It’s Baroque Month over on Bachtrack, with a selection of articles exploring repertoire and those who perform it…..

Long regarded as the most serious and ambitious work for keyboard, the Goldberg Variations display J S Bach’s exceptional knowledge of the many different styles of music of his day, and his own exquisite performing techniques. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale from a seemingly simple initial idea.

Read the rest of the article here

More from Baroque Month

(picture: A handwritten copy of the Goldberg Variations aria, from the notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1725. Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

When I was 11, by chance, I saw a piano in a front garden in my street. It had a sign on it saying’ Good Home Wanted. I wanted it! We wheeled it home and I was instantly drawn to it. I somehow knew that it contained something life-changing. From then on it was just a matter of learning, studying, and finding a way to make the piano speak. I knew when I first touched the piano that it would become my life.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

That warrants a multi-layered answer, I’m afraid, as there have been so many! One hugely important aspect has been my personal drive – not a ‘pushy’ drive, but more an absolute necessity to strive to play and communicate. A kind of influence from within…

Studying with Yonty Solomon when I was at the Royal College was life-changing. Up until then I’d never been taught – teachers had never nurtured or enhanced anything musical in me, and I now put this down to ego-driven, lazy, (non) teaching. Yonty was so generous and humble – I often worked every day with him. He opened up a whole new world of sound, expression and creativity. His ability to make me aware of things the piano could do was sheer genius.

Finally, although it sounds a bit downbeat, I have to admit that going through tremendous turmoil and difficulty in life has influenced and strengthened everything I do musically. From anguish comes understanding and creativity…

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Although I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I think making a ‘comeback’ concert after some 15 years of not even owning or touching a piano was a huge challenge, physically and emotionally. Not to mention musically! And I hadn’t played to an audience of any size for 18 years. So, a packed Cadogan Hall, plus critics, TV cameras and radio, and the English Chamber Orchestra on stage, and then playing two concertos (a Bach and Beethoven No. 5) could’ve been a recipe for disaster. I’m not quite sure how I did it, actually!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Along with the above performance, I have to say I’m incredibly proud of my recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was my first CD – released after the ‘comeback’, but recorded just before it – and it was sheer joy to finally connect with the piano after so many years away from it. It felt like ‘coming home’ and embracing something truly wonderful.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s such a hard question. I adore performing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann solo works and concertos. I can only leave it to others to decide which I perform best…

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It’s not difficult: I re-learn works that are programmed each season, and then I usually decide to add some new works to the mix. But I’m very, VERY traditional – core Classical repertoire only for me: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and then Schumann and Brahms as the Romantics. I spent too many years thrashing away at Liszt, Prokofieff et al. Now I realise that there’s little room in that repertoire to stamp an absolute ideal, my own personality, or even something a bit different. It all pretty much sounds the same no matter who plays it – and so many do play it, and so well. But it still all sounds pretty much the same…

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have to make an admission here: I usually love each hall I play in, at the time, Then, on reflection, I usually end up thinking it wasn’t such a great hall to perform in after all! It’s probably more to do with the actual pianos. The perfect piano in the perfect hall is so hard to find. Each needs the other. Alas it’s the life of a pianist to have to adapt to so many differing instruments.

But, there is one hall I do absolutely adore. The Metropolitan Festival Hall (Bunka Kaikan) in Tokyo – playing there was a dream as I really did have a perfect piano in an utterly magnificent hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Gosh, that’s a hard one. In theory, I love every work I’m playing. But, there’s nothing quite like performing the Goldberg Variations – yes, it’s massive and very draining by force of sheer concentration, but the experience is indescribable and almost other-worldly.

As for listening, I don’t really do as much of it these days as I’d like. So much music is whirring through my brain when I’m away from the piano that to add to it, by listening to something else, gets a little overwhelming.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’m afraid they’re all dead. I am never unmoved by the commitment of Klemperer’s conducting. The effortless musicianship of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s voice. The power and pathos of Birgit Nilsson’s. Glenn Gould for the eccentric mind that drove his playing – and sometimes even for the odd giggle at what he does. Myra Hess’s piano playing, for the artistry. Youra Guller, a practically unheard of pianist now – but she was incredible. And so many more…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing/seeing ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in Munich a few years back – with the magnificent Waltraud Meier singing Isolde, and Zubin Mehta conducting. Earth-shattering!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To work on each piece as though your life depends on it. But always try, with or without a teacher, to find something ‘personal’ to put into the music – something uniquely ‘you’. Nothing distasteful or silly, I’m talking more about making each piece really mean something on an emotional level. Aspiring musicians are so often schooled to play for exams or competitions, or to please this or that teacher, that the music is lost sight of. If there’s going to be any hope for the future of Classical Music, then we have to get back to basics: music is about feeling. Those pieces, even if composed hundreds of years ago, contain emotions just as valid to us today as they were to the composer. These are not ‘elite’ feelings – they’re simple and real and available to everyone. We can all connect on this level. Let’s not lose sight of it!

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m juggling Beethoven and Schumann: Beethoven Concertos 1 and 4. And Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ and the ‘Etudes Symphoniques’. Next week I’ll add a Bach Partita to the mix. I think I need a holiday!

What is your most treasured possession?

A silver chain my late mother gave to me the night before I recorded the Goldberg Variations. She wore it every day for 40 years. I am never without it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time at home with my partner and my dog.

What is your present state of mind?

Focused. Yet still raring to go. And it’s 3am!

Nick van Bloss’s new CD of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is available now

Nick van Bloss was born in London and began piano lessons at the age of 11. His musical training began as a chorister at Westminster Abbey and he entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 15 as a Junior, attending full time from the age of 17, studying with Yonty Solomon and winning prizes for his playing. Further studies were with Benjamin Kaplan. In 1987, on hearing him play, the great Russian virtuoso, Tatiana Nikoleyeva, described van Bloss as the ‘finished article of a pianist’.

Read Nick’s full biography here

 

Li-Chun Su is a Taiwanese pianist based in Berlin and last week she was in the UK for a series of concerts, supported by Kumi Smith-Gordon, creator of the imaginative Soirées at Breinton. I was fortunate to hear Li-Chun at the OSO arts centre in Barnes, and with an audience of just eight people arranged around the piano, the experience was intimate and intense.

J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations are considered to be amongst the finest music for the keyboard. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale.  Li-Chun’s performance was vibrant, colourful and absorbing, showing a deep understanding of the structure, voicing and contrasting and varied material contained within the movements. The opening Aria was played with a spare elegance while the livelier variations were bright, poised and nimble. The slower variations were almost romantic with warm legato and sensitive dynamic shading. Li-Chun revealed herself to be a sympathetic and intuitive Bach player, and it was clear from her performance that she feels great affection for this music.

During the interval the audience were invited to vote for the pieces we wanted to hear in the second half. The choices included Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’, Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and a handful of Chopin’s Nocturnes. In the event, Li-Chun played a triptych of works by Handel, including the variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith, Mendelssohn’s ‘Variations Serieuses’, which tied in nicely with the Goldbergs, and Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’. Here she proved the breadth of her technique and musicality, a sensitive yet muscular pianist who is equally at home in Baroque repertoire as the late nineteenth-century. In ‘Claire de Lune’, for example, she revealed some interesting bass highlights, which are not always made apparent by pianists who prefer to focus on the melody in the treble. Her playing had a lovely lucidity which brought a special clarity to Debussy’s writing, something that it not easy to do.

Definitely ‘one to watch’, I very much look forward to hearing Li-Chun again when she next visits London.

www.lichunsu.com

Li-Chun Su kindly completed my Meet the Artist interview:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

The piano chose me. We had a piano at home. I love the piano and playing beautiful music so much. It happened without making a clear decision.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My teacher Gabor Paska, living in Berlin and supportive friends.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Four Liszt Concertos in one concert and Bach’s well-Tempered-Clavier Book I in one concert.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

The live concert recording of 2009 at the musical instruments museum in Berlin. I played Bach’s Well-Tempered-Clavier Book I for the first time without an intermission and almost achieved perfection in day.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Difficult to say. Time by time it changes.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I have usually instinct to sniff out what I want and need to play.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

A lot of places. It is like making friends. I feel comfortable with some people, and some less.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

One nocturne by Chopin. I always play it after a good concert evening as an encore.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I remember well almost every concert

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

A love for the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A calm and confident feeling.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My passion for life.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

The process of making a thing come true.

What is your present state of mind? 

Secret…..

A native of Taiwan, Li-Chun Su received her musical training in Taipei and Berlin. She graduated from the Berlin University of Arts with the Konzertexsamen, the highest degree in graduate courses. She has studied with Tsia-Hsiuai Tsai, Laszlo Simon, Martin Hughes, Gabor Paska and Mitzi Meyerson.

Li-Chun Su took first prize in the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Competition and in the Artur Schnabel Competition in 2007. In 2008 she was awarded the first prize in the Porto International Piano Competition in Portugal. She has had numerous invitations to perform across Asia, Europe and South America.

In the second part of our podcast, pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen and I talk more generally, covering aspects such as teachers, inspirations and influences, forthcoming projects – and baking.

Listen to the first part of the podcast here

Download the complete Goldberg Variations, performed, recorded and produced by Alisdair Kitchen here

Download Alisdair’s complete #twittergoldbergs commentary here

www.alisdairkitchen.com

Follow Alisdair on Twitter @alisdairkitchen

Here’s a delightfully simple and utterly enjoyable way to allow yourself some time off during your busy day.

Every day for a month pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen will post one of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations on Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc, accompanied by Alisdair’s personal commentary on the music.

Here’s the Aria

Get your Daily Goldberg Variations on Slipped Disc

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