How does one define “greatness” in a pianist? Is it the willingness to tackle a broad sweep of repertoire from Baroque to present-day? Profound musicality and penetrating insights, founded on pristine technique? A fearless approach to risk-taking in live concerts? Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini is the sum of these parts – and much more – as his recent concerts in London have demonstrated. Here is an artist who is equally at home in the elegance of Bach, the intimacy of Chopin’s miniatures and the spiky modernism of Pierre Boulez, always bringing supreme pianism and fresh insights to his performances.
For his second International Piano Series concert at a packed Royal Festival Hall, Pollini trod a more traditional path in an all-Beethoven programme. Traditional, but also ambitious: to perform three of the most well-known, revered and technically demanding of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas would be a challenge for any artist. For a man of seventy-two (and he looks older and frailer) this was a monumental programme, which scaled the highest Himalayan peaks of pianism…..
This week I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a piano seminar with acclaimed Italian pianist and pedagogue Carlo Grante. Held over two days (I attended the first day only), the seminar focussed on a number of topics, drawn from Carlo’s book Fundamentals of Piano Methodology and his new book, currently in preparation, including:
“Chunking up and down”: the Lisztian legacy of problem-solving in piano writing
Identifying structures in seemingly complex music
Voicing and tone production
Mind-mapping and memorisation
Presented in the form of a lecture with musical examples, student participation and demonstrations at the piano by Carlo himself, the seminar offered stimulating and interesting food for thought for piano students, teachers and professional musicians.
In the first lecture of the day on “chunking up and down”, Carlo demonstrated how apparently very complex music can be reduced into small units or motifs, enabling one to simplify the music for learning. This practice also has benefits for memory work, as well as musical analysis.
Using Liszt’s ‘Mazeppa’ (the fourth Transcendental Etude) as an example, a work that on first sight appears highly complex and virtuosic, Carlo highlighted recurrent patterns, both thematic and harmonic, and showed how Liszt manipulates and expands this material, while never really deviating from the opening statements.
This approach encourages one to:
Simplify the structure of a seemingly highly complex piece of music
Looking at harmonic progression to help fingering
Learning the shape of the harmonic “chunks” to learn appropriate/most comfortable/efficient hand shapes
Looking for predictable/familiar devices, such as chromatic scales, arpeggios or triads
Putting all these “chunks” together to create a whole
The second morning session used Brahm’s Intermezzo in A, Op 118 as the example for a discussion of how music can be divided into smaller elements, “zooming in” on these constituent parts to achieve more focussed practising.
For example, the right hand part divides into two distinct “voices”, upper and lower: practising each part or “voice” separately enables deeper learning. Much of this seems quite obvious, but it is surprising how many piano who play and study piano music do not use these kinds of learning tools.
After lunch, during which I enjoyed talking about concerts and piano repertoire with some of the other participants, Carlo presented a session on memory work, demonstrating once again how reducing the music into small sections and patterns can facilitate memorisation. The musical example was Busoni’s elegaic barcarolle All’Italia.
The session finished with some discussion on expressive grammar, the study of which is necessary for a truly coherent reading of a piece: by this, Carlo means not only the obvious dynamic, tempo and articulation markings, but other aspects such as the “stretching” intervals (in the manner of a singer), masculine and feminine endings and cadences, different types of accents and so forth.
Throughout the seminar, Carlo stressed that these aspects of piano study and method should not be seen in isolation and that the ultimate goal is to encourage deep, thoughtful practise resulting in an profound understanding of the music and the ability to play with expression. He also stressed the need to be a “curious learner”. All in all, it was an extremely valuable and thought-provoking seminar and I left full of new ideas for my own piano study and my teaching.
Carlo’s book Fundamentals of Piano Methodology is available in English (publisher Rugginenti)
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)
Domenico Scarlatti – Allegro from Sonata # 21/X
Domenico Scarlatti – Allegro from Sonata # 18/XIII
Cesar Franck – Prelude, Chorale and Fugue
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Variations on a Theme of Chopin, op.22
Frank Martin – Prelude, no. 7
Nazareno Ferruggio, piano
Two sprightly and typically brief sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti open this new CD from Italian pianist Nazareno Ferruggio. Neatly executed by Ferruggio, they provide a pleasantly energetic introduction to the bigger works which form the substance of this recording – Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin.
In his Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Franck was harking back to his Baroque antecedents, specifically J S Bach. The work is profound, earnest and searching, and – like Bach at his most intense and spiritual – is simple in its intent, eschewing theatrical tricks and pretension to emphasise its universal messages of doubt and faith, darkness and light, and a final ecstatic resolution through the ingenious counterpoint of the fugue and joyous peals of bells at the end.
Ferruggio’s performance is sensitive to the structure, scope and seriousness of this music, and the darkly textured and dramatic Prelude is an essay in restrained emotion. He finds more freedom of expression in the great harped Chorale, whose gently rolled chords (which require the left hand to reach over into the treble to sound the theme), heard at first as if from a distance, grow in richness and depth. The Fugue, while displaying all the traditional features of a fugue, goes beyond the strictly academic to become a grand psychological statement of faith and hope. Ferruggio offers an imposing and powerful culmination, highlighting the polyphony and recalling the earlier motifs from the Prelude and Chorale.
The same intensity is evident in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (the theme being Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Op 28, no. 20), a set of 22 variations which is often overshadowed by the more well-known and frequently performed sets of variations on themes by Corelli and Paganini. The variations develop in complexity and length, with a wide variety of moods and pianistic invention. Ferruggio is adept at handling the rapid shifts in mood and technique, and as in the Franck, his sensitivity to the structure and his ability to hold the music just in check lends added dramatic effect. Delicate lyricism is contrasted with filigree textures and rich chordal passages. Like the Franck, this work is played with commitment and insight.
The title of the CD, ‘Themes & Variations’, is carried through to the concluding work, a Prelude by Swiss composer Frank Martin, which, in a controlled and thoughtful performance, recalls the sweeping dramatic statements, dark intensity, and bell-like climaxes of the Franck.
The CD includes brief programme notes and biography of the artist in Italian, with a slightly uncertain English translation.
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