Politicians in particular talk a lot about the “weight of history” or of feeling “the hand of history on our shoulders”, especially when faced with a serious national crisis or significant policy decision.

As musicians we feel the weight of history too – through the many exceptional musicians who have gone before us and the fine recordings of the “great works” of the repertoire which serve as benchmarks or models for our own progress. These can affect our approach to our music making and influence the way music is presented to others.

Whether or not you like his playing, the presence of Glenn Gould hangs heavily over anyone playing Bach, and his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, a great work in itself, are held up by many as the absolute zenith of greatness in this repertoire. Similarly, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt, both fine Bach interpreters, also cast a significant shadow over those of us who choose to play Bach’s music. In Mozart we have Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires, Barenboim in Beethoven, Lupu in Schubert, Pollini in Chopin, Argerich in, well, virtually anything, and Perahia for “all round excellence”….the list is endless as everyone has their personal favourites, and each era seems to bring yet another crop of “greats”.

Maria Joao Pires
Maria Joao Pires

The classical musician’s training is still largely about preserving tradition and the reverential “canonization” of repertoire: we’re taught from a young age that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms et al…. are “great” composers. Revering the music in this way can create problems when learning and playing it: for pianists, as for other musicians, certain works – the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, Chopin’s Études, the great piano concertos, for example – have an elevated status on a par with the works of Aristotle, Shakespeare or Dickens. We hold the music in awe and feel a tremendous responsibility towards it. Thus, the musician is like a conservator or gardener, bringing these great works to life.

As a consequence, it can be difficult for us to find our own personal voice: the music itself is not necessarily “more difficult”, but the weight of history, and the long line of renowned musicians who have played these great works, can stifle our creativity, artistry and personal interpretation (it is for this reason that I tend towards lesser-known or contemporary repertoire for performances). In addition, the many recordings of these works, plus a century or more of scholarship, can drown out one’s personal voice. You hear a “perfect” recording or performance and wonder “what can I bring to this music that is new/different?”

I had to stop myself listening to other people play it or there would no hope in hell of me finding my own way with it.

– Jonathan Powell, pianist

There are, however, ways to mitigate this. Listening to great recordings and performances does no harm. They can inspire and inform, highlighting aspects of the score which may not be obvious from our initial study of it, sparking ideas, expanding our perspective and nourishing our perceptions of the music. We can admire the great interpretations of the music we are studying, but should never seek to imitate nor borrow from someone else’s version. Acknowlegding the greatness rather than revering it can be helpful too: after all, if we continually keep the music on unreachably high pedestals, we may never actually play it, thus denying ourselves the opportunity of experiencing something truly wonderful and the feeling of being part of an ongoing process of recreation every time we play or perform the music.


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header image: statue of Glenn Gould in Toronto, Canada

How do we define “virtuosity” in a musical performance? I believe that when one hears it, it is as if one’s level of consciousness had been raised, and that it is impossible to ever think of the piano in the same way again. Such experiences are highly personal, revelatory, memorable and almost impossible to describe.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life” – Franz Liszt

It is during a performance by a true virtuoso pianist that we, the audience, enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being.

I hope this selection will demonstrate some of the very special qualities of each pianist chosen.

Listen to the playlist

 

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.

 

Guest post by A Piano Fan

I have no personal reminiscences of getting to hear Richter live or meet him. I don’t even remember how I “got into Richter,” when or where I first heard what, but he’s become my favorite pianist. What stands out to me about Richter’s pianism is the amazing combination of structural control and emotional conviction. From his ability to sustain the narrative of a 25-minute long Schubert sonata movement to his ability to impart so much motion into a flourish that it threatens to fly away – there is always something deeply impressive about his performances. I would say I really learned to appreciate piano performance through listening to him. Even in small details – such as the voicing of secondary lines in chords, as in this moment from Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto: https://youtu.be/uT_ZhhQeudY?t=4m4s , or subtle pedalling in apparently simple music: https://youtu.be/POmD0N9WJ08?t=3m29s

Or in moments of complete apocalyptic piano destruction, as in the coda of his Chopin 4 ballade https://youtu.be/v9Dc2u7P1d4?t=32m35s . I also learned that the piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition is better than any orchestration: https://youtu.be/CitIXrkQfzo?t=26m23s

But what draws me most to his playing is the sense of depth and weight he imparted to so many pieces, as in the mystical adagio of the ‘Hammerklavier’, https://youtu.be/dlwK3IIT6jo?t=53m51s.  And the epic amounts of tension approaching a climax – as in the Liszt Sonata (https://youtu.be/2UFnqYT6DyU?t=3m58s now to me it sounds as though every other pianist rushes that passage). I came to appreciate long structures, even in those meditative, super-slow Schubert sonatas movements https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7_OW2__ZR0 I have no idea know how I used to listen to the piano performance, but Richter transformed my ears – and in such a wide variety of repertoire! These are a just few of the reasons why I consider him the greatest pianist of the 20th century.

This beautiful and instructive letter was sent by pianist Dinu Lipatti to one of his students. I particularly like his advice that one should “discover the complete emotional content by playing it a great deal in various different ways….” This is sound advice for pianists of all levels, amateur and professional. Too often there is a tendency to focus first on the technical aspects of a piece, without considering the emotional content. I firmly believe that technique should serve the music, enabling us to play with greater expression and emotional depth: playing which exhibits only high-facility technique can be lifeless and mechanical.

Lipatti is considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th-century. He died tragically prematurely from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 33 in December 1950, leaving behind little more than three and a half hours of recordings for EMI’s Columbia label. His long-standing international fame is due almost entirely to the widespread distribution of his recorded output: in the words of his producer Walter Legge, “small in output but of the purest gold.” Pianists today still revere Lipatti and many continue to pay tribute to him in recitals and other homages.

“What can I tell you about interpretation? I really ought to talk to you about it rather than write, as I should need thirty pages. In a very imperfect manner I could recapitulate the method which in stages guides us, as I believe, to the truth.

First, one should try to discover the complete emotional content of a work by playing it a great deal in various different ways before ever starting to play it ‘technically’. When saying ‘playing it a great deal’ I think above all of playing ‘mentally,’ as the work would be played by the most perfect of interpreters. Having lodged in one’s mind an impression of perfect beauty given by this imaginary interpretation — an impression constantly renewed and revivified by repetition of the performance in the silence of the night — we can go on to actual technical work by dissecting each difficulty into a thousand pieces in order to eliminate every physical and technical obstacle; and this process of dissection must not be of the whole work played right through but of every detail taken separately. The work should be done with a clear head and one should beware of injecting any sentiment.

Finally comes the last phase, when the piece, mastered technically throughout, must be built up architecturally into its overall lines and played right through so that it may be viewed from a distance. And the cold, clear-headed and insensitive being who presided over the whole of the preceding work on the material of which the music is made, takes part in this eventual performance as well as the artist full of emotion, of spirit, of life and warmth who has recreated it in his mind and has now discovered a new and greater power of expression.

Forgive me for expressing myself so badly about something so solemn. I hope it will not seem incomprehensible to you.”

Dinu Lipatti

Source: http://www.musicandhealth.co.uk/articles/Lipatti.html