Tag Archives: Beethoven

Grigory Sokolov – giant of the piano

Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek

 Grigory Sokolov – Meesterpianisten series recital, The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 7th May 2017

Programme

  • Mozart – Sonata in C, KV 545
  • Mozart – Fantasie in c, KV 475
  • Mozart – Sonata in c, KV 457
  • Beethoven – Sonata no.. 27 in e, op. 90
  • Beethoven – Sonata n0. 32 in c, op. 111
  • Schubert – Moment Musical in C, D 780, No. 1 (encore)
  • Chopin – Nocturne in B (from ‘Deux Nocturnes’, op. 32) (encore)
  • Chopin – Nocturne in As (uit ‘Deux Nocturnes’, op. 32) (encore)
  • Rameau – 4e Concert : No. 2 L’Indiscrète (from ‘Pièces de clavecin en concert’) (encore)
  • R. Schumann – Arabeske in C, op. 18 (encore)
  • Chopin – Prelude in c (from ’24 Preludes’, op. 28) (encore)

There is no need to introduce Grigory Sokolov to anyone interested in the piano world today. He is an implicit giant, who does not seek nor need advertising, unnecessary media attention, flash-bulbs and buzz. He is above all that, yet so powerful in his modesty. His performances do not contain obvious technical fireworks. If you like this kind of showing off, there are other names you should look to. His performance will affect you first from the inside, starting slowly, almost shyly – and then it will swallow you and possess you whole.

Sunday 7th May 2017 was Sokolov’s 19th recital in a row (!) in the famous Meesterpianisten series in Amsterdam, which this year celebrates its 30th annivcersary. He chose to present two piano sonatas by Mozart (C major K 545 and C minor K457 with the Fantasy K. 475) and two sonatas by Beethoven (E minor op. 90 and C minor op.111). The first sonata, known as the “easy one” (Sonata Facile), may be a surprising opening piece. Heard so (too) many times, performed by all manner of child prodigies, only when under the fingers of a mature pianist does it bloom to its fullest. Still, I would consider it as a warm up before the Fantasy, where Sokolov visited every dark corner there was and brought to light every nuance of this piece. Cruising between the different moods, emotions and styles of this work, he immersed the audience in his mystical world. His natural transition to the sonata invoked the feeling of some unspoken deep, dramatic questions. Yet, his interpretation was not overly dramatic, which left the listeners even more emotionally disturbed and intrigued. It made me realized how this classical piece, decorated with almost baroque fugue elements, shyly and unintentionally hints towards a new era. Nevertheless, the genius of Mozart transcended his own time, just as the genius of Sokolov eclipses other performances.

After the first standing ovation and a break, the pianist came back to present the two sonatas by Beethoven, op. 90 and op. 111. My overall impression of the tone and colour was that the Steinway concert piano sounded much better in this repertoire. Multi-dimensional, Beethoven’s voice sounded much broader and bloodier than the rather flat and crystalline Mozart. Sokolov played the sonata E minor in a more contemplative way than I knew it and throughout his performance I realized that slowing down the tempo, even a little bit, might lead to great discoveries. Again, this sonata – like the Sonata Facile which opened the concert – was more like a prelude for the op. 111. A beautiful second movement resembled a ray of sun before the serious C minor piece commenced. Sokolov played the first movement of op. 111 so meditatively that the audience grew a little uneasy, guilty about barging into such a deep and intimate conversation he was having with a piano. But it was so compelling you simply want to be a part of it… I was curious how Maestro Sokolov would interpret the “rag-time”/syncopated elements of this sonata and I really liked the elegant, understated way in which he handled these rhythms with a little swing in a more playful way.

One can only guess at the maestro’s intention in building such a programme, but for me it was a beautiful journey, using the definition of a classical sonata as its point of departure. Sokolov presented the evolution of the form beautifully, and he chose pieces where the composers, even though firmly grounded in the aesthetics of their respective times, were already emotionally climbing on their tiptoes to see and feel what the future could bring. As a performer, he cleverly highlighted these musical fast-forwards and truly let the music shine. And by doing this he actually could not confirm any more strongly the impact that his personality exerts on the music. He shows so much respect to the music that when he touches the keys he gives the impression that he has disappeared and the only thing that is left in the hall is a beautiful, omnipresent sound. And yet this is not true – because he is everywhere, in every soul who is privileged to sit in the room with him.

The Concertgebouw audience cherishes and almost worships Maestro Sokolov, so a great set of encores was obviously going to follow a thundering standing ovation. He started with Schubert’s Moment Musical no. 1 in C major, and then went on to play two Nocturnes op. 32 by Chopin. He played them last year in the Concertgebouw, and I was not the only one with tears in my eyes, especially after the first Nocturne. That was the most emotional moment of the evening and it unlocked a new, deeper level of emotions in many listeners. He then played L’Indiscrete by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Schumann’s Arabeske in C major op. 18, which I also remember from last year. Again, a lesson should be learned that it does not necessarily pay to show off with tempo, even with a relatively easy piece like this, because one can overlook small pearls and diamonds in this charming work. The final encore was the Prelude op. 28 no. 20 (“Funeral march”) and it is impossible to describe what he did with this short piece! Sokolov turned that prelude into a musical haiku, and through masterful use of dynamics he evoked the weight of death with just the faintest shade of hope. No one else is capable of doing that.

Magdalena Marszalek

Amsterdam 8th May 2017
Magdalena Marszalek is an amateur pianist. She taught herself how to play and read music when she was 5 and then graduated to a primary music school in Poland. She did not pursue a professional career in music and went on to become a scientist (PhD in chemistry), however, piano music has accompanied her and inspired her all along. Currently residing in Amsterdam, when not working on new types of solar cells, she spends many hours at the piano practising and playing for pleasure – mostly Chopin, because he was a Polish emigrant, too. Very often she hops on her bike and in 10 minutes she is in the Concertgebouw, enjoying stellar performances by the finest musicians in the world. Realizing how lucky she is, she wants to share her passion for piano music with everybody. 

Magdalena’s piano story on instagram: @princess_mags_piano

Nostalgia

Guest post by Dr Michael Low

Nostalgia has a two-fold meaning: firstly, it is a longing for the past, and secondly, within such longing, an attempt to recreate and glorify the values of a bygone age. The 19th century’s obsession with nostalgia can be traced back to the Romanticism itself, where the name of the movement is a reference to the old French word romance, which referred to the often extravagant and fanciful literature of the Middle Ages. Don Quixote (published 1605 and 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (not to be confuse with the fictitious Cervantes de Leon of the Playstation and Xbox fame) was perhaps the most notable of such literature it was also referenced in some of the 19th century’s most famous novels: Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844), Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1844) and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). All three novels have been adapted into films during the 20th century with varying degree of success.

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Though it is not often implicit in the musical text, an example of nostalgia can be found in the Romanze of Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto (1830), the composer himself described this movement as: ‘Calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.’ A more obvious example of nostalgia can be found in Liszt’s Ninth Transcendental Etude entitled ‘Ricordanza’. The title itself has a two-fold meaning. It can mean ‘recollection’, possibly even a literal reference to the fact that this etude looks back and adheres to its 1827 prototype as no other etude in the ‘Transcendentals’ does (Liszt himself wrote three versions of the Transcendentals Etudes, the 1827 juvenile prototype, the 1839 Paganini inspired Grandes Études, before the final version in 1857 which stripped the exorbitant technical demands of its intermediate predecessor). In Italian, the term ricordanza can also refer to a memento, an object that was stored over a period of time to recall a specific moment of the past. The eminent pianist composer Ferruccio Busoni famously compared the musical content of this Liszt etude to ‘a bundle of faded love letters from a somewhat old-fashioned world of sentiment’.

It is also possible that Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved, 1816) is a musical reference to the composer’s own Unsterbliche Geliebte (Immortal Beloved) letters. Written in 1812 and never sent, the anonymity of the intended recipient triggered what was perhaps the most comprehensive sleuthing exercise in the history of Western Art Music. In fact, the controversy about these letters is such that they have been the subject and title of a Hollywood film (Immortal Beloved 1994), which was dismissed by scholars for its lack of historical evidence and speculative ending (casting Gary Oldman as Beethoven didn’t exactly help…), as well as making a brief appearance in the award winning HBO Series Sex and the City. In these letters, Beethoven expressed his longing for the beloved, and how he looks forward to the day of their next meeting. A similar situation appears in An die ferne Geliebte, where for reasons unknown to the listener, the poet and his beloved are also separated. Here Beethoven recalls the opening song as a symbol of memory within the last song, which not only gives the song cycle a sense of completeness and closure, but also signifies that the distance which initially appear between the poet and his beloved has now been bridged by the songs he sang to her, showing that music has the ability to transcend time and space. And just as in the Immortal Beloved letters, hope springs eternal in the poet’s heart with regards to his next meeting with the beloved.

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In Romantic music, nostalgia can represent either a bitter sense of lost happiness or a wistful yearning of the past, both of which are often linked with the idea of cyclic reprise. This can be found in the coda of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und leben (both composed in 1840). Further significant examples can be found in Schumann’s Fantasie (1836) and Fantasiestücke (1837). In the former work, Nostalgia took the form of Beethoven as the Fantasie was an attempt to raise fund towards the construction of a Beethoven monument in Bonn – this is most evident the majestic march-like second movement in the key of E-flat major – a key reserved for some of Beethoven’s most heroic compositions such as the Eroica Symphony, and the Emperor Concerto. The element of longing and passion in Schumann’s Fantasie was prefaced firstly by Schlegel’s quote:

Durch alle Töne tönet

Through all the notes

Im bunten Erdentraum

In earth’s motley dream

Ein leiser Ton gezogen

One soft note

Für den, der heimlich lauschet

Can be heard by one who listens stealthily

Second and more importantly, nostalgia adheres to a musical quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte as a mean to express the unattainability of his own love for the then seventeen-year-old Clara Wieck. This haunts the first movement in its fragment before appearing fully in the coda. Schumann’s sketchbook showed that there were actual attempts to quote the Beethoven quotation in the valedictory last movement before he changed his mind.

Similar to the Fantasie, Schumann also uses a falling five-note motif to enshrine the image of Clara in the Fantasiestücke. This motif appears prominently in Des Abends, a piece which evokes the haunting stillness of the Fantasie’s final movement, before returning in the opening and the coda of Ende vom Lied, a piece which Schumann confessed that had him dreaming of ‘wedding bells’ (evident in the middle section) before realising that there was still much distance between himself and Clara. Worth mentioning is that the third piece of the set – Warum? – with its persisting motif, was perhaps Schumann’s own way of asking fate why the lovers remained apart.

Although she is just a peripheral figure in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister Apprenticeship 1795), the enigmatic Mignon has been immortalised in the lied by composers such as Reichardt, Schubert, Schumann, Spohr and Wolf. In Goethe’s novel, the eponymous hero first encounter the androgynous Mignon after meeting a group of assorted actors who not only seek his wisdom but also funding for their aspiring theatre troupe. Having learnt that Mignon was abducted from her country of birth in Italy (one of the spiritual homeland of the Romantic imagination), Wilhelm proceeds to rescue her by buying her from the acrobats who had taken her. In Wolf’s setting of Mignon’s Kennst du das Land (Do You Know the Land 1875), Mignon nostalgically recalls the land where ‘the lemon blooms and the orange grows, and remembers the house with ‘marble statues and pillar roof’. Here nostalgia is two-fold, as Mignon longs for her distant homeland, and for a vaguely remembered past.

In Schubert’s Winterreise (1827), the poet’s recollection of the past serves only to remind him of his present suffering and lost happiness. The images of rural life and (in particular) of nature became symbols of his lost love: the gate of his beloved where he passes to bid her farewell (Gute Nacht), the weather-vane that reminds him of her fickleness (Die Wetterfahne), the frozen stream which became a metaphor of his own heart – frozen, but overflowing with passion beneath the icy exterior (Auf dem Flusse), the ‘town of inconsistency’ where two eyes captivated the poet (Rückblick), and the linden tree that recalls past happiness and promises rest (Der Lindenbaum). It is possible to interpret Müller’s text in such a way that the ‘rest’ here signifies death as this is the only release from the poet’s longing and pain. Schubert’s Lindenbaum looks forward to the final song of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer 1885), where the poet recalls the ‘two blue eyes of his beloved’ also by symbolically embracing death under a linden tree.

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The title Rückblick also appears as the title in the fourth movement (Intermezzo) of Brahms F minor Sonata Opus 5. Literally translated, Rückblick means retrospect, or remembrance, and this is evident in the way the music recalls the second movement (Adagio espressivo) in its thematic materials and programmatic intentions. Prefaced by Sternau’s poem Junge Liebe (Young Love), the Adagio espressivo depicts the image of two lovers embracing beneath a moonlit sky:

Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint

The evening falls, the moonlight shines

Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint

Two hearts are united in love

Und halten sich selig umfangen

And keep themselves in bliss enclosed

The emotional directness of this movement such that one of the 20th century’s greatest pianist, Claudio Arrau, described it as ‘the greatest love music after Tristan, and the most erotic.’ However, whilst Brahms was obvious in regards to the programmatic intentions of the Adagio espressivo, the composer was far more cryptic about the subject matter behind the fourth movement. Although is it not identify in the score, the Intermezzo is based upon Sternau’s poem Bitte (Request), which depicts a love that has grown cold similar to a withered tree or a barren forest.

Furthermore, it is possible to see Brahms’s late piano and chamber works as music which verges on the dream-like realm of nostalgia. Unlike the early works, (in particular the F minor Piano Sonata and the D minor Piano Concerto) which place titanic demands on the soloist in terms of technique, emotion and physical stature, the late works (in particular Opus 117, 118, 119 and the Clarinet Quintet) are much more intimate in their conception and exude an autumnal atmosphere. In these works, we no longer hear the intense, passionate young composer haunted by Schumann’s attempted suicide as well as his love for Clara (as attested by the opening bars of the Concerto and its slow movement, written as Clara’s ‘portrait’). The drive, the titanic tussle, and the composer’s allegorical triumph over adversary fate (in the finale of both the F minor Sonata and the D minor Concerto, Brahms utilised the frequently adopted 19th-century compositional device of transition from the minor key to the tonic major identical to that in Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies), all of which were hallmarks in the Brahms’s early, large-scale works, were replaced by a sense of contentment, acceptance and serenity in the composer’s late musical essays.

In a similar way, Schumann’s Kinderszenen (1838) is the composer’s own nostalgia of childhood. Although it is difficult to speculate the autobiographical content (or the lack of) within these pieces, Schumann himself admitted to Clara that they were inspired by her comment in regards to the composer who seemed ‘like a child’ at times. Most poignant is the first piece of the set entitled Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Land and People), which (to me at least) is a musical portrait of a toddler’s foremost interaction with the outside world. Perhaps the most famous piece of set is Träumerei (Dreaming), immortalised by Vladimir Horowitz as a favourite encore and used in the 1947 Hollywood film Song of Love, starring Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann and Katherine Hepburn as Clara Wieck.

Romanticism’s idea of nostalgia has been one that was well adapted by Hollywood. In Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1996), Almásy’s heavily annotated copy of Herodotus’s The Histories serves only to recall his torrid love affair with Katherine Clifton (expertly captured under Minghella’s direction), which was to have devastating ripple effects on those around them. At the same time, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ is a mere reflection of the Almásy’s state of mind (and heart) for it is only in heaven (hence death) that he is able to ‘find the happiness that he seeks’. In David Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Daisy Fuller’s deathbed merely serves as the only consistent variable throughout the course of the film as Daisy recalls her life, along that of her lover, Benjamin Button, whilst her daughter Caroline reads from the protagonist’s diary. The film was also haunted by the use of Scott Joplin’s Bethena Waltz (1905) which serves as a reference to period when the film was set. And finally, it was the grown up Peter (Pan) Banning (played by Robin Williams), who enlist the help of Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) as he rummages through his childhood memory in search of the one big ‘happy thought’ that will enable him to fly in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991).

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Ralph Fiennes in ‘The English Patient’

 

Recommended listening (All of which can be found on YouTube)

Ludwig van Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte Opus 98

Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor Opus 5

Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Opus 15

Johannes Brahms: Sehnsucht Opus 14 No.8

Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor Opus 115

Johannes Brahms: Piano Pieces Opus 117, Opus 118 and Opus 119

Frederick Chopin: Larghetto from Piano Concerto in E minor Opus 11

Franz Liszt: Transcendental Etude No. 9 in A Flat Major ‘Ricordanza’

Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz

Franz Schubert: Die Winterreise D911

Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke Opus 12

Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen Opus 15

Robert Schumann: Fantasie in C Major Opus 17

Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und leben Opus 42

Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe Opus 48

Robert Schumann: Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’: Mignon (Kennst du das Land)

Hugo Wolf: Goethe Lieder: Mignon (Kennst du das Land)

Fidelity

Over the past weeks and months I have been working, amongst other things, on pieces by two great composers of music for the piano – Beethoven and Schubert (the Piano Sonata in A flat, Opus 26, and the Impromptu in F minor, D935/1 respectively). For both pieces, I have been working from the Henle urtext edition of the score.

A good urtext score is the result of careful scholarly research and editing, offering a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful indication of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

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But before we start exploring interpretative possibilities the music offers,  it is important that we study the score carefully, taking note of the composer’s directions and markings. As I say to my students, the score is our “map”, with “signposts” to guide us in tempo, mood, expression, articulation, dynamics. At a simplistic level, these markings tell us “how to play the notes”, and we ignore them at our peril.  These markings are also the composer’s personal “signs”, indicating to us how he/she imagined the music and illuminating for us, at a distance of often several hundred years, how he/she expected it to sound. Some composers write very little in their scores, but what they do write is precious and important; others offer very clear instructions and even some very quirky ones (Olivier Messiaen, for example, even added his annotations about the “colours” of notes and chords as he perceived them as a synaesthete, and Satie’s Gnossiennes are liberally annotated with curious quotes). Composers knew what they were doing and many were experienced performers themselves (Beethoven, for example, before his deafness forced him to retire from public performances), with clear indications of how to bring their music to life, and, in piano music, how to create different textures and suggest different instruments, from a woodwind solo to a full orchestral tutti.

Last year, I worked with one of my students on the Rondo from Beethoven’s Sonatina in F Anh. 5 as part of his Grade 4 exam programme. This (and the other Sonatinas) is a wonderful introduction to Beethoven’s piano music, in particular the piano sonatas, and offered my student (and me as teacher) an important lesson in showing fidelity to the score. I think my student grew quite bored of me saying “Read the score! Look at the details!” at every lesson, to impress upon him the importance of following Beethoven’s directions. This score is not so heavily annotated with directions as the Opus 26 Sonata on which I am currently working, but it has enough in it to demonstrate Beethoven’s clear intentions, in particular suggesting different instruments (staccato in the opening measures suggests woodwind – bassoons and oboes), textures (the forte at bar 4 suggests the full orchestra and demands a rich, orchestral sound), and expression (note that the D minor section is largely played legato, adding to the more sombre, lyrical mood of this section). By accurately observing the markings as written in the score, my student was able to create a colourful and faithful reading of this work, largely based on what he had in front of him on the page.

By the same token, the markings in the Sonata Opus 26 offer clear instructions as to how the piece should be played. Throughout the opening movement, Beethoven suggests string-quartet textures and string articulation in both the organisation of the main melodic line, interior harmonies and melodies, and accompaniments, and also through detailed articulation, indicated by staccato, drop slurs and sforzandi. In addition, his very specific dynamic markings lend drama and colour to the music. I find the opening movement, a theme and five variations, most intriguing because of Beethoven’s interest in exploring rhythm, articulation and texture as a means of creating variants on the opening theme: the melody is always there, but in each subsequent variation it is cleverly embedded. In the final variation, all the string quartet textures are given glorious full rein in music of great lyricism and wit.  (It is worth listening to the second movement of the Opus 47 Sonata for Piano and Violin, the ‘Kreutzer’, also a theme and variations, with reference to the opening movement of the Opus 26.)

Schubert, like Beethoven, had clear ideas of how he intended his music to be played. There are certain pianists who choose to ignore Schubert’s directions, perhaps the most cavalier sin of omission being the exposition repeat in the final piano sonata. British pianist Stephen Hough describes this movement as “Schubert’s miraculous ability to bare his soul without a trace of narcissism” – and I feel this sentiment also applies to the repeats in the Impromptu D935/1. The sections in question (bars 69-83 and 84-109) are the first time we hear a beautiful and tender “trio” of duetting fragments in treble and bass, with a undulating semiquaver accompaniment which provides the harmonic structure, a structure which is, in itself miraculous. To hear these sections a second time seems to highlight the delicate poignancy in the music, and lends greater contrast and drama to the sections which precede it and the reprise of the opening motif at bar 115.

Often, the composer’s markings can also tell us a great deal about the kind of instrument with which the composer was working. For example, Chopin’s pedal markings tell us as much about the kind of piano he was used to working on as his musical ideas. Sometimes, coming at these markings with modern sensibilities and a big resonant modern instrument, we might feel his instructions are “wrong”, but it is possible to make small adjustments (a half-pedal mid-bar to avoid a muddy sound or dissonance) and remain true to the spirit of Chopin’s intentions. I was fortunate enough to experience a “Chopin piano” when I played the Pleyel (c1846) at the Cobbe Collection in Surrey. The piano offered many insights into Chopin’s markings and an important reminder that Chopin’s soundworld was more softly-spoken and delicate than some recreations of his sound on a modern concert instrument.

Another prime example of this is the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. At the start, Beethoven gives the direction “sempre pp e senza sordini“. “Senza sordini” translates as “without mutes”, i.e. with the dampers lifted away from the strings by depressing the right pedal. If one were to follow this direction literally on a modern piano, the sound would be very muddy, especially on a large, resonant concert instrument, and the wondrous harmonic changes would be obscured. In Beethoven’s day the piano was considerably more “feeble”, smaller and far less resonant than a modern instrument, and the sound of the undamped strings would not last through the slow changes of harmony. To recreate something like the sound Beethoven probably intended, the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old.

So, sometimes we have to make considered judgements in order to balance fidelity to the score and the possibilities offered by the modern instrument. As Charles Rosen says in his ‘Piano Notes’, “historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we can never be sure we are getting it right” and an effective performance is usually one which “respects the composer’s directions with absolutely fidelity and yet with imagination”. The performer has a responsibility to adhere to the composer’s directions, but this can lead to difficulties too. If we religiously follow the directions, we can of course produce a very faithful rendering of the music, but it may not be the most interesting version.

This leads us to “interpretation”, which can be defined as an ability to bring one’s imagination and personality to the music. This has its own difficulties – too much of the performer’s own imagination and personality can obscure the music, too little may result in a dull and colourless performance. The best and most memorable interpretations and performances are usually those where the performer fully convinces the audience that he or she has taken “ownership” of the music and made it their own, the result of the artist creating a version of the music that is meaningful and convincing to them personally. At this point, the musician has gone “beyond the notes” and the markings to create something that is both personal and true to the spirit of the composer’s intentions.

This freedom of interpretation is not an easy state to achieve and is something which develops over a long time – time spent living with the music, studying it (away from the piano as well as at the piano), absorbing all the details and nuances, getting to the heart of the music to discover its “meaning” and narrative, “listening around” the music to gain insights into the composer’s style and soundworld, and to set the music in context, an understanding of performance practice, historical contexts and musical taste.

An interesting, simple question of interpretation came up in a recent lesson with a student who is working on Wiegenlied (Lullaby) by Zilcher, a Grade 3 piece. The piece opens in warm F major, with a cantabile figure in the right hand redolent of the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite (I suggested my student listen to this piece for reference). The dynamic range of the music is small, mostly p and mp, retaining the gentle, drowsy mood. The first section ends with a piano marking, before the music moves into D minor and the mood changes. But the dynamic marking is still piano. I suggested to my student that she might consider a more intense sound here, to signal the change of mood. “But how can that p [at the end of the F major section] be different to that one? [start of D minor section] and how do you know that?” asked my student. I explained that not all piano markings are equal (likewise forte, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano et al!) and that it is down to us, as performers, to interpret the markings and make a considered judgement – based on what we see in the score and our knowledge of the music and the context of the music in general.

Back to the D935 Impromptu, and there are similar considerations of interpretation of dynamics. For example, bar 44 is marked pianissimo – and so is bar 45. But bar 44 is a bridging bar from the descending octave passage which precedes it and an introduction to the new material which follows. I feel it is important to differentiate the pianissimo markings here to signpost what is happening in narrative of the music. Later, at bar 90, the decrescendo suggests not only a diminution in sound but also a relaxation in the tempo (“rubato”). Schubert could have indicated this more clearly, with a rallentando or ritardando marking, but he didn’t, and so one is left to one’s musical instincts, knowledge of Schubert’s writing, his distinctive soundworld to decide how to treat bars or passages like this. Likewise, a crescendo may suggest stringendo (“pressing forward”) to create a greater intensity.

There is of course much to be gained in listening to recordings to gain insight into other performers’ myriad interpretations, and to offer inspiration, but never to imitate, for the following reason:

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”. Peter Kivy, ‘Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance’ (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197.

(with thanks to Graham Fitch’s excellent blog Practising the Piano).

 

A whole day of Beethoven

All 32 Piano Sonatas in a day? Read on……

Celebrated pianist Julian Jacobson, acclaimed for the vitality, colour and insight he brings to his performances, celebrates the 10th anniversary of his first all-Beethoven charity piano marathon by staging this amazing event once more. The event will run from 9.15am-10pm on 15th October 2013 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, with the aim of raising money for WaterAid and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ The Connection at St Martin’s which gives crisis grants to people in need across the UK.  Donate here.

Julian Jacobson (photo credit: Roger Harris)

Julian will perform all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas from memory in chronological order with the exception of Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’, prefaced by the Sonata in E minor, Op 90, which together will form a special lunchtime concert from 1-2pm within the marathon event itself. Likewise there will be a special ‘Total Beethoven’ concert at 7pm that evening which will conclude the day’s marathon. During this outstanding feat of endurance – undertaken by only two other pianists – he plans to take just 2 longer breaks of 30 minutes each on the day and a few shorter breaks of just 5 minutes each. The event will be live-streamed with a button for people to donate during the webcast.

This will be a very special event indeed. Aside from the sheer Herculean task of learning, absorbing and reproducing all those notes, and sustaining a performance for over twelve hours, to hear Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas in (almost) chronological order offers a far-reaching overview of Beethoven’s musical style, the development of the piano sonata as a genre in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, and a glimpse into the inner workings of Beethoven’s compositional life and personality.

I asked Julian about the special challenges of preparing for such a musical marathon

CEP: How do you prepare, mentally and physically, for such a performance? What are the particular challenges of presenting all 32 Sonatas in one day?

JJ: Just attempt not to drown. An insane project. Go through all the sonatas in decreasing circles (revision over two months, then again over one month, two weeks, one week, three days…..). Try and keep fit, or get a bit fitter.

Admission to the event during the day is free, with a donation. Book tickets for the evening concert ‘Total Beethoven’ (7pm) via the Box Office: 020 7766 1100 or online from the St Martin-in-the-Fields website.

Read Julian Jacobson’s blog about the project

www.julianjacobson.com

Bus Station Beethoven

This delightful interactive art/music project was created by Newcastle artist Anton Hecht. A small grand piano was set up in the busy Haymarket bus station in Newcastle, and commuters and passers by were invited to join the pianist at the piano to play a few notes of Beethoven’s iconic Piano Sonata Op 27, no. 2 , the ‘Moonlight’.

Filmed over the course of an entire day, Anton edited each contribution together to create an almost seamless performance in a film which is as much about the daily life of the bus station and the people who pass through it as it is about the music. The end result is a rather special communal playing experience. Anton has worked on a companion project, ‘Come Play Satie With Me’, in which the public engage in the process of collectively playing one of Eric Satie’s Gnossienne on a Steinway in the main auditorium at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. Pianist Andy Jackson accompanies and guides, and like the Bus Station Beethoven, the resulting film is rather wonderful. Look at the concentrated expressions on the faces of the people who join Andy at the piano.
Watch both video clips here:

‘Bus Station Sonata’

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Come Play Satie With Me

What the great composers teach us

When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.

Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.

So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):

Bach – “counterpoint”

  • how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.

Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”

  • to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
  • an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal

Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”

  • an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
  • strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm

Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”

  • Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
  • the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar

Chopin – “sensitivity”, “songlines”

  • ultra-smooth legato, controlled shading, dynamics, voicing, pedalling
  • an understanding of the essential melodic line

Liszt – “virtuosity”

  • Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
  • Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing

Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”

  • Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!

Twentieth-century composers – “percussion”, “rhythm”, “articulation”, “colour”

  • Bartok offers even the most junior pianist the chance to learn about percussion and rhythmic vitality, while Prokofiev combines these elements with references back to classical antecedents
  • Messiaen for rhythm, brilliance, emotion, meditation
Maurice Sand, ‘Chopin giving a piano lesson to Pauline Viardot’, drawing (1844)

‘Must-plays’ for pianists – updated

I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter and Facebook friends, asking them to indicate which pieces they feel should be “must plays” in the pianist’s repertoire. This post is compilation of those thoughts. Thank you to everyone who contributed. Please feel free to leave further comments, either via the comments box on this blog or via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.

J S Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Italian Concertos, Partitas

The general consensus is that Bach “teaches you everything” (Melanie) and is “the basis of all piano knowledge” (Lorraine) – phrasing, voicing, balance, techniques such as jeu perlé and legato, “orchestration”. Master Bach and you can play anything. Bach was revered by many composers who followed him, perhaps most notably, Fryderyk Chopin, who, it is said, studied the ’48’ every day (he took a copy of the manuscript with him on his ill-starred trip to Majorca).

Mozart

I’m revisiting Mozart’s late Rondo in A minor, K511, at the moment, and I am struck, not for the first time, by how Mozart’s piano music presents his oeuvre in microcosm: operatic, orchestral, choral – it’s all there. He is also a master of chiaroscuro (light and shade), with changes of mood and shading often occurring within the space of just a bar or two. Mozart’s piano music requires great clarity and elegance. Never forget Schnabel’s comment “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”.

Beethoven – Piano Sonatas

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas are considered to be the New Testament of piano repertoire (Bach’s WTC is the Old Testament). Learn any one of the sonatas and you’ll have a snapshot of Beethoven’s creative impulse, as well as insights into how rapidly the instrument was developing at the time. Beethoven pushed the boundaries, both of the form and the instrument for which he was writing. For all the clichéd readings of it, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Opus 27/2) remains a revolutionary work, written by a composer poised on the cusp of change. His music is full of wit, humour, pathos & philosophy.

Chopin – Études, Nocturnes

I suppose it goes without saying that any pianist worth his or her salt should study at least one of Chopin’s Études and Nocturnes at some point. Chopin elevated the Étude from student study to a highly refined genre, while retaining the original intention of the ‘study’. They are all different, and individual, and they all offer opportunities to hone specific techniques. Some are very well known (the ‘Winter Wind’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Aeolian Harp’, ‘Tristesse’, ‘Revolutionary’) which makes them doubly difficult to play, for one wants to do one’s absolute best by them. Learn a handful of the Études – or all of them – and you will be scaling the high Himalayan peaks of piano repertoire.

The Nocturnes are exquisite miniatures, some of the finest small-scale music written for piano, and studies in beautiful cantabile playing. The distinct ‘vocal line’ in these pieces lends great drama and profound emotional expression, together with the judicious use of tempo rubato. Many have decorative features such as trills and fiorituras, which, when played well, appear to float over the surface of the music. The influence of Mozart on Chopin is clear in these works, in their distinct melodic lines. For me, the best performances of Chopin’s Nocturnes reveal him as a classical composer, with understated rubato, and close attention to structure and notation. Chopin may be ‘Prince of the Romantics’ (Count Adam Zamoyski), but he revered Bach and Mozart.

On a more general level, playing Chopin’s music offers the modern pianist a fascinating insight into what kind of instrument the piano was in the first part of the nineteenth century. More advanced than Beethoven’s piano, it was still some way from the modern instrument we know today. Hearing his music played on a period instrument is fascinating and makes sense of his dynamic markings such as sostenuto, and his pedal writing. (The Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, Surrey, has three ‘Chopin’ pianos, which he may have played during his 1848 visit to England.)

Rachmaninov

The landscape artist in sound, Rachmaninov presents the vastness of his native Russia in his music, and a sense of history. A reluctant performer himself (in a photo in the green room at Wigmore Hall he looks as if he’d do anything but play the piano!), he wrote piano music which is difficult yet so beautifully constructed that it is extremely satisfying to play.

Debussy

Debussy forces you, as a pianist, to totally reappraise the way you play, and how the instrument works. In a lot of his piano music, you need to forget the piano has hammers. Debussy’s own piano playing was described as “hands sinking into velvet”. I learnt so much about arm weight, lightness, and touch from my study of Debussy for my Diploma, so much so that I feel he is now required playing for any pianist, whatever level. (Even simplified versions of Debussy’s greatest piano works are worth investigation.) Debussy’s piano music also presents some interesting paradoxes for the modern pianist: we have this idea that his music is fluid and gentle. It was, relative to the prevailing style, but we have now gone too far now, and many interpretations capitalise, sometimes erroneously, on the “impressionistic” nature of his music. The Preludes, for example, contain many different moods. shadings, and exercises in touch and tone. Definitely worth studying.

Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti

I’m a recent convert to atonal music. I actually sat through a piece by Stockhausen in a concert earlier this week and enjoyed it, and I learnt a piece by Messiaen for my Diploma. It’s good to play outside your comfort zone, not least because it introduces you to new and different repertoire (I feel the same about Scarlatti and his cohorts!). Interestingly, younger students are often very receptive to dissonant and atonal music, because they have not yet experienced enough ‘straight’ classical music. I have also found some of my students like minimalist music, for the same reason.

This is by no means comprehensive, and is also very subjective. There are many, many more pieces and composers which could be considered “required reading” for pianists. Do please feel free to leave comments and keep the discussion going.

Snapshot of a life – Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello (nor indeed the 9 duo sonatas for piano and violin) at one sitting in a single concert. It’s something of a musical marathon, for performers and audience alike, yet it’s a fascinating  and absorbing experience because to hear the sonatas played in chronological sequence, one is offered a unique window onto Beethoven’s creative and compositional development: it is a journey through Beethoven’s life.

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

The A major sonata, the Opus 69, is from the middle, most productive, period of Beethoven’s life; yet, it was at this time that the composer wrote his moving Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he contemplated suicide. His deafness was now acute, if not quite total. The Opus 69 marks a turning point, particularly in the variety and organisation of its thematic material, and its improvisatory nature. It was composed during the same year as the Violin Concerto and the  Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its measured, well-proportioned construction, and, in contrast to the earlier sonatas, where the piano and ‘cello are, more often than not, engaged in witty musical repartee, the first movement of the Opus 69 opens with the ‘cello alone; variations of its expansive main theme and a pair of contrasting secondary motifs allow much contrapuntal and melodic interplay between the two players. This an equal sonata for cello and piano, and the material is distributed between the two instruments with perfect symmetry. And at this point, Beethoven had invented a new genre not seen again until Brahms. (Previous ‘cello sonatas were either ‘cello solos with continuo, or like the Opus 5 sonatas: piano sonatas with ‘cello obbligato.)

The final pair of sonatas, the Opus 102, dating from the beginning of the “late” period of Beethoven’s life, sit alongside the beautiful, pastoral Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. Like the sublime Opus 110 piano sonata, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, and exude an almost transcendental spirituality. And like the Opus 96 violin sonata, and the Opus 110 piano sonata, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance (but most defiantly not resignation) created by a composer finally at peace with his life and his God. (As my friend Sylvia says of the Op 110, “there he was, deaf as a f—–g post, unlucky in love, and he still managed to write that!)

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


Recalling the Archduke

Friday morning, and I was enjoying fairly leisurely tea and toast in bed (not having to get up early, for a change, to chivvy my son off to school) when I switched on Radio 3 and caught the charming Scherzo of Beethoven’s Opus 97 Piano Trio, the ‘Archduke’.

This work was one of the set pieces for my music A-Level (circa 1984), and has remained a favourite ever since. Pubished in 1811, it is Beethoven’s last piano trio. It comes from the same period of the composer’s creative life as the Opus 96 Sonata for violin and piano, and shares some of the same qualities of this work in its elegant long-spun melodies and nobility of expression. I was fortunate in my music A-Level group in that the other students were a violinist and cellist respectively – and we were all of a similar standard, having all done our Grade 8 exams at roughly the same time. The A-Level syllabus required us to analyse the complete work, and as well as studying it in the classroom, we spent a great deal of time playing it together, which was both enjoyable and educational, since it reinforced many of the things we had been discussing in class.

The opening movement is in B-flat major, the same key as the first movement of Schubert’s great valedictory D960 sonata. The two works share some characteristics aside from the key, which is both serene and grandiose, poignant and wistful: both begin with a stately and graceful, long-lined opening theme, establishing the nobility which permeates the entire work. The Archduke is full of sweetness and spaciousness, monumentality and intimacy. Its emotional core is the third movement, an ethereal set of variations on a hymn-like theme, and one of Beethoven’s most profoundly moving accomplishments. Player and listener are reminded of similar movements in the late piano sonatas (especially Opp.109 and 111), the Ninth Symphony, or the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the Op. 132 string quartet.

Of course, I didn’t know these things when I was studying the work in my teens. We tended to do the analysis, without regard to the historical or compositional context of a work, studying it in isolation, blanking out all the other music that Beethoven was writing at the same time. But the work must have touched me, because whenever I hear it now, I experience a great rush of memory which can transport me right back to the music studio at school in the mid-1980s.

My school was blessed with an extremely fine music department, headed by a very energetic and hands-on music master. I was an active member of the department from the day I joined the school, and belonged to the senior orchestra (playing first desk clarinet), chamber orchestra (playing harpsichord continuo), choir, wind and recorder ensembles, and the madrigal group. I was a rather argumentative, opinionated and competitive A-Level student, always picking a fight with my music teacher (memorably, over my use of the word “bucolic” to describe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), and behaving in a (totally unjustified) diva-ish way about my piano playing. I thought I was the brightest student in the A-Level group, and I still cringe at the memory of my pretentious, know-it-all behaviour. I’m not sure what the other students thought of me, but when we were playing the Archduke Trio together, we were all equal before the music – which is how it should be. The violinist used to stand by the piano in her imperious violinist’s stance, tuning her instrument with much huffing and hair-tossing, while the ‘cellist, a clumsy, rather nervy girl who could be guaranteed to knock over all the other music stands when taking her place in the orchestra, struggled to secure the spike of her ‘cello. Then the music would begin, the quietly beautiful opening melody in the piano, and we would forget ourselves for awhile, enjoying the music and that particular give-and-take that comes from ensemble playing. Playing with other musicians can be so satisfying – far more enjoyable that hours of grinding practise alone, with no one to chat and joke with. It’s like belonging to a very special family with its own vicissitudes, petty niggles, tears and triumphs, and, like a proper family member, one has a responsibility towards the others, to be generous and open-hearted, and to keep going, no matter what, transcending oneself. It forces one to be modest, before the music and the other members of the ensemble.

We never performed the Archduke at school, though all three of us worked together on other works, including the marvellous Bach ‘Double’ Concerto (I was on harpsichord) with the chamber orchestra. I still have the manuscript of the Trio somewhere, covered in my analytical notes, a souvenir of some very happy and memorable years of music-making.