034571282602‘Vida Breve’ (Short Life) – Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion CDA68260)

It seems fitting that Stephen Hough’s new album ‘Vida Breve’, featuring music on the theme of death, should be released while we are still in the thrall of the coronavirus. But this album is not a response to the pandemic and was in fact conceived and recorded long before any of us had heard of coronavirus or COVID-19.

Yet its theme is highly relevant to our Corona times when death dominates the news, from the daily tally of COVID deaths and grim predictions from scientific and medical experts. Despite this, as Stephen Hough says in the CD’s liner notes, we are still reluctant to talk about death, a reluctance which has increased over the past 50-odd years during which medical science has made it possible for people survive better and for longer and has led to a greater disassociation from and hyper-sensitivity to discussions about death.

For artists, writers and composers death has always been a central preoccupation, resulting in some of the most extraordinary, exultant and emotionally profound expression in painting, literature and music – amply demonstrated in the works on Hough’s new album. In the nineteenth century people were far closer to death than we are today, and for Chopin (whose short life was dogged by ill-health), Liszt and Busoni, composers whose music is included on this CD, death was understood and accepted as part of the natural course of life.

As a Catholic, I suspect Stephen Hough has a fairly robust attitude towards death, perhaps more closely aligned to that of the composers featured on his new disc (and remember Liszt was a devout Catholic). Hough’s faith teaches us not to fear death but to accept it as the only certainty in life, and his own piano sonata ‘Vida Breve’, the work which lends its title to the disc, explores the brevity of life, a reminder that our allocated time is short. An abstract, introspective work constructed of five tiny motivic cells, which interact contrapuntally and include a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet, ‘Vida Breve’ lasts a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil.

Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita opens this recording, in Busoni’s glorious, romantic transcription for solo piano. This epic cathedral of sound is an awe-inspiring, emphatic opener (Hough played it at his Wigmore Hall livestream concert in June 2020), and here Hough gives it an authoritative, multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. It’s opening is dark and sombre, yet the processional nature of this piece, with its sense of building, dying back, then increasing again, brings a remarkably uplifting atmosphere to this music, and of course its final cadence, a Picardy Third, ensures that it closes with a clear sense of positivity.

After the towering majesty of the Chaconne, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is fleet and turbulent, its anxious intensity tempered when Hough lingers over the more lyrical Nocturne-like passages in the opening movement and the Scherzo, or when he allows the essential nobility of the music to shine through over disruptive bass motifs. Like the Chaconne, the famous Marche funèbre is magisterial rather than simply funereal, while the tender, dreamy middle section lends an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme return.

In addition to the thematic associations between the pieces, there are musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne are reiterated in the Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominates, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure is later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles, to which Hough brings an ominous darkness, its slow-march meter suggesting the dead weight of a bier on the shoulders who carry it, before a more reflective, wistful section. The other piece by Liszt, the Bagatelle Sans Tonalité, is a musical gargoyle with its wayward harmonic language and grimacing, dancing rhythms.

The remaining works on the disc are encores of a sort – a reminder that this final recital is not quite over….. Busoni’s Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen uses familiar melodies and motifs from Bizet’s opera and transforms them into a witty concert piece, to which Hough brings a warm romanticism. His own transcription of Arirang, a traditional Korean folksong, is gentle and contemplative, its lyrical melody singing out over a flowing accompaniment. It leads naturally into Gounod’s recasting of Bach’s Prelude in C into Ave Maria (also transcribed by Hough), a popular work at funerals, perhaps because it is both perfect music for the transit to the afterlife and for reflections on life and the inevitability of its end. Death, now where is thy sting?

This album is masterly is its programming; stimulating and provocative, it’s a superb recital disc and, being Hough, the music is thoughtfully chosen and impeccably played.

Highly recommended

FW


‘Vida Breve’ is released by Hyperion on 29 January 2021. 

This review first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist site

A film by Antonio Iturrioz

Leopold Godowksy (1870-1938) is regarded as one of the giants of the keyboard, renowned for his formidable technique and ingenious transcriptions of works by other composers, transforming already challenging pieces, such as Chopin’s Études, into works of extraordinary difficulty and invention, which few pianists are prepared to tackle. In addition to transcriptions, Godowsky was also a significant and prolific composer in his own right. He was the last in a lineage of great post-romantic composers that included Rachmaninoff and Busoni, and made a major contribution to the development of piano music. A ‘pianist for pianists’, the critic James Huneker referred to him as the “Buddha of the Piano”; popular during his lifetime, Godowsky and his music is hardly known or performed today.

The Cuban-American pianist Antonio Iturrioz is one of the few musicians to rise to the challenge of Godowsky’s music and, following an injury to his right hand when he was a young man, he spent several years studying Godowsky’s complete left hand transcriptions and original compositions. His 2010 film The Buddha of the Piano – Leopold Godowsky is the result of meticulous research into the composer’s life and music, and is the first and only film on Leopold Godowsky. Illustrated with archive material including photographs, scores and piano rolls, this engaging film summarizes Godowsky’s achievements as a pianist and composer, and reveals his busy, peripatetic life, and his thoughts on music and life, shining an important light on, arguably, the greatest pianist of all time. But perhaps what is most satisfying is the music which accompanies the film. Performed by Antonio Iturrioz himself, he demonstrates not only superlative technical fluency, endlessly rising to the vertiginous challenges of this phenomenal music, but also shows a deep appreciation of Godowsky’s unique artistry. Mr Iturrioz’s film, together with his performances, are a wonderful endorsement of Leopold Godowsky’s remarkable talent and his significant contribution to pianism and piano repertoire.

Antonio Iturrioz playing the restored 1923 Steinway Duo-Art Concert Grand which was used for the performances for his film

More information about Antonio Iturrioz’s film here


Concert pianist, documentarian and Steinway Artist Antonio Iturrioz, born in Cuba, came to the United States when he was 7 years old. Giving his first concert at 9, he played the Liszt First Piano Concerto for his orchestral debut at 15. His teachers have included his father, Pablo Iturrioz; Francisco De Hoyos, a pupil of Gyorgi Sandor; Bernardo Segall, who studied with the Liszt pupil Alexander Siloti; Aube Tzerko; and Julian White. He has taken master classes from Byron Janis, Alexis Weissenberg, Jorge Bolet, and Andre Watts.

While recuperating from an injury to his right hand, Iturrioz learned important and obscure works for the left hand, including the complete Godowsky arrangements and original compositions. This led to his first film, the unique documentary The Art of the Left Hand: A Brief History of Left Hand Piano Music, called “an important film” by Clavier magazine. His second, The Buddha of the Piano: Leopold Godowsky, the only film about Godowsky, has been shown at international piano festivals, colleges in the U.S., the Edinburgh Society of Musicians and at the American Liszt Festival in South Carolina. Highly praised by Marc-Andre Hamelin, Carlo Grante, and many others, Scotland’s greatest pianist of the second half of the Twentieth Century, Dr. Ronald Stevenson, said, “It is an important film for all pianists and pianophiles….You reveal with skill, clarity and sensitivity the intricacies of his polyphonic piano writing.” The film, translated into Italian and French, will soon be translated into Polish. Both films have been featured on national public television.

Iturrioz in 2013 gave the world premiere performance on one piano of L. M. Gottschalk’s complete two-movement symphony, La Nuit des Tropiques, (the first American symphony) having transcribed for the first time the second movement, “Fiesta Criolla,” for one piano.

The Steinway & Sons label released in fall 2018 the world premiere CD of this historic work. Andre Watts has called Gottschalk and Cuba an “extraordinary album of music!”

For more information please visit:

www.gottschalkandcuba.com

www.newinternationalgodowskysociety.com

www.theartofthelefthand.com

An Introduction to the Piano – Christopher Northam

Amidst all the recordings of virtuoso repertoire comes this delightful collection aimed at amateurs and piano students from pianist Christopher Northam.

Northam takes us on a chronological journey through some 300 years of keyboard music, from Byrd to Debussy, with plenty of gems of the repertoire, as well as lesser-known works by Pachulski and Alkan.

Although described as music “for beginners”, the selection includes some challenging pieces of cGrade 6 to 8 standard, including Beethoven’s much-loved Für Elise, Field’s Nocturne in B flat and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Admittedly, these are not necessarily “concert pieces”, but they certainly require a fair degree of technical and artistic facility.

We are so used to high-quality recordings of concert repertoire by leading, acclaimed pianists, it is refreshing to have a selection which is clearly aimed at amateur players. The actor and keen amateur pianist Alistair McGowan attempted something similar a few years ago with his Piano Album, though the music selection was almost as unimaginative as his playing, and I am not convinced by McGowan’s assertion that hearing someone like him playing this music will inspire others (I suspect most aspiring pianists find inspiration in high quality performances, whatever the difficulty of the repertoire). By contrast, Northam treats this music with all the authority, care and commitment one would afford virtuoso repertoire, and performs it as if in a concert rather than strictly pedagogical setting.

Remarkably, the recording was made over 20 years ago at St George’s Bristol, which boasts one of the finest acoustics for piano and chamber music in the UK. Northam’s sensitivity and attention to detail in this crystalline acoustic results in a recording which sounds fresh and immediate.

The amateur piano world is huge, and very supportive of professional players, from whom many amateurs not only drawn inspiration but also receive tuition, in private lessons, masterclasses and summer schools. Yet the amateur world is often barely acknowledged; this excellent contribution from Christopher Northam recognises the importance of amateur pianists while offering inspiration in repertoire which is accessible and achievable. If I have one criticism it is that there is not a single piece by a female composer included in this otherwise excellent selection, but I am told by the manager at the recording label that the music selection was based on the then ABRSM syllabus, which, at the time, included no pieces by women composers.

Recommended


 
An introduction to the Piano is available on the HOXA label distributed via Naxos. Catalogue no. HS950701
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Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

Pianists are the luckiest of instrumentalists. We’re self-contained and unlike most other musicians, we can be a musical “island”. But while our ability to work without others is a gift during a pandemic, many of us yearn to return to the delight of making music with other people. I’ve had the privilege of performing with many musicians during my career as a pianist, but some of my favorite stage moments occurred when I was sharing the keyboard with another pianist. As half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, my long running collaboration with pianist Molly Wheeler taught me that there is an intimacy to 4-hand playing that can’t be found in any other form of collaborative playing. Performers breathe together, arms are entwined, and egos are sacrificed to the good of the ensemble. There is no individual glory in duet playing, just a melding of two players and four hands into one musical organism.

We may not be able to share the bench with our favorite duo partners right now, but we can use this time of forced separation to explore new repertoire. Much of the standard duet music is lovely but can also feel limited and overplayed. These 5 gems are ones I know intimately. They’re pieces that don’t show up on every 4-hand concert program. And because I love music with a tune and a beat, all these pieces are audience-accessible crowd pleasers, sit comfortably in the hands, and are rewarding to practice and perform.

3-Day Mix

Composer: Eleanor Alberga (b. 1949)

Description: In this rousing 9 minute party on a piano, Alberga draws on her Jamaican background to create a whirling celebration of color and cross-rhythms. 3-Day Mix requires the pianists to have a strong rhythmic sense and a fearless sense of bravura, but Alberga is a pianist and she knows how to make difficult passages feel accessible. Of all the 4-hand music I’ve performed, this piece may be the most fun two pianists can have on one keyboard, and its dramatic ending pulls an audience to its feet.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Eleanor Alberga


Gazebo Dances

Composer: John Corigliano (b. 1938)

Description: This 16 minute 4-movement suite is, in Corigliano’s description, “ a musical depiction of the pavilions often seen on village greens throughout the countryside where public band concerts are given on summer evenings. It consists of a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio and a bouncy Tarantella.” This suite is rhythmically challenging and (at times) melodically unpredictable but the humor, beauty, and exuberance make it a joy to play. The Tarantella is a rousing way to end a concert.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Musicroom


Legacies: Fantasy-Suite on American Folk Songs

Composer: Terry McQuilkin (b. 1955)

Description: American folk song favorites Wayfaring Stranger, Jack Went a-Sailing, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Shenandoah, and Cindy are featured in this 14-minute 5-movement suite. McQuilkin walks the line between classical and jazz, requiring performers to possess both strong technique and the ability to swing and play a decent walking bass line. No folk song is presented in a straightforward manner; instead, these familiar tunes dart in and out of the texture, teasing performers and listeners with fragments of the familiar embedded in an unfamiliar landscape. In this way McQuilkin saves the folk songs emotional power; in the moments that the melodies emerge intact, they’re so powerful they’re like sun breaking through dark clouds.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Terry McQuilkin


Pièces Romantiques, Opus 55

Composer: Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Description: This jewel-box collection of 6 elegant, Romantic pieces is 19th century 4-hand French piano music at its finest. Similar in style to Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, these pieces by Chaminade contain lyrical melodies and elegant harmonies but are more accessible than Fauré to the late intermediate or early advanced player. These are pieces to be shared by and with friends—perfect jewel-box musical moments.

Difficulty level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: IMSLP / Sheet Music Plus


3 Modal Tangos

Composer: Alexander LaFollett (b. 1985)

Description: Mix a handful of unfamiliar modes and catchy melodies with traditional tango rhythms and you get 3 Modal Tangos. This 10 minute suite is technically and rhythmically accessible to the early advanced player, but has the benefit of sounding a lot more difficult than it is to play. The rhythms, melodies and solid structure make it feel familiar, but the modes keep the music fresh and unexpected. Satie-like performance notes give the tangos a theatrical feel, allowing the performers to explore unexpected ideas on how to approach the score.

Difficulty Level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: Alexander LaFollett


Rhonda Rizzo is a pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs: Made in America,Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason,2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It. She has also released numerous articles and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, No Dead Guys, and she is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Piano music by John Dante Previdini

This piece above all else summarizes my quarantine experience as a composer/pianist during COVID-19. It has been a time to reflect on the potentials of my own chosen medium, test what it is holistically capable of expressing, and explore new ways of putting oneself into the music, both figuratively and quite literally.

Best wishes from the USA, and here’s to another wonderful decade of the blog.

 


John Dante Prevedini (b. 1987) is a contemporary classical composer, educator, and public speaker based in New England. Drawing upon a variety of fields of knowledge, his overall work aims to examine unconventional facets of everyday life through a multidisciplinary lens. 

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Hot on the heels of the opening of Picasso On Paper, a major new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, came pianist Roman Rabinovich’s personal hommage to this artist, the place of his birth and his creative life, in a refreshingly original, colourful and very personal programme of music by Zipoli, Debussy, Satie, Granados, Gershwin and Stravinsky, together with a work by the pianist himself.

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Portrait of Igor Stravinsky, 1920 (Picasso Museum, Paris)

Debussy said that he “loved pictures almost as much as music” and the same may be said of Roman Rabinovich, who is also an artist. Unsurprisingly, many of the pieces in this programme had strong visual narratives (Debussy’s atmospheric Estampes and Granados’ dramatic and engrossing Goyescas, for example). Connections to Picasso’s native country came through Spanish composers (Zipoli and Granados) and also music (‘La soirée dans Grenade’ from Estampes), but there were other, more tangible connections too: Picasso and Granados were contemporaries and both frequented Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a bar in Barcelona; and Picasso encountered both Satie and Stravinsky through Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Picasso’s 1920 portrait of the composer hangs in the RA’s current show, and he designed the costumes and setting for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, and also for Satie’s ballet Parade).

Rabinovich was clearly very at home in all of this repertoire, from the sombre elegance of Zipoli’s g minor suite to the folksy vibrancy of Petrushka, an exuberant finale to the programme, and it’s encouraging to find a pianist who is willing to tackle such wide range of styles and moods with just the right balance of technical facility and bravura. The works by Debussy and Granados were particularly arresting, sensitively sculpted and shaded: Pagodes had the subtle washes and softened hues of watercolour while Granados’ El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) was darkly-hued, passionate and dramatic. Rabinovich’s own piece, its twirling perpetuum mobile outer sections bookending two less frenetic episodes, had the quirky wit of Satie and the rhythmic bite of Gershwin. And what a pleasure it was to hear one of Satie’s curious, haunting Gnossiennes. played with nonchalant grace.