Saturday 10th May, 2014 – St John’s, Smith Square, London
Waltzes – A minor, Op.34/2, C sharp minor, Op.64/2, D flat, Op.64/1; Nocturne, op. posth., Four Mazurkas, op. 30, Barcarolle, op. 60
Impromptu in B-flat D935 No. 3 ‘Rosamunde Variations’
Sonata in B-flat D960
The words “great” and “world class” are all too frequently bandied about in reviews and articles about musicians (and artists and writers too). But how does one truly define these over-used descriptions? If “greatness” comes from a life spent living with, and performing and writing about, some of the finest music ever written, forming a profound relationship with it and its composers, understanding with intimate detail its structures and nuances, then Paul Badura-Skoda is a living example of this.
Paul Badura-Skoda is a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. I was aware of him more as a respected pedagogue, writer on music and editor of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin and others. My teacher frequently refers to him, I have met pianists who have studied with him, and I have listened to some of his recordings (including his latest in which he plays Schubert’s final sonata on three different pianos) with interest and curiosity.
His concert at St John’s Smith Square was an opportunity for me and my companion for the evening (a fellow pianist) to share a unique musical experience – and one which will resonate with us for a long time to come. To attempt to “review” the playing, the pianism, the musical understanding and insight of such a master would be churlish.
Badura-Skoda created a special and intimate soundworld and atmosphere from the opening notes of the bittersweet A minor Waltz to the life-affirming closing cadence of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata, a place where generosity of spirit and good humour ruled, a place of great intimacy, as if we had been invited into his own musical salon for the evening. Of course, Paul Badura-Skoda is steeped in that particular European tradition of music-making, and his teacher, Edwin Fischer, connects him to an earlier golden age of music making and culture.
Despite his age (86), Badura-Skoda cuts a sprightly figure (compare his twinkling eyes and brisk gait with the frailer Maurizio Pollini at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April, who is more than 10 years Badura-Skoda’s junior) and displayed an obvious pleasure in being at St John’s Smith Square. And if there were some smeared notes and uncertain rhythms, the overall effect was of a musician who has lived with this music for many years and whose knowledge and understanding allowed the music to speak for itself, free of ego and unnecessary gestures.
Before the Sonata in B flat, D960, Paul Badura-Skoda said a few words about the piece, how he regarded it as Schubert’s “farewell” (it was completed less than two months before the composer’s death in 1828), and how the sublime opening theme suggests the words of a hymn or prayer. The first movement had a spacious serenity in the main theme, and the range of colours and nuances which Badura-Skoda brought to the music shone a new light on a familiar work for me: for example, the bass trills were voiced differently each time which gave them a greater resonance and sense of foreboding, and the exposition repeat was observed. The slow movement’s ominous tread was relieved by a middle section of great warmth. The third movement bubbled with all the exuberance of a mountain stream, the darker Trio hardly interrupting the mood, while the finale had drive and energy coupled with wit and humour, despite one or two uneven moments. This was an engaging and entirely satisfying performance, which was met, deservedly, in my opinion, with a standing ovation.
Despite the bad weather, the gales, and the cancelled trains, I managed to get into central London yesterday (thanks to the District Line which was fully operational from Richmond) to view the ‘Honoré Daumier: Visions of Paris’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (review to follow), and to hear French pianist Alexandre Tharaud in a lunchtime concert of music by Bach, Schubert and Chopin. I had been much looking forward to this particular Wigmore lunchtime recital because the programme was all music I know well and love.
There is perhaps a lesson in here, for the concert was a disappointment, and it made me wonder whether I should, in future, select concerts which do not feature music I know well……
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
There was a piano in the house ever since before I was born. It was my mother’s; she had played the piano as a young girl, and still plays the piano as a hobby occasionally today. It was a brown upright piano, which her grandfather had purchased for her. I have loved music for as long as I have memories, and have always enjoyed playing the piano. When I was slightly older and more advanced, my teacher at the time, Oscar Cano, explained to my parents that I needed a better instrument in order to make further progress. It was around the times that my parents bought a grand piano that they were able to afford, and I started going to watch concerts at the Concertgebouw (I grew up in Amsterdam) that I remember thinking, I want to be on that stage.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
The greatest influences on my playing have been three of my teachers: in no particular order, the late Yonty Solomon, Oscar Cano, Mikhail Kazakevich and Niel Immelman. Most of what I know about playing the piano I learnt from these four great pianists.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The music profession is one that requires a lot of persistence, and a great deal of determination. From performing and recording to teaching, almost everything in music is a challenge. For me it has always been a question of finding a new approach to learning a passage, or to explaining something to a student, etc.
The fact that classical music is being somewhat pushed aside in favour of other forms of music means that we keep being challenged to keep this century-old tradition alive, and to keep it relevant.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
In June 2012, I played my Artist Diploma recital at the Royal College of Music. The programme included two Beethoven sonatas (“Moonlight” and “Appassionata”), as well as the Liszt Dante Sonata and Chopin’s G Minor Ballade. This mammoth programme, without a break, was a performance of which I was very proud.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Every performance venue is different. I very much enjoyed playing in the Kleine Zaal of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the the Felicja Blumental Hall in Tel Aviv, and in the Purcell Room in London. I am generally more preoccupied with the instrument than with the hall. I love playing in locations that are more intimate, because I feel that I can then really communicate with everyone in the audience.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
This is difficult. There are so many! I really enjoy playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Liszt Sonata, Beethoven’s “Appassionata” and his Fourth Concerto, so many things by Chopin, Saint-Saëns’s G Minor Concerto… Like I said, there are so many!
Who are your favourite musicians?
I love listening to Radu Lupu and Grigory Sokolov playing live. Of those pianists who are no longer alive, I really love many of Arrau’s recordings, as well as those of
Gilels’s and Richter’s. One of the pianists whose recordings I really admire is Julius Katchen. For some unknown reason, despite being quite a well-known name during his life, he seems to have been somewhat forgotten of late.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I remember watching the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta at the BBC Proms. It was a dreadful experience, in a way, because people with political affiliations made great efforts to try and stop the concert and interrupt it in the middle. The orchestra, however, played all the way to the end. For me, it was a sort of affirmation of the power of music, and how it is above political divisions.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think that good practice habits are crucial. Learning how to practise efficiently can dramatically reduce the amount of time one needs to spend practising a given passage. This has two important implications. Firstly, it allows one to learn a greater amount of repertoire, and to learn works quickly. I had to learn Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto in 4 weeks once. Secondly, the risk of repetitive strain injuries is reduced if one doesn’t need to spend 8 hours a day practising.
What are you working on at the moment?
Bach – C Minor Partita
Chopin – Polonaises op. 26, Concerto in F Minor op.21
Liszt – Transcendental Etude in F Minor (no. 10)
What do you enjoy doing most?
I love it when I get the time and the chance to learn something new. Preparing a new work for performance or recording is, for me, the ultimate journey of discovery.
Interview date October 2013
Amit Yahav’s debut CD of works by Chopin, including the Ballades, is available now. Further details here
Recipient of numerous international scholarships and awards, Amit Yahav is a graduate of the Royal College of Music with distinction. Following his distinction on the Master of Music course, he was invited to participate in the RCM’s exclusive Artist Diploma programme under the tutelage of Prof. Niel Immelman and Prof. Vanessa Latarche, from which he also graduated with distinction. Previously, he had studied in London with the legendary Prof. Yonty Solomon and Prof. Mikhail Kazakevich, and in Amsterdam with Oscar Cano and Marjès Benoist.
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
It all happened by chance when I was eight years old, after I was given a toy organ as a gift and later, an upright piano. After some rudimentary piano and theory lessons, nothing could stop me from wanting to play at the piano whatever sheet music I found around the household, or to imitate music heard on the radio or on LPs , most of which was symphonic. Soon my first all-piano LP recording collection started (I can still hear those performances in my head) and my piano life began.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
The first pianist I heard on a recording was Arthur Rubinstein, who was my hero for a long time. Then Horowitz and Michelangeli. Growing up in L’Aquila, a city well known for its intensive high-quality concert life (and recently for the terrible earthquake that devastated it), I was able to go to recitals given by the world’s greatest pianists: Richter, Gilels, Pollini, Firkusny, Serkin. Rubinstein was in fact an honorary citizen of the town and a member of the artists’ committee of the “Barattelli” Concert Society, which had one of the most impressive concert series in Europe. The influence of L’Aquila’s concert life, the intimacy of my household, in which the piano was a sort of magic corner, the recordings, the never-ending classical music broadcasts on of the 3rd channel of Italian National Radio, my incurable passion for piano, improvisation, music of all kinds, triggered my wishes and ambition to make a life in music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have been asked to play varied/different concert programmes in a short space of time, with little time to prepare, albeit with the strong wish to meet the challenges posed by the requirements of the repertoire, and my strong desire to learn and play new pieces. This I have found very challenging, as I felt I needed more time to work on certain pieces in order to achieve complete security. However, I am more and more convinced that us pianists spend too much of our practice time working on achieving an automatic facility, rather than aiming for an intense, productive and fully-focused practice regime that should be the only way of working, what we can rightly call “practicing”. This issue prompted me to write Fundamentals of Piano Methodology, in which I lay down the basics of true, effective learning.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
A concert pianist spends most of his/her time alone in a practice-room. Sometimes s/he plays in a chamber music group, but hardly ever in a orchestra as an orchestral player and, and very seldom with an orchestra as a soloist. By contrast, a string or wind player spends a lot more time with other musicians, who are playing different instruments with different sound-productions, and thus gaining not only a wider experience of the musical repertoire in general, but larger benefits from interacting with the other instruments that make up the sonic fabric of musical compositions. For many pianists, playing with an orchestra is therefore an experience out of the ordinary, and it happens almost invariably as a soloist in a situation with few chances to prepare and experience. Whether one plays the piano with an orchestra as soloist or orchestra-member, it is still an ensemble situation, and that poses various challenges, especially when one’s instrument (i.e. the piano) does not easily blend with the sound of, say, woodwind or brass instruments; nor does it have the flexibility in tone shading of a stringed instrument. I believe that for a pianist the feel of an orchestral accompaniment produces fascination, excitement, especially when the score emphasises the beauty of the solo part thanks also to the uniqueness of the orchestral scoring. From my experience, I have most loved the most playing pieces like Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Busoni’s Concerto and Indian Fantasy, Bartok’s 2nd Concerto and Mozart’s Concertos in general: in these works the soloist feels at the centre of a complex sound structure, often surrounded by magical colours.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
The ones I did recently, not yet released, of sonatas by Scarlatti (as part of my complete recording for the Music & Arts label). I am also proud of my Schubert, Busoni, Ravel and Liszt, also yet to be released. The ones I treasure most are my recordings of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica and Roman Vlad’s Opus Triplex (the composer’s answer to the Contrappuntistica) the three Schumann Sonatas, recorded in the great hall of Rome’s Parco della Musica, the Schmidt Concerti and the Busoni Concerto, recorded under the baton of Fabio Luisi, with the MDR Leipzig and Vienna Symphony Orchestras respectively, the Godowsky Studies of the Chopin Etudes, three Mozart Concertos recorded with Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia under Bernard Sieberer.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
So far, the halls that have most impressed me are Vienna’s Musikverein (Goldener Saal) and Rome’s Parco della Musica (Sala Santa Cecilia): built over 2 centuries apart, both with great acoustics and a feeling of intimacy, size notwithstanding. London’s Wigmore and Graz’s Stefaniensaal are the ideal recital venues, in my opinion.
Who are your favourite musicians?
To be honest, I find it difficult to single out some and leave out others, we are surrounded by a wealth of great interpreters…
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I am fond of my performances of the Brahms Concerti, Busoni’s works for piano and orchestra, of all-Chopin recitals done in the past. I treasure past performances in which I premiered works by Sorabji, Finnissy, Flynn, Hinton, Troncon, and Vlad. Premiering a new work is always very exciting.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
At the top of my chart are : all the music of by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Busoni and much of Sorabji.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
If I may borrow Martin Seligman’s concept of “psychological capital”, I would urge to aspiring musicians and students to invest in time well spent: attentive learning, listening, acquiring performance experience and artistic expertise without ever compromising quality for laziness, superficiality, hastiness or childish ego-oriented choices, which are the most detrimental factors in an artist’s education. In this sense, the “capital” that the artist carries throughout his/her life will pay out in many way. In performance, in the everyday enjoyment of living the life of an an artist’s life and in the appreciation and understanding of all things of related interest.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working of the last batch of Scarlatti Sonatas (most of them from the books 12-15 of the so-called Parma primary source) for my recording project, alongside Chopin’s four Ballades (to be performed in Tokyo and several Italian cities) and four Scherzos and Ravel’s complete piano works, for performance and recording. Later this year I plan to work on Busoni’s Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra and some Czech music, namely Janacek’s 5 X 1905 Sonata and the world prèmiere of Jan Novak’s Capricinia (Capricci) for piano, to be performed at the Brno Philharmonyic and Prague’s Rudolfinum.
What is your most treasured possession?
The manuscript papers of my first attempts at musical composition, as a pre-teen and mostly self-taught, as well as books and scores that were the faithful companions of my youth.
Recent recital in Bergamo, Italy:
Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit
Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole (piano transcription by C. Grante)
The story of composer Fryderyk Chopin and writer George Sand is one of the most compelling, romantic and passionate, a nine-year love affair which continues to fascinate and grip the imagination. It is a story of creative union and artistic inspiration, of a relationship severed by ugly jealousy and recrimination, and one which ended tragically with the untimely death of Chopin in October 1839.
For many, the relationship between Chopin and Sand is an attraction of opposites: she with her fiery, mercurial, outspoken personality, her penchant for men’s clothes and cigars contrasted with Chopin’s fastidiousness, his delicacy and shyness (particularly in performing in public). Yet during the nine years of their relationship, Chopin produced some of his finest piano music, including the 24 Preludes Op 28 and the B minor Piano Sonata. Despite her reputation for taking up with and then discarding lovers with the casualness one might discard a dirty chemise, Sand gave Chopin love and affection, and a settled home life, divided between Paris and her house at Nohant, that enabled him to compose. She nursed him when he was ill and offered solace and support when he felt his muse had deserted him. Added to this, their circle of friends comprising artists (the painter Eugene Delacroix, amongst others), musicians (Pauline Viardot, Auguste Franchomme), writers and composers (Franz Liszt) provided Chopin and Sand with a supportive and inspirational background against which they could create music and words.
‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds. It is also the title of a words and music presentation conceived and written by actress Susan Porrett with music performed by pianist Viv McLean.
The narrative runs chronologically, picking up the story of Chopin and Sand from their first meeting in Paris (at which Chopin initially found Sand “repulsive”) through their ill-starred winter in Majorca, contentment at Nohant, Chopin’s acclaimed recital at Salle Pleyel to their stormy parting and Chopin’s tragic death. The narrative is interspersed with music, selected by Viv to complement the text, and comprising some of Chopin’s loveliest works. The opening piece, the fleeting Prelude in A, Op 28 No. 7, set the tone for the evening – played with an ethereal delicacy, the last note was no more than a whisper.
The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music. Susan’s text brings to life the personalities of Chopin and Sand through letters between them and their friends, and contemporary accounts. The readings set the tone, and the music reflects it, each piece sensitively rendered by Viv with expression and commitment, from the tenderest, most intimate Nocturnes (Op 9, No. 2, Op post. In C sharp minor) to an intensely poignant Mazurka (Op 17 No 4). Two Ballades (A major and G minor) illustrate Chopin’s contrasting textures and moods, while the Scherzo in C sharp minor is a heroic declamation, shot through with a contrasting motif combining a chorale-like figure with sound showers high in the treble register. Viv’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.
Viv expressed some concerns about the piano (an Estonia) to me afterwards, but I and several other audience members assured him that the range of sound was absolutely appropriate for the size of the venue (Bridport Arts Centre is a converted chapel, with cinema-style seating for c200), from the sweetest, most lyrical cantabile (in the Nocturnes, Prelude and Mazurka) to the thunderous, dramatic Presto con fuoco coda of the G minor Ballade. At times the music was accompanied by the faint, plaintive wailing of seagulls (Bridport is close to Dorset’s Jurassic coast), which lent even greater pathos to the music and narrative.
The concert closed with a poignant account of Chopin’s death, and an intense and emotional performance of the Polonaise Fantasie in A flat, Op 61, bringing to an end an absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music.
This week I had the very interesting and unique experience of meeting and playing some rather special pianos which reside at Hatchlands Park, near Guildford, home of the Cobbe Collection of keyboard instruments. The collection includes not just pianos (including a number with very famous and unusual connections, autographs and provenance), but also harpsichords, spinets and organs.
The collection was assembled over forty years by Alec Cobbe with the intention of bringing together instruments by makers who were highly regarded or patronised by composers, and eighteen of the instruments were actually owned or played by some of the greatest classical composers, including Purcell, J C Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bizet, Mahler and Elgar. In 2007 it was revealed that the 1846 Pleyel in the collection was a piano which Chopin had had shipped to England for his concerts here in 1848 (more on this remarkable story here). The piano had been in Alec Cobbe’s collection for twenty years before this discovery about its history and use was made.
Chopin is said to have favoured the French-made Pleyel, praising it for its sound and describing the piano as “the last word in perfection”. I heard the famous Pleyel being played in a recital of music by Chopin at Hatchlands in July 2007, not long after its back story was revealed, (Nocturnes Op 55 and Piano Sonata in B minor) and talking to the pianist afterwards piqued my interest in the instrument, in particular the pianist’s comments about controlling the dynamic range of the instrument.
While I’m not, in general, a big fan of “period instruments”, there are good reasons for experiencing Chopin’s music on the make and era of piano he would have favoured, and for both listener and pianist it highlights several interesting aspects of his piano music which are sometimes overlooked when playing it on a modern piano. In particular, he is said to have favoured the softer, more mellow sound of the Pleyel (over the other great French piano maker, Erard). As the late Charles Rosen observed: “what interested him were subtle gradations of color, inflections of phrasing, and it was what he expected from performers.” (source: The Chopin Touch by Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books). Chopin observed that each finger had a particular characteristic and quality of touch and, therefore, sound: for example, delicate passages were played with the weakest fingers (fourth and fifth), while passages requiring a cantabile melodic line employed the strongest fingers, often one finger alone. This runs counter to the received piano pedagogy of the day – that all the fingers were equal.
In my study of a handful of the Études, Nocturnes, Waltzes and Mazurkas, and the first Ballade with my current teacher we have often discussed the issue of touch and sound quality. Also, the assertion from many of Chopin’s contemporaries and students who heard him play that his dynamic range never rose above mezzo forte, even in passages marked forte. This led me to develop a sense of “warming up the sound” rather than deliberately increasing the volume of sound: this also enables one to retain a beautiful sound, even when playing more loudly. Obviously, one cannot hope to replicate exactly the sounds and textures Chopin himself achieved, but it is possible to employ the techniques he used and taught (absolute suppleness and flexibility of hand and arm, for example, a sense of “ease” at all times).
When we hear Chopin’s music performed on a modern, concert grand piano, we sometimes forget about the subtle shadings, nuances and colours that are possible in his music – and which he probably insisted from his students (and himself when he played). And because, more often than not, we hear Chopin’s music performed in quite large venues, we may also forget that much of his output was of “miniatures” – intimate, interior pieces to be enjoyed at home or in the salon, rather than the concert hall.
The 1846 Pleyel in the Cobbe Collection is not a big piano. It is the kind of instrument one might have at home, a “parlour piano” rather than a concert instrument. Its touch, action and sound were akin to my teacher’s Blüthner (early 20th century). There was a fractional delay between depressing the keys and hearing sound, which was slightly disconcerting at first (as is evidenced in the rather hesitant opening measures in my recording of the Nocturne Op 62 No. 2), but overall this was an “easy” piano to play. It felt quite effortless, in comparison to the Erard (autographed by Thalberg) which was really quite hard work, in particular in trying to achieve a very smooth, singing legato in Liszt’s Sonetto di Petrarca 47.
Since Chopin was said to revere Bach, I felt it was appropriate to play some Bach on the Pleyel (the ‘Adagio’ from the Concerto in D minor after Marcello). In this piece, I really enjoyed the delicate tone of the instrument. Minimal pedal was used throughout and the light action of the piano enabled me to keep the ornaments soft and floating.
The Liszt Sonetto is very much work in progress, but it was nonetheless interesting to attempt to play this, and the Sonetto 104 (from my LTCL programme) on a piano contemporary with their composer. I found the Erard really quite “effortful” (particularly compared to the Pleyel): it seemed one had to work for every single note.
I am very grateful to Alec Cobbe for granting me special access to these interesting pianos (normally reserved for scholars and performers rehearsing for concerts). Visitors to the house, which is managed by the National Trust, can view the collection of keyboard instruments, and also hear some of them in concert. Please see the links at the end of this article for further information.
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