Tag Archives: Glenn Gould

R is for……

If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally recreative point of view… to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.
– Glenn Gould

R is for “robbed”. R is also for “rhubarb”. And, aged four, sat on a plump cushion, on top of my teacher’s piano stool, having just played the Minuet in G from the Associated Board’s edition of Eighteen Selected Pieces from ‘A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach with about as much feeling as the Honda production line in Swindon,  I first came across what I initially thought was a portmanteau of the two. (By the way, I wouldn’t have known, then, what a “portmanteau” was, either. And I still have the very same music perched on my piano, today: such is the rustiness of the current state of what I laughingly refer to as my “technique”.)

“Technically, that’s excellent,” said Mr Bury (or words to that effect); “but it could do with some rubato…” – and then, of course, he went on to explain and demonstrate, beautifully, what that was.  And, although I have hunted it ever since, Snark-like:  at such a tender age, my emotional range was narrowly-focused. All I could see were Boojums.

My personal definition of the word Rubato is aural; rather than written or visual. Listen to the two (fantabulous) recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which (the fantabulous) Glenn Gould made at each end of his career. The first, from 1955, <https://itun.eslasts 38:34, and is a demonstration of pure technical genius. The second, from 1981 – at 51:18 – lasts exactly one-third longer – and transforms each variation from what could easily be a mechanical Baroque exercise (see above) to something of a romantic, yet contrapuntal, serenade: particularly the opening (and closing) Aria. The difference, I believe, is not in the time taken – although there is a definite contributory effect from the time taken between making the two recordings. Subtract the first from the second – although I have to admit, given my word limit (and being, ahem, robbed of time), this is a little simplistic (and may be over-egging the pudding a little): there are a few more repeats, as well… – and what you are left with (IMHO) is the very essence of rubato.

The tempi are not so much “robbed”; as generously donated. Or, as Michael Kennedy so wisely states in the 1980 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (which also sits atop my piano), rubato is…

A feature of performance in which strict time is for a while disregarded – what is ‘robbed’ from some notes being ‘paid back’ later. When this is done with genuine artistry and instinctive musical sensibility, the effect is to impart an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity. Done badly, rubato merely becomes mechanical.

…and I’m sure you can easily evoke your own guilty parties with regards to that last comment. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if you disagreed with my exemplar, above. (I’m sure Chopin would.) But, surely that’s what rubato is really all about – the individual, “instinctive” subjectivity (hopefully dredged up from your very soul, and bypassing most of your mind) that you can bring to any piece of music: whether it be from your emotions; or even from a desire to stress a melody hidden deep within a morass of complex notes (see, for instance, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto).

In other words, rubato – whether applied to one note, or a thousand – is simply a symptom, an expression, of one’s own interpretation.

Stephen Ward AKA The Bard of Tysoe

 

sergei_rachmaninoff_loc_33969uUp, up in the highest echelons of the pianistic pantheon sits Sergei Rachmaninov….

Regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, Rachmaninov had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard. Today, his piano music remains amongst the most well-loved and widely-performed in the standard repertoire, yet in the 1950s the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed it as “monotonous in texture….. consist[ing] of mainly of artificial and gushing tunes….”. He was composing at a time when music was undergoing huge sea-changes (atonality and the development of the 12-note tone row, for example), yet he remained true to his own compositional vision and his music is unashamedly Romantic, full of sweeping melodies and rich textures. Even in his miniatures (for example, the Preludes, Moments Musicaux, Études-Tableaux) his music seems to express the vastness of the Russian landscape. It has a visceral and deeply honest quality.

“A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves…My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music”

Sergei Rachmaninov

Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op 32, no. 12

Many of his piano works enjoy legendary status, and are performed around the world by the famous and the lesser known, such is their beauty, appeal and scale of challenges. Take the Third Piano Concerto, by his own admission his “favourite” of all his piano concerti – “I much prefer the Third, because my Second is so uncomfortable to play”. Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff could not practise the piece while in Russia, and instead he practised and memorised it using a silent cardboard keyboard that he brought with him while sailing to the United States. It was premiered in New York on 28th November 1909 by Rachmaninov himself, and was dedicated to the pianist Josef Hofman, whom Rachmaninoff regarded as the greatest pianist of his generation, though Hofman never actually performed the Third Concerto.

760px-rach3_beginning
The opening theme of the Third Piano Concerto

Monumental, treacherous, gorgeous, its fearsome technical difficulties reflect the composer’s own transcendent prowess at the keyboard. For the pianist it is forty-five minutes of almost continuous playing, the equivalent in energy expended to shovelling three tons of coal just to move the keys – and this excludes the emotional and intellectual energy used. For the audience, when played well it, it encompasses the full range of human emotions in its towering virtuosity.

 

#twittergoldbergs Podcast – Part 1

This marks an interesting and exciting new development in my Meet the Artist project – a podcast interview with pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen.

The motivation behind this interview is Alisdair’s fascinating and highly enjoyable #twittergoldberg’s project in which over the course of a month he has released on Twitter a single variation from Bach’s iconic work every day, with an accompanying commentary to each variation on Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc.

In the first part of our interview, we discuss the Goldberg Variations and the background to Alisdair’s #twittergoldbergs project, what Glenn Gould might have made of the #twittergoldbergs project and social media. In the second part (published 3rd September), we talk more generally, covering aspects such as teachers, inspirations and influences, and forthcoming projects.

Alisdair’s complete recording of the Goldberg Variations is available here

www.alisdairkitchen.com

Twitter @alisdairkitchen

“That Bach from 50 Shades of Grey”

Bach 50 shades

The best-selling “mummy porn” erotic fantasy 50 Shades of Grey (and its sequels) is notable for being short on culture and long on bad writing and naff BDSM sex scenes. I know this because I weakened, while bored on holiday at Christmas, and read the damn thing (a friend sent me a PDF of the book so I could read it in secret on my iPad!). Those who know me well – as a voracious reader of books on pianism and classical music, and the works of contemporary novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Helen Dunmore and Paul Theroux – are probably now, as I write, throwing their hands up in horror at this confession. However, as a reviewer and one who will join in noisily with a good debate around the dinner table, I believe it is necessary to read, hear or see the rubbish so that one can a) offer criticism based on knowledge, rather than hearsay; and b) really appreciate great literature, music or art when one comes across it.

50 Shades…. has been responsible for sending Thomas Tallis’s wonderful, soaring 40-part motet Spem in Alium to the top of the classical music charts (it’s the piece Christian Grey, the controlling, BDSM-obsessed ‘hero’ of the book, is listening to the first time he seduces our ‘heroine’, the irritatingly immature Anastasia). Another piece which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the book is the ‘Adagio’ from J S Bach’s Concerto in D Minor after Marcello, BWV 974. Christian Grey, who is not only drop-dead gorgeous and richer than Croesus but also a talented amateur pianist (natch), is playing this piece (naked at the piano, I might add) the first morning-after-the-night-before:

I hear the music.The lilting notes of the piano, a sad sweet lament……

Christian is at the piano, completely lost in the music he’s playing. His expression is sad and forlorn, like the music. His playing is stunning……I listen enraptured. He’s such an accomplished musician….

When he’s finished, Christian tells Anastasia that it is Bach’s transcription of an oboe concerto, originally by Marcello.

I first came across this arresting piece on the soundtrack of a French film called ‘Je Te Mangerais’ (in English ‘Highly Strung’) about a couple of French lesbians (one of whom is a pianist), which I saw just after I’d done my ATCL Recital Diploma in December 2011. I was looking for some repertoire to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the exam results, and, by a neat coincidence, the entire Concerto was on the repertoire list for the LTCL, which I decided to attempt after I’d received my ATCL result.

It is the pure beauty of the Adagio, a limber solo melody over a hypnotic, repeating bass line, that makes it so compelling: a serene oasis between a witty, rhetorical opening movement and a Presto finale, an exuberant 3/8 romp, scored almost entirely in semiquavers.

Bach transcribed 16 instrumental concertos by other composers for solo harpsichord during the 1710s. Six were originally works by Antonio Vivaldi. Alessandro Marcello lacked the style and innovation of Vivaldi, and it is possible that Bach selected this concerto to transcribe to test his own skill and adaptive ingenuity. Bach’s transcription, like its original, is in the usual three movements of an Italian concerto. The shell of the first movement is clearly Marcello’s work, though Bach is quick to thicken the lean textures of the original, particularly in the middle of the movement where the writing is very dense.

In the Adagio, the right hand melodic line is highly ornamented, suggesting improvisation, and is perhaps an opportunity for Bach to show off the emotional possibilities of the harpsichord, as well as the technical prowess of the keyboard player. When I first started learning it, I was also working on Chopin’s Nocturne in E, op 62 no. 2, a piece in which a beautiful simple melodic line is decorated with ornaments and fiorituras. Chopin revered Bach, and learning the two pieces concurrently demonstrated the influence and inspiration Chopin drew from JSB.

As for playing the piece, a soft, light right hand and arm is crucial to achieve a beautiful singing tone in the melody. Keep the mordents and trills quite leisurely/lengthened, and the demi-semiquaver bars relaxed to create a sense of improvisation. I like to spread some of the chords – e.g. bars 5 and 13. Keep the LH chords soft – “floating chords” where the keys are depressed just enough to create sound – and think 3 in a bar (rather than 6 quavers). Throughout, the piece needs to ‘breathe’, so observe Bach’s phrasing where marked (there is limited phrasing in my Barenreiter edition) and don’t overdo the drop slurs (e.g. at bar 18), and don’t push the LH. Remember, this is 5 minutes of serenity between two dramatic and exciting outer movements.

For me, the benchmark recording of this work has to be Glenn Gould’s. His treatment of the ornaments is particularly fine, and the rest of the Concerto is splendidly orchestral. James Rhodes has also recorded the Adagio but to my mind it is an overly contrived, self-conscious reading of the piece. A quick trawl around Spotify threw up some other interesting interpretations of the work, including a ‘cello version with Rostropovich, and a rather smooth, “lounge” style improv by Gabriela Montero. When studying the concerto, it is worth listening to Marcello’s original to hear how Bach has handled the orchestral writing, and where he has stripped out material to highlight the capabilities of the harpsichord.

Download the score of the complete Concerto in D minor BWV 974 from IMSLP. For a simplified version of the score, click here

Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis

If you’re interested in reading quality erotic literature, take a look at the book reviews and recommendations at Mucky Book Club

Glenn Gould: today’s pianists assess his legacy

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of the untimely death of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, regarded by many as a hero of the piano, a genius, and a unique talent. And by others as a fruitcake, who did things to piano music which should never be done. Ever.

I belong to the first camp. To me, the Goldberg Variations will be forever synonymous with Gould’s genius – and his legacy. His iconic recordings, which my parents had in their large collection of classical LPs, were some of the first records I ever listened to – and still listen to, and enjoy and marvel at what he could do to Bach’s counterpoint, melody and textures, bringing the music to life in his own inimitable way.
Tom Service of The Guardian assess Gould’s legacy, with the help of four of today’s top international pianists. Read the full article here

My review of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, a fascinating and moving film about the life of Glenn Gould.

Glenn Gould – J S Bach: Concerto in D minor after Alessandro Marcello, BWV 974: II. Adagio

13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg

13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined; Lara Downes, solo piano; Tritone Records

Pianist Lara Downes first heard the Goldberg Variations on an LP “as a little girl sitting in my father’s big chair”, played by – who else? – Glenn Gould in his iconic 1955 recording, the same recording my parents had, with the expressive photographs of Gould on the album sleeve. She was, like Gould, like many of us, “transported” by the music, the twists and turns of Bach’s creative process, and Gould’s interpretation and realisation of it.

Inspired by the poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens, ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is, like the poem, an exercise in “perspectivism”, a “re-imagining”, for each piece makes a nod, sometimes obvious, sometimes more tenuous, to Bach’s original, while demonstrating both the permanence of Bach’s great Baroque work, and its ongoing relevance and fascination today. In 2004, thirteen composers were invited to compose thirteen new variations based on Bach’s original. They are not all classical composers, and they represent a diverse and varied group – as do their interpretations. Many share rhythmic, melodic and harmonic motifs with the original, but each is individual, a short stand-alone work.

Catch a phrase or two of some of these ‘reworkings’ and you could easily believe this was Bach’s own creation in their closeness to the original (Fred Lerdahl: Chasing Gold, William Bolcom: Yet Another Goldberg Variation, Ralf Gothoni: Variation on a Variation with Variation), while others bear more than a passing reference to the atonality of Hindemith, Boulez or Messiaen (Mischa Zupko: Ghost Variation, Derek Bermel: Kontraphunctus, Stanley Walden: Fantasy Variation). And just like Bach’s original, there are stately chorales and sprightly dances. This album is almost a palimpsest of Bach: an imaginative and sensitive layering of new thoughts over the original.

The clarity of Lara’s playing ties these separate pieces together with crisp articulation, tender sonorities and arching melodic lines. To accompany the thirteen variations, Lara Downes includes on the album Bach-inspired works by two great American composers, Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss, a fitting tribute to Bach and the lasting inspiration of his music. The final track on the album is the sublime ‘Sarabande’ from the French Suite V, BWV 816, whose exquisite simplicity echoes the opening ‘Aria’ of the Goldberg Variations.

For more information, please visit Lara’s website. The album ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is available to download via iTunes.

I am very grateful to Lara for giving me the opportunity to review this interesting and arresting album.

More on the Goldberg Variations here.

If the music fits……

Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).

So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch  (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).

But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?

This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.

One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?

Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.

Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).

Glenn Gould – French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813/I. Allemande

Bartók : For Children – Quasi Adagio

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

At lunchtime today, I eschewed Sunday lunch with the family, or shopping, which seemed to be what most people were doing, to see the new Glenn Gould biopic at Richmond Filmhouse. This delightful, small cinema, tucked down a side alley off the main drag, is part of the Curzon group, and tends to show art house, European, and less mainstream films. Which is good, because I like those types of films, and I doubt I would have had an opportunity to see the Glenn Gould film otherwise, since it is not on general release, being of somewhat ‘specialist’ interest.

Glenn Gould has always been part of my musical/pianistic landscape, along with Ashkenazy, Perahia, Barenboim and Brendel, for these were the artists my parents heard live in concert and on LP, and I remember seeing the photo of Gould on one of my father’s records, with his trademark cap and long coat. He is probably best remembered today for his extraordinary recordings of Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations, which he recorded twice – first, when he was a young man (in 1955), and later, in 1981, a year before he died. The jury’s still out as to which version is “better”. I would argue that they are simply different: the later version is more thoughtful, and, in some places, just plain weird – that is, if you like your Bach served straight. What most people agree on, however, is that with the music of J S Bach, Gould reveals his true pianistic genius. Listen to him playing, and it is as if a whole choir is contained under his fingers as he directs all the different voices, giving just the right amount of emphasis to each one, so that we truly hear Bach’s intentions and “see”, through sound, the interior architecture of the music (something Murray Perahia also does).

Gould was also famously, or infamously eccentric, and it is probably his personal life and his eccentricities that remain perennially fascinating to fans, musicians and non-musos alike. When I was researching a novel some years ago, in which the principal character is a concert pianist, a young man just starting out on what promises to be a brilliant career, I read a number of books and biographies of Glenn Gould to try and understand what motivates someone to choose such a masochistic career, and what drives the pianist to spend hours and hours in self-imposed solitary confinement with only dead composers for companions. Gould’s obsessiveness, not just about his music, is perhaps more extreme than most, but I think all of us who are committed to the piano, whether as a professional or serious amateur, can understand, to a greater or lesser degree, what drove him to do what he did, and why.

In 2006, Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Glenn Gould, ‘Hereafter’, came out on DVD. This was, in part, an attempt to get inside the mind of Gould, as an artist and a human being, but also focussed on people whose lives had been touched, in special ways, by Gould’s playing. Monsaingeon was a good friend of Gould’s for over 30 years – this is apparent in the film in the scenes of them working together. More a film about Gould’s relationship with the piano and his music than about his mental state, it is quirky and entertaining, constructed as it is in the manner of a documentary narrated by Gould himself.

‘Genius Within’ goes beyond Monsaingeon’s film to try and penetrate even further the mind of Gould, and so focusses more on his personal life and eccentricities: the gloves, scarf, hat and long coat, even in the height of summer; the repeated request not to have to shake hands for fear of damaging his fragile fingers; his extraordinary attention to detail when recording; his dislike of performing in public; his extreme hypochondria. Constructed from interviews with people who knew Gould, including the artist Cornelia Foss who left her husband to live with Gould for four years, taking her children with her, and interspersed with footage of him playing in the studio or the concert hall, or walking in his beloved Canadian countryside, this is a very intense, beautiful, detailed and moving portrait of a highly complex and profound musical personality. For the really serious musos and Gould fans, the film clips of him playing are fascinating: so much of what he did goes against what most of us are taught when we learn the piano, yet the sound he produced was remarkable and unique. For those who know little or nothing about Glenn Gould, this film is great introduction to his life, and will have you ordering his recordings and reading the biographies of him before you know it. It contains more unseen footage than Bruno Monsaingeon’s film, and is a true work of art in its own right.

Go and see it. And listen to Gould playing Bach….and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Hindemith……

………and if you can’t see it at the cinema, the DVD is released in the UK in March.

 

An article about Gould’s ‘finger tapping’ technique.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

“I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians is to make it differently” – Glenn Gould

Whatever you may think about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould – genius, nutcase, eccentric – his life remains fascinating, partly because he was at once both enigmatic and open. He was extremely articulate about his music, as well as many other subjects, including art, poetry and philosophy, yet his interior life remains clouded by his eccentricities: the pills,  the scarves, the funny chair his dad made for him. This new film attempts to go beyond all the myths and misconceptions, and, from what I can tell from the official trailer, will be as insightful, perhaps more so, as Bruno Monsaingeon’s wonderful 2006 film ‘Hereafter’.

For North American readers, you can access the film online until 11 January here. For the rest of us, for the time being there is the official trailer, and then the release of this award-winning and highly-praised film on DVD in the UK in late March (pre-order from Amazon).

Genius Within – official website of the film

Bruno Monsaingeon’s website