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.
Debussy at the piano! One had to have seen it to appreciate its magic. No words could describe the mysterious enchantment of his playing…
– Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1932
25 March 2018 marks the centenary of the death of French composer Achille-Claude Debussy. While rightly noted for his orchestral, chamber music and songs, it is in his piano music that we find the finest examples of his distinctive compositional language. He revolutionised piano music in his use of timbre, unusual tonalities, parallel chords used for colour rather than a strict harmonic progression or structural bridges, the use of whole tone and pentatonic scales, idioms drawn from eastern music. He absorbed many influences, from the music of the Far and Middle East, Russia, Spain and America to that of his Baroque antecedents, the French clavecinistes Rameau and Couperin, yet he created music which was distinctly French and modern, providing inspiration for a diverse range of composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Olivier Messiaen, Ned Rorem, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Toru Takemitsu, George Gershwin, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington.
He is all too frequently described as an “impressionistic” composer, a term he is said to have disliked, but his attempts to create musical effects certainly bring to mind a visual scene, or ‘impression’, and his music’s lack of fully-realized ideas, dissonant chords and occasionally a seemingly almost complete lack of structure certainly gives listeners the feeling that they are not just listening to a piece of music but to a soundscape.
The Preludes for Piano, in two books, became – and remain – his most popular music for piano, arguably his finest works for the instrument in their variety – from exuberance to bleakness (Feux d’Artifice, Des pas sur la neige), eccentricity and mischief (Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., La Danse de Puck), languor and drama (La Fille aux cheveux de lin, La Cathedrale Engloutie) – and replete with daring perfumed harmonies, sparkling figurations, and atmospheric textural layers. To encourage listeners, and performers, to respond intuitively to these beautiful piano miniatures, their titles were placed at the end of each piece so that listeners would not call to mind stereotyped images as they listened.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first heard Debussy’s music – the work in question was almost certainly La Mer, which my parents had on LP, and I remembering hearing at the Proms when I was a little girl. When I became reasonably proficient at the piano, his Preludes caught my imagination, captivating me with their curious colourful harmonies, sensuous fragmentary melodies and dramatic intensity in miniature form. I learnt La Cathedrale Engloutie when I was about 12 or 13. It was too advanced for me, and my small hands couldn’t really cope with the large chords and octaves, but the work has remained a favourite, along with perhaps his best-loved Prelude, La fille aux cheveux de lin. As an adult, returning to the piano after an absence of nearly 20 years, I veered towards the more “grown up” works in Debussy’s oeuvre – Hommage à Rameau, Voiles, the Images Inédites (the forerunner to his better known Images) and the erotically-charged La Plus que Lente. And from Debussy came my interest in the piano music of Olivier Messiaen.
I adore Debussy’s piano music and I’ve been fortunate to hear some incredibly fine performances of it in concert in recent years – most memorably by Pavel Kolesnikov and Denis Kozhukin – and on disc (Stephen Hough’s new recording is a good starting point for anyone wishing to explore the variety and range of Debussy’s piano music).
His piano music is challenging to play, even the “easier” works. First, I think it is important to dismiss the notion that his music is “dreamy and ethereal” (the inaccurate and banal description given to it in a segment marking the composer’s centenary on Radio Four’s Today programme on 24 March). It is not a Monet painting in musical form. In fact, his music is tightly structured (for more detailed analysis on this see the writings of Roy Howat) and intellectually rigorous; paradoxically, it is this rigour which gives his music its uniquely delightful spontaneity and improvisatory qualities.
No other composer feels to me more improvised, more free-flowing. But then the player is conscious of a contradiction as the score is studied more closely: Music that sounds created in the moment is loaded with instructions on how to achieve this.
– Stephen Hough, pianist
Physically, much of his piano music demands that the pianist think in horizontal terms and forget that the piano is a machine of springs, wood and wires. Working on the Sarabande from Pour le Piano with my then teacher, in preparation for my first diploma, she urged me to forget that my arms had bones in them and to imagine instead two thick rubber bands of infinite freedom and softness.
While some works utilise sound washes akin to Monet’s brushstrokes – blurred lines and veiled textures – others have a clarity of expression with glittering virtuosic figurations, remarkable pianistic effects and distinct layers of musical colour (Pagodes, l’Isle Joyeuse, Jardins sous la pluie or Pour le Piano, which closes with a Baroque-inspired Toccata requiring extreme clarity of articulation on the part of the performer).
… the colour that only he could get from his piano. He played mostly in half-tint but, like Chopin, without any hardness of attack. […] His nuances ranged from a triple pianissimo to forte without ever becoming disordered in sonorities in which harmonic subtleties might be lost
For one night only, audiences at the Wigmore Hall were treated to a glimpse of the hall’s origins, in those pre-First World War days when it was Bechstein Hall and home to the German piano maker C. Bechstein’s London showroom.
When Bechstein Hall opened in 1901, Bechstein was Europe’s leading piano maker (it produced 5000 pianos in 1901), its instruments preferred by most pianists outside America, where Steinway predominated. The Bechstein piano company built similar concert halls in Paris and St Petersburg to showcase its instruments and the leading performers and singers of the day. With its special barrel roof “shoebox” design, beloved of many musicians, the hall still boasts a fine acoustic, while its small size (its capacity is c600 seats) makes it the perfect place to enjoy intimate chamber and piano recitals.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Bechstein Hall on London’s Wigmore Street was promoted as the best of places for intimate music making, and boasted unrivaled comfort and facilities for patrons and artists with its elegant green room up a short flight of stairs behind the stage (so that singers did not arrive on stage breathless). At the time of its opening, concert life and leisure in general in London were enjoying something of a revolution. Theatres and music halls were opening across the west end, a wide public was being introduced to the experience of shopping for pleasure in the new “department stores” (Selfridges is a mere 10 minute walk, at the most, from Wigmore Street), and with cheap and efficient public transport, it was easy for people to enjoy these delights in the centre of the metropolis. A new breed of international concert promoters, agents and impresarios, such as Robert Newman, who with conductor Henry Wood founded the world-famous Proms, were dedicated to organising high-quality recitals, and Bechstein Hall alone scheduled two hundred concerts a year.
During the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for Bechstein Hall to trade viably. Strong anti-German sentiments and the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 led to the hall’s closure in June 1916, and all property including the concert hall and the showrooms was seized and summarily closed. The hall was sold at auction to Debenhams, was rechristened Wigmore Hall and opened under its new name in 1917. Today Wigmore Hall enjoys an international reputation for high-quality music in an elegant and intimate setting.
To give the modern audience a flavour of those halcyon pre-war days of concertising in London, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a concert on an 1899 Bechstein grand piano, a piano which may well have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom next door to the hall on Wigmore Street. The concert, which included music by composers active at the time when the Bechstein piano company was at the height of its powers, was preceded by a talk with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Peter Salisbury, a leading piano technician who restored the piano, and composer Julian Anderson, whose work ‘Sensation’, written for Pierre-Laurent, had its London premiere at the concert.
As Pierre-Laurent Aimard explained, the event was the culmination of a long-held dream: to present a concert of the kind of repertoire and composers – and instrument – contemporary with the hall when it first opened. Peter Salisbury talked about the difficulties of preparing a piano for a specific hall, for each space has its own distinct acoustic and the piano must be adjusted and voiced to suit venue, performer and repertoire. When the 1899 Bechstein was brought into Wigmore Hall, Peter noted how closely instrument and venue suited each other, evidence that Bechstein built concert halls to showcase their instruments at their best – and vice versa!
Prior to the First War, piano design and manufacture was still evolving, and each make had its own distinct sound and character. Bechsteins of this period are notable for their special resonance and projection, which result from their manufacturing process. Pierre-Laurent commented on the piano’s uniquely rich palette of colour and tones, combined with great clarity. Every note seems to have “many overtones”, resulting in an orchestral sound which is rich but not cloying.
For composer Julian Anderson, the Bechstein piano has a special place in his life: his own piano is a 1913 Bechstein, passed on to him from his father, and is the instrument on which he composes. He admitted a “great affection for the Bechstein tone”, and that it has a range of colour which “encourages metaphor” and makes it easier to imagine other sounds or instruments when composing.
The 1899 Bechstein has been restored by Peter Salisbury and retains the original soundboard and bridge. A new mechanical action was fitted to provide technical accuracy, with new hammers voiced according to Bechstein’s original sound concert. An attractive instrument with a polished black case with scrolled details, the piano has turned legs and a fan-shaped music desk. The instrument is 275 cms (9 foot)long, with 88 notes (not all pianos were at that time – my Bechstein has 85 keys), and it took 3 months to rebuild it fully. For Peter the piano represents “a portal to the past, a lost era of tonal distinction”.
After 1910, piano design and manufacture became standardised across makes, and today most concert pianos (most commonly Steinway) have a consistency of sound and touch which enables performers to move fairly effortlessly between a piano in a Tokyo concert hall and one in London or New York. Concert pianos have also grown bigger to project into larger halls, and in the 10 years that I’ve been going t concerts regularly, I’ve noticed the sound of these pianos is, generally, much brighter and often quite strident.
As the owner of a 1913 Bechstein model A, I was very curious to hear this slightly older piano in a concert setting in an acoustic for which it was built. The programme included music by Liszt (the first version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses), Scriabin and Debussy (both of whom owned Bechstein pianos), Julian Anderson (b.1967)!and Nikoly Obukhov, a colouristic Russian composer whose music bridges the Russian and French compositional traditions of the first decade of the twentieth century. The first half of the concert proceeded without interruption for applause (something with several audience members near me seemed to find quite “difficult”, though I enjoyed the flow of music from one composer to another). From the first notes of the Liszt, I felt I was hearing my own piano in concert – those distinct resonances and layers of colour which drew me to my instrument when I first played it in my tuner’s workshop were made more explicit in Pierre-Laurent’s hands. A surprisingly deep bass resonance, but clear and bell-like, without the chocolatey Sachertorte richness of a Bosendorfer, and a remarkable sustain with unexpected harmonics evident in the sound decay. In the Scriabin pieces, the piano’s multi-faceted sound came to the fore, responding perfectly to Scriabin’s sensual textures with harmonies superimposed on different registers and layered overtones.
The selection of Debussy’s Études was particularly fascinating. Here Pierre-Laurent balanced clarity with tonal sensitivity and the studies burst into to life with delightful shifting colours. The sweet lucid treble was wonderful, so different to the rather strident treble sound one finds in modern instruments, and there were further opportunities to enjoy this sound in the works by Julian Anderson and Nikolay Obukhov. Despite the piano’s resonance and sustain, there was no sense of the sound being too big or overly domineering (again an issue, for me at least, with modern concert grands in medium-sized or small venues). For me, the highlights of the evening, aside from the opportunity to hear this period piano in concert, were the works Debussy and Obukhov – had I not seen the programme, I would have thought the latter was post-Vingt Regards Messiaen, yet this was music written prior to the Russian Revolution, avant-garde and way ahead of its time.
“D” is for Duet, a piece for two players. In the case of piano duets the players share the instrument and enjoy closer physical proximity than was generally allowed between bourgeoisie young ladies and horny composers. Mozart and Schubert delighted in the possibilities of the form, but the next generation seriously dropped the ball – Chopin and Schumann were undoubtedly too gauche, and Liszt simply wanted the whole piano to himself. Subsequently, the duet was particularly popular with French composers, with Bizet, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen all contributing to its survival.
There are many great composers with names starting with the letter “D”, not least Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), a Czeck composer who made the mistake of not settling in Vienna at the height of the Classical Era. Instead his career ranged freely across Europe from London to St Petersburg, but subsequently his music largely dropped off the radar. He wrote 34 Piano Sonatas, which vary in style from easy-going melodic writing through to crazy experimentation. Worthy of rediscovery…
Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) was hailed early on in his career as Hungary’s best hope since Liszt. His works include the ridiculously gorgeous Piano Quintet in C minor Op.1, two criminally neglected Piano Concertos, about four hours worth of brilliant solo piano music and a couple of Symphonies. However, he is best remembered for the rather more facile “Variations on a Nursery Song Op.25” for piano and orchestra, and (with less affection) for his “Essential Finger Exercises”. Between composing and touring as a virtuoso pianist and conductor, Dohnanyi became perhaps the most successful piano teacher in history, with students including György Cziffra, Annie Fischer, Andor Földes, Géza Anda, Sir Georg Solti, Istvan Kantor and Joseph Weingarten (my own teacher).
“D” is also for Dampers, the little felt things inside a piano that stop a string vibrating when you release the key. The Damper Pedal lifts these across the full range of the piano so that the strings continue to sound until they fade or the pedal is released. Strings not struck are also free to vibrate “sympathetically”. With care, artistry and sophistication, use of the damper pedal can transform the instrument into an infinite magical sonic colour machine.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the French composer and notorious bounder, knew a thing of two about sonic magic, and although he supposedly hated the term “impressionism” it appears to have stuck to his music like superglue. Several of his pieces have established themselves in the hearts of music lovers all over the world, in spite of a temporary setback when the Japanese synthesizer freak Isao Tomita released his electronic renditions on the hit LP “Snowflakes are Dancing”, which soiled several of Debussy’s most popular works.
On the subject of French keyboard composers, Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1629-1691), whose music nicely bridges the transition between Chambonnières and Rameau, deserves an honorable mention. Judging from contemporary portraits, had he lived a few more years he might have become the original “Cross-eyed pianist”.
Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent teaching practice Keyquest Music www.keyquestmusic.com. An active social networker, Andrew founded and ran “The Piano Cloud” (2011-15), the Piano Network UK Facebook group (2014- ) and his latest project Pianodao www.pianodao.com
“Brouillards swathed the Wigmore audience in mist, yet the sound was never foggy”
Occasionally one comes across an artist who seems so at one with the music, that one can almost hear the composer at the artist’s shoulder saying ”yes, that is what I meant”. Such was the effect of French pianist François-Frédéric Guy’s performance of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, the Op.111, at London’s Wigmore hall on Friday night: a performance replete in insight and an emotional intensity which comes from a long association with and admiration for this composer and his music.
“My music is like a garden – and I am the gardener”
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)
It was rather wonderful to wake to the sounds of the music of Toru Takemitsu on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning. An unexpected pleasure, as such music is usually reserved for the wilder shores of Radio 3.
Takemitsu was a composer, but he was also a writer on aesthetics and musical theory. His music is delicate and refined, as beautiful as Hokusai print or a carved jade netsuke. Largely self-taught, his music combines elements of Japanese and western philosophy with the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, using both western and traditional Japanese instruments, and the use of defined silences to create a unique and extraordinary soundworld.
Takemitsu admired Debussy and Messiaen, as is evident in his piano music, and was drawn to composers who were themselves deeply influenced by the musical and philosophical culture of Asia, including John Cage. After my very positive experience with Messiaen for my ATCL Diploma programme, and my love of the piano music of Debussy, the desire to explore the piano music of Takemitsu seemed a natural one.
Takemitsu composed his Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992 in memory of Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer who had a strong influence on Takemitsu. The work was composed for a concert “Hommage à Olivier Messiaen” at Les Semaines Musicales Internationales d’Orleans, France, and was premiered by Alain Neveux on 24 October 1992. The name of the work was probably inspired by a quotation from a novel by Kenzaburo Oe about the miraculous rain tree, whose tiny leaves store up moisture and continue to let fall raindrops long after the rain has ceased. The work is also a dreamy meditation on the flow of life, and was the last piano piece Takemitsu wrote (his first Rain Tree Sketch was written in 1982). It is in a clear ABA (ternary) form, with a rhythmic opening which is reprised, in shortened form, after the melodic middle section. Its tonal language is redolent of Debussy and Messiaen, with chords used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progressions, and, like its dedicatee, Takemitsu employs recurring motifs (such as an ascending three-note broken chord figure) and well-placed silences to create a carefully nuanced atmosphere and colouristic shadings. Directions such as “celestially light” and “joyful” contribute to the metaphysical nature of this work.
There are some written in pedal markings, and these should be adhered to as the composer directs. Elsewhere, use of the pedal is at the discretion of the pianist. I tend on the side of restraint and use half or one-third pedal to avoid obscuring the clarity of the chords and melodic figures. Regarding the bars of silence, these should sound expectant and anticipatory, rather than dead; using the pedal to allow sounds to “ring” will help achieve this.
The metronome markings in the piece are somewhat ambiguous. On the dedication page of the score, the duration is given at 5 minutes, but if one adheres to the metronome markings exactly, the piece comes in at around 3 minutes. I have opted for a calm moderato, a sense of the music moving forward, but without pressing ahead. In my Diploma programme, this piece comes between the Bach D minor concerto BWV 974 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511. The contrast is, to me, rather special, and I feel it works well.
While researching the programme notes on this piece for my Diploma, I came across an interesting piece of research in which the author discusses the suggestion of traditional Japanese instruments in this work, and other piano works by Takemitsu, specifically the Taiko drum (the low D pedal point at the opening of page 2), and the long zither koto and the short-necked lute biwa (the ascending arpeggio figure suggests the plucked sound of these instruments). The article contains many interesting thoughts about Takemitsu’s piano music, and is definitely worth exploring further.
As for performances of this work, when I heard Noriko Ogawa perform it at the Wigmore last autumn, I was struck by the incredible soundworld she managed to achieve, producing “droplets” of notes and really evoking the miraculous rain tree (my review here). The recording I have been using for reference in my study of this piece is by Ichiro Nodaira: I particularly like the relaxed tempo of the opening melody.
The pianist Paul Crossley has recorded Takemitsu’s complete piano music, sadly, now out of print, though available via some music streaming services and Spotify.
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