try to maintain a balance of about one-third for each format.

Q. Your new career seems to be taking off – now you are an orchestral conductor …

A. Yes, I am doing some conducting. I started by conducting from the keyboard, the so-called “play and conduct” format. Seven or eight years ago I started doing the Beethoven piano concertos that way, and it’s becoming more a part of my life. Now I have booked about ten play-and-conduct engagements in which I add a performance on the podium, conducting the full orchestra.

Q. Alone on the podium? What drove you to undertake this new challenge?

A. Actually it’s an old dream dating back to adolescence. I started conducting from the keyboard, and gravitated to the podium. My conducting has been well-received so I am continuing. For the moment, I conduct only Beethoven.

Q. Only the symphonies?

A. Yes, I have already done the Fourth and Fifth at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and will conduct the Seventh in October at the Opéra de Limoges, with its very good orchestra that I have worked with frequently. I enjoy it very much, and will conduct Beethoven’s “Fidélio” there in 2022.

Q. Will you do what Rudolf Buchbiner did in Aix recently, all five piano concertos in one day?

A. Yes, I am scheduled to do just that in January, again at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. We will start at 7 p.m. with Nos. 1 and 3, then a break, returning for Nos. 2 and 4, and finally at 10 p.m. the Fifth.

Q. This sounds like a major exploit!

A. That’s not at all why I am doing it. I merely want to take the public on a journey with me to better understand the evolution of these concertos. I find this idea very exciting and I think the public will as well. In addition, these concertos are all works of genius and so individual – each one has its own character. They do not encroach on each other. It’s like a great crossing of seas on an ocean liner. I will be taking the public with me.

Q. I was also thinking of it as a physical marathon.

A. Yes, both musically and intellectually. It’s even more true in a play-and-conduct format because I have to control what’s going on around the piano. We must remember, though, that in Beethoven’s time all concertos were performed like this. There were no conductors. Same goes for Mozart.

Q. So you are putting yourself in Beethoven’s and Mozart’s shoes, so to speak?

A. Well yes, somewhat, a bit. It’s a return to the concertos as they were intended. The piano is not king – it’s there for a dialogue with the instrumentalists, like a big family.

Q. Do you like the feeling of disappearing into the orchestra when you play-and-conduct?

A. Yes indeed. The pianist turns his or her back on the audience and is encircled by the other players. So there is a sort of fraternity – no rivalry – but it’s not easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, there is a kind of unity, and that’s what is so interesting.

Q. You have said that keyboard conducting gives you a new understanding of the music. What do you mean? Does it really change your perspective?

A. Absolutely. When you play traditionally with a conductor, one must be familiar with the orchestral parts while concentrating essentially on the piano part – that’s our role. But when the pianist and the conductor are the same person, it becomes clear how completely the piano is integrated into Beethoven’s concept, and Mozart too, and then later Brahms and Schumann.

Q. How did you go about studying for your role as a conductor?

A. Well I am largely self-taught, an autodidact. But I have been counseled by some eminent conductors, notably Philippe Jordan, conductor of the Bastille Opera and soon to direct the Vienna Staatsoper, when he leaves the Bastille next year. He is a fabulous conductor, an extraordinary talent. He has helped me tremendously. And another one is Pascal Rophé, conductor of the Orchestre des Pays de Loire – Nantes and Angers. He has been a big help with the Beethoven symphonies. But I am essentially self-taught and I have no ambitions to become a full-time conductor.

Q. Ah no? That was my question – isn’t there a temptation to leave the piano behind? Solti, Bernstein and many others abandoned the piano to conduct.

A. No, no, that’s not my plan. Conducting is an extension of my interests in music. For example, I have played practically all of Beethoven’s piano music, all his chamber music, all his important piano works. And it seemed natural to try conducting. I could not imagine NOT conducting one of the symphonies. So I had to learn how to do it.

Q. Contemporary music in one of your big interests. You have collaborated with the composer Tristan Murail, I believe, and others?

A. Yes, I am currently on a concerto Tristan Murail is composing for me. What matters for me is new ideas in composition that still retain traditional structures. I want innovation, ideas that change the piano and the orchestra. Sounds we have never heard before. That’s what interests me with Tristan Murail.

Q. Are you spending your life focused solely on the piano to the exclusion of all other activities? Some pianists wear blinkers.

A. I am not wrapped up in a bubble. Nothing stops me from following important events, such as Korea, or the relations between the two Koreas.

Q. You are in touch with people outside the world of music?

A. Yes, I am very involved in astronomy, for example. I study mushrooms!

Q. Mushrooms?

A. Yes. The other day I found ten kilos of cepes on my property in the Dordogne. I have always had a passion for mushrooms of all types.

Q. John Cage was also a mushroom enthusiast. He wrote books about them. He even created the New York Mycological Society for the study of mushrooms.

A. I am a specialist too. I know all the names of different species in Latin.

Q. Tell us about your tenth Beethoven cycle planned for Tokyo. What does it consist of?

A. What it means is that I will play all of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory over a ten-day period, about three weekends, for the tenth time. Almost twelve hours of music.

Q. Do you have a loyal fan base in Japan?

A. Yes, yes. I usually play in a very beautiful hall in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Two years ago I played there with the Dresden orchestra conducted by Michael Sanderling. And last year I played all the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas there.

Q. If you give 60 recitals and concerts a year, as you said at the start of this interview, can you still find time to develop new repertoire?

A. Yes, I try to master one or two important works every year. I recently accepted to learn and play a concerto by Enescu. I always try to put aside time for new works.

Q. But at your age, don’t you find you learn more slowly?

A. Yes, I am 50 years old. But I have many things I want to do in music. I am not stopping.

 

Artist portrait by Michael Johnson


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

(This article first appeared on the Facts & Arts site. Illustrations by the author.)

 

 

Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

If Beethoven were alive today, there has to be a decent chance – likelihood, even – that he would have been cured of the deafness which beset him for the last fifteen years of his life.

Of the various remedies which were suggested to him, and there were plenty, amongst them was the suggestion to use olive oil.

In Cornwall last year, I managed to collect some water in my left ear which refused to come out, with the result that by April this year I could barely hear a thing if I blocked my right one. Nearly two hundred years after the great man, I was also recommended the use of olive oil, but as a precursor to having the ear syringed, as the oil softens the wax and thereby reduces the risk of damage to the drum during the procedure.

Beethoven is unlikely to have collected too much water in his ear, for his personal hygiene was almost nonexistent. I am equally sure that it would have taken more than syringing to deal with his problem. But my own experience has given me the teensiest sense of what it is like not to hear properly.

Summing up the work of any composer in just one piece is not just difficult, it is verging on the daft. Beethoven’s enormous output in his miserable life had many landmarks, many ‘firsts’. His third symphony, the Eroica, changed symphonic writing for good. His ninth was the first to include a choir. I could go on…

But if I had to single out just one piece which summed up the core frustration in his life, it would be his 23rd (of 32) piano sonata, now known as the Appassionata.

Writing about music is notoriously hard, and, some would say, a little futile, because it is the hearing of it and the experience which is personal to each of us. Beethoven, however, who once quipped that he would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet, speaks to us so directly in his music, and this piece in particular, that it is not at all difficult to understand its message.

Beethoven has something of a reputation for tumultuous, even ballsy music. Because of this, it is easy to forget that the man wrote some of the most exquisite and sensitive slow movements in the entire repertoire. It’s like a lion stopping in his tracks and scooping up a lesser mortal to tend and nurture, rather than trample or devour.

So today I’m giving you the last two movements of the Appassionata, played with appropriate passion and wonderful clarity by Valentina Lisitsa.  It starts with a simple theme, followed by three distinct variations, before returning to the original. At first it may seem a little pedestrian, but as it unfolds, Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, the ability to have two or more tunes singing at the same time, comes to the fore. It becomes five minutes of pure tenderness, which grow on you each time you hear it. As it comes to its close, Beethoven launches straight into the final movement without a pause.

This is Beethoven ranting at the world at the loss of his hearing. Listen to that circular motif after the first few seconds, which remains a theme throughout: it is the cry of an anguished man, pacing up and down in his room. Anger; frustration; desperation; turmoil. In the unlikely event that he has not made his point, the final minute will leave you in no doubt. And yet,  in the midst of it all this, a pleading beautiful melody, begging for a cure.

(I was once advised by a piano teacher to concentrate on the left hand and the right will take care of itself. Not a chance that works here.)

This is Beethoven laid bare in the sound. Of all composers, few reach us on such a human level: he goes directly to our souls like no other. Some of Beethoven’s greatest works were written when he was completely deaf. Imagine that for a moment: to know how it’s going to sound without the experience of actually hearing it. What a genius.

I have deterred you too long. Listen to this and be glad you can. And if you haven’t had your ears syringed, you might like to consider it. I’m now turning the volume down, not up.

Just need to stop saying ‘what?’, which has become something of an irritating habit.


This article originally appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s Manuscript Notes site.


Nick Hely-Hutchinson worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Guest post by Beth Levin, concert pianist

Dear Bill,

The thing about this last concert was the pre-concert depression. I sunk really low and felt so incredibly sad. I don’t really know what that was about. I tend to get down beforehand but this felt suicidal. I was staying with friends in Baltimore and the night before the concert all of the mistakes of my life seemed to surround me and grip me. Everything felt wrong. So wrong! At home I would normally lie on the couch in invalid mode but I was with friends and had to come out of myself and act at least halfway normal. Haha – it all feels slightly ludicrous in retrospect. My friends (of the delicious crab cake recipe – I was told that crab cake on a Saltine was the way they grew up eating it) had a beautiful Steinway at their home and I got in some excellent practicing before the concert. Their piano was vintage and had a certain sweetness to the tone. The piano at the hall was “state of the art” – almost murmuring, “I dare you!”. No sweetness there, but power and one certainly could make music on it. Just so new, shining black and devoid of quirks. In ten years it will be a gem. The hall was beautiful – I remember that much. I don’t remember much about the recital itself. I take that as a good sign – not being haunted by it, but having it flow, happen and come to an end.

The people stood at the end – that was lovely for me. I made a mistake right at the beginning in a scale going up in the Handel – but after that I think I played with more mastery.

The Hammerklavier felt like playing a great role like King Lear. The piece really demanded everything – deepest emotion, color, reaction, assertiveness, richness, tenderness, extreme contrast in mood, the limit of technique – just to describe some of what that work asks from the performer. I played the first movement on the slow side but I think it worked – you could really hear what Beethoven was doing – and the phrasing is so gorgeous that way. The final movement may be the biggest challenge, at least technically – it verges on being unplayable I think. I know the singers felt that about his Missa Solemnis – not singable. I took the Adagio faster, and I think that worked well too. The Adagio feel was still there, but you could hear the long line and things held together… like a good crab cake! A good title: “The Hammerklavier on a Saltine!” The piece grabs you and puts you through your paces as they say from the opening chords – which had always cowed me in practicing – you have to truly Live that piece and portray it at the same time – which is why it feels like a dramatic role I think.

I honestly felt in the last few pages that I was almost home and feeling a slight relief at that – and then at the true end of the concert the audience reaction overtook me for several minutes – I ran backstage and ripped off my rather fancy dress in such a hurry and got into plain clothes. I don’t know why I did that. It is a week later now and I still feel a bit “off”. All of the depression is gone, but is there such a thing as post-Hammerklavier stress syndrome? Kidding, but you don’t play that work and stay the same.

It leaves you very tired and kind of nostalgic for the music and for everything in your life – lived and unlived. And it forces you to explore everything you’re made of at the piano – pure and simple. I’ve been practicing chamber music for a rehearsal next week – and my heart hasn’t been in it fully. I think the word “force” is so relevant to the Hammerklavier. The piece is a force of nature – like Beethoven – and it forces things from the performer – like a tough fight, one that you can’t exactly win, but can see end in a draw.

~Beth xxx

66272112_2807729112590573_8605262200703025152_o (2)
Beth Levin at Earl & Darielle Linehan Concert Hall, Baltimore

Beethoven – Hammerklavier Sonata | programme note by Max Derrickson

Crab Cake Recipe

Meet the Artist – Beth Levin

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall, 13 June 2017

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111

I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

Read my full review here

 

 

 

(photo ©Igor Levit)

Igor Levit is, along with Daniil Trifonov, the pianist du jour. Lauded for his disc of the Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and with a slew of critical superlatives for his debut disc of late Beethoven piano sonatas, Levit is a pianist who concerns himself with the most serious edifices of piano literature, while Trifonov tends towards the more romantic virtuoso repertoire.

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the loftiest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, both in terms of the arc of their composition (three distinct periods which mirror significant stages in the composer’s life, artistically and emotionally), and the demands these works place on the pianist. The complete Beethoven cycle, a performance of all the piano sonatas, usually over eight concerts, is a Herculean task, not to be undertaken lightly. It fully tests the mettle of any performer, but the perennial appeal of presenting these works in a cycle is a mark of their significance and the special reverence they have accrued.

On Wednesday night, Igor Levit embarked on his Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Wigmore Hall, bringing his intelligent and distinctive approach to these great works. 

Read my full review here 




(Photo © Igor Levit)

Quietude

Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

Arvo Pärt

0e9a4e9b60bf60fa96f5a0a69bf97e1dWhy pick ‘quietude’ rather than simple ‘quietness’? Principally because I think the word has more resonance, more depth: it has a physical component, as well as one of simple silence. It is almost meditative. It is the deep breath (exemplified by Jessye Norman, perhaps) before the opening notes; and – if you’re fortunate – that precious, eternal, ethereal stillness between the final lifting of the fingers from the keys, the release of the sustaining pedal, and the subsequent applause. In both cases – even in a minimal amount of time – there is (can be, or perhaps should be) reflection, absorption, of the music in between.

Sometimes, music itself contains quietude (the most logical culmination of this being John Cage’s 4′ 33″) – although this may not necessarily mean indicated rests or pauses. Before I began to lose my hearing (which, for me, was not the descent into silence that some may expect – as Cage said, “what we hear is mostly noise”: and I experience almost constant tinnitus and occasional “musical hallucinations”), I was obsessed with a short piece, Secret Song No.6, by Peter Maxwell Davies: which, initially, appeared to begin with just a random selection of slow, sustained, intensifying, single tones. Even sitting on the settee, simply staring at that page for long periods of time – in all-consuming stillness, apart from the melody weaving through my mind – trying to understand its implications, its meaning, how one could possibly interpret it – was liable to drive me crazy. It was only a sudden realization (an emergence) that “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies” which led me to some sort of comprehension, and the confidence to return to the piano, to let the music sing for itself. (Technically, it is not a difficult piece. Emotionally, I found it extremely challenging – if only because of the self-examination it provoked. (Which one could argue is the purpose of all art…. Discuss.))

Q is also for Quakers, of course; and, although I am by no means religious (except perhaps in my addiction to creativity), one of their most inspiring qualities (even for me: someone whose tastes evolved in large, echoey gothic buildings resonating with Byrd, Tallis, Howells…) is the silent worship – listening for that “still small voice”. Sitting in true peace – whether alone, or with others – can be a truly overwhelming experience. It is therefore not for everyone.

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

– TS Eliot: Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

Reading this back, I appreciate that some may find hints of mindfulness. To me, though, quietude is almost its antithesis – a momentary letting go; an untethering – although not ‘mindlessness’, per se. It is an absence of intrusion of both internal and external forces. It is a caesura – but one that you may only recognize when immersed in its fragility, its transiency, its elusiveness. What follows must be sound. The rest is silence.

Stephen Ward, Writer in Residence for the Orchestra of the Swan, and blogger at The Bard of Tysoe

Quasi – As if…..

Perhaps the most famous work for piano which utilises the word “Quasi” is Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 27 No. 2, the “Moonlight”. The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia, a title the work shares with its companion piece, Opus 27, No. 1.

This is extraordinary music, this “Sonata like a fantasy”, with its first movement of delicately veiled sounds, hushed melodic fragments, those peaceful, certain triplets, the slight hesitancy in the dotted figure in the right hand, the suggestion throughout of improvisation, the pedal markings, senza sordini, indicating that the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old. A twilight first movement, shimmering, shifting, hinting at the tension between the forward pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision, and the solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, the use of thematic material and texture beautifully demonstrated in the construction of the initial melody. A prophetic theme built on a single note, G-sharp, this the composer’s core idea. A single note, repeated six times, proceeds to A, then returns. A single note, reharmonized on its return, not by the initial C-sharp minor chord, but with luminous E-major. A single note forms a single theme; there is no second subject in the first movement, only that the triplet accompaniment assumes a more melodic role, only that tension rises as new harmonies are initiated. A single note, a single theme, now heard for the first time in the left hand in the coda. A single note, foreshadowed in the opening measures, recollected at the close. A single note, a simple triplet accompaniment, a crescendo and decrescendo first in the right hand, then in the left. The movement ends as quietly as it began…..

Frances Wilson