What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?
During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.
It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.
In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.
And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.
Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.
Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.
You know you’re at a special concert when the social areas around the concert hall, the bars and cafés, are abuzz with a very tangible sense of excitement? “When did you last hear him?” “I hear he is magnificent….. ” Add to that an audience populated by “important people” of the music world, including pianist Menahem Pressler (now in his 90’s and still playing) – it promised to be an exceptional evening.
It’s over 20 years since I last saw Evgeny Kissin live. That concert, the first solo piano recital in the history of the Proms, was legendary for all sorts of reasons – coruscating performances of works by Haydn, Liszt and Chopin and no less than seven encores to a record-breaking audience (over 6000). In the course of his career, he has been criticized by some for his rather cool manner, smooth perfectionism, and style over substance, but there’s never been any doubt about his consistent dedication to his art and artistry. Listen to his recording of Chopin’s Berceuse and you hear refinement in every opalescent note and multi-hued filigree passage: Kissin has musical intellect and, more importantly, he has soul.
No longer the shock-haired wunderkind, he is now a mature artist in his mid-40s; he has written a slim volume of thoughtful memoirs and has married his childhood sweetheart. He’s still got the phenomenal technique, but his stage presence is noticeably more relaxed (much smiling during his curtain calls). Yet his style and demeanour hark back to an earlier era, including the way he dresses (evening suit, black tie, even a cummerbund – a rarity at concerts these days): I think audiences really love this – despite attempts by other artists to break down the “us and them” barriers of the concert stage – because it reminds us of the huge sense of occasion a concert by a pianist of this calibre creates and preserves the mystique of the virtuoso performer.
In the programme notes, Kissin was described as a “titan among pianists”, suggesting both physical and metaphoric presence. In an article last year, The Economist billed him as “one of the world’s greatest living musicians”. Both statements are of course subjective – while also being true. He is “great”, in the sense of possessing an ineffable multi-faceted talent which makes the reviewer’s job so hard – for how can one truly describe what he does?
In keeping with his “old school” stage demeanor, he does not indulge in showy piano pyrotechnics nor flashy gesture for the sake of gesture. His mannerisms may be restrained but his playing is full of commitment and a passion which transcends romanticism: it burns with a hypnotic intensity.
Beethoven’s mightly Hammerklavier is one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, never undertaken lightly. In interviews Kissin has stated that he felt a certain maturity – which he now has – was necessary to tackle this monumental work (other, younger pianists are not so modest…..). It certainly gave full rein to Kissin’s magisterial powers, not just his technique but his musical intelligence too. He made the infamously difficult opening of the Hammerklavier – a rapid leap of an octave and a half taken in the left hand alone – look easy (and indeed the entire programme!) and launched into the first movement with a heroic commitment wrought in myriad sound. This work is so pianistic, its nickname a constant reminder that it must be played on a piano (and Beethoven was alert to rapid developments in piano design at the start of the nineteenth century: he knew a new instrument could produce the effects he demands in his score), yet also rich in orchestral textures and voicings, all revealed so clearly, so musically by Kissin. His pianistic attack may be direct, but his fortissimos never compromise on quality of sound, and his edges are smoothly honed. But above all of this, it was his pacing and natural rubato which captivated: a clear through-narrative combined with interpretative spontaneity gave this large-scale sonata a fantasy-like character, yet with a rigorous sense of the work’s overall architecture – even in the Adagio Sostentuto, where time was suspended for a movement played with an intense almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, yet managed with all the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality and strikingly dramatic contrasts.
The second half was all Rachmaninov Preludes, a selection from Opp 23 and Op 32, works with which Kissin is fully at ease. As in the Beethoven structures were fully understood, while sound was sculpted, grand gestures deftly chiseled, delicate motifs etched in filigree touch and a gentle haze of sound. We felt the composer’s emotional depth, his yearning and nostalgia, without a hint of false sentiment or surface artifice.
Four encores afforded more pianistic marvels – a crepuscular, haunting étude by Scriabin (Op 2, No. 1), Kissin’s own vertiginously virtuosic Toccata (proof that he could have been an excellent boogie woogie pianist as well!), another favourite Rachmaninov Prelude (in C minor), played with as much energy as if he was beginning the concert, and Tchaikovsky’s Méditation. He probably would have played more, such was his eagerness to return to the piano at each curtain call, but regretfully many of us had last trains to catch.
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)
Grigory Sokolov – Meesterpianisten series recital, The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 7th May 2017
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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 FAnh. 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.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site